“It was winter, and my fingers were freezing underneath the rifle when I aimed at the target, imagining he was an infidel Yazidi, just as the Islamic State [IS] had asked me to. At that moment, I felt afraid when the face of my detained father appeared on the damned target’s face.”
The Yazidi boy, Nisan Rashou Darbou, 11, was on the verge of tears while talking about the magnitude of the psychological and physical pressure he had been under. He had been recruited alongside 700 other Yazidi boys who were trained in special training camps for children in the Syrian towns of Suluk, Tell Abyad and Raqqa.
Nisan escaped al-Farouq camp in Raqqa in February 2015, when most of the guards at the time were rushing to join the Kobani battle. He later succeeded in returning to Iraq with two Yazidi children and their mother through Turkish territory with the help of Arab and Kurdish smugglers in exchange for $10,000 for Nisan and $15,000 for the mother and her two children.
Just like Nisan, the two recruited brothers, Ragheb, 13, and Ghiyad, 11, had received brutal military training while in al-Farouq camp. The training involved participating in clashes and learning bombing techniques with explosive belts and slaughtering hostages with knives.
In a picture he had with him from his days in detention on a phone lacking a SIM card, Ghiyad appears next to the person in charge of the arms trainings in the Abu Abdullah al-Jazrawi camp. An advertising video for al-Farouq showed his older brother, Ragheb, sitting to the left of an IS leader. The organization had posted the video in July 2015, and ever since, Ragheb has become one of the most famous Yazidi recruits in IS' camps.
The authors of this report watched the video several times, hoping to identify the recruited children who appeared in it. They wanted to know the fate of the child Barakat Qirani, the cousin of one of the authors who was detained by IS with around 5,800 Yazidi citizens in the wake of the organization’s occupation of the town of Sinjar on Aug. 3, 2014.
The search for Barakat was key to entering the world of young recruits who had escaped the training camps. Intermediaries usually facilitated the task of locating children and arranging interviews with them, out of sympathy for Barakat’s story, and recruits showed great flexibility in talking about their lives in training camps with those they believed to have witnessed IS’ cruelty like they had.
Despite the defeat obvious on the faces of Ragheb and Ghiyad while talking about their days of detention, they were more consistent and aware than other children who had given their testimony in interviews, including the child recruit Salam Issa, 7, who only spent intermittent weeks in al-Kaqqa and al-Farouq camps between February and April; he was too young to be able to easily overcome the trauma of detention.
For about two months after his return from detention, Salam continued to perform the same rituals he had learned in the training camps. He used to perform the ritual of ablution before praying, spreading a towel or a cloth on the floor, and then kneeling and bowing while mumbling unrelated words in Arabic and Kurdish.
The photographs Salam’s father gave interviewers revealed his son’s life in detention. In almost every photograph, Salam was carrying a gun or a rifle bigger than himself and dressed in camouflage or black clothes like IS fighters.
The video taken of Salam using a mobile phone shows how much he blended in with IS fighters. In a 21-second video recording, Salam seemed happy while chanting the group’s famous slogan, “The Islamic State will remain!”
One photograph shows Salam and a Yazidi child recruit named Ghias Khader, 8, carrying a large banner for the group.
After returning to Iraq in July, Ghias turned into a “very aggressive” child, according to his mother, who returned from detention at the end of July, having been away from her child for about a year.
Ghias used to insult Yazidis when he got angry and call them infidels. His mother said it took the family quite a while to tone down his aggressiveness.
Ragheb, Ghiyad, Ghias, Nisan and Salam, as well as 10 [other] recruits who had returned home, testified in this investigation, while about 700 Yazidi children still detained by IS remain victims of psychological and physical violations, forced ideological conversion and strict military training programs. This is in light of the governmental and international failure to care for those who have returned and save those still detained. This threatens to turn them into extremist fighters or ticking bombs that could explode in our societies at any given moment.
The beginning of the detention story … a massacre
Ghias was detained by IS on Aug. 3, 2014, the day the group attacked Yazidi towns and villages in the Sinjar area in northern Iraq, killing 1,280 Yazidis over mass graves or slaughtering them in the streets. It detained 5,838 others, 3,192 females and 2,646 males, according to the director of the Department of Yazidis in Kurdistan, Khairy Bozani.
That day, Ghias remembers, “Thousands of Yazidis were running along the road leading to Mount Sinjar, women, men and children and the elderly, and many of them were barefoot and carrying children or the elderly on their backs. It was like the Day of Judgment.”
According to the documented testimonies of Yazidi survivors and international reports, Kurdish peshmerga had withdrawn on the eve of Aug. 2 and 3 without informing the Yazidi population, and this is what allowed IS to enter the region, the Yazidis’ historical home. The group killed and detained citizens, and it trapped more than 200,000 Yazidis on top of Mount Sinjar for about eight days, during which time hundreds of them died of hunger and thirst before an armed Syrian Kurdish faction opened a safe passage toward Syrian territory while others headed to Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to Ghias’ grandmother, their family had barely arrived at a house at the foot of the mountain when eight cars carrying IS members came. “Around 80 Yazidis had reached it before us in preparation to go to the top of the mountain, but IS members came in and led the men outside the house and detained the women and children inside,” she said.
Ghias was holding his grandfather’s hand when an IS fighter snatched him away and sent him back to sit with the women and children. A few minutes after, “We heard gunshots next to the house,” Ghias said. “The women began screaming and slapping their faces. That is when I knew they had killed my grandfather and uncles and the rest of the men. When we started hearing intermittent shots, my aunt screamed and said they were now killing off the wounded.”
