OPINION: 'I hope to see my mother again': Stolen childhoods of Yazidi children returning from ISIS captivity

by Kate Denereaz | AMAR
Saturday, 3 August 2019 10:30 GMT

Ayad (C) and his friend look at mobile phones at Ayad's home in Khanke camp, Iraq, July 5, 2019. Photo credit: AMAR/Robert Cole

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are huge challenges to rehabilitation of Yazidi children because their devastating experiences have happened at the most vulnerable age

Kate Denereaz is communications manager at AMAR International Charitable Foundation.

Gule, 70, sits cross-legged in her tent in Khanke camp for internally displaced people in northern Iraq. Next to her lies her 10-year-old grandson, Ayad. It’s midday, but he’s curled up and hiding his head under his arms. When Gule tries to touch or speak to him, he pulls away, tells her he’s tired and buries his head deeper. 

Three months ago, Ayad returned from ISIS captivity. He had been gone for over four years. Gule was reunited with him in Sinjar. His hair had grown long, she says. They held each other and wept. 

Gule at home in Khanke camp, Iraq, July 5, 2019, Photo credit: AMAR/Robert Cole

Since being back, Ayad has hardly spoken about his experience. They know he was kept in a house with other Yazidi boys. An ISIS woman who was in charge forced Ayad to get food. When he didn’t, she beat him, as did ISIS fighters. When he first came back, he complained of pain in his legs as a result of the beatings.  

Beyond this, Gule knows very little. At first, Ayad got angry when she asked him about what happened. Now he says the questions make him nervous. His behaviour has changed, too. He’s disobedient and all he wants to do is play games on his phone, Gule says.

Ayad's parents and four brothers remain missing. “It’s so difficult. I cry all the time,” Gule says. 

According to a 2018 Kings College London report, over one-third of the 6,800 Yazidis abducted in Sinjar in 2014 were children under 14. 

Rahima and her half-sister, Hividar, pose for a photo at Rahima’s home in Khanke, northern Iraq, July5, 2019. Photo credit: AMAR/Kate Denereaz

Rahima and Dawood, nine and ten at the time, and their mother and siblings were captured as they tried to flee. Their father, Salim, was away for work and returned to find his entire family gone. 

Today Salim sits in his house in Khanke town with Rahima and Dawood at his side. As ISIS’s caliphate fell, they managed to escape. 

Dawood is quiet and, like Ayad, has said very little about his experience.

Rahima is more willing to share her story. In fact, she seems like she wants to. She is matter of fact in its telling and doesn’t falter. 

Not long after they were captured, the children’s mother was taken from them, Rahima says. The family have heard nothing from her since. 

After this brutal separation, Rahima was sold to an ISIS fighter for $500 and taken to his home, where she was forced to work as a maid for the man and his four wives for two years. 

When bombardment of the area started in 2016, the ISIS fighter told his wives and Rahima to leave. They ended up in Hamam Al Alil camp in Mosul. The women convinced Rahima that if she admitted to being Yazidi, she would be killed, so at first she said nothing.

Eventually, though, her father got word she had returned. When she saw him again, she says, “it felt like heaven.” 

Salim and his son, Dawood, at their home in Khanke, Iraq, July 5, 2019. Photo credit: AMAR/Kate Denereaz

Rahima and Dawood are both patients at AMAR’s healthcare clinic in Khanke camp. One of the nurses there, Sharif, sits beside the children as they talk. They sometimes look to him for reassurance. Occasionally Dawood’s face breaks into a smile as they share a small joke. 

As Rahima tells her story, her strength comes across. There are huge challenges to the rehabilitation of these children, though. Their devastating experiences have happened at the most vulnerable age. They have returned to families broken and traumatised. Many, like Ayad, Rahima and Dawood, have lost parents. 

What lies ahead for them is unclear. But when asked what she wants from the future, Rahima doesn’t hesitate. “I hope that one day I will see my mother again.”