Nine-year-old Ayham Azad’s family believe his life under ISIS could have been a lot worse had it not been for the American wife of a terrorist sniper, a report by Brisbane Times said.
Captured by the group in his home town of Tel Banat in northern Iraq in August 2014, the boy from the long-suffering Yazidi minority was sold several times and eventually bought by Samantha Elhassani, who he says cared for him like her own son.
While the US government does not share the Yazidi family’s admiration for Elhassani – she is now on remand back home on terrorism charges – Ayham's twist of fortune ensured that he did not join the 7000 Yazidis killed or the 3000 who remain missing.
The plight of the Yazidis is one of the primary ways in which IS’s predations upon the people of Iraq and Syria live on, even after the collapse of its so-called state. IS suffered its final territorial defeat in the Syrian village of Baghouz last week.
Yazidis who were captured and held as slaves by ISIS continue to flow out of the group’s former territory, bringing with them stories of the dark final days.
Thousands are still missing, hundreds of thousands live in camps, afraid to return home. Some are still being held by smugglers who hope to profit from their sale back to relatives.
For Ayham the lingering effects are psychological. His uncle, Tahsin Shahwany, says the boy is smart at school but suffers what sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Still when thunderstorms come in the evenings, it frightens him and he cries. We’ve asked him, ‘Why are you crying?’ He says he’s scared. He says these are aeroplanes in the sky launching air strikes.”
Before he went to live with Elhassani, Ayham was kept by a nasty ISIS fighter named Abu Basir who used to beat him and once split his scalp open.
Elhassani didn’t or couldn’t shield him from all IS atrocities. The boy appeared, alongside the American woman’s own son, in an ISIS propaganda video promoting so-called IS “cubs” - young fighters trained from an early age.
Shahwany says his nephew saw friends killed. Once he saw an ISIS member put a hose in a Yazidi boy’s mouth and flood his throat until he drowned. He flinches when anyone raises their hand around him.
But he said Elhassani provided vital stability and care, making him repeat all of his own family members’ names every day so he would not forget them.
Elhassani has said she was tricked by her Moroccan-born husband into moving to Raqqa, the Syrian capital of ISIS, with her two children, whose safety she felt was imperiled if she resisted.
She is now facing charges in the US of providing material support to ISIS and two of its members. Her lawyer, Thomas Durkin, said this consisted of buying sets of binoculars for her husband and his brother during a transit through Hong Kong.
“She’s essentially being prosecuted as a proxy for her husband,” Durkin said.
“The only person who supported ISIS was her dead husband.”
Her husband, Moussana Elhassani, had become an ISIS sniper but was killed in an air strike in late 2017, shortly after which Elhassani gave herself up along with her children and Ayham to Kurdish forces. That is how Ayham eventually made it home.
Shahwany says he had to pay $US8500 ($12,000) to smugglers to get Ayham’s younger brother Anas back after he was also kidnapped by ISIS. He believes the smuggling network is deeply corrupt but he had little choice but to hand the money over.
Yazidi woman Ilham Dakhel Ali was just 13 when she was kidnapped by ISIS from her home town of Tel Qar near Sinjar. She was sold to a senior Saudi ISIS leader in Raqqa and his Syrian wife, who was just a year older than Ilham herself.
The Saudi was an angry and violent man who once hit her on the head with a keychain, leaving a scar where hair still doesn’t grow. Asked if he ever abused her sexually, she nods, but does not elaborate.
“He would beat us … He would get really angry if we weren’t awake for early prayers.”
After the Saudi man was killed and the rest of the family fled in January, Ilham was able to leave Baghouz, which by then was the group’s remaining stronghold.
“A lot of them towards the end regretted they had joined ISIS and they would say, ‘We would have been better if we were safe in our countries and we want to go back to our countries,” she said. “At some point, some of them hated ISIS more than the civilians hated ISIS.”
But she heard other ISIS members in and around Baghouz talking about how they still had people left in the Iraqi city of Mosul and how “we will never give up this idea”.
That is why many Yazidis remain fearful. Shahwany said the underlying extremist ideology still remained a strong current across Iraq and Syria.
“No Yazidi life is safe because ISIS is not finished. It’s not far-fetched that ISIS comes back in a year,” he said.