IS fighters moved the children and women in agricultural tractors to the Turkmen town of Tal Afar, adjacent to Sinjar, from which they were then moved to Badush prison, near the city of Mosul. The smell of those who had been killed there after IS took over the prison on June 10, 2014, was thick. Ghias said, “The water remaining in prison vessels was yellow, and it smelled really bad. They only gave us a little food, and we almost died of hunger and thirst.”
After about two weeks, IS fighters took away three of Ghias’ aunts, along with hundreds of non-married girls. His mother, aunt, grandmother and he were returned to Tal Afar, where he got separated from his mother and little sister after they were transferred to Syria to work as maids. He then began an 11-month-long bitter journey with his aunt, during which he attended the Suluk, Tell Abyad and al-Farouq camps, and underwent ideological and military training like all other child detainees over six years of age.
Slaves and servants for a few hundred dollars
Ghias’ story resembles the stories of the 14 children who gave their testimonies in this report from mid-July through the end of October. It is also similar to those of his fellow child recruits who are currently being trained in IS camps in Syrian cities. Most of these children accompanied their mothers and other women in their families into detention; they have also suffered the humiliation of being bought or sold several times to IS members or men living in cities occupied by the group.
To this moment, young Sufian Qassem (a pseudonym) remembers IS fighters in the Badush prison and how they took three of his non-married sisters along with hundreds of other Yazidi girls to Syria.
The father of Fawaz, another child recruited by IS, recalled with a sunken heart and shame how the man who bought his wife used to have him on speaker while raping her and threatening to end all communication via mobile with her and his son if he hung up on him. “I felt humiliated, and I wished for death, but I had to keep silent or else I would have lost Fawaz and his mother,” he said.
Most of the recruited children with whom the journalists met talked with a broken heart about the details of the incidents they had gone through in captivity with their families. They spoke with a hushed, reluctant voice as they looked downward.
Yazidi researcher Nawra Haskani believes that the children who have been held in captivity, watching their female relatives being sold for a pittance and raped at the hands of their owners, are now suffering from major psychological scars, which could later drive them to avenge those whom they believe inflicted this suffering upon them.
Most of the Yazidi children avoid going into these details. However, four of them explicitly said that they will not forgive those who raped their relatives and will seize every opportunity they might have to get revenge.
The young boy Kamal Haji, 13, remembers al-Farouq camp, where Yazidi children, who numbered 15, used to take long hours of Quran lessons and ideology classes before their harsh military training every day.
Kamal, also a young recruit, recalls that the day used to kick off with dawn prayer, after which children were allowed to go back to sleep before waking up again to attend the Quran lessons and ideology classes.
Kamal and his brother Jamal, 11, went to the Iraqi Tal Afar camp before attending the Syrian al-Farouq camp. According to their accounts, children who failed to memorize and recite the Quran were punished and hit with iron or wooden sticks on their hands and locked away in the book lockers.
Kamal and Jamal were repeatedly beaten, and the latter was locked up because he found it difficult to understand many of the Arabic words; all the materials were taught in Arabic.
Yazidi children were not allowed to speak Kurdish, which is their mother tongue. They were also forced to wear traditional Afghan clothes or spotted outfits, which according to Nameq Abbas, an expert on armed groups, was a tactic used by IS to uproot them and make them forget about their Yazidi identity so they would fit into the rigid mode of life it imposed in all the areas under its control.
Khadida Saber, 10, said that the school curricula in the IS camps were based on the idea of jihad and war against the infidels and unbelievers.
Among the other children who shared their experience, Saber was the most aware of the nature of the ideological lessons and the most fluent in Arabic.
According to Saber, the content of the lessons were focused on the idea of subjecting people to Islamic rule, fighting against infidels and apostates, and raping their wives and killing their children. Saber said they were told that since Yazidis are polytheistic, they had to convert to Islam or be killed.
Researchers, however, say that Yazidis are monotheists and that their religion appeared 2,500 years before Islam. They share with Islam and Christianity many rituals, such as circumcision, baptism and a prohibition on pork among other rituals. However, since Yazidis also have rituals and teachings similar to Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, they have been described as “Satanists” and persecuted throughout history.
Salam Jijo, 11, who was released in September 2015 said that he was almost convinced of IS' ideas, as he had been held in captivity for about 13 months with four hours of daily religious lessons. He said that it was difficult for him to fight the ideas, but ultimately, “I was not ready to embrace a religion at gunpoint.”
He added that other young recruits were swayed and espoused the ideas of IS, and some of them even went to fight in its ranks in Kobani.
Qassem Sido, 12, was one of those. He refused to return with his mother and sisters after he managed to smuggle them to the last crossing point on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Sido’s mother, 41, said that she only saw her son five times during his stay as a recruit in the al-Farouq camp. “The last two times I met him, he was mean to me and said a few things that made me know that he was starting to hate Yazidis because he believes we are weak and have a false doctrine,” she said.
The same thing happened with Salem Khadar, 52, who managed through mediators in Syria to obtain his son's release for $15,000, but [his son] called him to tell him that he had now become a mujahedeen and did not wish to return to live in the “land of infidels.”
“He told me I had become a stranger to him and that he would not hesitate to kill me if I kept insisting that he return to Iraq. He asked me to forget about him for good,” Khadar said.