By: Milad Kassem and Raed Kerani
Irbil, Iraq, 10 Nov, 2015, (Al Hayat newspaper) –“It was winter time and my fingers were freezing on the body of the rifle as I fired through the shooting scope thinking that he was an infidel Yazidi, just like ISIS had told me to do. I got terrified when my captive father’s face appeared in that damn scope.”
Nisan Rashu, an 11-year-old Yazidi boy, was about to collapse while describing the psychological and physical duress he underwent along with over 700 Yezidi kids recruited by ISIS into children training camps in cities like Slouk.
Derbo escaped from Al-Farouq camp in Al Raqqa, in February 2015, taking advantage of the absence of most of the guards who then joined the battles over the Syrian town of Kobani. He returned to Iraq across the Turkish-held land, along with two other Yazidi kids and their mother. They were aided by Arab and Kurdish smugglers who charged them $10.000. The woman and her two kids were charged $15.000.
Just like Derbo, the two brothers, Ragheb, 13, and Ghayad, 11, underwent brutal and often violent military training at the ISIS-run Al Farouq camp. This included rounds of fighting detonation of explosive belts and the slaughtering of hostages.
In a special photo he saved on a phone with no sim card, Ghayad appears with the person in charge of the weapons training in the Abou Abdullah Al Jazrawi camp while his older brother Ragheb is seen sitting on the left of an ISIS commander during a promotional videotape broadcast in July 2015 about Al Faruq camp. Since then, Ragheb became one of the most famous Yazidi soldiers in the ISIS camps.
This journalist reviewed the tape several times, hoping to identify those child recruits who appeared in it, and also to investigate the fate of Barakat Kirana, a child cousin of one of the two journalists working on this investigation. Kirana along with 5800 other Yazidis, was captured by ISIS before the terror group took over the Sinjar region on Aug. 3, 2014.
The journey to find Barakat allowed both journalists a rare insight into the world of child recruits who have escaped ISIS camps.
Mediators often facilitated the task of finding the locations of these recruits and arranging the meetings because of sympathy with Kiran. Meanwhile, the recruits showed a lot of flexibility in their description of life at the training camps, especially with those who similarly suffered from the tyranny of ISIS.
Despite appearing broken as they described their days of captivity, Ragheb and Ghayad seemed more stable and aware than other children who spoke to us in this investigation.They included child recruit Salam Issa, 7, who spent intermittent weeks in Al Qaqa and Al-Farouq camps between February and April of last year. But his young age did not easily help him cope with the ordeal of his captivity.
For over two months since his return from captivity, Salam kept repeating the rituals he learned at the training camps. At every prayer time, he performed the ablution then spread a towel or tissue on the floor before kneeling and prostrating while randomly mumbling incoherent Kurdish and Arabic words.
The photographs the father of Wissam provided us with shows the way of life that Salam has had in captivity. In almost all of the photos, Salam was carrying a gun or a rifle bigger than his tiny size, and wearing camouflage clothes or black outfits like those worn by ISIS fighters.
The mobile video footage of Salam showed the extent to which he was integrated with ISIS fighters. In this recording, which does not exceed 21 seconds, Salam seems pleased while echoing the ISIS slogan: “The state of Islam … is remaining.”
Another private picture also showed Salam with an 8-year-old Yazidi recruit carrying a large banner of ISIS.
After returning to Iraq last July, Ghayath had transformed into to a very aggressive child according to his mother who also returned from captivity at the end of the same month after being separated from her son for almost a year.
Whenever he got angry, Ghayath would curse out the Yazidis and call them infidels. It took a while before his family succeeded in taming his intense anger.
Children Ragheb, Ghayad, Ghayath, Derbo, Salam and ten other returning ISIS recruits testified to both journalists. Another 700 other Yazidi kids are still held by ISIS where they are subjected to psychological and physical abuse, obligatory ideological brainwashing and tough military training. Meanwhile, 10 national and international communities are unable to take care of the returning recruits, or to rescue those still captive. Those might end up transforming into militant fighters or ticking time bombs that may explode at any time.
