GERSHIN, Iraq: A group of Yazidi women and children reunited with their families in Iraq Saturday after five years of captivity at the hands of Daesh (ISIS), hugging and kissing relatives in emotional scenes that underscored their yearslong ordeal and that of their devastated community. Elated families met their loved ones at a rural truck stop on the road between Sinjar and Dahuk, tossing candy in the air like confetti, the women ululating with joy.
The 18 returning children, aged 10 to 15, appeared weary and at times uneasy with the attention of the media and officials. One teenage boy collapsed in his aunt’s arms and broke down in tears. Few parents were there to receive their children many are still missing in territory held by Daesh or have been confirmed killed. Other parents have already sought asylum in Western countries, in the hopes their children will be able to follow them.
Still, the children could not hide their joy at being hugged and kissed once more by their relatives after the long and traumatic separation.
They included 11 boys that many fear were trained in military camps by Daesh, though they all denied it.
Only days since escaping the extremist group, the children were struggling to come to terms with their ordeal.
“They treated us well,” 13-year-old Milad Hussein Khalaf said.
He added that the militants separated him from his family when they were abducted in 2014 and sent the then-8-year-old to be raised by a Daesh family.
About 3,000 Yazidis are still missing after Daesh militants stormed their communities in the Sinjar region in northwest Iraq in 2014 and enslaved, raped and killed thousands of worshippers of the esoteric faith. The extremist group considers the Kurdish-speaking religious minority to be heretics.
The group of three Yazidi women and 18 children who reunited with their families Saturday were among thousands of civilians who emerged in the last few days from the last speck of territory held by Daesh in the village of Baghouz, in eastern Syria. They crossed into Iraq from Syria Friday, and were picked up by their families Saturday.
Khalaf said his Daesh family put him in a religious school and he’d learned to recite passages from the Quran, which he studied every day. Khalaf’s older cousin, Siri Ali, used a video chat app on her phone so her sisters in Canada could see him arrive. She said Khalaf didn’t know that his parents were still missing.
“Thank God, they have returned and they are among us. This child does not have a mother or a father. We are going to be his parents,” Khalaf’s other cousin, Noura Ali, said.
“We thank all the sides that worked together to rescue them, and we hope that the rest of the missing people will return.”
Khalaf said there were still children in Baghouz, but he couldn’t know how many.
Also among the arrivals was Dilbar Ali Ravu, 10.
He looked slightly stunned, but also couldn’t hide his joy. His uncle, Jihad Ravu, said Dilbar developed lesions on his face while he was being held in a cell in Tal Afar in the early days of his captivity, after he was abducted five years ago.
He says Dilbar hasn’t had proper medical treatment since then.
Susan Fahmy, a coordinator for the NGO Khalsa Aid, said she was certain all the boys were sent to training and that they needed years of rehabilitation.
She said some Yazidi boys had been caught communicating with Daesh a year after they returned.
She also said women were being pressured to give up their children fathered by Daesh men, and was alarmed that one of the women arrived without her kids.
Hosni Murad, the brother of Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy on behalf of victims of wartime sexual violence, was there to welcome home his 10-year-old nephew, Khashman Samir.
Samir’s four siblings and his parents were all killed by Daesh, Murad said.
“They were all victims of Daesh,” he said. “He’s the first and the last one to return from the family.”
Murad said he was certain his nephew, and all the boys, were given military training by Daesh, and that he believed many young men were returning to the community harboring sympathies for the extremists. “Yes, in truth, we’re afraid they’ll do something. Their mindset is Daesh. I mean it’s been five years they’ve been training with them,” he said.
Murad said another nephew of his, aged 16, spurned his pleas to come home, choosing to stay with Daesh until the end.
“He replied: ‘You are all infidels,’” Murad said, recalling the boy’s response. He hasn’t heard from him in months.