After ISIS attacked his village in Iraq, Yusuf was kidnapped and taken to a training camp in Syria where he and 100 other children were forced to fight on the frontlines.
“They treated us very badly. They treated us like slaves and insulted and hurt us. I was very scared during battle. Military aircraft were flying in the sky and bombing us.”
Yusuf was only 11 years old when ISIS kidnapped him.
In August 2014, the extremist group attacked his village in Kocho, Iraq, before marching its residents to a nearby school. There they separated the men, women and children; killing the men, keeping the women as sex slaves and abducting the children.
The attack was typical of tactics employed by ISIS at the time. That same month, other Yazidis were massacred and their families separated by the militants in Sinjar, northern Iraq.
Yusuf was taken to a training camp in Syria where he and 100s of other children were forced to fight on the frontlines. They were subjected to threats and abuse, unable to contact their families or learn what happened to them. Yusuf’s sister, only 13 years old herself, had been forcibly married to an ISIS militant.
He would later learn his father and brothers had been murdered by ISIS the night he was kidnapped.
“I stayed in the camp for a year and a half receiving training on all kinds of weapons and doing hard morning exercises starting at 4am,” said Yusuf.
Like almost all child soldiers, Yusuf was abducted against his will and forced into armed conflict. The intimidation and trauma he experienced is typical of boys in his situation, many of whom are considered expendable by their captors.
His sister’s story is also gravely familiar; one endured by many young women, including Nadia Murad. The Iraqi Yazidi was enslaved by ISIS after they raided Kocho in 2014. She would later escape, find refuge in Germany and ultimately win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Like Murad, Yusuf would also manage to escape thanks to an incredible feat of bravery. After two years under ISIS capture, he was trusted enough to be left alone near a telephone. When the chance arose, he phoned family in Iraq who paid a trafficker to take him out of Syria. Yusuf, in a daring move, also helped a number of other children to escape with him. He could not, however, save his sister, who had been forced into a second marriage following the death of her first husband.
Following his escape, Yusuf settled in a camp for internally displaced people in Khanke, Iraq, where he was ultimately reunited with his sister. It was here in the camp that Yusuf learned about the murder of his father and brothers.
Counsellors are now helping Usuf and his sister cope with the trauma, abuse and loss they have endured. It is a long road to recovery, as Yusuf is still beset by memories of his ordeal:
“Weapon sounds were always playing in my head,” Yusuf said. “When I felt cold it would throw me back to the cold weather of the training camp and the bad treatment of the ISIS fighters.”
Along with feelings of anxiety and fear, children like Yusuf are often wracked with a sense of guilt related to the combat they were forced to participate in. For many, this is exacerbated by the stigma they face once they return home.
Therefore, the Iraqi Government is taking steps to lessen this burden. Earlier this year, it endorsed a national child protection policy, which includes a focus on release and reintegration, that commits to treating all former child soldiers as victims.
Other charities, such as the Ain Sifni Charity that operates in Duhok, continue to accommodate other children left orphaned or abused by ISIS. For the young people who were indoctrinated into the group’s ways, one of the primary goals is to ensure they know their actions were no fault of their own—something children like Yusuf are slowly learning to accept.