For the past seven months, Abu Hassan, an army medic, has treated the damaged and desperate people of the Iraqi city of Mosul as they arrived from the cauldron of war.
Soldiers, women and children often trembled in fear in front of him, hours after escaping the bloody clashes, as Iraqi forces battled to wrest control of the city from Islamic State fighters. But not nine-year-old Mohammed.
“He wasn’t a normal boy – he didn’t seem scared,” Hassan said shortly after treating Mohammed, one of the last to flee west Mosul earlier this month. “I chatted with him. I asked him normal questions, like: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ He said: ‘I want to be a sniper.’”
“I was shocked,” said Hassan. “It’s not a normal thing for a child to say. I asked him: ‘What did your dad do?’ He said he was a sniper emir – the emir of snipers.
“[Later] I received a lot of information from people from Mosul saying his father was important. The special forces found the boy in a basement with several [dead] Isis fighters. The soldiers brought the boy to me.”
Since the recapture of Iraq’s second city earlier this month, the toll the terror group’s occupation took on the city’s residents – and especially its young – has begun to emerge.
Hundreds, potentially thousands, of children have been left orphaned by war. And some bear a second burden – an ideology that has stripped them of innocence. To many in their own society, they are the devil’s spawn; stateless outcasts, unworthy of basic care. Aid agencies and state welfare systems do not want to acknowledge them.
The children of Isis are hidden away in aid camps across northern Iraq, in private homes in the liberated east of Mosul and in the Kurdish north, where family members, volunteer workers and a small number of underprepared and poorly funded officials are offering whatever support they can muster.
One makeshift programme is run by Sukaina Mohamed Younes, the head of the Office of Women and Children in Nineveh province. Sukaina received Mohammed from the Iraqi army medic and reunited him with an uncle in Erbil – away from Mosul locals with revenge on their mind. She said the scale of social problems facing families in post-Isis areas was overwhelming.
“We have received from Mosul [tens of thousands] of children who lost their mother and father,” she said. “You can say [75%] are from Isis families. We do not have an exact number, because some children don’t have any ID, so we don’t know who they are. I can tell you that 600 Isis orphans are in Hammam al-Alil [refugee camp].
“Until now there is no programme to deal with these cases. I gave a proposal to the government. We were thinking, before, to put all Isis orphans … in one high security camp. But I don’t know what happened with this. The problem is the people do not accept Isis families any more.”
Adding to this is the near total absence of psychological or psychiatric services in Iraq and an unwillingness to embrace therapy programmes that could treat the myriad traumas of war.
“We have a problem for Isis children … revenge. Do you think normal people affected by Isis will forget all of this? It will be much more difficult than Isis itself. Much more difficult than the military operation. When the east side [of Mosul] was liberated, I met a woman who lost all her family to Isis. She said: ‘I won’t forget my neighbour. He took my son to the mosque, and after a few days my son started telling me I was an infidel, his dad was an infidel.”
In Erbil, Mohammed – whose name the Guardian has changed to protect his identity – said he was in a basement with seven men, all Isis members, the day he was rescued. He spoke with matter-of-fact calm about life in west Mosul, one of the world’s most lethal neighbourhoods, and the last holdout of the terror group in the city before it was overrun this month. Mohammed’s carers believe both his parents were killed in the last days of the fight, and that both were ideologues who were instrumental in his indoctrination.
In between describing scenes of extreme violence and fighting in an Isis children’s unit (Fetiyen al Jinneh), Mohammed also spoke of his father taking him to the playground and buying him a bicycle, and fighting with boys at school.
“All the time my sisters fought with me. I didn’t want to stay with the women and girls. Because of this, I decided to go with my dad. But I don’t know where my dad is now. He went with Isis. My dad married a Russian woman. Her name was Medina.”
Mohammed said he was enlisted as a sniper because he was a good shot. “Isis gave me five bullets. I had four targets. I lost the last one. I shot with a rifle – kalashnikov. I shot very well, even as a child, I was shooting very well – but not by rifle, by pistol. Even if my dad didn’t tell me to shoot, I was shooting. Whoever hit the stone won. I was number one, for all of the children. I was happy when I went to Fetiyen al Jinneh – I don’t know why, but I miss it.”
Since speaking with the Guardian, Mohammed’s uncle has been keeping him away from other Mosul residents, particularly those who may have lived in his neighbourhood. In the chaotic aftermath of the war and the combustible atmosphere surrounding those who were part of the Isis milieu, in one way or another, there is little hope of any state support, or reconciliation.
“The only difference is that a kid in Iraq cannot get the death penalty,” she said. “They don’t have this idea that if you were recruited by Isis as a kid, you’re a victim. They don’t understand that. And they don’t have any rehabilitation/deradicalisation programmes. The reason they don’t? They say what’s the point: they’re going to be locked up for ever or get the death penalty, so why would you bother rehabilitating them? That’s the same for kids. Why make the effort?”
In the camps of northern Iraq, mothers who have borne children of slain Isis fighters, many of whom were foreigners, are doing their best to hide their histories. To avoid being targeted by prejudice or even worse, they frequently claim their children are nieces or nephews. If their affiliations were made public, the best they could hope for in the current climate would be being exiled for a second time.
With reconciliation out of reach, for now, Sukaina believes rehabilitation is still possible for some of Mosul’s young people. Disavowing beliefs that were ingrained through dogma and trauma is a necessary first step, which could at least be started through community support, she said. “I believe that between the ages of eight and 12 it is easy to help them return to normal. Teenagers are really difficult because they have a stronger ideology.
“It’s not just the Iraqi government that needs to find a way to deal with this. The international community should also help us to find a resolution for these people. Without their help it will be difficult, because it needs special people to deal with these children.”