One Syrian child soldier’s desperate struggle to escape ISIS

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Mohammad (R), a 13 year-old fighter from the Free Syrian Army, aims his weapon as he runs from snipers loyal to the Syrian regime in Aleppo's Bustan al-Basha district October 29, 2013. Mohammad joined the Free Syrian Army after his father died during clashes with the Syrian regime. The gun he is using was his father's.   REUTERS/Molhem Barakat (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY CONFLICT) - RTX14T0H

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: For centuries, children have been used as weapons of war. Today’s conflict in Syria is no exception.

ISIS has recruited and exploited children in Syria and Iraq, using them as soldiers, informants and even executioners.

NewsHour special correspondent Marcia Biggs brings us a profile of one former ISIS child solder, and his deep emotional scars.

And a warning: This report contains material that may be disturbing to some viewers.

MARCIA BIGGS: The images are all over the Internet, children growing up in the ranks of armed groups in the war in Syria. This child in an ISIS propaganda video beheads a Syrian regime soldier. These children execute captured soldiers in the ancient city of Palmyra.

According to a study published by Georgia State University, it’s a phenomenon that’s playing out on all sides of the conflict, with almost 1,000 children in the last three years showing up in online eulogies, calling kids martyrs, having died for the cause.

And those are only the ones whose videos made it to the Internet.

Riyad Al-Najem represents one of only a handful of small local organizations trying to combat this problem inside Syria, visiting families one by one.

RIYAD AL-NAJEM, Executive Manager, Hurras Network: In some areas, the main reason of child recruitment is poverty. Parents can’t find food for their children, so they push them into armed groups to get money and food. In other areas, it’s about culture. Parents consider that their children have become men, and they should carry weapons, that it’s not acceptable for a child of his cousin holding a weapon and he’s not.

MARCIA BIGGS: In Idlib province, activists from the group Children Not Soldiers hang signs and spray-paint graffiti to create awareness.

The U.N. has a campaign of the same name, but has not yet been able to gain a foothold here. Fighting recruitment of children is an uphill battle within a brutal war. And no activists can work in highly radicalized areas, where a sinister form of manipulation is used as ammunition.

We met Ibrahim and his mother, Rania, in a hotel in Southern Turkey. They were too afraid of ISIS sleeper cells to meet elsewhere. We can’t show you their faces.

Before the revolution, Ibrahim loved math and dreamed of being an aeronautical engineer. His father was killed by a sniper in 2012, leaving his mother alone with three children. Ibrahim was 13 years old when ISIS took his town of Deir el-Zour, and enlisted him and his friends.

IBRAHIM, Former ISIS Soldier (through translator): They started to recite verses from the Koran, speeches from Mohammed. They said they were the real Islamic State and would fulfill all the obligations of Islam. They came to us and said, you will be martyrs and you will earn paradise and virgins.

MARCIA BIGGS: He says he began as an informer, and then graduated to weapons training.

IBRAHIM (through translator): They had me be a rat for the people who smoked, who didn’t go to mosque. They forced me to follow the women who didn’t wear the right clothes and bring them in from the street. Sometimes, they brought captive soldiers, and they told us, if you want to kill any of these prisoners, you are allowed to kill them.

MARCIA BIGGS: His mother says ISIS began a form of brainwashing.

RANIA, Mother of Ibrahim (through translator): He thought he became a man. they told him, this will make you a real man and you will enter paradise. Leave everything behind you and follow us, and we will take care of everything. We will take care of your family.

MARCIA BIGGS: Do you think he felt proud?

RANIA (through translator): Yes. At the beginning, yes, he was very happy. He felt like a man and he was learning about weapons, but he didn’t know the consequences of these actions.

MARCIA BIGGS: They say he never hurt anyone, but his snitching had deadly consequences, when the punishment for even small crimes can be death.

IBRAHIM (through translator): All the children, they forced them to watch beheadings. Even if they cut the head of a father, they made the child watch.

MARCIA BIGGS: How did you feel when you heard that your son was forced to watch a public execution?

RANIA (through translator): I wanted to have a plane to take my family and fly away. I can’t handle this. A person can’t live like this.

They brainwashed my child. They told him the way to paradise was through them. He tried to get out of it by telling them, I am the eldest son, the family breadwinner.

They told him, come join us and we will take care of your family.

But they’re lying. They don’t give anyone anything. But he gravitated to them.

MARCIA BIGGS: Rania says ISIS fighters came to the door every morning and her son would disappear for eight or nine hours per day.

RANIA (through translator): He was attracted to them. He started to think like them, to think their way. If he stayed home, they would come and take him, and I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t control him. I couldn’t confront him.

MARCIA BIGGS: Did you feel like you were losing your boy?

RANIA (through translator): Yes.

