DOHUK, Iraq — Sixteen-year-old Achmed sits in his tent with his shoulders slumped forward, as if he’s been carrying heavy weights.
He is a survivor. Achmed escaped last year from a military training camp run by the Islamic State for boys in Mosul. ISIS has made no secret that it is raising a new generation to fight for its cause, calling the boys the “Cubs of the Caliphate.”
Achmed’s story, which he told Yahoo News, is an example of the tragedy unfolding in areas of northern Iraq controlled by ISIS, where boys are coerced into becoming fighters and suicide bombers.
The battle for Mosul is expected to begin before the end of October. The United Nations anticipates the conflict could displace more than a million people, with at least 700,000 needing immediate assistance when the war starts. UNICEF estimates that as many as 100,000 children will be affected, and that many of the boys could be used as child soldiers on the frontline as decoys to shield ISIS positions.
What becomes of the boy soldiers after they have left the control of the armed group is often tragic.
Achmed was 14 when ISIS stormed into Sinjar province, a majority Yazidi region, in 2014, and he was captured along with his brother and several others in his family. The fighters demanded that everyone empty their pockets. Achmed was beaten on the back with a water hose until he gave up his cellphone.
The younger boys were separated from their parents. “They brought the buses and then they forced us to ride the buses, and we told them we were too young. They told us, ‘No, you have to go.’ Some of the kids refused and they beat them, and they told us, ‘We will kill you if you [don’t go].’”
From then on, Achmed said, he did as he was told, fearing for his life. “They forced us to memorize verses from the Quran, and whoever didn’t, got beaten,” he said. “Because I was scared, I memorized them.”
The ISIS fighters at the training camp tried to force the children to convert to their version of Islam. But Achmed, who was raised as a Yazidi, a minority faith ISIS regards as heretical, said he only went through the motions. His routine included daily prayers, physical training and weapons practice. “They would come and wake us up at 4 a.m., to pray the Islamic prayers. And then after that they would feed us breakfast — a piece of bread, cheese, maybe an egg. They trained us to use the M16, the AK47 and a pistol. They also showed us videos on how to behead people.”
Achmed said he never killed anyone, but while watching the videos, he said, “I was so scared, and I would often try to imagine myself being forced to do this, and I would tell myself, ‘I won’t do it.’”
After months of intense training, Achmed and his brother persuaded their trainers to let them leave for a weekend to see their aunt in a town west of Mosul. On that trip, they decided to escape. They waited until after sunset and headed west, traveling at night. It took them nearly nine days to meet up with their uncle, and then make their way to a camp for internally displaced persons, where they would join their mother and sister.
Achmed is one of the lucky ones; he made it to a camp and has never been questioned by Iraqi authorities. But those who are caught by Iraqi military or police are treated as enemy combatants, with little or no access to rehabilitation.
Hussein, believed to be around 13 years old, is one such boy. He was detained in August wearing a suicide vest in a market in Kirkuk province. His cousin had successfully detonated explosives near a mosque that same day and died, but police were able to intercept Hussein.
The Kirkuk police spokesperson, Col. Afrasiau Kaml, told Yahoo News, “We had information about this boy before. We knew he was coming. The father of the boy is [ISIS]; he is a leader of the group.”
Iraqi media filmed the boy’s arrest. Video showed him crying when he was caught, and he could be heard using an Arabic word for “uncle.” Iraqi media branded the boy a terrorist and headlined his capture in the following days.
Hussein’s whereabouts are unknown. Kirkuk police denied a request by Yahoo News to meet him. After several days of stonewalling, a senior police official said he would arrange for Yahoo News to meet another boy accused of spying for ISIS, but did not respond to follow-up calls.
Kaml said Hussein was still under investigation and in police custody, but did not say where, or in what kind of custody, whether a juvenile detention facility or an adult prison. “He’s not a criminal; he’s a terrorist,” Kaml insisted. “A criminal maybe would [have been] better, but a terrorist, [he’ll] be a terrorist forever.”
Nate Rabkin, a political analyst specializing in Iraq and managing editor of the publication Iraqi Politics, told Yahoo News, “The Iraqi criminal justice system — or at least their criminal investigation system — is very heavily interrogation-driven. The police don’t have the experience to go out to the scene and collect evidence.”
“There is a very vengeful mood in Iraq right now toward ISIS fighters,” Rabkin said. Because there is no “confidence in the courts,” he said, it’s not likely that boys arrested by Iraqi authorities will get an opportunity to deradicalize or be rehabilitated after their experience.
Boys like Hussein are supposed to be assigned a lawyer and go before a judge, but Kirkuk police would not confirm when or if that would actually happen.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is working toward a more lenient judicial system for children, in accordance with international law.
Jeffrey Bates, a communication director at UNICEF, said, “We have some small-scale projects for child soldiers — where they can come into a safe environment, where they have specific interventions to trail them through the legal system to ensure they’re given their rights as children.”
Bates explained that some religious authorities in Iraq agree in theory that there “shouldn’t be 13-year-olds on the battlefield,” but cannot enforce this position because it would be “going against a larger religious canon.” For many, the tradition is generally that manhood begins at puberty, along with the responsibility of taking up arms for the community.
Bates admitted his agency does not always have direct access to the children. By tribal custom, he said, “once a boy reaches puberty, he becomes an adult,” and being an adult carries certain privileges and responsibilities.
Nate Rabkin believes economics is a better explanation. In countries where “it’s common for children to be working at age 14, 15, 16, it’s hard to make the case that this 16-year-old who was captured along with ISIS is a child and should be treated as a misled child, rather than as an adult who’s responsible for [his] actions.”
He suggested that given “how weak the rule of law was in Iraq” even before the war with ISIS, “it would be difficult to put pressure on the Iraqi government to give different treatment for these kids on the ground.”
As hostilities approach Mosul, the question of what will happen to thousands of boys hangs in the balance. For those captured alive by authorities, their future looks bleak.
For boys like Hussein, deradicalization programs are highly unlikely because, as it stands, the Iraqi government isn’t considering handing over arrested “terrorists” to outside forces, even if they are children.
Achmed said he had seen a psychologist only once, given that sessions are not free and he would need money to continue. He said he also saw a Yazidi cleric, who simply gave him a blessing and sent him on his way.
“They [ISIS] are always in front of me when I sleep,” Achmed said, “so sometimes I am afraid to fall asleep. Everything was bad. It was all so bad.”
Achmed’s fear makes him angry, and he admits that he wants revenge. He said he wants to fight, and would go with any group willing to let him kill members of ISIS for what they did to him — and his family.