By Naomi Grimley
09 March 2017
· Yazidi teenagers held in a military training camp reveal how they were taught to kill
· German state of Baden-Wurttemberg gives refuge to Yazidi women traumatised by rape
· Mother details distress that IS send her videos via mobile phone of her kidnapped six-year-old son
All names in this story have been changed
Lovant and Sabbah were just 16 and 14 when they were forced to fire bullets into the dead bodies of men executed for being traitors by so-called Islamic State.
This was target practice – just one part of the daily rounds of weapons training they endured at a military camp for youngsters.
The boys are Yazidis from northern Iraq. In 2014, the world watched in horror as tens of thousands of their people were trapped on Mount Sinjar in the searing heat without food or water. At the same time, the teenagers Lovant and Sabbah were being rounded up in their village by IS fighters.
Most of the adult males were taken away and murdered, while the boys were moved with their mothers to a nearby city in northern Iraq, before being separated from their families altogether.
For over a year, they were held against their will and trained as “cubs of the caliphate” at a camp deep in a mountainous region of Syria.
Forced To Fight
We learnt how to load and fire a weapon. We were training to be soldiers and we would do exercises – crawling under barbed wire – things like that. They taught us all about war.”
“They took us sometimes to big graves where they had the dead bodies of Muslim traitors who were spies of the regime or who took drugs,” says Sabbah. “Then they said that we have to fire on the bodies to get used to it.”
No-one knows how many Yazidis may have been forced to go to these camps, but a report by the counter-extremism organisation the Quilliam Foundation says it could be hundreds of children and includes captured boys as young as eight.
The teenagers say there were about 120 boys in the military camp they were held in. Most were from Syria and most were Muslims. Many of these recruits – unlike the Yazidi boys – would have been sent there by their own families to become the next generation of jihadist fighters.
“I missed home a lot,” says Sabbah. “Especially when we saw how the Arab boys went every weekend to their families in Syria. We got very upset. In moments like this, we died 10 times.”
Their days were strictly regimented. Mornings were spent with religious lessons to indoctrinate the boys. Lovant explains:
I knew they had killed everyone who wasn’t a Muslim. So I had to pretend to be a Muslim to survive.”
The boys were forced to pray, read the Koran and learn IS textbooks by heart, so that they could be examined on them. “They tried to brainwash me. Their books were just like magic. They quickly changed your mind. I bet it’s not just me, even a man’s mind would have changed,” says Sabbah.
Then came the physical training. “It was summer and very hot,” He says. “The ground was very hot and they taught us to walk on it, so we got used to it in war.”
He describes the culture of fear which dominated the camp. The children were often made to keep watch around the complex at night. When one of the boys in the camp fell asleep, his captors threw cold water on him and beat him with wooden bats. Guns were to be worn on the shoulder at all times – even on a visit to the toilet. If one of the “cubs” forgot or if his gun slipped off, he would face more beatings.
There might be moments of normality – such as swimming in the local river after lunch – but then they were sat down by their captors and made to watch terrifying videos about war. “We didn’t dare say no to them. We were so afraid,” recalls Sabbah.
Sabbah confesses that after a year in the hands of the so-called Islamic State group he came worryingly close to believing their radical ideology: “If I had stayed there just one more month, I would have become one of them.”
Escape from IS
We can't reveal the exact method of the boys' escape, but Lovant secretly managed to make contact with a third party who, in turn, arranged a smuggler to pick them up from an agreed meeting point.
Lovant says that Sabbah was initially reluctant to escape the camp but he managed to persuade him it was worth the risk: “I knew it was dangerous, but there was nothing left to be afraid of.”
We had seen death with our own eyes. We saw how they killed. When you lose family, when you lose everything you have nothing left. We had nothing to lose.”
The boys were picked up in a car by the smuggler and, after a few days lying low in the city of Raqqa, they made a long, nail-biting journey to the border. Sabbah recalls the moment they left Syrian soil and slipped back into Iraq: “We danced on the street in celebration. I’m happy that my friend convinced me to run away and he is now like a brother for me.”
Lovant and Sabbah’s account of being in a training facility tallies with what has been gleaned from IS propaganda videos.
Recently, IS released a new shocking video which appears to show two young Yazidi boys carrying out a suicide car bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul
One report asserts that these boys are only aged 11 and 12, and were captured from the town of Sinjar in August 2014.
In the video, the boys talk about leaving behind their old religion: “in Sinjar, we were worshipping Satan,” they say. They are shown pledging allegiance to IS before getting into cars laden with explosives.
But why would so-called Islamic State co-opt Yazidi boys? Possibly to simply to swell the ranks of jihadist fighters. Professor Mia Bloom, from Georgia State University, thinks there is another reason: “There is a benefit to using them in propaganda. It is intended to send a message to the world from IS that even our former enemies are with us. So it’s almost like you can redeem yourself, regardless of your ethnicity, by joining them.”