Usuf was kidnapped by ISIS when he was 11 years old and forced to become a child soldier.
Iraq – 27 November 2018

Usuf: A child soldier’s story

Usuf was kidnapped by ISIS when he was just 11 years old and forced to become a child soldier.

The militant group attacked and captured his village in Kocho, Iraq in August 2014. Shortly afterwards, they walked the residents to a school on the outskirts of town and separated the men, women and children into groups. The men were shot and killed, and the children abducted.

Usuf was taken to a military training camp in Syria where he and 100 other children were abused, threatened and forced to fight on the front lines. His 13-year-old sister was forcibly married to an ISIS fighter. When her husband died, she was swiftly remarried to another soldier against her will.

“I stayed in the camp for a year and a half receiving training on all kinds of weapons and doing hard morning exercises starting at 4am,” Usuf told us.

“They treated us very badly. They treated us like slaves and insulted and hurt us. I was very scared during battle. Military aircraft were flying in the sky and bombing us.”

Usuf’s experiences are typical of the treatment faced by thousands of child soldiers worldwide. Most are abducted or recruited by force and pressed into armed conflict or suicide missions. Often children are considered expendable and are sent into minefields or the most dangerous situations ahead of other combatants.

After two terrifying and brutal years, Usuf’s captors trusted him to be alone near a telephone – and he took his chance to escape. He made a secret phone call to his family in Iraq and they paid a trafficker to lead him across the country. In an act of incredible bravery for a boy so young, Usuf helped several other children to escape with him. But he was not able to save his sister - her recent remarriage meant she could not get away unseen.

“Me and the other boys and girls escaped during the night,” Usuf recalls. “We made it to Kurdish forces in Syria and they handed us over to Kurdish forces in Iraq.”

Usuf settled in a camp for internally displaced people in Khanke in Iraq and was eventually reunited with his sister – but he was haunted by the abuse he experienced at the hands of his captors. To make matters worse, Usuf learnt that his father and brothers had been murdered by ISIS the night he was taken.

“Weapon sounds were always playing in my head,” Usuf told us. “When I felt cold it would throw me back to the cold weather of the training camp and the bad treatment of the ISIS fighters.”

Our trauma counsellors have been helping Usuf and his sister cope with the abuse and loss they have endured and begin to rebuild their lives. We have a long history supporting child soldiers like Usuf – from as far back as the Sudanese civil war in the 80s and 90s – so we understand they have complex emotional traumas because of abuse, separation from their families and prolonged anxiety, stress and fear.

They also often experience deep-rooted guilt for the fighting they were forced to participate in, despite having no choice in their actions. This misplaced guilt is characteristic of child trauma –children often blame themselves for the actions of the adults around them and for their own abuse. For many children freed from military camps this is made worse by the stigma and hostility they face from their communities, which can make it impossible for them to return home.

With your support, Usuf is learning to trust again and is making friends. And he is beginning to accept that nothing that happened to him was his fault.

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