“Cubs of the Caliphate”
CAIRO – 10 August 2017: With the battle for Mosul over, the true damage of IS’s control is coming to light. Infrastructural damage, as great as it may be, is always repairable.
What may not be reparable are the minds of the youth who witnessed unspeakable horrors during their time living in IS’s Iraqi capital, and were subject to fierce indoctrination in all aspects of life.
“The battle for Mosul may be over, but its children are still living in hell. This war has come at a terrible cost. Children were abused, starved and bombed. And now their homes and minds are in ruins,” Ana Locsin, Save the Children’s Iraq Country Director, said.
Whether through schooling or training camps, years of indoctrination under IS rule has left children with horrifying levels of “toxic stress”, which threatens to devastate an entire generation of children.
In the schools not destroyed or usurped by fighters, young people continued to be taught under IS rule, albeit with a curriculum far removed from the realms of normality and sanity. Religious extremism, violence, and intolerance dominated the agenda.
For example, a math textbook questioned how much explosives would be needed to kill a certain number of “unbelievers”, and sums referred to munitions and artillery.
Professor and terrorism expert Mia Bloom identified five categories of ISIS child soldiers as: “those born to foreign fighters or emigrants; those born to local fighters; those who had been abandoned and found their way into ISIS-controlled orphanages; those coercively taken from their parents; and those who voluntarily joined the Islamic State.”
Through coercion and abduction, IS brought these children to training camps set up in and around Mosul to equip them with the skills they deemed necessary to join the fight against the “infidel”. Children were taught military practices, such as how to handle explosives and weapons, as well as indoctrinated by an ideology that idolizes martyrdom through suicide attacks.
In a traumatic story, children from the “Farouq Academy for Cubs” in Raqqa were taught the art of decapitation – the correct technique for cutting off human heads. Dolls were provided for practice at home.
“What was striking was how introverted and withdrawn children have become,” said Dr. Marcia Brophy, Save the Children’s Senior Mental Health Adviser for the Middle East. “They rarely even smiled. It was as though they had lost the ability to be children.”
The frequency and unpredictability of the bombs that rained from the sky instilled fear into children, and the public display of beheadings and dead bodies desensitized those forced to watch to these inhumane practices.
Children at the Hamman al-Alil refugee camp, just south of Mosul, reflected on the horrors they had witnessed – a stark indication of their deep-seated fear and the challenges that support groups would face in returning normal thoughts to these children.
No older than twelve years old, the stories are hair-raising.
“I dream of a woman with blood all over her face,” a young girl said.
A boy spoke about his cousin, who “was offered a cigarette by ISIS, and when he accepted, they gave it to him and then killed him by a gunshot to the back.”
“ISIS climbed the wall of my house and went to my grandparents’ room to take them, and they killed many of my family,” said another.
“When we asked them what they liked about themselves, children often said things like ‘I’m quiet’, ‘I stay in a safe place’ or ‘I obey orders’. Their time under ISIS, and making a life-or-death escape, has taken a truly terrible toll,” Dr. Marcia Brophy said. “These children are not going to heal in weeks, or even months. They’ll need support for years to come.”
What happens next will dictate the future for these children.
A return to normality for these children is essential. Too much of their childhood has been spent under the watchful eye of the Islamic State’s “hisbah” – the religious police – and the eye in the sky, as drones and jets maintain an aerial presence. Refugee camps now serve as the home for many hundreds of thousands of Mosul’s residents as they begin to return to Mosul.
A return to school for these children is essential. A concerted effort is needed by the education system to educationally rehabilitate these children. Aside from adopting a national program focused on educational rehabilitation, a local approach would provide a flexible and tailored education.
A return of Mosul’s teachers will provide the capacity to allow this, but it will be an up-hill struggle. Many children have lost crucial years in their education – lost years that need to be accounted for.
As part of an educational program, a program of religious and cultural tolerance is necessary to normalize the mindset of these indoctrinated youth.
Discussions of a reconstruction plan for Iraq, costing $100 billion, have notions of such a program.
Hossam al-Ayyar, a member of the Ninevah Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor that a plan will focus on eliminating “ideological extremism from the culture of the people of Mosul, who have been living for three years with IS's inflammatory rhetoric.”
“The plan includes cultural and religious programs adopted by mosques, schools and churches to consolidate the values of coexistence and moderation, promote shared living and the culture of peace and freedom of belief, and the respect of the rights of others," Ayyar added.
Tolerance for society as a whole is central to overcoming the challenge of stigmatization – a prevalent feature as areas are liberated from IS control. The notion of children as victims must be reiterated.
Too many children have lost their childhood under the control of IS. Yet, a lost childhood does not mean a lost generation.
Hopes for rehabilitation can become a reality if a concerted approach is taken, with the financial support of those who have been party to the conflict.
The world must learn the lessons from countless conflicts in the past, and not alienate a faction of society who will come back to haunt.