Life begins again for Yazidi boy forced to fight for Isis
At his secondary school in Canada, life as an Islamic State fighter now seems far away. “I enjoyed going out for jihad,” Amin says. “Doesn’t every child dream of holding a gun and shooting it?” It is some small consolation that he adds: “Now of course I know that killing people is wrong.”
Amin, a Yazidi originally from Iraq, is 14. The story of how he was kidnapped, taken from Iraq to Syria, became an Isis fighter, was captured, rescued, and went from Syria back to Iraq and finally to Canada is remarkable enough. But it is just one example of many that reflect the scarcely believable fate of Iraq’s Yazidi community: of its destruction, and of attempts to rebuild it in places that would have once been unimaginably distant.
The images that he conjures up of his youth are horrific. “Once I arrived here I forgot everything,” he tells The Times by telephone from his new home, more than 6,000 miles away from where he was born in Sinjar, northern Iraq. “I’m living a great life with my family. At least there is no slaughtering or whipping.”
In the past few days, there have been yet more American fighter jets over Syria and Isis suicide bombers. Women are still huddled in displacement camps, covered by their black abayas and niqabs. The West and its local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are rooting out the last Isis fighters from tunnels under the eastern Syrian town of Baghuz, from which hundreds of families continue to flee.
Amin’s story could be from any number of places across Syria and Iraq in the past four years. The horror is collective and so often repeated as to have dulled the senses. The individual stories of loss and salvation, though, become ever more extreme.
Amin’s family has four survivors. His father, Farhan, is presumed not to be among them. Adult male captives were immediately led away when Isis captured northwest Iraq in August 2014. Thousands of men were shot dead by the side of the road and buried in mass graves. None of the family has seen or heard from Farhan since his capture.
The Yazidi faith, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism whose adherents honour the “Peacock Angel” as their route to the divine, is particularly despised by jihadists as “devil worship”.
Amin’s mother, Noura, 36, was one of more than 6,000 women and girls seized from villages in and around Mount Sinjar, at the heart of Yazidi territory. They were taken off to be married — or essentially become slaves — in the markets of Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq before being moved to Syria.
Noura was the first of the family to escape, her family back home paying smugglers to extract her from Raqqa, the so-called capital of the “caliphate”. Her three children — Amin and twins Iman and Ayman, 12 at the time of capture — did not come with her. By now they were already on the path to the Isis version of Islam.
Iman refused the chance to flee with her. It is disconcerting to hear Iman, now in Canada too, explain why. Sold into a marriage at the age of 13, her indoctrination was advanced. “I didn’t believe what Isis said in the beginning, but as time passed I started to absorb their beliefs, thanks to the Sharia lessons we were given every other day,” she says. “I was convinced that marrying mujahideen [jihadists] would lead me to heaven, and that marriage was itself a kind of jihad.”
When her mother came to say she was leaving, Iman said she did not want to go. “I told my mother I was happy in Dawla [the State, or Isis territory] and I didn’t want to go to the lands of the infidels,” she says.
For a while, Isis families lived in some comfort in Raqqa, as a local elite. Some jihadist fighters treated their “wives” with a modicum of respect, by Isis standards. “I had no choice but to marry because I would’ve been treated as a slave and sold every other day to different men,” Iman says.
Meanwhile, Amin and Ayman were in a training camp run by Isis for the “cubs of the caliphate”, young boys being trained as the next generation of fighters. In all cases, but particularly with Yazidi boys, that involved religious instruction. “They taught us the Koran and Islamic Sharia,” Amin says. “They made us believe that if we fought the infidels we would be martyrs.”
Soon the time came for him to fight. He was given an AK47 and sent into the lines. “I took part in two operations,” he says. “Just normal raids.”
He was not, however, a very successful jihadist, perhaps on account of his age. He was kept to the rear lines, and says he did not, in fact, ever manage to fire a round, let alone kill anyone.
By this time, Iman’s first husband, Abu Anas al-Mughrabi, had been killed in a firefight. Her second husband, Abu Sofyan, from the Syrian city of Homs, took Amin under his wing.
Raqqa had been lost, and the teenagers, children living as adults, were moved to Hajjin, the penultimate hold-out of the Isis state, just about surviving under a rain of coalition bombs. Iman told her husband that she wanted to leave, and he acquiesced. “He didn’t mind,” she said. “It was hell.”
Abu Sofyan took Amin with him for one last battle. It was hopeless, and the pair surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Abu Sofyan was taken to a prison camp, Amin to a Yazidi safe house where his rehabilitation began.
For children, even child soldiers, beliefs come and go. “I was young,” Amin says. “I was convinced by their thoughts. I grew up there, really. But my mind went missing. When I left, I learnt the truth again. My Yazidi people, back in Iraq, told me the truth.”
Back in Iraq, he was reunited with Iman and they flew to Canada, where their mother had been granted asylum. These are hard decisions for Yazidis, perhaps incomprehensible for those already in the safety of the West.
The opportunity of escape may not come again, yet women like Noura are leaving behind missing husbands, sons and daughters. Iman’s twin brother, Ayman, was also still in the crumbling caliphate, fighting for his new masters.
Staying in Iraq, however, would mean a camp for the displaced in near-perpetuity. Almost five years on from when the family was captured from Sinjar, the town is back under government control, but disputed between the regular army, Shia militias, and the Kurds. The Yazidis are the least of anyone’s concerns, their homes, hospitals and schools still not restored.
More than 300,000 are still living in tents in the care of the United Nations and aid agencies.
From Canada, the family has only been able to watch as the war breaks down the caliphate, and as the chances of Ayman’s escape become ever more remote. Then, last week, a phone call came. It was Ayman’s voice, thanking Allah. “Baghuz was unbearable,” he said. “There was relentless shelling, battles, no food, no cover.”
He had been injured, then captured. But by that time, the attractions of jihad had in any case worn off.
“Before he used to say he wanted martyrdom and to fight the infidels and the crusaders,” Iman says. “But when we talked to him by phone he sounded different. He said he couldn’t wait to escape, he couldn’t stand life with Isis any more.”
Ayman is now in Iraq, awaiting permission to rejoin his mother, sister and brother in Canada. School awaits. His twin Iman, two marriages behind her at 16, is studying alongside her brother.
Canada has offered asylum to 1,200 Yazidis, of whom 900 have already arrived. Volunteer organisations are providing therapy and support to families and the estimated 500 children among them.
“A lot of them are brainwashed,” Majed El Shafie, of One Free World International, a refugee support group, says. “If they stayed longer than three years, it’s very hard. A lot of them think they are really Muslim, some don’t recall their former names.”
Amin, the former caliphate cub, says he now regards himself as Yazidi once more. “I never understood Islamic theology anyway, apart from jihad and paradise.”
The children had all been told that if they fled the caliphate, the infidels would kill them. It has not turned out to be true.
Is their future Canadian? And if so, what is the future of Yazidism? The faith once flourished across northern Syria and southern Turkey, as well as Iraq. Now, most of them live in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.
There can be little thought for the future in these circumstances, but thought there is anyway. “I’m so happy that I’m going to school just like normal girls,” Iman says. “Even though I miss Sinjar a lot, and wish I could go back there tomorrow. If not today.”