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After IS: Yazidi teen looks back on kidnapping, brainwashing to be child soldier

Ashrawi Qasim Abdullah, kidnapped at age 14 and trained to become a child soldier by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group in 2014, is seen in this photo taken in the Duhok Governorate, Iraq, on Aug. 25, 2018. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

DUHOK GOVERNORATE, Northern Iraq -- Ashrawi Qasim Abdullah, an 18-year-old member of the Kurdish Yazidi religious minority, looks wistful as he speaks about his earlier teen years, when he was abducted and molded into a child soldier for the so-called Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

"I took pleasure in fighting," admits Ashrawi about his time in IS ranks after his kidnapping at age 14. His parents and older brother, taken at the same time, are still missing. The slender, timid-looking boy came back here in late August -- just a week before this interview -- to live with his uncle here.

Ashrawi lived in Sinjar, a district close to the Syrian border in northern Iraq, with his parents and siblings. IS fighters launched a series of surprise attacks on the local villages in Aug. 2014, and divided grown men from boys based on whether they had hair on their chests or in their armpits. Ashrawi was separated from his father and 21-year-old brother and moved from one prison to another. His mother and elder sister were sold as slaves.

The kidnapped boy "felt resentment" when IS fighters forced him to perform Islamic prayers five times a day. He received some basic strength training in IS-occupied Mosul in northern Iraq before being shifted to the militant group's "capital" of Raqqa, Syria, where he went through a full military training course.

When Ashrawi arrived at the training camp with about 30 other boys, they were issued beige camouflage uniforms. Under the supervision of three instructors, the boys endured two-hour workouts or a 2.5-kilometer run every morning, studied the Quran for two hours every afternoon, and trained with real guns for three hours every night. He tells the Mainichi Shimbun that he felt happy and, for the very first time, like a grown man when he first held a gun.

A whip would be used to repeatedly beat the bottom of the feet of anyone who misbehaved in Quran classes. Ashrawi worked hard to live everyday life, packed by the training schedule from sunup to sundown, as if he was competing with other children. He didn't feel uncomfortable, and described himself as a "Muslim warrior."

The child soldier's first exposure to combat came in the siege of an airport held by the Syrian armed forces. His initiation was quick, as he came under shelling almost as soon as he arrived. He saw a nearby Syrian IS fighter collapse, bleeding from both ears.

The siege continued for months. IS fighters launched surprise attacks in the night, but were always met with counterattacks. Countless bullets whizzed over Ashrawi's head. He would fire indiscriminately at the Syrian troops and retreat, take a nap, and return to the battlefront. Ashrawi says he felt no fear in those days as he declared, "I exist to kill our enemy, soldiers of the Syrian armed forces."

Meanwhile, Ashrawi's relatives were trying to bring him home, first seeking just to make contact. At last his elder sister, who had become an activist after escaping IS bondage and fleeing to Germany, managed to get in touch with the teen.

"You don't belong there. We're waiting for you," they told Ashrawi. It took them about a year to persuade the boy to think that "maybe IS is wrong." Then it was Ashrawi's turn to convince his Yazidi wife, who had also been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. One day in late July this year, the couple slipped out of their house before dawn and were taken to safety by a human smuggler Ashrawi's uncle had hired for $20,000.

Ashrawi does not know for certain if he took anyone's life. No one fell to one of his bullets that he could see, but he says someone could have been killed by his wild firing. The hearing in his right ear has deteriorated due to nearby bomb and shell blasts.

"I regret it, but if I hadn't obeyed (IS orders) I wouldn't be here," Ashrawi says of the four years he lost to the militant group. "My dream now is to go abroad somewhere and learn a foreign language," says the 18-year-old, sounding as if he simply wanted to forget everything.

(Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, Osaka City News Department)

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