Hardly any help for former Islamic State child soldiers

Years after the fall of the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq, thousands of teenage boys are still in prison. In 2014, they were usually forced to fight with IS as the โ€œcub of the caliphateโ€. Some were only 4 when they were recruited by the terror organization. Once out of prison, they have to regain their lives with minimal guidance.

โ€œThese guys have complex traumas,โ€ says Sherri Kraham Talabany. She works for aid organization SEED in northern Iraq and tries to get ex-IS people back on the right path with her team. โ€œThey were exposed to a lot of violence for a long time and often also suffer physical injuries. Many are struggling with their identity and they have a lot of trouble reconnecting with their families.โ€

In northern Iraq, correspondent Daisy Mohr met Barzan, from the Jesidi community. He was taken away from his parents as a child and had to convert to Islam to fight with. His sisters were sold as sex slaves to IS fighters, his older brother is still missing.

Few aid organizations are willing to help this group of boys, notes Talabany. โ€œThey dont have documents, making it difficult to access medical care, education, or other facilities. Many of them feel stigmatized, they are marginalized. People find them suspicious.โ€

There is no formal reintegration program, while that is very much needed. โ€œChildren who were forced to be part of IS deserve our protection. That is our moral duty, but it is also very important for future security and stability.โ€

When Youssif and his little brother were taken to cub training at a young age by their half-sister, they first thought it was a fun outing. He was just 10 and too small to realize what was happening. It would change his life forever.

After the fall of IS, he spent a good year in prison before being able to go home. โ€œThere was hardly any space in the cell, we were on top of each other; there was never room to lie down – thats why my back looks like a rainbow now,โ€ says Youssif, now 18. โ€œBoys as young as me had no idea. We are all victims. Ive been so terrified.โ€

For days, he locked himself in a room. Nightmares kept him out of sleep. He had panic attacks. His mother didnt know what to do with him. Youssif: โ€œI was in a kind of coma. I couldnt see people. I couldnt decide who my friend or foe was.โ€ After much effort, he was able to get some help. โ€œIve left that time behind me and Im feeling better.โ€

But the grief is never far away. For example, his little brother still lacks any trace. For five years, they havent heard from him. โ€œMaybe hes in prison, maybe hes dead, weve been looking for him everywhere,โ€ says his mother and she bursts into tears. She prefers to keep Youssif at home. โ€œAs soon as he goes out into the streets, people call him ISer. That scares him. I cant let him go too far from home.โ€

Without an ID card, which the authorities do not want to issue, and without proper professional help, life remains a big challenge for boys like Youssif. โ€œI have dreams and I have the will and ambition, but I have no chance of making it happen,โ€ he says. Youssif would like to open a store where cell phones are being repaired.

One thing Youssif knows for sure: he doesnt want anything to do with IS anymore, should the terror group ever come back. โ€œThey were bad people. They killed, stolen and hurt so many people. It was a nightmare.โ€