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These children escaped from Islamic State captivity, but there is no joy in their return home

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

TALL AFAR, Iraq -- The beat-up Hyundai station wagon turned onto the street, a signal that the party could begin. The women gathered at the door, ululating as children spilled past them to lob candy at the three boys who slowly disembarked from the vehicle.

For a moment, the boys -- 11-year-old Ali Aoun and his two brothers, Khalil, 9, and Ahmad, 7 -- stood by the car, looking dazed as relative after relative came to kiss their shaved heads.

Hours earlier, the three had boarded a bus along with 14 other children for the journey from eastern Syria to their families across the border in Iraq. It had been the last stop in a five-year ordeal.

It was 2014 when Islamic State mounted its genocidal rampage against the religious minorities who had long made Tall Afar and the bucolic plains of northwestern Iraq their home. The militants slaughtered thousands of Yazidis and Shiite Turkmens, groups they considered infidels. But they also kidnapped their children, seeking to indoctrinate them and press them into service as future sex slaves or child soldiers.

That these boys had escaped five years later was little short of a miracle. They had fled the eastern Syrian hamlet of Baghouz, 150 miles away, where the extremists are mounting their last stand against a U.S.-backed militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Yet they seemed drained of happiness as they sat in three plastic chairs arrayed in the family's courtyard.


A woman brought out a table laden with bowls overflowing with candy. She placed it before the boys. The family gathered around them, some of them brandishing their smartphones to record the occasion.

But the boys didn't move. They didn't eat. They didn't smile. They didn't even look up from the floor.

Someone threw another handful of bonbons in a determined attempt to turn the mood festive. They smacked against the boys' knees, but got no reaction.

A moment later, Ahmad's face scrunched into a scowl before he began to cry. Khalil followed suit, while Ali buried his head in his hands, his body doubled over in the chair as if he were in pain.


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