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Yazidi boys describe their experiences in IS camps

Ahmed Ameen Koro was one of 200 Yazidi boys sent to a two-month training camp where they studied the Koran and learned how to shoot machine guns and pistols, use a suicide belt, throw grenades and behead people

By Yesica Fisch and Maya Alleruzzo  /  AP, KABARTO CAMP, Iraq

Illustration: Constance Chou

They made the captive children, malnourished and weak from hunger, fight over a single tomato.

Then the Islamic State (IS) militants told them: “In paradise, you’ll be able to eat whatever you want, but first you have to get to paradise, and you do that by blowing yourself up.”

The lesson was part of the indoctrination inflicted by the militants on boys from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority after the extremist group overran the community’s towns and villages in northern Iraq. The group forced hundreds of boys, some as young as seven or eight years old, into training to become fighters and suicide bombers, infusing them with its murderous ideology.

Now boys who escaped captivity are struggling to regain some normalcy, living in camps for the displaced along with what is left of their families. After surviving beatings, watching horrific atrocities, being held for months or years apart from their parents, losing loved ones and narrowly escaping death themselves, they are plagued by nightmares, anxiety and outbursts of violence.

“Even here I’m still very afraid,” said 17-year-old Ahmed Ameen Koro, who spoke to reporters in the sprawling Esyan Camp in northern Iraq, where he now lives with his mother, sister and a brother, the only surviving members of his family. “I can’t sleep properly because I see them in my dreams.”

Ahmed was 14 when the militants stormed into the Yazidi heartland around the northern town of Sinjar in the summer of 2014. Tens of thousands of Yazidis were killed in the assault on Sinjar and neighboring towns, and the militants kidnapped thousands of women and girls as sex slaves. The Yazidi minority, whose ancient faith combines aspects of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, is considered heretical by the Islamic extremists.

US-backed Kurdish forces drove IS militants out of Sinjar in November 2015, but few Yazidis have returned and an estimated 3,500 remain in IS captivity, scattered around its territory in Iraq and Syria, according to Human Rights Watch.

It was the morning of Aug. 3, 2014, when the IS fighters descended on Ahmed’s village of Hardan. The family tried to flee, but their car could not hold everyone. So Ahmed, his 13-year-old brother Amin and four cousins set off on foot while his father drove the others to the nearby village of Khader Amin.

The boys were to wait for Ahmed’s father to pick them up at a roadway intersection outside of Hardan. However, his father never came: The militants seized him and the rest of the family and his father was never seen again. Islamic State fighters then captured Ahmed and the other boys at the intersection.

The boys were taken to the IS-held town of Tal Afar, about 50km away, where they were kept in a boys’ school along with dozens of other boys and teens. The adult men were taken away, leaving the women and girls.

“They chose and took the girls they liked,” Ahmed said. “I remember the girls were crying, as well as the mothers. They were dragging these girls from the arms of their mothers.”

“I was very scared. I’ve never seen such a thing. They were all very big bearded men, they looked like monsters,” he said. “My parents weren’t with me and I was thinking about them, wondering what happened to them.”

Ahmed and the other boys were then moved to Badoush Prison outside the IS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, where they were kept for 15 days. It was here that Ahmed noticed that every time the militants brought food, the boys would fall asleep immediately after they ate.

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