Hammoudi laughs and gurgles as a cooing caregiver picks him up from a crib. It’s clear from the attention he is getting that he’s the darling of the orphanage.
The 7-month-old baby is dressed in a white jumpsuit. One sleeve hangs empty where he is missing an arm.
Sukaina Ali Younis, the founder of this Mosul orphanage, describes what happened to him as one of the “biggest crimes of ISIS.”
“ISIS left him on the ground as bait to lure Iraqi soldiers,” she says. “Three soldiers went to rescue the child and a sniper shot and killed them all.”
The Iraqi army sent in a tank, but before it could get to the baby, a dog ran up and dragged him away by the arm. When they rescued him, his arm had to be amputated.
The orphanage in a residential neighborhood in Mosul currently holds 18 children under the age of 6, but more than 50 have come into Younis’s care. Wooden cribs are lined end to end along bare walls in one of the rooms. A bassinet with white netting holds a baby only a few weeks old. He was left in the street near a police station in Mosul and brought by security forces to the orphanage.
There are some children whose entire families were killed in the war against the self-declared Islamic State — many buried in the rubble of crowded west Mosul when houses collapsed in bombings, airstrikes or mortar attacks.
One little girl was the only survivor when her mother gathered together her and her four brothers and detonated a suicide explosive belt in front of them. The little girl still has shrapnel in her leg. Younis named her Farah — happy. “Maybe after all this she will be happy in her life,” she says.
Like the baby Hammoudi, there are others whose parents are unknown.
Many here are the abandoned children of ISIS fathers and the Yazidi girls and women they raped, or children kidnapped from their birth parents and raised in ISIS families. With the war on ISIS almost over, those children are still emerging months after ISIS was driven out of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa.
ISIS considers the tiny, ancient Yazidi religious minority to be infidels. Some were forced to convert to Islam and marry ISIS fighters. Most of them were held as sex slaves.
In the region’s conservative societies, rape victims are often blamed for dishonoring their families and are at risk of being killed. With so many Yazidi women captured, religious elders decreed that women enslaved by ISIS would be welcomed back. But there was no such ruling covering their children from ISIS fathers.
“The mothers have no choice but to give up the children,” if she wants to go home, says Younis. “If the woman is two or three months’ pregnant she has an abortion. If she is eight or nine months’ pregnant they take the baby away as soon as it is born.”
Younis and aid workers say some families — Yazidi and Shiite Turkmen who were also taken as sex slaves — threaten to kill the women if they come back with children born in captivity. Dozens of those children have ended up with Younis.
Younis, an exuberant woman who is Shiite Turkmen, was appointed head of a provincial committee for kidnap survivors and orphans. She organized teams of volunteers to look for missing women and children in Mosul and in camps for displaced people after ISIS kidnapped thousands of women and children when they took over large parts of northern Iraq in 2014.
The backgrounds of many of the children who have ended up here remain a mystery. Orphanage staff have posted photos on social media of two girls aged 4 and 5 believed to have been kidnapped from Yazidi families, hoping someone will recognize them.
The elder girl, dressed in fleece pajamas with flowers on them, hovers near the cribs. She smiles shyly at visitors but doesn’t speak.
“She’s from Mosul but we don’t know from where,” says one of the caregivers, who asked to be called Um Suad. “We speak to her in Arabic but she doesn’t understand.”
Um Suad says she’s not sure if the girl is traumatized or intellectually disabled. She asks an interpreter to speak to the girl in the Kurdish dialect spoken by Yazidis.
She doesn’t respond, but when he asks her to get a ball she understands and brings one.
There are two other Yazidi children found in a camp where the wives of ISIS fighters have been detained. The girl had been raised by a Turkish woman married to an ISIS fighter.
Younis says she took the girl after other women at the camp testified that the Turkish woman had not had children of her own. All the foreign women married to ISIS fighters now in Iraqi detention are undergoing DNA tests to determine whether more of the children they have claimed as their own have been kidnapped.
“I tried to get information about the girl but the woman wouldn’t tell me anything,” says Younis. “In the end I said ‘just answer one question — what language did she speak when you found her?’ The woman said she was speaking Kurdish. ‘Did you know anything about her father and mother?’ ‘No,’ she told me. ‘She only had a toy — she called it Nawfa.'”
The little girl, her hair in braids and tied with yellow ribbons, is 5 now and speaks only Turkish. When I ask her what her name is, she answers, “I forgot.”
She and another boy kidnapped by an ISIS Turkmen family will be reunited with their birth parents after the court orders are issued. But Younis says the problem is that the children were so young when they were taken their original families are strangers to them.
She says being reclaimed by parents they no longer recognize is almost as traumatic to the children as having been kidnapped. When she told one Yazidi boy he was going back to his family, she says he was happy because he believed he was going back to his ISIS parents and was terrified of his birth father.
“Everyone was crying. The father started crying, the caregiver started crying, I started crying, the children started crying. That’s the worst thing — when the father arrives and the children say ‘I don’t know him’ … this is what ISIS left us. After 20 years we will still be dealing with this problem,” she says.
While some of the Yazidi women are eager to hand over children that remind them of their captors, Younis says many of them struggle with giving them up.
Earlier that day she had received two children — both a little over a year old, who arrived with their mothers that day from Raqqa. Their families insisted they could not bring the babies home with them.
“I sat with one of the women for two hours,” Younis says. “She cried and cried. I told her you are still young.”
“I want them to continue their lives,” she says. “I want to help them forget after all these things but, at the end, they say ‘send us photos.'”
So for some women Younis sends them photos and videos. One of the young women, 16 when she was kidnapped, handed over to Younis two children born from ISIS fathers. The young woman begged her for news of her children and every 10 days or so she would send photos of them. But recently the younger child, who had been malnourished, got sick and died.
“She says, ‘Do you know anything about my children? Are they OK? Send me a new picture.’ I didn’t tell her he died,” says Younis. “But how can I send her a picture?”