Since northern Iraq fell to the Islamic State (IS) last summer, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes. Lost in a bureaucratic quagmire, many are undocumented and live in squalid refugee camps or unfinished buildings across Kurdistan. But thousands of people remain unaccounted for. Looted like cargo by IS foot soldiers, they remain captive inside Iraq and Syria.
Yazidi activist and journalist Nareen Shammo has painstakingly documented 4,601 people missing from the ranks of Iraq's Yazidi religious community. She estimates that 1,500 of those missing are children.
Several hundred of the women and girls who have been captured have managed to escape or have been sold back to their family through secretive networks of smugglers. Their testimonies of sexual slavery have shocked the world but have not prompted the military or humanitarian action those telling them expected. The stories of the boys, meanwhile, shed light on IS's training methods for its next generation of jihadis.
VICE News spoke to a 16-year-old who spent almost six months inside IS territory, during time which she was sold to four different militants who all abused her. The teenager's family hung white flags from their properties on Iraq's Mount Sinjar in the mistaken belief that it would save their lives. She fled on foot to the mountain but was caught on the way by four trucks of IS foot soldiers who surrounded her family.
Asma's older brothers were separated from her and have not been seen since; she was taken along with the other women by truck to Mosul, the first place she was held before being sold. Her months in captivity were marked by frequent late night bus journeys across Iraq, where she was taken — along with other girls and women — to be shown and selected by people at different levels of the IS hierarchy.
"Some of the guys their job was just to feed the girls, others were guards, but all of them, all of them, if they wanted a girl, took her away," said Asma.
She described meeting emirs, generals, guards and local and international fighters, who inspected her and snapped photographs of her in poses she was forced to smile for, which she says were then shared on Whatsapp between different IS members. She was humiliated, and attempted self-harm and suicide. She ultimately managed to escape.
The UN has documented dozens of cases of sexual torture and rape of Yazidi women and girls captured by IS who later escaped. It follows a report released last December by Amnesty International, which interviewed more than 40 women and girls who had escaped from IS. The group "has singled out the Yazidi minority, notably its women and children, for particularly brutal treatment," it said.
In a pamphlet released by IS last December — that could not be independently verified — the group listed prices for female slaves: a woman aged 40 to 50 would sell for 50,000 dinars or $43, a girl aged 10 to 20 would be worth 150,000 dinars ($125) and a child under nine would sell for 200,000 dinars ($166). It is permissible to take non-Muslims captive, says the pamphlet, to rape a slave "immediately after taking possession of her," and "to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn't reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse." Last month, an article in the IS propaganda magazine Dabiq, purportedly written by a woman whose husband had a Yazidi slave, claimed slavery was a divine punishment, and sex with captive Yazidi was not rape.
The Yazidi activist group Yazda has detailed horrific crimes. A report seen by VICE News details health complaints suffered by women and girls still in captivity that activists have managed to contact — they include "severe bleeding in the lower area," a broken spine sustained during a punishment beating, electric shock injuries as well as multiple failed suicide attempts that have left permanent, life-limiting harm.
Asma was kept at a former government building in Raqqa along with other women and children captured near Sinjar. Not all of the guards were cruel all of the time, Asma said, and some were keen to explain how now that they were Muslims they could enjoy a better life. After staying together in the hall for a few days, one morning the guards separated the group into three smaller ones.
"They separated the unmarried girls and they also separated the small [male] children from their mothers," she said. "They told us they were taking the small kids to one of the training camps, and there was nothing we could do about it,"
A few of the nicer guards attempted to comfort the mothers by reassuring them they would be cared for well. Asma said the guards told them that the boys would initially be learning about the Quran. She estimates there were around 30 children and around 200 women in this holding centre in Raqqa, but is not certain.
"They told [the boys] if they went with them they would go to paradise, but if they stayed with their mums they would go to hell," she said. "They showed us weapons and said they would train them to use the weapons and that we should not think about them any more - they are in a safe place."
Shammo told Vice News she had been in contact with some of the boys in captivity in what are known as "cub camps." She explained the training at the camps consists of three stages the children are expected to graduate from.
"I have talked with an 11-year-old child who told me they are being taught Islamic Sharia," said Shammo. "The training has three levels. The first is how to recite the Quran, the second focuses on how to use and prepare weapons and the third is that they participate as fighters and cut heads."
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Yazda activists are also in contact with some Yazidi families being held together in captivity, including a woman and her three children being kept together by the extended family of a senior fighter. Yazidis are used by IS as domestic servants as well as sex slaves.
Recent pictures obtained by Yazda show the eldest, a teenage girl, smiling in a headshot reminiscent of the pictures Asma described being forced to pose for. A 2-year-old boy carries a gun twice the size of his body while an 11-year-old boy is pictured in full military uniform. Some of the children in captivity are permitted to make phone calls to their parents, activists say, which they spend attempting to get them to convert to Islam and come get them.
The relatives of people in captivity have been warned not to speak to the media, and there is also a sense that talking to the press makes no difference — the international help they received late during the Sinjar siege happened only after the deaths of hundreds on the mountain and as yet there has been no specialist help given to the returning girls, or efforts to rescue those in captivity.
Activists also say IS will kill the captive relatives of anyone they find out has talked to the media.
The father of one Yazidi family in captivity agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. He has had sporadic contact with his wife and recently procured pictures by paying the daughter of an IS fighter. Speaking from Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, he told VICE News his wife had now converted to Islam and was living in Raqqa.
He showed some of the pictures he bought, along with some older family photos from before the IS invasion. One he took last summer during a day out, shows the family smiling and eating ice cream. The next shows his son walking in front of his crouched mother inside IS territory. The gap in her niqab reveals a faint purple bruise framing a bloodshot eye — but he is grateful to see they are at least alive.
Their location was recently changed, after the IS fighter keeping his wife became aware that she had been in contact with him. He described how his wife complained about her first "husband" and was given to another man, who beats her less but watches her more; she says there are cameras watching her making escape impossible. He described offering to buy them back for a substantial amount of money but was refused. His mental health has suffered greatly through his 9-month ordeal and he reports suicidal thoughts. His fears float between his family being killed in an allied airstrike attack, his wife's role as a sex slave and his son's future as an ISIS solider.
"They are training our children to be killers in the future. They teach them the Quran and tell them they have to kill the enemies of Muslims in order to reach heaven. And if they don't train as IS want them to, then they will harm them," he told VICE News.
Verifying the reports of what happens inside the training camps for boys — not just those captured, but any living within IS controlled areas, is exceptionally hard, as Mia Bloom, professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told VICE News — there have been no successful defectors. She has been researching the increased use of child soldiers in the Middle East and Africa along with Dr John Horgan for their upcoming book, Small Arms: Children and Terrorism. She told VICE News it was unclear whether the hype from IS propaganda matched the level of military training actually instructed, but what was certain was that children were playing a strategic role in the conflict as the IS infrastructure grooms its next generation to take over.
"We will likely continue to see children in IS, partly as a result of declining recruitments rates, increased number of adults defecting or the fact that many of the foreign fighters are happier to reside in Raqqa than go to the front lines," she said. "The children will be more malleable and easy to manipulate."
As long as they are alive there is hope, the activists say, but it is easy to sense their frustration. Speaking from Duhok, Yazda's Iraqi chief Jameel Chomer despaired that time was running out; the children being held captive are being remade into killers.
"We know the locations, we know how many are being held together, we know the power of IS in that area, we need to attempt a rescue," he said. "Not one country has even tried. Not the Kurds, not the Iraqis. There has been nothing. We need to try, at least once, to rescue the captives. Soon it will be too late, they will not come. They will turn our children into our killers."