Hareth Najem fled ISIS's last enclave in eastern Syria wounded and alone. The Iraqi orphan’s family had died two years earlier in airstrikes across the border in Al-Qaim region.
“I had two brothers and a sister. They all died, and then I was by myself,” Hareth told Reuters, tears filling his eyes. “My little sister, I loved her a lot. I used to take her with me to the market.”
Lying in a cattle truck beside another injured boy at a desert transit point for US-backed forces, he huddled under a blanket. His face was covered in dirt and the side of his head wrapped with bandages covering wounds incurred days earlier.
Hareth was 11 years old when ISIS carved out its proto-state in Iraq and Syria, killing thousands of civilians and attracting an array of enemies that have fought from the air and on the ground to uproot the militants.
Now 16, he was among the children swept up this week in the civilian evacuation of Baghouz, the last shred of land under the militants’ control where they are on the brink of defeat at the hands of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Some of the children are foreigners whose parents brought them to be raised under ISIS rule, or child fighters conscripted into what the group dubbed “cubs of the caliphate.” Others, including members of the Yazidi minority, were enslaved by the militants.
Many have seen their parents die in the fighting or be detained by rival forces.
As ISIS faces territorial defeat, their fate remains uncertain. The SDF investigates all men and teenage boys arriving from Baghouz to determine possible ISIS links.
‘These kids have nobody’
Around 20 children crossed the frontline on their own this week, including Iraqis, Syrians, Turks
“These kids have nobody. They need somebody to take care of them, to provide mental health support,” said Afrin, adding that some had gone hungry for a long time. The SDF plans to hand over the children to aid groups, he said.
Hareth said his family had been running a market stall when ISIS overran their town and they had no links to the group.
After his family was killed in an aerial bombardment, he crossed into Syria with other Iraqis who feared Shiite militias advancing against ISIS would take revenge on them — a fear that other Iraqis have cited as their reason for entering ISIS-held Syria.
Hareth said he tried to avoid the militants and denies attending their schools or receiving military training. Their morality police would sometimes arrest and whip him.
“They gave speeches at the mosques, jihad
When he reached Baghouz, he worked in a field in return for a room to sleep in. He tried saving enough money to go
Hareth was wounded last week when a shell fell near where he was standing along the Euphrates River, injuring his ear, hand and stomach. He wants to get medical care and return to relatives still in Iraq.
“I want to go look for them ... When I get better and my body recovers, when I can walk,” he said. “I want to go back, to become a young man again, to build a future again.”