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Lost youth: Scarred children of Turkish Islamic State fighters return home

Children who were raised under the Islamic State group have faced severe psychological and social difficulties upon returning to Turkey
Children from the Islamic State (IS) group's former Syrian stronghold of Raqqa play at a camp for internally displaced people in Ain Issa (AFP)

DUZCE, Turkey - One day more than four years ago, MK's husband told her that he was going to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group.

“Muhammed had met some people from his mosque, and started to meet with them outside of the mosque regularly. After that, he changed a lot," she told Middle East Eye, only using her initials so as to protect her identity.

"He told me to wear a black veil, threw away the television and decided not to send our boy to school. Finally, he told me we should go to Syria together, in order to live in a 'real Muslim country’. I said no and he left by himself."

After a few months, Muhammed returned to Turkey, seemingly having changed his mind. For a while, life returned to relative normalcy for the couple and their three-year-old son.

“It was a weekend and my friends were going to visit," MK recalled. "I had to clean the house and cook something for them, so I told my husband to take our son, go out and have fun. He took him without any clothes or toys. I had fun with my friends, called him a couple of times during the day, he said everything was going okay."

But later, after speaking to her husband's brothers, she found out the horrible truth. 

"All day during these phone calls, he was on his way to Syria with my boy.”

MK's son spent more than three years in Syria before finally being reunited with his mother in December 2017. The young boy was the first of 20 Turkish children of IS fighters to be brought back to the country.

It is believed that some 450 Turkish children under the age of 13 are waiting to be sent back to their relatives in Turkey. But for those who return, the trauma of their experiences under IS rule in Syria and Iraq is deep, and readjustment to life in Turkey has been very difficult.

Passed on from step-parent to step-parent

Turkish intelligence told MK that, once in Syria, her husband had married a Turkish woman, FK, who had joined IS with her two children, kidnapping them from their father. After Muhammed died in a suicide bombing, FK was forced to marry another Turkish man with children in Raqqa - leaving MK's son to live with a family to whom he was completely unrelated by blood.

There was a scar on his head, I asked him about. He acted like it was very normal and said ‘one of my brothers did it with a knife. I wanted to shoot him and took my father’s gun but couldn’t fire it, it was very heavy'

- MK,Turkish mother

Later, his new stepmother was also killed in a bombardment and the man married again. As a result, MK’s son has lived with two different stepmothers and two stepfathers in total.

When he was found in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2017, following its liberation by government forces, the last stepmother was parenting him along with all these children. When Iraqi officials found out he had no real parents there, he was sent to an orphanage in Baghdad.

“He didn’t remember me when we met after four years," said MK.

"I told him that I was his mother. He was okay with that despite the fact that he didn’t know me. Later, I found out that he had many different mothers and fathers. When we returned back home and he saw his room, his grandparents, he remembered me. He asked me if I was the mother who gave birth to him.”

A violent environment

There are around 1,000 women - 328 of them Turkish - in Iraqi prisons and more than 1,000 children either imprisoned with them or kept in orphanages. Most were in Syria with their husbands or fathers who joined Islamic State (IS), and later fled to Tal Afar after US-led coalition air strikes began in Syria.

In August 2017, nearly 1,700 women and children were captured in Tal Afar by the Kurdish Peshmerga as they were trying to escape fighting between Iraqi forces and IS, not having eaten or drunk for days. They were all taken to Baghdad.

Children who were under 13 years old without parents were sent to orphanages. Some were born in Syria or Iraq and, as a result, did not have identity cards. Some of them were actually Yazidis whose mothers were abducted by IS and who had been taken care of by Turkish women.

MK said her son, who is now 7 years old, did not play "normal games" with his friends upon returning to Turkey.

“He goes out, takes a very big rock and throws it at his friend’s head," she said.

"I was shocked when I first saw that, and asked him to stop. He was surprised because of my reaction. He said ‘I am just playing’ in a very innocent and childish tone."

Iraqi forces outside Tal Afar, which is where M.K.'s son was found following its liberation from IS (Reuters)
She said that she had never asked him what he had been through, but said he sometimes talked about one of his "sisters" dying during fighting, and of the time the house was torn down while him and other family members were still inside.

"There was a scar on his head, I asked him about. He acted like it was very normal and said ‘one of my brothers did it with a knife. I wanted to shoot him and took my father’s gun but I couldn’t fire it, it was very heavy.’"

After this, MK decided to seek psychological help for her son, who has since returned to school. After 10 months, MK said almost everything had seemed to return to normal.

Her son's first stepbrother and stepsister in Raqqa, the children of his father’s new wife FK, were also returned to Turkey in October, 10 months after him. They are now with their father, who FK left, and paternal grandparents, in Tekirdag.

Their grandmother, HK, told MEE that she still couldn’t believe her daughter-in-law had kidnapped them.

