MOSUL & HAJ ALI CAMP, IRAQ — Both of Maya’s parents were Islamic State suicide bombers. Her four siblings were among their victims.
Plump, smiling and younger than two years old, Maya may never know anything of her past. “Maya” is not her real name.
“She was skin and bones when we got her,” says Sukaina Mohammed, director of the Department of Women and Children in the Nineveh province of Iraq, in the Mosul orphanage where Maya now lives.
“That baby had six broken ribs when she arrived,” she adds, pointing to another toddler standing in one of the white cribs lining the room.
As authorities in Iraq sort out the children that IS left behind — their orphans, the orphans of their victims, abandoned children of sex slaves, and children of foreign fighters — aid workers say they want to shield the youngest ones from their painful beginnings.
None of the small children born of or raised by IS are considered a threat to society, but officials fear they will be stigmatized nonetheless. Maya’s best chance for happiness, says Mohammed, is if she and any prospective adoptive parents never know anything more than that she is a victim of war.
“I don’t tell people which babies’ parents were IS militants,” Mohammed explains, “because if someone wants revenge on IS, they might hate the children.”
The less lucky ones
Older children of IS don’t have the luxury of forgetting, adds Dalal Tariq, an aid worker with the International Organization for Migration in the Haj Ali refugee camp in northern Iraq.
Many of the residents here are the wives and children of IS fighters who are now dead or in jail. The children arrived at the camp terrified, Tariq says.
“They were afraid of the soldiers,” she explains. “IS militants told them the soldiers would beat them up.”
Other children watched their fathers die in battle and “they come here nearly destroyed,” she says.
The IS war is now officially over in Iraq, and families here are not accused of any crimes, but leaving the camp is not an option, according to Hoda, a mother of three children whose husband was an IS fighter before he was killed in an airstrike.
In her village, the children of IS are considered suspect, and local leaders ordered her not to return.
“If anyone from IS families goes back there, they will throw grenades at the house at night,” she explains while in her tent, surrounded by her children and other neighbors. “Even if my family comes here to visit me, they could be in danger.”
Before they were found
At the orphanage in Mosul, dozens of children wait for the chance to be adopted.
“All the children we found were in a terrible state,” Mohammed says from her Mosul office. “I remember one time, we found a baby who was so thirsty, she died in the hospital after only a few days. She had no energy left to live.”
Some babies were rescued from the streets after being left in the sun as bait to draw Iraqi soldiers into the line of fire. Others were found in destroyed homes after their parents died fighting with IS.
There are the children of rescued sex slaves, whose families will not accept them. Many children were found alone in the rubble after airstrikes and battles annihilated much of Mosul. One boy survived alone under a collapsed house for seven days after the bombing.
“Some we don’t know about exactly,” Mohammed later says at the orphanage, pointing out a girl about six years old. “She speaks only Turkish. We think she was kidnapped by Turkish militants in 2014.”
Orphans of foreign IS fighters in Iraq and Syria will not be able to avoid stigma if they stay, according to Mohammed, and some countries have moved to repatriate them.
Last month, three children were sent to live in foster care in France, while their mother and youngest sibling remain among the 1,400 foreign wives and children of IS fighters being held in Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch.
Officials from Germany, Russia, Chechnya and other countries have also requested the children of their nationals to be returned.
Around the world, children are increasingly front-line targets and human shields, and forced to fight in battles, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency.
“Children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools and playgrounds,” Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF director of emergency programs, said in late December. “As these attacks continue year after year, we cannot become numb. Such brutality cannot be the new normal.”