The Collateral Damage of Fighting ISIS: Families, Children, and the Future

At the center of terrorism, on the level of ideas, is a classification. The terrorist is the person beyond humanity, beyond the law, and beyond reason. S/he has crossed the threshold. In the US War on Terror, for example, those charged with terrorism offenses are kept out of civilian courts, and thus the standard justice system, and instead tried in military courts, with less rights and protections. In Iraq, such trials are swift and haphazard, surrounded by uncertainty. Children, on the other hand, are also supposed to be excluded from the adult justice system, but for their own protection, not because they’re exceptional. The actions to weed out ISIS from Iraqi society are catching families and children in a broad net with damaging long-term consequences. Collective punishment and rushing children through the adult justice system will not achieve transitional justice.

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screenshot from this VICE news report

The family members of accused ISIS fighters face a tumultuous road ahead with no clear end. Iraq has set up camps to detain returning family members of ISIS suspects, but the numbers of people being transferred and held in the camps are not clear, nor are the criteria for detention. Their long term fate is even murkier. In addition to the crime of collective punishment (i.e punishing someone because their family member was in a terrorist group) there seems to be no distinction made between children and adults. State seizure of the children from their parents is fraught with pitfalls and does not present a working alternative to detention of the entire family.   How might such detention impact children? It certainly is not good for the children’s welfare, and may well traumatize them further. While easier said than done, an alternative method must be found to deal with the families of ISIS fighters.

A recent Jerusalem Post story detailed the escape of an Iraqi minor whose family died when ISIS raided their hometown several years ago. His life from age 11 until age 16 was lived under ISIS rule. In the best case scenario, he can be reunited with extended family members in Iraq, but he will needs years of help to deal with the trauma he experienced. So far, he seems to have avoided accusations of having fought for ISIS, but many other children deal with these accusations today.

Indeed, Iraqi and KRG authorities are detaining and in some cases torturing children whom they allege to have been ISIS fighters. Even once released from custody, these youth  have said they fear returning to their homes because of the possibility of further scapegoating as being tied to ISIS, or potentially being re-arrested.  Some of the children are foreigners, but many are Iraqis; HRW estimates that around 1,500 children remain in detention for alleged connections to ISIS. A comprehensive system needs to be put in place to handle youth caught up in the war or with ISIS. If they fought as child soldiers, their age makes them victims under international law and they should not be prosecuted as terrorists. A haphazard approach to the fight to stabilize Iraq and vanquish ISIS risks planting the seeds of yet more problems in the future. The UN writes in detail here about what’s at stake with regard to the reintegration of child soldiers into society:

“Providing reintegration opportunities for children affected by conflict is not only a moral and legal obligation to protect children and put their best interests first, but it is also an important pillar to create sustainable peace. Failing to follow this trauma with healing and helping services will result in negative long-term effects for these children and their communities, and will have broader impacts on economic development and social cohesion. Stigmatization of the returning children may also lead to further exclusion and violence when programmes are not well adapted to the communities, the context and to the children’s needs.”

Understandably, some Iraqis have no patience for concerns about how suspected ISIS fighters or their families are treated given the atrocities Iraq suffered through. A strong desire for vengeance against ISIS animates haste and fuels retribution in some cases, but Iraqi authorities must keep their eyes on a key long term question, namely how to reintegrate these family members and children.  In the process of putting this blog together, I found photos labeled to be the children of ISIS fighters in which their faces were recognizable; I chose not to use these photos because I cannot authenticate them nor should the children’s faces be visible even if they are genuinely children of ISIS fighters.  How might such photos impact their future? The children of ISIS fighters must not be punished for their parents’ deeds, assuming their parents are actually guilty of being ISIS members. Those who fought as child soldiers need help to see the error of their ways and help with reintegration into Iraqi society. They cannot be expelled (who will take them?) or locked up forever.

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Photo from National Geographic Kids.

The children pictured above are Iraqi children playing at school, nothing more and nothing less.