In Iraq, minority children haunted by ghosts of Daesh captivity

Many camps are hosting hundreds of thousands of minority Iraqis displaced by Daesh. (AFP)
Updated 14 July 2019

In Iraq, minority children haunted by ghosts of Daesh captivity

  • Dozens of Yazidi and Turkmen children were rescued in recent months as Daesh’s ‘caliphate’ collapsed in Syria
  • Displaced families rely on aid groups for food and medical care

KHANKE DISPLACEMENT CAMP, Iraq: Brainwashed and broken, the Daesh group’s youngest victims are struggling to recover from years of jihadist captivity as they return to their own traumatized minority communities in Iraq.
Dozens of Yazidi and Turkmen children were rescued in recent months as Daesh’s “caliphate,” notorious for its use of child soldiers and “sex slaves,” collapsed in Syria.
Many have been reunited with their families, but their mental recovery has been slowed by prolonged displacement, a lack of resources, and a milieu accustomed to fearing, not forgiving, Daesh members.
Lama, a 10-year-old Yazidi girl, has repeatedly threatened to stab herself or jump from a tall building in the few months since she returned to Iraq.
“I fear she’ll never be like other Yazidi children,” said her mother Nisrin, 34.
All names in the family have been changed to protect their identities.
Lama has spent half her lifetime held by Daesh, who forced her to convert to Islam and speak Arabic instead of her native Kurdish.
During AFP’s visit to her tent in the Khanke displacement camp in northwestern Iraq, Lama appeared engrossed in a mobile shooting game with her cousins Fadi and Karam, freed from Daesh around the same time.
Like the boys, Lama dressed in black and kept her hair short. The trio spoke Arabic to one another, switching to Kurdish when addressing her mother.
“They’re still brainwashed. When they’re bored, they start talking about how they wish they were back with Daesh (IS),” said Nisrin, saying no psychologist had visited them.
Virtually every generation coming of age in Iraq has been seared by conflict, presenting an “unprecedented” challenge, said Laila Ali of the UN children’s agency.
UNICEF does not know exactly how many children Daesh recruited, how many returned or where they live.
It estimates that 1,324 children in total were abducted by armed actors in Iraq between January 2014 and December 2017, when Baghdad declared Daesh defeated, but expects the real number is higher.
Of those freed over recent years, dozens live in orphanages or shelters in Baghdad, the former Daesh stronghold Mosul, and the Yazidi regions of Sheikhan and Sinjar.
Others accused of Daesh affiliation are in detention, with some access to psychosocial support in the form of religious re-education.
But the vast majority are growing up untracked and untreated in Iraq’s camps, which host some 800,000 children.
“There are no child psychologists in Dohuk,” said Nagham Hasan, a Yazidi gynecologist who has become an informal therapist for survivors amid the lack of resources.
The rolling hills of Dohuk are dotted with camps hosting hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by Daesh, particularly from the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar further south.
Displaced families rely on aid groups for food and medical care, and there are even schools in the camps for children. But targeted psychological support for minors is hard to come by.
Hasan said a dozen groups were implementing generic psychosocial programs in camps with few results.
Yazidi cleric Baba Shawish demanded international agencies ramp up services.
“These organizations claim to provide mental support, but do you really think someone who spent five years under Daesh will be cured in five minutes?” he said.
“They need days and months to be rehabilitated.”
Forced recruits will need tailored treatments based on age, said Mia Bloom, a US-based academic studying child soldiers.
Abducted infants may be more easily rehabilitated as they have fewer memories of life under Daesh, while those taken as teenagers “have pre-conflict memories and can go back to their happy childhoods,” she told AFP.
But those recruited during formative years, like Lama and Fadi, were taught to despise minorities and may lack any positive recollections of their hometowns.
“They need to have their religious identities recharged,” said Bloom.
That will require some heavy lifting from the communities themselves, still terrorized by Daesh and often treating rescued children as jihadists-in-wait.
To counter that assumption, UNICEF hosts workshops with religious and tribal leaders to reiterate that the children are, first and foremost, victims of Daesh.
“One of the biggest challenges in rehabilitation and reintegration of children with perceived affiliations is not so much the children’s experiences, but the negative perception from the adults around them,” said Ali.
Five years after Daesh’s rampage across a third of the country, minorities are mostly facing the demons haunting their young ones alone.
Nisrin, herself held by Daesh for two years, said she was self-medicating to cope with her anxiety.
“We’re in this tent together day and night,” she said.
“If they were taken out for a few hours per day, I could rest and they could learn something.”


Iranian chess referee seeking asylum reveals second reason she can’t go home

Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian chess referee seeking asylum reveals second reason she can’t go home

  • Women are required to wear the hijab in public in Iran, and those who refuse can face prison
  • Bayat was declared a public enemy by Iranian hard-liners after photos of her emerged from a match with her headscarf around her neck

LONDON: The Iranian chess referee forced to seek asylum in the UK after letting her hijab slip during a match in Shanghai this year has revealed another reason she may never be able to return to her country — her secret Jewish heritage.
Shohreh Bayat told The Daily Telegraph that she had to conceal her family background in her native Iran.
“If they knew I had Jewish background, I would never be general secretary of the Iranian chess federation,” Bayat told the British newspaper.
The leading referee said she had heard anti-Jewish remarks made by chess officials in Iran.
Bayat was declared a public enemy by Iranian hard-liners and received death threats after photos of her emerged from the Women’s World Chess Championship in January with her red headscarf around her neck rather than covering her head.
“All my life was about showing a fake image of myself to society because they wanted me to be an image of a religious Muslim woman, which I wasn’t,” Bayat said, speaking about the Iranian regime.
The 33-year-old said she is not a fan of the hijab, but felt she had to comply — even if that meant covering only a tiny amount of hair.
Women are required to wear the hijab in public in Iran, and those who refuse can face prison.
After being photographed at the world championship match with her hijab around her neck, Bayat said she was warned by family and friends not to return home.
“My mobile was full of messages saying: ‘Please, don’t come back, they will arrest you’,” she told the newspaper.
“I woke up the following day and saw that the (Iranian) federation removed my picture — it was like I didn’t exist,” she said.
Despite death threats, Bayat continued refereeing the second leg of the tournament in Vladivostok, ignoring calls from Iranian officials for a public apology.
At the end of January, she changed her return ticket and traveled to the UK —  the only Western country where she held a valid visa — and applied for asylum. She is waiting for her application to be processed.

Bayat's paternal grandmother was Jewish and moved to Iran from Azeraijan’s capital Baku during the Second World War. 
Last week, Bayat celebrated the Jewish New Year for the first time in her life.
“It was amazing. It was a thing I never had a chance to do,” she said.