The Start of a Captivity Story…A Massacre
Ghayath was captured by ISIS on Aug. 11, 2014, on the same day of the attack on Yazidi cities and villages in the Sinjar region in northern Iraq.
According to Khairi Bozani, Director General of the Yezidi Affairs, 1280 Yezidis were killed in a mass graves or slaughtered in the streets while another 5838 were captured (3192 females, 2646 males).
Ghayat said that “thousands of Yezidis, men, women. Children and elderly were running across the street leading to Sinjar mountain. Many of them were barefoot, carrying children or the elderly on their backs. It was like Judgment Day”
According to the testimonies of Yazidi survivors documented by both journalists and testimonies given by other survivors to international media, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters pulled out on the night of Aug. 2/3 without notifying the Yazidi residents. This allowed ISIS to attack a region that is historically considered a Yazidi homeland. ISIS fighters killed and captured those they managed to catch; they besieged more than 200.000 Yazidis at the top of Mount Sinjar for around eight days. During these days, hundreds of them died of hunger and thirst before they were
rescued by a Syrian Kurdish armed faction that opened a safe gateway for them towards the Syrian land, and then moved them to Kurdistan in Iraq.
Ghayath’s family had just arrived to a house at the foot of the mountain when they were raided by eight cars carrying ISIS members. Ghayath’s grandmother recalls: “80 Yazidis had arrived beforehand in preparation for going up to the top of the mountain. But ISIS members captured the men, dragged them outside of the house and locked up the women and children”.
Ghayath was holding his grandfather’s hand when he was pulled away by an ISIS fighter to rejoin 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, so I knew that they had killed my grandfather, uncles and the rest of the men. When they started to shoot sporadically, my aunt was screaming and saying that they were now attacking the wounded.”
ISIS fighters transported the women and children in tractors to the Turkmen town of Tal Afar, adjacent to Sinjar. Then they moved them to the nearby Badush prison in Mosel. The place smelled after the dead people who were killed there after ISIS took control of the prison on June 10, 2014. Ghayath recalls that “the remaining water in the prison vessels was yellow and smelled badly. They only gave us very little food; 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 him, his mother, aunt and grandmother back to Tal Afar where he was separated from them. She was transported with hundreds of women to work as a servant for ISIS in Syria. He and his aunt started a bitter captivation trip that went on for 11 months while he was taken to camps in Slouk, Tal Abyad, and Al Farouq. He underwent the same military and ideological training experienced by the rest of the captive children over six years of age.
Captives and Slaves for a few hundred dollars
In its details, the story of Ghayath is similar to the stories of the 14 children who gave their accounts to both journalists between mid-July to late October and to the stories of other child recruits who were being trained in ISIS camps in Syrian cities. Most of them went along with their mothers or female family members in captivity. They were subjected to the humiliation of being sold and purchased several times to members of ISIS and other men who live in cities occupied by the group.
Until this moment, young Soufyan Qassem (pseudonym) recalls the feeling of humiliation 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.
With great sorrow and embarrassment, the father of child recruit Fawaz tells of 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 cancel the mobile chip and cut off contact with his wife and son Fawaz if he hung up the phone. “I would feel mortified and wish for death, but I was obliged to keep quite so that I don’t lose Fawaz and his mother.”
Most of the child recruits interviewed for this investigation spoke with a broken soul about details of their ordeal while in captivity with their relatives. They had low voices, their eyes moved in different directions before answering questions, they appeared hesitant to talk or just kept silent.
Yazidi researcher Nawras Haskani said that the fact that the young captives had learned about the sale and purchase transactions of their relatives for $300 to $400 including sexual assaults by “their owners” can explain the atrocity of the psychological abuses they experienced. This might motivate them in the future to seek revenge from those they believe caused their suffering.
