Islamic State group turning Yazidi boys into jihadists
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The Islamist State group's bloody war of expansion in Iraq and Syria includes forcing boys from the Yazidi religious minority to train as child soldiers.
Habib Kalish, 14, says that when he and other frightened boys were herded down the corridors of the school where they were being held into a large courtyard, he assumed his worst nightmares were about to become reality.
“They told us, ‘We will train you to become fighters like us’,” recalls Habib of his time at the school, in the northwestern Iraqi town of Talafar. “Then after a while they brought us guns… Kalashnikovs and later grenades.”
In addition to military drills, self-proclaimed jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) organisation set out to indoctrinate Habib and other kids from the Yazidi religious minority. Koran lessons and forced mass prayers were part of the routine.
Yazidis practice a millennia-old faith that originated in upper Mesopotamia. The IS group considers them “a group of original pagans” and is believed to have massacred hundreds of Yazidis so far.
While the plight of Yazidi women and girls sold as slaves has become well known to many around the world, the ordeal that many Yazidi boys went through has received little attention from those outside the community.
In the Talafar school, Faraj Hajim, Habib's feeble 12-year-old cousin, apparently did not display the talents of a would-be jihadist. He was angrily ordered to go back indoors.
A few days later, Habib failed to meet the militants' expectations, and was also expelled from the training sessions.
“They told us to shoot at a target….They said suppose these are [Kurdish] Peshmerga and PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] fighters [combatting IS],” said Habib, whose lips sometimes shook as he recalled the details. “But I could not handle the gun well or hit the targets.”
Soon after that, Habib, his mother and two sisters were transferred to a village in the Sinjar area, which used to be predominantly Yazidi until the IS group onslaught of August 2014.
One chilly mid-October night, Habib and his family fled unnoticed by the guards at the village outpost. Sunni Arabs they met along the way helped them get out of the IS-controlled zone.
Faraj and his mother had a similar experience and escaped from another village around the same time as Habib’s family. The two boys and their families reunited in Dohuk province.
One overcast afternoon in late February, the boys got glimpses of what their fate might have been had they made it through the training in Talafar.
A well produced IS group propaganda video, complete with dramatic effects, featured some of the boys from the school where they underwent training.
The video claimed the few dozen boys appearing in it were being trained at “Faruq Institute,” a training academy of sorts apparently based near the IS group's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
Mostly young teenagers, the boys are dressed in the long military-style gowns IS fighters wear and told to recite verses from the Koran and explain certain interpretations of the Islamist beliefs the group promotes.
Habib and Faraj occasionally point out the forcibly recruited Yazidi kids they recognize.
“This one is my friend Jassim. We were from the same village,” says Habib. “It’s horrible to see them in this way… We would have all been in school together now had this [war] not happened.”
Jalal Lazgin, head of a Yazidi cultural center in Sharia district in Dohuk province who has been involved in relief efforts for his community, estimates up to 1,500 Yazidi boys are still in IS group captivity.
“Their age range is anywhere from infants to 14 or 15 years old,” he says.
Bound by no international rule of warfare, the group’s members have boasted of their aspirations for the Yazidi boys they have abducted. They believe by forcibly converting them to Islam and making them jihadists, they are providing Yazidis with salvation.
“Yazidi children,” reads one tweet post from an IS militant that features two Yazidi boys, one perhaps just a year old holding a pistol. “With God’s grace, they will be among the leaders of the Islamic State in conquering Rome.”
The IS group onslaught has changed the Yazidi community forever. For many of them, life is reduced to agonizing pain and misery.
Sabah, a Yazidi man now living as a refugee in Kurdistan, says 11 people from his family, including two sons, are in the hands of the IS group. In the recent propaganda video, two of his cousins were among those trained to become jihadists.
“My heart ached when I saw them. I cried,” says "Sabah", who preferred not to give his real name out of safety concerns. “They are trying to turn these children into terrorists.”
His fears are shared by many in the embattled Yazidi community. It’s a double loss for them. Not only are their boys gone, but they could one day point their guns at former relatives and friends.
Gawri Faris survived the IS group attack in early August by pure chance. She happened to be attending the funeral of her son-in-law in another village when her own village came under assault. Ever since that “dark” day, she has not seen her husband and eight children.
She is deeply traumatized by the thought of what might be now happening to her five sons and three daughters. Two of her sons are over 10 years old, the age range the IS group deems fit for forcible conscription. In the past, the group has used minors as suicide bombers and executioners, although there is as yet no information as to whether Yazidi boys have been given such assignments.
“I can hardly sleep,” Gawri says. “Sometimes I see them in my dreams, I try to touch them. Then I wake up and they are not there.”
Some Yazidis desperately hope the boys will not fulfil the destiny the IS group appears to have crafted for them.
Samir is still grieving the fate of his brother who appeared in the IS group video.
The last time he spoke to his brother was almost three months ago in Talafar. He knew his brother might be forced to become an IS group fighter based on the accounts he had heard from others.
“I told him no matter what they say or do, don’t fight for them. Don’t kill other people for them,” says Samir, who also did not want to give his real name for fears of reprisals against his family members. “He promised me he wouldn’t.”
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