Reporter: Milad Kassem & Raed Kerani
“It was winter. My fingers were freezing on the rifle as I fired through the scope thinking that he was a Yazidi infidel. I was terrified when my victim’s father appeared in that damn scope.”Nisan Rashu, an 11-year-old Yazidi boy, seemed on the verge of collapse as he described the psychological and physical duress he and some 700 other Yazidi children recruited by ISIS endured.
In February 2015, Derbo managed to escape from Al-Farouq camp for children solders in Al Raqqa in the midst of a battle over the Syrian town of Kobani. He returned to Iraq across the Turkish-held land, along with two other Yazidi children and their mother. Arab and Kurdish smugglers who charged Derbo $10,000, and the mother and children $15,000 to help them.
Like Derbo, the two brothers, Ragheb, 13, and Ghayad, 11, underwent brutal military training at the ISIS-run Al Farouq camp that included rounds of fighting, explosive belts and slaughtering of hostages.
In a rare photo he saved on his phone, Ghayad appears with a person in charge of weapons training in the Abou Abdullah Al Jazrawi camp. His older brother Ragheb is seen sitting on the left of an ISIS commander during a promotional videotape broadcast in July 2015. Since then, Ragheb has become one of the most notable Yazidi soldiers in the ISIS camps.
Uncovered tapes were reviewed multiple times in hopes of identifying child recruits including Barakat Kirana, a cousin of one of the two journalists working on this investigation. ISIS captured Kirana along with 5,800 other Yazidis before the terror group took over the Sinjar region Aug. 3, 2014.
Searching for Barakat provided insight into the world of child recruits who have escaped ISIS camps.
Out of sympathy for Barakat, mediators helped locate recruits and arrange meetings. The recruits were willing to share their stories of life at the training camps, especially with those who suffered similar fates. Ragheb and Ghayad seemed more stable and aware than Salam Issa, 7, who spent intermittent weeks in Al Qaqa and Al-Farouq between February and April of last year.
Since returning from captivity, Salam has not stopped repeating the rituals he learned at the training camps. Every prayer time, he performs the ablution then spreads a towel or tissue on the floor before kneeling and prostrating whilst mumbling incoherent Kurdish and Arabic words.
Salam’s father Wissam provided us with images showing their way of life. In almost all the photos, Salam was carrying a gun or a rifle and wearing ISIS camouflage. A 21-second footage showed the extent to which he was integrated by the ISIS fighters. In this recording, he echoes the ISIS slogan: “The state of Islam is remaining.” Another picture showed Salam with an 8-year-old Yazidi recruit carrying a large ISIS banner.
Ghayath is another victim who returned to Iraq last July after almost a year in captivity. His mother reported that he has become aggressive. Ghayath would curse the Yazidis and call them infidels in episodes of rage. It took a long time before his family could rehabilitate him.
Ragheb, Ghayad, Ghayath, Derbo, Salam and 10 other recruits said another 700 Yazidi children are being held by ISIS and subjected to the same brainwashing and intense military training. They are being raised to become military fighters because of failed interventions to rescue and rehabilitate them. Ten national and international communities have toiled to save as many young victims as possible but more this is not enough.
The Beginning of a Captivity Story: A Massacre
ISIC captured Ghayath Aug. 11, 2014, the day Yazidi cities and villages in the Sinjar region in northern Iraq were attacked.
According to Khairi Bozani, director general of the Yazidi Affairs, 1,280 Yazidis were killed while another 5,838 were captured, including 3,192 females and 2,646 males.
Ghayath said that “thousands of Yazidi men, women, children were running barefoot toward Sinjar mountain. It was like Judgment Day”
According to the testimonies provided by Yazidi survivors, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters arrived the nights of Aug. 2/3. ISIS fighters killed and captured those they could caught and blockaded more than 200,000 Yazidis at the top of Mount Sinjar for eight days. Hundreds died of hunger and thirst before a Syrian Kurdish armed faction rescued them and escorted them into Kurdistan, Iraq.
Ghayath’s family had just arrived at a house at the foot of the mountain when they were raided by eight cars carrying ISIS members. Ghayath’s grandmother recalls: “Eighty Yazidis had arrived beforehand getting ready to ascend the mountain. But ISIS members captured the men, dragged them outside the house and locked up the women and children.”
Ghayath held his grandfather’s hand as an ISIS fighter pulled him away to join the women and children. “A few minutes later we heard gunshots from the side of the house. That’s when the women started to scream and slap their faces, and I knew that they had killed my grandfather, uncles and the rest of the men. When they started to shoot sporadically, my aunt screamed that they were now attacking the wounded.”
The ISIS fighters drove the women and children in tractors to the Turkmen town of Tal Afar, adjacent to Sinjar, before moving them to the nearby Badush prison in Mosel. ISIS took control of the prison June 10, 2014. Ghayath recalls that “The remaining water in the prison vessels was yellow and smelled. They gave us very little food and we almost died of hunger and thirst.”
