ISIS’s genocidal campaign against the Yazidis was one of the greatest horrors of recent history. Intent on annihilating a religious minority they viewed as heretics, the jihadists carried out brutal massacres and enslaved thousands of women and children.
But for thousands of Yazidi children who endured the terrors of the caliphate, their nightmare is far from over.
A new report by Amnesty International paints a damning picture of the plight of the nearly 2,000 Yazidi children who have survived ISIS captivity, more than a year since the last of them escaped the terror group’s grip.
According to the report, the Yazidi child survivors of ISIS — having endured abduction, rape, torture, and forced conscription as child soldiers — now find themselves largely abandoned by Iraqi authorities and the international community. Some, especially the children conceived as a result of sexual enslavement by members of ISIS, have been largely rejected by the Yazidi community, with their mothers pressured to give them up.
The situation means some of the world’s most brutalised children lack the support they need to have any chance of overcoming the psychological and physical trauma of their ordeal.
“This is just a crisis in terms of these children’s mental health,” the report’s author, Nicolette Waldman, told VICE News. “The needs of these children are just so urgent and overwhelming. There hasn’t really been an acknowledgment yet of what the children who were abducted have gone through and what they need now.”
The Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority of about half a million people, were the target of what the United Nations says is a genocide, when ISIS rampaged through their ancestral heartland in northern Iraq in 2014. Thousands of women and girls were enslaved and raped in captivity, producing a new generation of children born under control of the group.
These children, some of whom spent years in ISIS captivity, now face profound challenges reintegrating into civilian life in a society shattered by the genocide, said Waldman. While there had been some efforts to provide support, those services were under-resourced, delivered in a piecemeal way and fell well short of the comprehensive help that was required.
Girls were subjected to widespread sexual abuse in ISIS captivity, leaving them with deep-seated trauma and a raft of health issues, while the boys — many of whom were starved, tortured and forced into combat — have been left with debilitating physical war wounds and PTSD. Many survivors suffered ongoing symptoms such as mood swings, aggression and flashbacks.
Yazidi children were forcibly converted to Islam and taught Arabic, meaning many struggled to speak in their native Kurdish on their return. “A lot of these children end up not being able to communicate with their family members,” said Waldman.
Many were only freed after their relatives paid huge ransoms for their release, further impoverishing their already poor families and hampering their ability to meet the significant needs of the returned children.
READ: The Islamic State is selling enslaved Yazidis back to their families
“These children were systematically subjected to the horror of life under ISIS, and now they’ve been left to pick up the pieces,” said Matt Wells, Amnesty’s crisis response deputy director. “Their physical and mental health must be a priority in the years ahead if they are to fully reintegrate into their families and community.”
The report — based on dozens of interviews with survivors, their family members, experts and officials — also found that the mothers of children born as a result of rape during their enslavement had been pressured, coerced and even deceived into giving up their offspring by family members.
"I want to tell [our community] and everyone in the world, please accept us, and accept our children… I didn't want to have a baby from these people. I was forced to have a son," one 22-year-old woman told Amnesty.
The group is calling for women and their children in this situation to be prioritised by the UN for humanitarian relocation outside of Iraq, where they can escape the stigma.
Waldman said that while the genocide of the Yazidis had shocked the world, the plight of the child survivors in the aftermath had largely fallen off the radar of global attention.
“There’s so much that needs to be done, but we’re optimistic in some ways,” she said. “We’re talking about 2,000 people. With a concerted and coordinated international effort, so much could be done to rescue this generation that could otherwise be lost ”