If there is one searing image of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe it is that of the orphanages of Romania. The regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed both contraception and abortion. As a consequence, thousands of women left babies that were either unwanted or for which they could not care at state institutions. These institutions were understaffed and underfunded. When the wall fell (Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989) the world got a look at these orphanages and what it saw was beyond shocking. Children were often tied to cribs, rocking back and forth in repetitive ways that bespoke a lack of human contact. Food was insufficient and the care devoted to life’s most vulnerable was largely absent. A global effort to help these kids ensued and while some undoubtedly ended up ok, thanks probably to the amazing resilience of the human body and mind, many did not and never recovered from their tragic start in life.
We are now faced with a similar situation in Iraq and Syria now that the parody of a state that called itself one – Islamic State – is sinking fast. Thousands of ‘fighters’ have died at the hands of airstrikes, in battle and in the flames of suicide attacks. Tens of thousands of civilians in cities like Mosul, taken by IS and ruled with an iron fist, have also died. And then there are the children.
One of the most striking aspects of the social Frankenstein that was IS was their effort to create an actual self-sustaining society. Unlike other jihads (Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya…), IS went out of its way to create an image of a normal, functioning state. Men were encouraged to leave their homes in the West and elsewhere to take up arms to ‘defend Islam’. Women were encouraged to come and marry those men and help create future generations of IS ‘Islamic Utopia’. Out of that arrangement came children, naturally, including young boys IS called the ‘lion cubs of the Caliphate’ (the men were the ‘lions’).
Some of these children were urged (coerced?) to take part in truly heinous acts of violence such as executions and many more were present at public beheadings. There was even one case of an Australian jihadi who posted a picture of his son, who appears to be between the ages of 8 to 10, holding a severed head. Truly disturbing.
Now that IS is all but defeated as a functioning group, what do we do with these children? We know that war is hell in all cases and that children suffer disproportionately when exposed to death and brutality. In some cases kids in Iraq were kidnapped by IS and either raped or forced to do terrible things. There is already one case of a Yazidi mom in Winnipeg who has learned that her 12-year old son is still alive: she wants him back with her.
To me all of this is a no-brainer. These children deserve our help. Professionals with seasoned experience in dealing with the trauma of war need to be found and leveraged to assist in this regard. It won’t be easy: just as in the case of Romania some children will be scarred for life.
We can both hate the barbarity that is IS and feel for the children that are its product. These young people are not at fault and we should do whatever we can to provide them with the best chances to achieve a normal life. If anything positive can come out of the enormous tragedy that was Islamic State maybe this is it.