Two weeks later, ISIS fighters took three of Ghayath’s aunts along with hundreds of unwed women. Then they took Ghayath, his mother, aunt, and grandmother back to Tal Afar where he was separated from them. His mother and his grandmother were moved with hundreds of women to work as slaves for ISIS in Syria. Ghayath and his aunt spent 11 months in camps in Slouk, Tal Abyad, and Al Farouq. There, he underwent grueling military and ideological training experienced by children over 6..
Captives and Slaves for a Few Hundred Dollars
The story of Ghayath is similar to that of another 14 children who gave their accounts between mid-July and late October. Most of them were held in captivity with their mothers. They were sold several times to members of ISIS and their affiliates.
Young Soufyan Qassem (a pseudonym) recalled feeling humiliated at the hands of ISIS fighters who removed three of his unwed sisters from Badush prison to Syria to join hundreds of Yazidi girls there.
The father of child recruit, Fawaz, tells the story of how the man who purchased his wife would turn on the speaker on his mobile while sexually assaulting her. The man would threaten to cut off future contact from his wife and son Fawaz if he hung up. “I would feel mortified and wish for death, but I had to keep quiet so that I wouldn’t lose Fawaz and my wife.”
Rescued children spoke to with broken souls to relatives about details of their captivity. They appeared hesitant to talk or kept silent when asked to recount their experiences. When they did talk they were barely audible and they looked around the room anxiously before answering questions.
Yazidi researcher, Nawras Haskani, said the children’s experience of the selling of their relatives ($300 to $400) for sexual assaults can cause major psychological health problems. They may someday seek revenge. Four victims admitted this is something they cannot forgive and if the opportunity arises they will avenge their family.
In Al Farouq camp, Kamal Hajji Rasho, 12, recalled, that there were on average around 150 Yazidi children at any given time. They got lessons on reciting the Quran and the origins of the faith before going through military drills the rest of the day.
He said a typical day began with a dawn wake up to prayer. Then they were allowed to go back to sleep briefly, before waking up again and heading to the halls for ideological training and Quran recital.
Before ending up in the Syrian Al Farouq camp, Kamal and his 11-year-old brother, Jamal, went to the Iraqi Tal Afar camp. They were beaten with wooden or metal rules and lock into book lockers if they could not recite the Quran. They wore Afghani or spotted outfits. They were not allowed to speak Kurdish, their mother tongue, meaning Kamal and Jamal were often beaten, and Jamal was locked in the book locker twice because he had difficulty understanding Arabic words.
According to the researcher of Armed Groups Affairs, Nameq Abbas, all these tactics were designed by the group to pull the Yazidi children away from their roots and to brainwash them into the ISIS’ ideology.
Child recruit Khudaidah Saber, 10, recalls that the school curricula in the ISIS camps derived from the books of Ibn Taimiyyah, Ibn Al Qaym Al Jawziyah, Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahab. The Tawheed book derived from Ibn Othaimin, containing ideas that focused on war, apostates, and the Fiqh of Jihad.
Out of all the children, Khudaidah was the most fluent in Arabic and well versed in ISIS ideology. This is enabled him to keep up with his camp trainers.
According to Khudaidah, ideology lessons focused on forcing Islamic rule on Christians and Jews, killing infidels and apostates, implementing Allah’s ruling on them by killing men, capturing their women and children, and taking their money. They were taught that Yazidism is a polytheistic religion and that its followers should be forced to convert to Islam, or killed if they refused.
Yazidism is a monotheistic religion that appeared before Islam 2500 years ago. Practices of circumcision, animal sacrifices, prohibition of pork, baptism, and so on, are similar to Christianity and Islam. However, due to theological and ritual similarities with Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, Yazidis have been described as Satan worshipers.
After more than a year in the camp, 11-year-old recruit Salam Jijo, returned home on September 2015, saying he almost believed in the ISIS ideology. The indoctrination are four hours a day and every day. “It was hard to resist those ideas, but in the end, I was not convinced that I can convert to any religion that held me at gunpoint.”
Unlike Jijo, other recruits were deeply influenced by the camp lessons. Some joined the group in its battles in the city of Kobani. One was 12-year-old Qassem Sido. He refused to return to his mother and two young sisters after the smuggler managed to take them to the final crossing point at the Syrian Turkish borders.
Qassem’s mother, 41, said she only saw her son five times in the four months he spent as a recruit at Al Farouq camp. She said during the final two encounters, “he was rude and showed hate toward the Yazidis for being weak and adopting the wrong creed.”
When the owner of Qassem’s mother and the Syrian smuggler agreed to return Qassem to Iraq, he asked his mother: “Why would we go back to living with the Yazidis?”
Salem Khader, 52, encountered the same problem. After he reached an agreement through mediators in Syria to release his son Khairi in exchange for $15,000, his son told him that he was a jihadi and didn’t want to go back to living among the apostates. Khader added: “He informed me that I had become a stranger to him and that he would not hesitate to kill me if I continue to insist on his return to Iraq. He also asked me to forget him forever.”