The liberation of the Syrian city of Raqqa in October of last year was celebrated by many analysts and commentators as ‘the end of ISIS’. Others, however, warned of future threats. After all ISIS evolved from Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that had been marginalised to the point of near irrelevance by a sustained campaign against them as part of the US-led ‘surge’ in 2007.
The most immediate concern flagged was that of ISIS reverting from a ‘state-like entity’, with defined territory, systems of government and command and control, to a classic insurgent movement that hides amongst the population and strikes vulnerable targets to remind the world of its continued existence.
Whatever happens next for ISIS and the territory it once controlled there can be no doubting the heavy legacy that they wrought across Iraq and Syria. This toll is not simply measured in lives lost or cities reduced to skeletons of rubble, but also in the hearts and minds of the younger generations who will have to carry both their experiences under ISIS and the stigma of living under them into their lives ahead.
As ISIS lost control of cities and populations more and more was revealed about what life was like under their rule. Horrific stories emerged of children learning about explosives or how to add up in metrics such as grenades or tanks. Public executions were a norm with residents, and their children, strongly encouraged to watch as captives were decapitated or shot.
Hundreds of children were either forced into becoming sex slaves or conscripted by ISIS. The so called ‘cubs of the Caliphate’ posed in formation for glitzy PR videos or were seen in films tracking down and killing captives. Many of these children had witnessed their families being killed before being kidnapped, brainwashed, and forced into service.
Other children were used by ISIS as bait or human shields as their sought to defend their cities. Seven-month old Hammoudi was reportedly left out in the open in Mosul to encourage Iraqi soldiers to rescue him whilst an ISIS sniper hid in wait. Hammoudi, who lost his arm to a dog, now lives in an orphanage in Mosul along with other children who lost everything in the fight for the city.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that for thousands of children who lived under ISIS, they experienced both that trauma as well as the peril of the battle to have their cities or towns taken back by Iraqi, Syrian or SDF forces. It is a layered experience of loss of home, family and innocence that has defined the early years of these children who just happened to be growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, what next for this generation of children? Can their childhoods be recovered allowing them to be children again or will the experience of living under ISIS or being associated with them through blood or forced affiliation stay with them like an albatross around their necks?
Experts believe that de-indoctrination is both possible and morally and strategically the right thing to do. Whilst kidnapped children are having DNA tests to help reunite them with their family, things are particularly hard for those who actively fought with ISIS or are the children of the fighters themselves.
Earlier this year Human Rights Watch warned of the Iraqi government detaining and prosecuting dozens of children for their suspected IS affiliation. The relatively large number of foreign fighters who travelled to join up with ISIS further complicates the strategic and legal terrain for many children.
Many were essentially born stateless and subsequently lost either one or both of their parents to violence or to the justice mechanisms of the Iraqi state. Iraq has detained or imprisoned at least 19,000 people accused of terror-related offenses, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Whilst the world was focused and energised about defeating ISIS there has been a rapid withdrawal of commitment to cleaning up the legacy of their rule. Processing children associated with ISIS into either a prison system or a detention limbo forgets the Page 5 role of Iraqi prisons run by the Americans in inculcating and networking the original leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq itself.
Instead of punishing children for the actions of their adult families a greater effort must be made to integrate children back into both Iraqi society and into their own childhoods that have been so cruelly interrupted. If this generation of children are lost then nobody can truly claim to have defeated ISIS and the project that they built on the backs of so many young people across the Middle East.
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