The latest in a series of ISIS propaganda videos showcasing child soldiers has been released, and the details are chilling: It depicts recruits as young as 5 going through drills at a military training camp for “cubs” in Syria.
“They taught us how to slit throats and how to blow ourselves up,” a 15-year-old boy who escaped the school tells Reuters. He and his brother, 11, spent seven months in training before managing to get away; their Yazidi (a Kurdish religious community) family had been taken captive by the Islamic state and forced to convert to Islam when their Iraq town was captured by militants.
“They tell us that we are going to fight Yazidis and kill them because they are infidels, and if you die, you will go to heaven and they will go to hell,” the boy says.
Other recently released ISIS videos have featured young boys involved in a shooting drill inside a “kill house,” or indoor firing range, where they learn how to take control of a residence and seize hostages; shown kids executing Syrian soldiers; and showcased a boy in fatigues who held a rocket-propelled grenade and threatened to behead President Barack Obama.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tells Reuters that ISIS has recruited hundreds of child soldiers since the start of the year, and that it may be turning to kids because tightened Turkish borders have made it harder to recruit adults.
The child soldiers are what ISIS calls the “Cubs of the Caliphate,” which Mia Bloom and John Horgan, of Foreign Affairs magazine, studied for their forthcoming book, Small Arms: Children and Terrorism, which is about the many ways in which children are recruited as soldiers worldwide.
“The children of ISIS,” writes Bloom, “fall into five categories: 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… An increasing percentage of children are joining ISIS as a result of a grooming process in which ISIS instills in them a sense of commitment and camaraderie.”
That approach to recruitment exists in other regions as well, including African nations, where the children drawn into combat are mostly orphans who form family-like bonds with militants.
Michel Chikwananine, author of the graphic novel for young adults, Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War. (Photo: Citizen Kid)
But no matter where or how they are recruited and trained, one thing is clear: Child soldiers are deeply traumatized by the violence they are forced to both witness and commit. That’s something Michel Chikwanine, a former child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo, explores in his new and extremely moving autobiographical graphic novel aimed at young adults, Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War. Co-authored with Jessica Dee Humphreys, the book depicts the terrifying incidents that would change Chikwanine’s life forever: When, at only 5 years old, he was kidnapped away from his loving family by rebel soldiers, drugged, given a gun, forced to kill his best friend, and trained to fight and kill others.
“Every child soldier loses their childhood, as it’s forcing them to grow up when they aren’t supposed to,” Chikwanine, 27, tells Yahoo Parenting. “You lose your innocence. And it’s wiping away a generation of young people who could’ve done incredible things for their country.”
Chikwanine was able to escape from his captors after only two weeks, but the trauma he endured during that time were enough to permanently scar his life; he says he still has flashbacks and trouble sleeping because of the horror-movie-like images that haunt him. “It’s scary,” says Chikwanine. “That’s been my whole life since I was 5. No one who goes through it can overcome it.… And I was lucky — some children spend their whole lives being [forced to go to battle].” He was able to leave his country via Uganda for Canada when he was 16 with his mom and sister; another sister never made it out, and his father, previously kidnapped and tortured because of his human-rights activism, was killed by poisoning.
Today Chikwanine lives in Toronto and is a student in African Studies at the University of Toronto (“It helps add context to my story,” he says). He speaks to audiences all over the world about the realities of children at war, hoping to put the realities into political context. Plus, he explains, “It gives me a sense of purpose to inspire young people to care for their peers.” Talking about his experience has been therapeutic, too. “I grew up with that mentality of ‘internalize it,’” he says. But by sharing his story, he hopes to spread awareness that “these children are children, and we need to see them as that and not put the blame on the kids that they’re now seen as a weapon of war.”
Chikwanine’s hope, for the child soldiers of Syria and Africa and beyond, he says, is “that we, as a world, get angry enough to stop what’s happening. We know that children are being recruited. And if we’re not willing to come together to stop that, we have lost our sense of morals.”