“I loved my daughter-in-law very much. She was such a great mother. She then told her husband that she wanted to go join IS in order to live under 'sharia' law. We thought she was joking. But one night, she left with my grandchildren," she said.

"We then heard that she was married to a man with a boy from Duzce and within a year, she died, leaving my grandchildren and that boy motherless.”

They did not hear from their grandchildren until after their mother was dead. Her third husband remarried after she died, and that woman reached out to FK’s family.

“A woman called us more than a year after she left. That woman, who never cut ties with her friends and family in Turkey, found us with the help of those people in Turkey. She told us all the story and that our grandchildren were alive and healthy. We were so happy.”

The woman who called them was forced to go to Syria by her late husband, and was trying to escape to the border. She is now in jail in Baghdad, while HK's two grandchildren were taken from jail back to Turkey.

Islamic State 'technical' mounted machine gun in Yarmouk, Syria (Screengrab)
“My granddaughter was two years old, my grandson was four. My grandson always talked about us to that woman, that’s why she decided to find us. When they returned, he immediately remembered us. But my granddaughter is only seven years old now and tries to adapt to her new life here.

“They were raised in a violent environment for four years, they suffered a lot at a very young age. They only told us they were so hungry and couldn’t even find water for a long time before they were found by Peshmerga in Tal Afar. They can’t forget them, but don’t tell us all the details. I can’t ask them, they need psychological support to return back to their normal lives.”

HK said she couldn’t send her grandchildren to school since she didn't trust how they would behave with their friends.

Awful conditions

After being found in Tal Afar, 19 Turkish children were placed in orphanages in Baghdad, with 17 of them so far sent back to relatives in Turkey. Turkish officials say it is more difficult to identify and return children back to Turkey when they are held alongside their mothers in prison - in part due to the difficulties in obtaining permission from Iraqi authorities to enter the prisons.

Out of the 328 Turkish women in jail in Baghdad, 77 have received the death penalty. Their families have appealed the sentences and have called for them to go on trial in Turkey, which abolished the death penalty in 2004, instead of Iraq.

Iraqi authorities have not allowed the families of the women in jail to contact them, so some have resorted to bribery.

A number of Turks such as, HC, whose sister and nieces are still in jail Baghdad, managed to contact their imprisoned relatives through a bribed prison guard.

A woman, whose family members are accused of being Islamic State militants, sits inside a room with children in July 2017, inside a guarded building at a temporary camp for displaced people near the northern Syrian village of Ain Issa (AFP)
“There are diseases in jails. I am worried about my sister, who followed her husband in order to see her children, but more than that, I’m really worried about my nieces," she said. "They are suffering because of their parents. One of them is only 10 years old and has a problem with her heart because of what she has been through for years.

"But Iraqi officials won’t provide any health services for her. I learned that after I called my sister. I am trying to take my nieces back.”

Turkish authorities have made sure to inspect relatives to ascertain if any of them harbour sympathies for IS before handing the children from whom they had been separated for so long over to them.

But beside the security measures, there is no official plan to help rehabilitate them in Turkish society.

RA, who is from the small city of Bartin, told MEE that his wife’s sister and her husband went to Iraq in 2015.

“They told us they were going to work in Jordan. We bought it. A couple of days after they left, her sister called my wife to tell that they were actually in Mosul with their three children. They had two more when they were in Iraq," he said.

RA's sister-in-law told him in a call in 2017 that the Iraqi army were en route to Tal Afar, where they had moved. In the next call, she said she had lost her husband when their home was demolished during a bombardement. By mid-2017, she too had died.

His eldest niece, who was only nine, took care of her six-month-old baby sister when their mother died.

The older ones are destroyed, their psychologies are not normal

- RA, the uncle of children raised under the Islamic State

“We tried so hard to take them back. Turkish authorities and police visited us many times to make sure we were not IS sympathisers before they gave the children to us," he said.

"But when our relatives left for IS, we called [the authorities] to do something and they ignored us. They weren’t interested in doing anything about the people who were joining IS that time. Now it’s a very sensitive issue for them.”

RA and his wife were told they could take four of the children - but the eldest son, who is now 15 years old, remains missing. He is believed to have been used as a suicide bomber in Tal Afar.

Like all the 19 children, the four other siblings stayed in a state shelter for a week when they first came to Turkey. But there was little provided in the way of psychological support.

“We sent the two girls, 10 and 7 years old, to school. Everything seems normal right now. The other ones, who were born there, are still babies and it’s easy to take care of them. But the older ones are destroyed, their psychologies are not normal," RA said.

According to RA, the children still have a long way to go before they can fully open up about what happened to them.

"They didn’t speak at all when they first came in. When they first talked, it was about the food they were eating. Apparently, their mother died of hunger in a mountainous area in Tal Afar.

"They only told us that their mother had found a piece of food and given it to them. She died very soon afterwards.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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