Brainwashed and broken, the ISIS group’s youngest victims are struggling to recover from years of jihadist captivity as they return to their own traumatized minority communities in Iraq.
Dozens of Yazidi and Turkmen children were rescued in recent months as the ISIS “caliphate,” notorious for its use of child soldiers and “sex slaves,” collapsed in Syria.
Many have been reunited with their families, but their mental recovery has been slowed by prolonged displacement, a lack of resources, and a milieu accustomed to fearing, not forgiving, ISIS members.
Lama, a 10-year-old Yazidi girl, has repeatedly threatened to stab herself or jump from a tall building in the few months since she returned to Iraq.
“I fear she’ll never be like other Yazidi children,” said her mother Nisrin, 34.
All names in the family have been changed to protect their identities.
Lama has spent half her lifetime held by ISIS, who forced her to convert to Islam and speak Arabic instead of her native Kurdish.
During AFP’s visit to her tent in the Khanke displacement camp in northwestern Iraq, Lama appeared engrossed in a mobile shooting game with her cousins Fadi and Karam, freed from ISIS around the same time.
Like the boys, Lama dressed in black and kept her hair short. The trio spoke Arabic to one another, switching to Kurdish when addressing her mother.
“They’re still brainwashed. When they’re bored, they start talking about how they wish they were back with ISIS,” said Nisrin, saying no psychologist had visited them.
Virtually every generation coming of age in Iraq has been seared by conflict, presenting an “unprecedented” challenge, said Laila Ali of the UN children’s agency.
UNICEF does not know exactly how many children ISIS recruited, how many returned or where they live.
It estimates that 1,324 children in total were abducted by armed actors in Iraq between January 2014 and December 2017, when Baghdad declared ISIS defeated; however, the real number is expected to be higher.
Of those freed over recent years, dozens live in orphanages or shelters in Baghdad, the former ISIS stronghold Mosul, and the Yazidi regions of Sheikhan and Sinjar.
Others accused of ISIS affiliation are in detention, with some access to psycho-social support in the form of religious re-education.
But the vast majority are growing up untracked and untreated in Iraq’s camps, which host some 800,000 children.
“There are no child psychologists in Dohuk,” said Nagham Hasan, a Yazidi gynecologist who has become an informal therapist for survivors amid the lack of resources.
The rolling hills of Dohuk are dotted with camps hosting hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by ISIS, particularly from the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar further south.
Displaced families rely on aid groups for food and medical care, and there are even schools in the camps for children. But targeted psychological support for minors is hard to come by.
Hasan said a dozen groups were implementing generic psycho-social programs in camps with few results.
Yazidi cleric Baba Shawish demanded international agencies ramp up services.
“These organizations claim to provide mental support, but do you really think someone who spent five years under ISIS will be cured in five minutes?” he said, adding, “They need days and months to be rehabilitated.”
Forced recruits will need tailored treatments based on age, said Mia Bloom, a US-based academic studying child soldiers.
Abducted infants may be more easily rehabilitated as they have fewer memories of life under ISIS, while those taken as teenagers “have pre-conflict memories and can go back to their happy childhoods,” she told AFP.
But those recruited during formative years, like Lama and Fadi, were taught to despise minorities and may lack any positive recollections of their hometowns.
“They need to have their religious identities recharged,” said Bloom.
That will require some heavy lifting from the communities themselves, still terrorized by ISIS and often treating rescued children as jihadists-in-waiting.
To counter that assumption, UNICEF hosts workshops with religious and tribal leaders to reiterate that the children are, first and foremost, victims of ISIS.
“One of the biggest challenges in rehabilitation and reintegration of children with perceived affiliations is not so much the children’s experiences, but the negative perception from the adults around them,” said Ali.
Five years after ISIS rampaged across a third of the country, minorities are mostly facing the demons haunting their young ones alone.
Nisrin, herself held by ISIS for two years, said she was self-medicating to cope with her anxiety.
“We’re in this tent together day and night,” she said.
“If they were taken out for a few hours per day, I could rest and they could learn something.”