In Syria camp, uncertain future for foreign IS orphans
Sitting in a wheelchair beside a metal fence in a camp in northern Syria, nine-year-old Ruqaya Mohammad raises a scarf over her face to hide from journalists.
The Egyptian girl lost her left eye, her legs and both her parents during battles against the Islamic State group in their last Syria redoubt in March. She now lives in a large tent along with 23 other orphaned children of foreign IS fighters in a camp for the displaced in Ain Issa, under the care of older camp residents.
Aged 18 months to 13-years-old, the children were born to parents from Russia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Tajikistan, Egypt and Iraq.
"Among the children, Ruqaya moves me the most," said Sara al-Abdullah, a 37-year-old who helps look after the orphans. "She always looks withdrawn, shy and sad," said the widowed mother of three, one of nine women residents of the Ain Issa camp paid a small fee to help look after the children.
Outside the tent, tiny children's tops and trousers have been slung across the metal fence to dry. Inside, young boys dip flatbread into bowls of soft aubergine stewed in tomatoes.
Liberating Mosul from "Islamic State"
What has happened in Mosul since the operation to retake the city from the so-called "Islamic State" started in October? Photo essay by Nadine Berghausen
Iraqi army discovers a mass grave: while Iraqi troops advanced further into territory held by the so called “Islamic State” in their campaign to recapture Mosul, they found a mass grave which holds about 100 bodies, many of them decapitated. AP footage shows bones and decomposed bodies dug out of the ground by a bulldozer. This Iraqi federal police officer holds a stuffed animal he found on the site
Evidence of brutality: the grave, found near the town of Hammam al-Alil near Mosul, proves to be a dark testimony to the Islamic State′s brutality. IS militants have carried out a series of massacres since seizing large areas of southern and central Iraq in 2014. This photo shows a member of the Iraqi security forces inspecting a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Alil
Freed from terror: these displaced Iraqi men from the Hammam al-Alil area celebrate their liberation as they return to their homes after the recapture of their village from Islamic State by Iraqi forces
Oil fields on fire: oil wells have been set ablaze by IS in an apparent response to the ongoing military offensive to drive the extremist group out of its stronghold. A military commander said more than 5,000 civilians have been evacuated from eastern parts of Mosul and taken to camps. The surprise attack showed that even while under siege, the group could still sow chaos in parts of Iraq far from its base in Mosul
What is the fight for Mosul all about? Smoke rises during clashes between peshmerga forces and IS militants in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul. Initially used by IS to establish their caliphate and henceforth the key source of prestige and resources, Mosul is also the base for IS′ chemical weapons operation. The ancient Assyrian city has also been a vital source of tax revenue and forced labour
The role of the Iraqi army and its allies: Iraqi special forces take cover as their unit comes under fire from an Islamic State sniper. Together with Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias, Iraqi forces intensified fighting and moved into more densely populated areas of the city without air support from the US-led coalition due to the high risk of civilian casualties
Kurdish peshmerga: meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga forces decided to focus on other strongholds of resistance in northern Iraq and on the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, where IS initiated a campaign of violence in response to the advances of the Iraqi army towards Mosul
Fleeing from the fighting: the United Nations says over 34,000 people have been displaced from Mosul since the operation began on 17 October, with about three quarters settled in camps and the rest in host communities
A volunteer tries to coax a young child into opening his mouth, while another woman feeds an infant with a milk bottle. A small boy dashes across the tent and throws himself excitedly into a pile of bedding.
The volunteers say some of the children are still visibly scarred after living with their late parents under IS.
"They play at shooting each other or planting mines in the earth," Abdallah said.
Clutching bits of wood they pretend are guns, she says they throw themselves into imaginary battles, emulating the cries of IS jihadists.
"All that is ingrained in their heads. There's nothing to help them forget," said Abdallah. "They don't study, or go and play with the little ones. It's been taken away from them."
IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a "caliphate" and imposing their brutal interpretation of Islam on millions. U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in March expelled them from their last patch of territory in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz.
After years of leading the fight against the jihadists, Syria's Kurds hold thousands of suspected foreign IS members in detention and camps: men and women, but also some 8,000 children – more than half of whom are under the age of five. The United Nations says hundreds of them are unaccompanied.
The 24 orphans in Ain Issa were among the tens of thousands of people to stream out of Baghouz in the last weeks of the battle, after months of food shortages and heavy bombardment.
"They were in a pitiful state. They went to hospital and got better," said Ain Issa camp manager Jalal Iyyaf.
But the camp has received no aid for the orphans and is struggling to provide for them, he told journalists in his office.
Back in the tent, Suad Mohammed Ameen, 20, pulls a T-shirt over a toddler's head. The children she helps need food and clothes – but also psychological support, she said.
"The toughest part is when they tell me their fathers and mothers were killed in front of them, or how they lost their siblings," she said, a fuchsia pink headscarf framing her face.
To help ease the pain, she has vowed to tell the children stories and even teach the girls to crochet.
"I promised them that, after everything they'd missed out on, I'd help them catch up on reading and writing," she said.
But Iyyaf, the camp manager, said the best solution would be for their home countries to take them back.
The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have repeatedly called for the foreigners they hold to be repatriated, a request that has largely been met with resistance – except in rare cases, including several orphans.
Alaa Suleiman al-Saleh, 19, another one of the caregivers, also hoped the children would be able to go home.
"The situation in this tent is really difficult," said the young woman, who has been teaching some of the girls to crochet. "I hope these children will return to their countries so they can catch up on their education and childhood," she said. (AFP)