Thousands of children from the religious minorities of northern Iraq were captured by ISIS in 2014. Since the military defeat of the group in the past year, some of these children have returned. They have been left traumatised by their experiences but face a host of challenges in accessing effective treatment and rehabilitation. 

Gule, 70, sits cross-legged in her tent in Khanke IDP camp. Next to her lies her grandson, Ayad, 10. It’s midday, but he’s curled up and hiding his head under his arms. When Gule or other family members try to touch or speak to him, he pulls away, tells them he’s tired and buries his head deeper under his arms.

Three months ago, Ayad returned from ISIS captivity. He had been gone for over four years. Gule herself had been with him for the first nine months, when they were held together in Syria.

But when ISIS told her to go, Gule was forced to leave Ayad, his four brothers and the boys’ parents, Hussein and Shari. After that, the men, women and children were separated. For the next three years, she heard nothing more about what happened to them. “It’s so difficult. I cry all the time,” she says.

Gule at home in Khanke camp
Gule at home in Khanke camp

Then, early in 2019, Ayad’s uncle spotted a video of him on a website run by Yazidis in Syria. He had escaped ISIS captivity and the family left quickly for Sinjar to be reunited with him.

His hair had grown long, Gule says. He recognised his grandmother and sisters (who are also escapees of ISIS captivity). The family held each other and wept.

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 was in charge and forced Ayad to get food. When he didn’t, she beat him. He was assaulted by ISIS fighters too. When he first came back, he complained of pain in his legs as a result of the beatings.

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

“It’s so difficult. I cry all the time.” Gule, 70

Ayad in Khanke
Ayad in Khanke

Ayad’s parents and four brothers remain missing. He now lives in Khanke camp with Gule and his aunt and uncle. Because he was so young when he was kidnapped, he has never been to school.

Seeing the emotional toll his experiences have had on Ayad, AMAR staff have encouraged the family to take him to the doctor in the charity’s healthcare clinic in the camp. Doctors there are already treating children who have returned from ISIS captivity. So far, though, the family have not.

Ayad, Gule and their family were captured by ISIS in August 2014 as they attempted to flee their hometown of Khana Sor. According to a 2018 report from Kings College London, it is estimated that over a third of the 6,800 Yazidis abducted in Sinjar in 2014 were children under 14.

Over a third of the 6,800 Yazidis abducted in Sinjar in 2014 were children under 14. 

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

Today Salim sits in his house just outside Khanke camp with Rahima and Dawood, both patients at AMAR’s clinic, at his side. As ISIS’s caliphate fell, they managed to escape.

Salim and his son, Dawood
Salim and his son, Dawood

Dawood is quieter than his sister and, like Ayad, has said very little about his experience. He was forced to read the Quran. He was also with his older sister for a while, until she was married off to an ISIS fighter. The family do not know where she now is.

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.

After the family were moved to various locations when they were first captured, the children’s mother was eventually taken from them. She was driven away by ISIS and the family have heard no news from her since.

After this brutal separation, Rahima was sold to an ISIS fighter for US$500 and taken to his home in Tal Afar. There she was forced to work as a maid for the man and his four wives. She did everything for them, cooking and making bread. She worked as a slave for the family for two years.

“When I saw my father again, it felt like heaven.” Rahima, 14

When planes started bombing Tal Afar in 2016, the ISIS fighter told his four wives and Rahima to go with the Iraqi army. 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 about what had happened to her.

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

Rahima and her baby sister, Hividar
Rahima and her half-sister, Hividar

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 tell their stories. They sometimes look to him for reassurance. Occasionally Dawood’s face breaks into a smile as they share a small joke.

At the clinic, the children are seen by doctors who have received training in psychological care through AMAR’s Escaping Darkness programme.

As Rahima tells her story, her strength comes across. There are huge challenges to the treatment and rehabilitation of these children though. Their experiences have been devastating and 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.”

To help AMAR continue to provide care for children like Rahima, Dawood and Ayad, please donate here.