PROVINCE DEIR AL-ZOR, Syria (Reuters) – Hareth Najem escaped from the last enclave of the Islamic State in East Syria, wounded and alone. The family of Iraqi orphans had died two years earlier in air strikes across the border in the al-Qaim region.
Hareth Najem, an Iraqi orphan lying under a blanket in a truck, near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor, Syria, March 1, 2019. Photo taken on March 1st 2019. REUTERS / Rhodes Said
"I had two brothers and a sister, they all died and I was alone," Hareth told Reuters, with tears filling his eyes. "My little sister, I loved her a lot … I took her to the market with me."
Lying on a cattle truck next to another boy wounded in a desert transit point by the forces of the United States, he curled up under a blanket. His face was covered with earth and the side of his head wrapped in bandages that covered wounds sustained days before.
Hareth was 11 years old when the Islamic State (IS) carved its "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria, killing thousands of civilians and attracting a host of enemies who fought from the air and on the ground to eradicate the jihadists.
Today, 16, he was among the kidnapped children this week in the civilian evacuation of Baghouz, the last shred of land under the control of the jihadists, where they are on the verge of defeat at the hands of the democratic forces Syrians supported by the United States (SDF)).
Some of the children are foreigners whose parents have led them to grow under the IS dominion, or child combatants enrolled in what the group has nicknamed "caliphate puppies". Others, including members of the Yazidi minority, have been enslaved by the jihadists.
Many have seen their parents die in fights or be held by rival forces. Given that IS is facing territorial defeat, their fate remains uncertain. The SDF investigates all the men and teenagers arriving from Baghouz to determine possible IS links.
& # 39; THESE CHILDREN HAVE NO ONE & # 39;
About 20 children have crossed the front line alone this week, including Iraqis, Syrians, Turks and Indonesians, said commander of SDF Adnan Afrin. Some fathers have been identified as IS fighters and arrested immediately.
"These children have no one, they need someone to take care of them, to provide mental health support," Afrin said, adding that some of them had been hungry for a long time. The SDF plans to deliver the children to the aid groups, he said.
Hareth said his family had run a market stall when IS had invaded their city and had no links to the group.
After his family was killed in an air raid, he traveled through Syria with other Iraqis who feared that Shiite Muslim militias advancing against IS would retaliate for Sunnis – the fear that other Iraqis have cited as a reason to enter Syria detained by IS.
Hareth said he tried to avoid jihadists and denied attending their schools or receiving military training. Their moral police will sometimes arrest him and whip him.
"They gave talks to the mosques, jihad and so on," he said. "I was afraid of them, my whole family died because of them".
When he reached Baghouz, he worked in a field in exchange for a room to sleep. He tried to save enough money to get home, but he said the militants stopped him.
Hareth was wounded last week when a shell fell near where she stood along the Euphrates River, injuring her ear, hand and stomach. He wants to get medical help and go back to relatives still in Iraq.
"I want to go look for them … When I get better and my body will recover, when I can walk," he said. "I want to come back, become a young man again, rebuild a future."
Editing by Tom Perry and David Holmes