Most Yazidi children avoid going into these details. But at least four of them told us that they won’t forgive anyone who sexually assaulted their relatives. They would not miss the opportunity to avenge them in the future.
In Al Farouq camp, young Kamal Hajji Rasho, 12, recalls that the average number of Yazidi children was around 150. They received lengthy lessons on reciting the Quran and the origins of the faith, before going through violent military training for the rest of the day.
As a recruit, Kamal recalls that a regular training day starts with waking up the Yazidi children to perform the dawn prayer. Then they are allowed to go back to sleep for a short period of time, before waking up again and heading to the halls for the ideological training and Quran recital.
In the Iraqi Tal Afar camp, the first camp that Kamal and his brother Jamal, 11, went to prior to joining the Syrian Al Farouq camp, all the children who couldn’t recite and memorize the Quran were beaten on their hands with wooden or metal rulers and then put inside book lockers.
Kamal and Jamal were often beaten. Jamal was put in the book locker twice because he had difficulty understanding many Arabic words.
Yazidi children were not allowed to speak Kurdish, the mother tongue of Yazidis. They are obliged to wear common Afghani outfit or spotted outfits. According to Nameq Abbas, researcher of armed groups affairs, this is a reflection of the group’s insistence on pulling the Yazidi children away from their roots and getting them accustomed to an extremist lifestyle ISIS had imposed in all the occupied territories. .
Child recruit Khudaidah Saber, 10, recalls that the school curricula in ISIS camps are originally derived from the books of Ibn Taimiyyah, Ibn Al Qaym Al Jawziyah, Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahab, and the Tawheed book by Ibn Othaimin, especially ideas that focus on fiqh of Jihad, war, fighting and apostates.
Out of all the children who spoke to both reporters, Khudaidah stood out as the one who was most aware of the nature of the ISIS ideology lessons and the most fluent in Arabic. This is exactly what allowed him to keep up with his trainers.
According to Khudaidah, ideology lessons at their core focus on forcing Islamic rule on Christians and Jews, killing infidels and apostates, implementing Allah’s ruling on them by killing their men, capturing their women and children, and taking their money as loots for Muslims. They were taught that Yezidism is a polytheistic religion and that its followers should be forced to convert to Islam, or killed if they refused.
Yezidism is a monotheistic religion that appeared before Islam by 2500 years. There are many similar practices between Yezidism, Christianity and Islam, such as circumcision, slaughter of sacrificial animals, prohibition of pork, baptism, and so on. However, due to the misinterpretation of Yezidi theology and the similarities to some of the rituals and teachings of Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, Yazidis have been described as “Satan worshipers” and for that, they have been discriminated against throughout their history .
Child recruit Salam Jijo, 11, who came back in September 2015 after over a year in captivity said he almost started to believe in the ISIS ideology. The indoctrination takes place for four hours on a daily basis and throughout the captivity. “It was hard to resist those ideas. However in the end, I was not convinced that I can convert to any religion at gunpoint.”
Jijo added that other recruits didn’t withstand following the ideology lessons and got deeply influenced by the group’s ideas. Some joined the group in its battles in the city of Kobani.
One of those children was Qassem Sido, 12. 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, recalls that she saw her son for only five times in the four months he spent as a recruit at Al Farouq camp. She said that in the last two times “he was rude and was using words which showed that he had started to hate the Yazidis because they are weak and don’t have a correct creed.”
Qassem was not excited about going back to Iraq when an agreement was made between the owner of his mother and the Syrian smuggler for getting the two of them into Iraq. He would constantly ask her: “Why would we go back to living with the Yazidis?”
The same thing happened with another Yazidi,Salem Khader, 52. After he reached an agreement via mediators in Syria to release his son Khairi in exchange for $15.000, his son told him that he has become a jihadi and that he doesn’t want to go back to living among the apostates. He added: “He informed me that I have 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.”
This investigative report was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net