Kidnapped, Abandoned Children Turn Up At Mosul Orphanage As ISIS Battle Ends

Dec 27, 2017
Originally published on December 27, 2017 11:31 am

Hammoudi laughs and gurgles as a cooing caregiver picks him up from a crib. It's clear from the attention he is getting that he's the darling of the orphanage.

The 7-month-old baby is dressed in a white jumpsuit. One sleeve hangs empty where he is missing an arm.

Sukaina Ali Younis, the founder of this Mosul, Iraq, orphanage, describes what happened to him as one of the "biggest crimes of ISIS."

"ISIS left him on the ground as bait to lure Iraqi soldiers," she says. "Three soldiers went to rescue the child and a sniper shot and killed them all."

The Iraqi army sent in a tank, but before it could get to the baby, a dog ran up and dragged him away by the arm. When they rescued the baby boy, his arm had to be amputated.

The orphanage in a residential neighborhood in Mosul currently holds 18 children under the age of 6. Wooden cribs are lined end to end along bare walls in one of the rooms. A bassinet with white netting holds a baby only a few weeks old. He was left in the street near a police station in Mosul and brought by security forces to the orphanage.

There are some children whose entire families were killed in the war against the self-declared Islamic State — many buried in the rubble of crowded west Mosul when houses collapsed in bombings, airstrikes or mortar attacks.

One little girl was the only survivor when her mother gathered together her and her four brothers and detonated a suicide explosive belt in front of them. The little girl still has shrapnel in her leg. Younis named her Farah — happy. "Maybe after all this she will be happy in her life," she says.

Like the baby Hammoudi, there are others whose parents are unknown.

Many here are the abandoned children of ISIS fathers and the Yazidi girls and women they raped, or children kidnapped from their birth parents and raised in ISIS families. With the war on ISIS almost over, those children are still emerging months after ISIS was driven out of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa.

ISIS considers the tiny, ancient Yazidi religious minority to be infidels. Some were forced to convert to Islam and marry ISIS fighters. Most of them were held as sex slaves.

In the region's conservative societies, rape victims are often blamed for dishonoring their families and are at risk of being killed. With so many Yazidi women captured, religious elders decreed that women enslaved by ISIS would be welcomed back. But there was no such ruling covering their children from ISIS fathers.

"The mothers have no choice but to give up the children" if they want to go home, says Younis. "If the woman is two or three months pregnant she has an abortion. If she is eight or nine months pregnant they take the baby away as soon as it is born."

Younis and aid workers say some families — Yazidi and Shiite Turkmen who were also taken as sex slaves — threaten to kill the women if they come back with children born in captivity. Dozens of those children have ended up with Younis.

Younis, an exuberant woman who is Shiite Turkmen, was appointed head of a provincial committee for kidnap survivors and orphans. She organized teams of volunteers to look for missing women and children in Mosul and in camps for displaced people. ISIS fighters kidnapped thousands of women and children when they took over large parts of northern Iraq in 2014.

The backgrounds of many of the children who have ended up here remain a mystery. Orphanage staff have posted photos on social media of two girls, ages 4 and 5, believed to have been kidnapped from Yazidi families, in hopes that someone will recognize them.

The elder girl, dressed in flowered fleece pajamas, hovers near the cribs. She smiles shyly at visitors, but doesn't speak.

"She's from Mosul, but we don't know from where," says one of the caregivers, who asked to be called Um Suad. "We speak to her in Arabic, but she doesn't understand."

Um Suad says she's not sure if the girl is traumatized or intellectually disabled. She asks an interpreter to speak to the girl in the Kurdish dialect spoken by Yazidis.

She doesn't respond, but when he asks her to get a ball she understands and brings one.

There are two other Yazidi children, found in a camp where the wives of ISIS fighters have been detained. The girl had been raised by a Turkish woman married to an ISIS fighter.

Younis says she took the girl after other women at the camp testified that the Turkish woman had not had children of her own. All the foreign women married to detained ISIS fighters are now undergoing DNA tests, which will be used to determine whether more of the children they claim as their own had been kidnapped.

"I tried to get information about the girl, but the woman wouldn't tell me anything," says Younis. "In the end I said, 'Just answer one question — what language did she speak when you found her?' The woman said she was speaking Kurdish. 'Did you know anything about her father and mother?' 'No,' she told me. 'She only had a toy — she called it Nawfa.' "

The little girl, her hair in braids and tied with yellow ribbons, is 5 now and speaks only Turkish. When I ask her what her name is, she answers, "I forgot."

She and another boy kidnapped by an ISIS Turkmen family will be reunited with their birth parents after the court orders are issued. But Younis says the problem is that the children were so young when they were taken, their original families are strangers to them.

