Sophia Jones reports from Sanliurfa, Turkey: At age 14, Khaled held his first gun. Fifteen days later, one of the world’s most feared extremist groups sent him into battle.
Khaled remembers how heavy the Kalashnikov rifle felt, how the noise hurt his ears. He recalls the terror of waking up in the hospital after a bullet grazed the back of his neck.
Now, this quiet teenager from Syria’s eastern city of Deir al-Zour is speaking out against the jihadist group that has violently seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. His message is simple: Don’t join the Islamic State.
Khaled is just one of scores of child soldiers in Syria. While nearly all parties in the Syrian conflict — U.S.-backed moderates, Kurdish fighters, extremist groups and regime forces alike — have been accused of recruiting and using children in combat and support roles, the Islamic State is the most infamous in this regard.
Khaled says he had no idea what was in store for him when he joined ISIS last winter.
When anti-government protests broke out across Syria in the spring of 2011, the 11-year-old wanted nothing more than to take to the streets. He watched with envy as his older brothers and cousins joined the calls for freedom, but his family forbid him from going to demonstrations — it was too dangerous for a child, they said.
They were right. Soon, the Syrian regime brutally cracked down on dissent. His family could only shield him for so long. Protest soon turned to war.
That winter, Khaled’s school shut down, and regime shelling and clashes with rebel forces made it impossible for him to play outside. So Khaled spent his days indoors, tending to housework and dreaming of life outside of the confines of his war-ravaged home.
Death and destruction was inescapable. Khaled’s world was falling apart. The conflict began killing off acquaintances, and then, his own family. A regime attack on Deir al-Zour killed his aunt and cousin, leaving other family members injured, according to Khaled. His brother and some of his cousins decided they had to take up arms, joining rebel groups aligned with the Free Syrian Army.
Months passed, and Khaled began hearing about a new rebel group. It would later become known as the Islamic State.
“I heard ISIS were kind — that they were with the revolution,” he said, his dark, sad eyes focused on the table in front of him. In a hotel lobby in this Turkish city just a short drive from ISIS territory in Syria, he recounted how he had been gravely mistaken. [Continue reading…]