The interview had gone on for nearly an hour when Taim, a slim, dark-eyed boy, started to fidget. The 8-year-old asked for paper and settled back in an oversized hotel chair to draw a memory.
His picture, in a child’s bold scrawl, was a scene from the small park near his house, a place where he used to play in the days before the bearded men with guns took over the city. A crowd in the park had gathered around two figures, and Taim remembered them vividly: A man with one eye, and a bald man who seemed upset about something.
“He was looking very angry,” Taim said, narrating his drawing of the bald man. “He is holding the other man and he is also holding something in his right hand.
“The other man has no eye — they had already taken his eye, you see?” he said, pointing to the second figure. “And then the other men stood behind him, and the head of the man with one eye just fell.”
The boy’s slender finger touched the page to show the severed head he had drawn.
“His head just fell,” Taim repeated.
The boy closed his eyes, as if to make the image go away.
“No,” he said finally. “I don’t want to remember it.”
During the two years since the founding of the self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, an estimated 6 million people have lived under the rule of the Islamic State. At least a third of these — about 2 million souls — are under age 15.
These are, in a real sense, children of the caliphate. Collectively, say experts who have studied them, they are a profoundly traumatized population: impressionable young brains exposed to not only the ravages of war but also countless acts of unspeakable cruelty, from public floggings and amputations to executions — the crucifixions and beheadings that have contributed to the Islamic State’s global notoriety.
The Washington Post interviewed five boys whose families escaped from Islamic State territory, including Taim, a Syrian refugee interviewed near his temporary home in Europe. The location of the refugee facility is being withheld by The Post at the family’s request. The newspaper also reviewed videos, reports and transcripts containing the stories of dozens of other boys and girls whose experiences are broadly similar to those interviewed.
Some, such as Taim, also ended up in the terrorist group’s schools and training camps, where they were force-fed a diet of Islamic State ideology and gory videos. Isolated from their families, they were taught to shoot rifles and throw grenades, and also encouraged to volunteer as suicide bombers, a role extolled by their instructors as the highest calling for any pious Muslim youth. Several described being made to witness — and even participate in — the executions of prisoners.
Aid workers who interact regularly with such youths describe deep psychological wounds that may be among the Islamic State’s most enduring legacies, setting the stage for new cycles of violence and extremism many years after the caliphate itself is wiped away. But relief organizations are straining to offer even limited counseling to children in the region’s overflowing refugee camps, and officials said even fewer resources are available for those living in shattered Iraqi and Syrian towns that were recently liberated from terrorist rule.
“Everyone has been traumatized,” said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, a charity that works with families fleeing the Islamic State. In counseling sessions set up by his organization in northern Iraq, he said, “you can watch how these kids try to begin working through this stuff,” sometimes with words but often in drawings that seem to conjure up the same recurring nightmare.
“We see kids drawing pictures of watching ISIS chopping off heads,” said Seiple, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “What do you do with that, besides weep?”
Taim was 6 when the militants with their black flags rolled into Raqqa, a city in north-central Syria. The streets of the Islamic State’s future capital had already witnessed sporadic battles between rival factions since the start of country’s civil war in late 2011. Now, with the terrorists in charge, the fighting would ease, but the bloodshed would grow steadily worse.
Taim, among the youths interviewed, was exposed to an unusually wide range of experiences during the nearly two years his family lived in the caliphate, from attending a school supervised by Islamic State instructors to undergoing military training in a camp intended to turn young boys into warriors and suicide bombers. In other respects, his story is strikingly similar to that of the four other boys, all of whom described harsh conditions and the brutal treatment of ordinary citizens, including family members. The Post agreed not to identify the boys, or photograph them, to protect their privacy and prevent possible retaliation by Islamic State supporters. Taim’s family name was withheld at his parents’ request.
Bright and alert with a shy smile, Taim turns wistful when asked about his memories of the early weeks after the jihadists took control. Before the Islamic State, daily life revolved around family, play time and his local school, which he adored. “I loved school,” he said with a grin, listing math, art and sports as favorite subjects.
Initially, the town’s new occupiers closed his school, turning the building into a military base, Taim’s family members said. When students were finally allowed to return months later, the fighters were still there, a physical presence in the classroom. They gave out trinkets and prizes and personally oversaw the introduction of a new curriculum, developed and approved by the Islamic State.”
They would give us toys at the beginning,” he said, “but when the lessons began, they were very serious. They would mainly teach us about Islam.”
Taim remembered how his new teachers gave special emphasis to a particular story from the life of the prophet Muhammad. In it, Islam’s founder punishes a group of camel thieves by plucking out their eyes and chopping off their limbs. For Raqqa youths, the lesson about harsh justice appeared to serve as both a warning and a justification for the cruel punishments the militants were beginning to inflict on the city’s residents for violations ranging from suspecting spying to smoking cigarettes.