Tue, Mar 26, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Children of the Islamic State the forgotten victims

Toddlers face disease and hunger locked up in women’s prisons with mothers accused of joining the failed ‘caliphate’

By Raya Jalabi  /  Reuters, BAGHDAD

Illustration: Yusha

The hallways of the Rusafa Central Criminal Court in Baghdad teemed with anxious toddlers on the days their mothers were on trial. Then they vanished again, into the women’s prison, where they have lived for the past year and a half. They sleep on thin mattresses in crowded cells, bored, hungry and often sick. They are the foreign children of the Islamic State.

Among them is Obaida, the two-year-old son of a Chechen woman, Laila Gazieva.

Gazieva was detained in late 2017 while fleeing the Islamic State stronghold of Tal Afar in northern Iraq and convicted six months later for belonging to the militant Islamist group.

On the day Gazieva was sentenced to life in prison, so too were at least a dozen other young women, court records show.

Obaida remains with his mother in a Baghdad women’s jail, according to Russian government records.

About 1,100 children of the Islamic State are caught in the wheels of Iraqi justice, sources with knowledge of the penitentiary system said.

The youngest, like Obaida, stay with their mothers in prison.

At least seven of these children have died because of the poor conditions, according to detainees, embassy records and sources familiar with the prison.

Several hundred older children are being prosecuted for offenses ranging from illegally entering Iraq to fighting for the Islamic State.

About 185 children aged nine to 18 have already been convicted and received sentences from a few months to up to 15 years in juvenile detention in Baghdad, said a spokesman for the judicial council that oversees the Rusafa Central Criminal Court, which is hearing most of the Islamic State cases involving foreigners.

Seventy-seven of those convicted children were girls.

The children are the forgotten victims of the Islamic State, betrayed by the parents who took them to a war zone, groomed from the age of four in the militants’ poisonous ideology and, in many instances, abandoned by the countries they came from for fear they are a future threat.

In about 20 interviews, diplomats, the children’s mothers and sources familiar with their cases and the penitentiary system described the youngsters’ ordeal.

Nadia Rainer Hermann, a German woman in her early 20s, serving a life sentence for belonging to the Islamic State, told reporters that her two-year-old daughter spent her days on a dank mattress in a filthy and cramped cell in the women’s jail.

“I’m afraid every day my daughter might get sick and die,” she said.

The older children were angry and frustrated with their captivity and lashed out at the guards and one another, she said.

Iraqi government officials declined to comment about the foreign women and children in Iraqi custody or about the jail conditions.

Iraq has said previously it wants to help those who are not guilty of any crime to return to their home countries.

Gazieva spoke to reporters in September 2017 when she and her son, an infant at the time, were being held in a camp near Mosul, in northern Iraq.

She hoped that she and Obaida could return to France, where she lived before traveling to Iraq, but she does not hold a French passport.

“I don’t want to stay in this camp or in this country. I’m terrified of what will happen to us,” she said.

Gazieva, then aged 28, was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a large tent next to a small pile of her few remaining belongings, her hands fiddling with her French residence card. On her lap lay Obaida, his small body sweating under the Iraqi sun. He was crying and hungry; Gazieva said she was not producing enough milk to feed him properly.

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