MARCIA BIGGS: What was your worst fear?

RANIA (through translator): I was afraid they would take him like they took many children, young people, and he would not come back. Many friends and relatives of mine, their children were taken to fight in battles, and they didn’t come back.

MARCIA BIGGS: Rania finally decided to flee with her family, ending up here in a border town in Southern Turkey. But she couldn’t keep her son from contacting ISIS back home. After two months, Ibrahim announced he was returning to Syria to be a fighter.

IBRAHIM (through translator): I threatened them. I told them, I will do this. You will wake up in the morning, and you will not find me in the house. For me, it was impossible to leave them. It was my way to force them to come with me.

MARCIA BIGGS: Going and fighting with ISIS was more important to you than your family?

IBRAHIM (through translator): Yes, it was stronger, and I was controlled by them completely.

MARCIA BIGGS: Rania says she had to make the most difficult decision of her life to return to Syria.

RANIA (through translator): I had to do it. The only choice I had was to keep him under my eyes.

Before we left the first time, he was telling me all the time, “I will be a suicide bomber,” and he was so happy, but he didn’t know what it meant. This is what scared me.

MARCIA BIGGS: Once they got back, Ibrahim did put his name on a list to be a suicide bomber, with other children as young as 12 years old. But, eventually, he became disillusioned.

IBRAHIM (through translator): We really wanted to become suicide bombers, and we put our names on the list. But then we saw what happened to the people that came before us. No one took care of their families. So we took our names off the list.

MARCIA BIGGS: No longer trusted, Ibrahim was imprisoned for several days, and what he saw sealed his disillusionment.

IBRAHIM (through translator): I saw people tortured, hanged from their hands for 40 days. One was crucified upside down, hanged from his legs. What I have seen in prison, I have seen how they tortured people in a cruel way, no limits to the torture, the sight of young children playing with the severed heads. These sights will make this generation a cruel generation.

MARCIA BIGGS: Finally, Rania was able to convince him to leave again, and they endured another dangerous and arduous journey back to Turkey.

Just as we were sitting down with Ibrahim and his mother, we found cell phone video of this boy, only 12 years old. He says ISIS trained him for 15 days and then took him and eight other boys to the front line in Mar’a. In a battle with the Free Syrian Army, he is the only one of the boys who lived. Now he is a prisoner of war, but still bargains like a child.

BOY (through translator): Just let me out. I won’t go back to ISIS. I just want to go back to my family. I won’t tell my dad anything bad about the Free Syrian Army.

MARCIA BIGGS: It’s a fate Ibrahim narrowly avoided, and with no psychological help for her son, Rania still worries.

RANIA (through translator): Every night, I cry myself to sleep. I took the cell phone away from him. Now he uses only my phone, and I see everything that he does.

MARCIA BIGGS: Here in Southern Turkey, we weren’t able to find any substantive programs to deal with children like Ibrahim coming out of radicalized areas. But we did find small places like this center, where the imam says he’s trying to teach kids what he calls the real Islam.

What kind of trauma are you seeing, and how do you help them?

SHEIKH ZAHARIYA AL MASAOUD, Association of Migrants and Helpers (through translator): By taking care of them, being nice to them, loving them, trying to integrate them into their community, giving them what they were missing in Syria, they will come back to normal step by step.

MARCIA BIGGS: The imam and his staff may be doing the best they can, but some of these kids are severely traumatized. We spoke with this 13-year-old girl about the horrors she witnessed.

WOMAN (through translator): If someone can’t fast during Ramadan, they would lock them up for the whole Ramadan. Then, when they let them out, they pour honey on them and leave them outside for the wasps.

MARCIA BIGGS: We didn’t see any older children Ibrahim’s age, even though we had been told children were coming here to be rehabilitated.

SHEIKH ZAHARIYA AL MASAOUD (through translator): The ones we are teaching now are very young. They didn’t get to the age where the terrorist organizations would be interested in them. Those who are old enough to be members of terrorist organizations are mostly dead, because the terrorist organizations kill them or send them to the front line to die.

MARCIA BIGGS: Too old to be considered a kid still worth saving, yet having escaped the fate of most boys his age, Ibrahim is in a vacuum. But he says he will never go back to ISIS.

IBRAHIM (through translator): It’s impossible that I would go back to them. I am against them now. And I would join anyone who is fighting against them.

MARCIA BIGGS: You’re just a kid, though. Do you want to just be a kid, be in school, play football?

IBRAHIM (through translator): Yes, of course, but after all we have seen, after all the torture I saw in prison, all the kids they killed, we don’t have any other options.

MARCIA BIGGS: He may have escaped, but the effects of the cruelty remain. And he and his mother walk off into a future where they are completely on their own.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs in Sanliurfa, Southern Turkey.

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