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Struggle to rehabilitate Daesh child fighters

Would-be suicide bombers aged 13 among dozens of ‘cubs of the caliphate’ treated for PTSD in Syria

Gulf News

Qamishli, Syria: Mohammad was 13 years old when he was given a suicide belt and 15 when a landmine exploded under his motorbike outside Raqqa, Daesh’s former stronghold in Syria. His teenage acne is mixed with scars from shrapnel wounds.
Now, the young Syrian from Raqqa’s countryside is one of 50 former child soldiers being treated at a rehabilitation centre in north-eastern Syria, near the city of Qamishli.
They have been called “the cubs of the Caliphate”. Some are orphans, others were wounded. All fought for Daesh.
Mohammad said he was recruited by his uncle, a childless man who joined the group in 2013. “He took me to Sharia classes and then he told me: ‘Son, now you have to go to the training camp,’” he recalled.
From there, everything accelerated. He was transferred to Mosul in northern Iraq and joined the ‘Inghimasi’, shock troops trained to assault their enemies’ position with guns and then detonate their suicide belts when cornered or out of ammunition. He was sent to Baiji, where Daesh and Iraqi government forces fought for the country’s largest oil refinery. It was his first battle.
“We had a car bomb. It was Abu Hudhaifa, a 14-year-old boy from Aleppo, who went in. We attacked the Iraqi forces after the morning prayer. The driver of the car bomb blew himself up and we entered the refinery, but we did not find anyone. It was a trap: they had let us in to encircle us,” Mohammad said in a whisper.
He and his comrades were besieged inside the refinery for two months. “We were 100 men. Only 30 of us escaped alive,” he said, his shaved head covered with scars. “All the others were killed.” At his side were Syrian and Iraqi children, as well as Turkish, Russian and Indonesian fighters. Ready to take more risk, cheaper and potentially more eager to kill than adults, children are often first-rate recruits for insurgent groups.
Located in a war-battered town, the rehabilitation centre is run by Syrian Kurdish authorities and is home to about 50 boys aged between 12 and 17.
In their spare time, they play football and chess or watch television — except the channels that can promote a more extreme ideology. Also forbidden are group prayers, or praying more than five times a day.
For survivors who were captured on the battlefield or, like Mohammad, surrendered to US-backed Syrian rebels, the first steps outside Daesh are symbolic. Their teachers encourage them to break Daesh-imposed rules, by shaking a woman’s hand, listening to music or smoking a cigarette.
“When they come here, they think of music as haram (forbidden), but after a while they start to ask us if we can turn on the radio. We offer them MP3 players, they listen to local artists or techno and disco. We can see that they are happy with each other, sometimes they even dance together. And they forget their struggle,” said Abir Khalid, the director of the centre.
But the trauma developed by some children cannot be treated with an MP3 player. While the centre has an infirmary to treat battlefield injuries, few resources are available for psychiatric support. Many former child soldiers develop high-risk behaviours, become depressed or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “One day, I saw a boy sitting alone. I asked him why he was acting like a robot,” said Roueda Abbas, one of the four teachers at the centre. He came next to me and said: ‘When I was with them, they beheaded people in front of my eyes. They cut hands and legs. Now I have no feelings. Even if you kill my father in front of me, I wouldn’t cry. I don’t have any feelings anymore’.”

The tutors, some of them primary schoolteachers, concede that they lack experience to deal with traumatised children who were trained to kill. And no support is provided once the children leave the centre after a six-month period. Nearly 80 children have gone home since the centre opened in March 2016. If the parents were members of Daesh and were arrested or killed, the former child soldiers are put in the custody of extended family.
Mohammad wants to return to his parents and four remaining siblings. His older sister, recruited by his uncle to marry an Daesh fighter, is still missing. He wants to work in his father’s petrol station, or on a farm. “I feel better now,” he said. “Even if I have recurring nightmares. At night I see Daesh. They come to kill me.”

The Sunday Telegraph