She says being reclaimed by parents they no longer recognize is almost as traumatic to the children as having been kidnapped. When she told one Yazidi boy he was going back to his family, she says he was happy because he believed he was going back to his ISIS parents and was terrified of his birth father.

"Everyone was crying. The father started crying, the caregiver started crying, I started crying, the children started crying. That's the worst thing — when the father arrives and the children say, 'I don't know him' ... this is what ISIS left us. After 20 years we will still be dealing with this problem," she says.

While some of the Yazidi women are eager to hand over children who remind them of their captors, Younis says many of them struggle with giving them up.

Earlier that day she had received two children — both little more than a year old, who arrived with their mothers that day from Raqqa. Their families insisted they could not bring the babies home with them.

"I sat with one of the women for two hours," Younis says. "She cried and cried. I told her you are still young."

"I want them to continue their lives," she says. "I want to help them forget after all these things, but, at the end, they say 'send us photos.' "

So for some women Younis sends them photos and videos. One of the young women, 16 when she was kidnapped, handed over to Younis two children born from ISIS fathers. The young woman begged her for news of her children, and every 10 days or so, Younis would send photos. Recently the younger child, who had been malnourished, got sick and died.

"She says, 'Do you know anything about my children? Are they OK? Send me a new picture.' I didn't tell her he died," says Younis, "but how can I send her a picture?"

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When the American Civil War neared its end, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the need to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan. It's the orphans we speak of this morning - orphans of the war in Iraq.


The end of Iraq's war against the Islamic State has left a lot of children on their own. Some of them had parents who joined ISIS. Others were kidnapped to be raised by ISIS families. And some just don't even know who their parents are.

INSKEEP: Some of these stories are painful enough that we must warn there is a vivid account of violence in the next three minutes or so. NPR's Jane Arraf visited a home for Iraq's war orphans.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Habbibi hayati.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This baby is the darling of the orphanage staff.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He's seven months old, and he laughs and gurgles when anyone picks him up. He's in a room of cribs lined end to end. He's wearing a white jumpsuit. And one of the sleeves hangs because he's missing an arm. One of the caregivers tells us his horrific story.

UM SUAD: (Through interpreter) ISIS left this baby out in the street as a way to lure the army into an ambush. The ISIS snipers shot three soldiers who were trying to save him. Poor things.

ARRAF: That's a caregiver who asked us to call her Um Suad. Before an Iraqi tank arrived to rescue the baby, a dog ran up and dragged him away by the arm. His arm had to be amputated after soldiers retrieved him. There are other infants recovering from their injuries, as well.


ARRAF: Mariam was just a week old when she was brought to the orphanage. Her entire family was killed when their house collapsed in the fighting. They're waiting until she's old enough for surgery to treat a broken rib. Most of these children, though, will never even know who their parents were.


ARRAF: As some of the babies cry, a girl believed to be about 5 hovers near a crib. She makes eye contact, and she smiles, but she doesn't talk. Caregivers don't know if it's because she has disabilities or if she's traumatized.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2]: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "She doesn't understand when we speak to her in Arabic," says one of the caregivers. They're trying to find her family. They think she might be Yazidi, the religious minority targeted by ISIS, which killed their men and kidnapped their women and children. The caregivers ask our interpreter to see if she'll speak to him in Kurdish.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Kurdish).

ARRAF: He leans down, and he says to her, "what's your name, you brave, smart girl?" She doesn't answer. But when he asked her in Kurdish to bring him a ball, she understands, and she brings it to him.

SUKAINA ALI YOUNIS: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Sukaina Ali Younis is the orphanage founder. She's in charge of women's and orphans' affairs in Mosul. She introduces us to a girl and a boy, both about 5, kidnapped from their Yazidi families and raised by Turkish-speaking ISIS families. We ask the girl what her name is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Turkish).

ARRAF: She answers in Turkish.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Speaking Turkish).

ARRAF: "I forgot." In the ethnic mix here, there are babies who are the children of Yazidi or Shia Turkmen mothers and ISIS fathers. Some of the young women were forced to marry their captors. Many were kept as sex slaves.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Yazidi religious elders have decreed that women rescued from ISIS be welcomed back to the community, but that doesn't apply to the children fathered by ISIS militants. The women are normally forced by their families to give up the children, and some have ended up here.

YOUNIS: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Orphanage founder Younis picks up another little girl. Her father was an ISIS suicide bomber. For reasons we'll never know, her mother gathered her five children together and blew herself up. The little girl was the only one who survived. She seems OK. Younis says she named the toddler Farah, happy, in the hope that after all of this, she might have the chance of a happy life. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

INSKEEP: Well, this afternoon, we continue our coverage on All Things Considered. And we will take you to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where there are still dozens of prisoners. You can listen this afternoon on your local member station or by asking your smart speaker to play NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.