The Teenage Soldiers Who Fought Extremists, Now Deserted By Their Country
Teenagers who fought the Islamic State group have returned home physically and psychologically broken. But because they were legally too young to fight, they have no way of getting the medical care or benefits.
Fighters from a volunteer militia celebrate victory over the IS group. (photo: أحمد الربيعي)
He was not even 15 years old when he decided to join the volunteers who signed up to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Together with his father, Hasnawi Salah joined the informal militias fighting the extremists and was eventually badly injured. He feels the Iraqi government has since abandoned him to his fate, despite the fact that he gave up his childhood and his health to protect the country from the extremist group.
“We are not wanting jobs or cash,” Salah told NIQASH. “We are just disappointed about what the Iraqi government has done to fighters under 18.”
The teenager, who is originally from Amiriyat al-Fallujah, south of the city of Fallujah, and who has now replaced his motorcycle with a wheelchair, is talking about the fact that the Iraqi government restricts the ages of those who can be considered part of the militias, now a semi-formal part of the Iraqi security forces. Anybody younger than 18 is not supposed be part of the militias and therefore cannot receive wages as a member, or any compensation for injuries.
It is a mistake to neglect those who sacrificed their lives and to leave them without care or compensation.
“This excludes fighters who helped make an impact on the war against these terrorist groups,” Salah complains. He is not advocating that the government pay for child soldiers. In fact, Salah says he understands the logic behind the government decision. “But it is a mistake to neglect those who sacrificed their lives and to leave them without care or compensation.”
In 2014, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men all over the country mobilized to fight the advance of the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Caught up among them were many teenagers, who left schools or jobs in the knowledge that they might not come back from the fighting.
Now in Anbar, there are an estimated 550 fighters who were under 18 at the time they fought, who have been excluded from any government funded compensation or other payments. Critics say this is happening, not just to abide by international norms on child soldiers, but also to reduce the numbers eligible for state money. It can also depend on who you know and how close your militia was to the Iraqi government, as there is a big difference between the militias made up mostly of Shiite Muslim volunteers from southern Iraq and those formed from tribal groups in central provinces like Anbar. Some of the latter, who have good relations with the federal authorities and the other militia groups, are being paid wages and compensation and others, who do not, are not getting anything. Additionally locals in southern Iraq say that under-age fighters from the Shiite Muslim militias there have received money and wages. The funds go to their families, if they are not married yet, or directly to them if they have since married.
The IS group used child soldiers: A still from a propaganda video.
Qusay Kareem, a resident of Ramadi, is going to be 18 years old in 2019. For the past year, Kareem has been undergoing treatment for a spinal injury and he and his family have paid to send him to Jordan and to India for medical treatment. They have paid for everything themselves. Kareem says he feels that the Iraqi government has cheated him and other young fighters who went up against the Islamic State, or IS, group.
“When the IS group controlled our cities and schools were closed and our lives were disrupted, we were left with no other choice than to carry arms and to support our brothers on the front lines,” Kareem explains. “When the war ended and we had victory, I was really lonely because so many of my friends had been killed.”
Kareem spent five years in total, either fighting against the IS group or seeking medical treatment for his spinal injuries. It has cost a lot financially and psychologically, he said. “Lots of money was spent on my treatment but I still feel completely hopeless,” Kareem adds. “My father wanted me to become an officer in the army but with my disability this has become impossible. I can’t go back to school either because after all the years I spent away from the classroom, people will treat me as though I just failed.”
Senior members of the tribal militias in Anbar recognize the problem and say they are trying to do something about it. “We can’t stand by because we should have a clear position on these people’s rights,” Laith Khamis al-Issawi, one of the militia leaders in Anbar, told NIQASH. “Especially because we are not only talking about those who fought, but those who were heroes, who motivated us all when we saw them unafraid of death. They were not seeking any jobs or cash then. They were courageous fighters,” he reasons.
It doesn’t make sense to ignore the needs of these young men simply because of their age, he argues. “Although they were young, they were courageous and brave – more so than many others, who have been able to get jobs and money after the fights against the IS group ended.”