Yazidi refugees who fled ISIL attacks in Iraq.
Eleven children were freed from ISIS captivity on Wednesday after years of being held hostage by the extremists. Seven Yazidis children from Sinjar in Iraq and four Shi'ites from Tal Afar were reported to have been found among the ISIS members who have been leaving their besieged area of Baghuz.
Since January, more than 20,000 ISIS supporters have surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces from the last ISIS-held enclave east of the Euphrates River. The SDF, which is the main US-led coalition ally on the ground fighting ISIS, has been overwhelmed with the thousands of ISIS members and their families who are leaving their evaporating "caliphate." Once the scourge of Iraq and Syria, these ISIS members are now seeking mercy and also still shouting pro-ISIS slogans even as they board trucks that will take them to Al-Hawl camp for internally displaced people. Many of the ISIS members are foreigners, including from Finland, Turkey, Chechnya, and even as far away as France and China.
The SDF has had trouble coping with the numbers and also trying to find members of the Yazidi religious minority that ISIS sought to enslave. There are 3,000 missing Yazidis, some of the 11,000 ISIS murdered and enslaved in August 2014. Many of these Yazidis who are still alive are children, kidnapped by ISIS forcibly converted to Islam and used as servants or sold to families. It was part of the ISIS system to seek to eradicate religious minorities that they took children from non-Sunni families. This included some Shi'ite children from areas near Tal Afar, however, this is one of the first times Shi'ites have been liberated during the campaign in Syria.
The children smiled and appeared happy to be free. In contrast to the angry adult members of ISIS, some of them still shouting pro-ISIS slogans, or saying they will await the return of their "caliphate," the kids appeared to enjoy the sunlight and the freedom away from the hell-like area they had been living in near Baghuz. Photos of Baghuz obtained from the front show a sea of tents and burned vehicles. This is the last stand of ISIS, akin to Hitler's bunker, where all the ISIS detritus has accumulated. Many ISIS members who came here have fled other areas, often places like Raqqa, where they were able to obtain passage in 2017 to escape. They came here to Baghuz on the river because the Euphrates was a conduit for ISIS during its campaign to take over Syria and Iraq in 2014 and 2015. It was here that ISIS massacred the Shaitat Bedouin tribe, and up one of the nearby rivers they burned and destroyed churches.
Now it has all come full circle and the Kurdish and Shaitat tribal fighters and others from Syria, have come to lay siege to what remains of ISIS. Over the last month it was expected Baghuz would fall within days, but each time the SDF tried to increase pressure on the area, there would appear thousands of women clad in black and their husbands and kids, covered with dust, the men wearing combat boots sometimes but dressed as civilians. They had discarded their rifles and now the men want their rights and free passage to a third country. Among the children who have been found are more than two dozen Yazidis, but many more are thought to still be used by ISIS as human shields in Baghuz. This is why the SDF have stopped their advance and why the coalition has stopped airstrikes.
Yazidis have called for more international support after civilians were found decapitated near Baghuz and some fear Yazidi hostages are being murdered. Protests in Sinjar have called for Iraq to do more for the Yazidi minority. For now all that is being done is giving the children who were rescued a bit of food and a bath. But judging by their smiles, it is at least a beginning for them to enjoy the freedom that ISIS denied them for years. Many of the freed Yazidis are boys, which leads to questions of where the girls are. ISIS targeted women for slavery in its system of abuses. These are questions Yazidi leaders want answers to as well as they seek more support for finding loved ones who are still missing.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.