Yazidi children carry trauma of IS 'caliphate'
HASAKEH - In the four years he was enslaved, jihadists killed his father and sold his mother. Saddam is free now, but even with the "caliphate" in ruins, his life is filled with trauma.
The warm living room in northeastern Syria where the 15-year-old sits is a far cry from the cold trenches and dingy basements that protected him from shellfire that targeted his Islamic State group captors in recent weeks.
But his newfound comfort does little to ease the tension that grips him as he tries to tell his story.
Saddam was among 11 Yazidi children rescued by US-backed forces from IS's last sliver of territory in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border in recent days.
The Yazidis are a mostly Iraq-based Kurdish-speaking religious minority. The jihadists consider them heretics and in 2014, tried to exterminate them.
Saddam arrived in a Kurdish-run shelter for Yazidi children in the town of Gumar in the northeastern province of Hasakeh on Tuesday.
His lips pursed, he is mostly quiet. He says a few muffled words between long stretches of silence.
The other children in his group don't want to talk at all, some of them even hiding their faces.
They quit the last IS redoubt after jihadists trapped there allowed thousands of people to flee.
Upon receiving them, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces contacted The Yazidi House, a shelter that reunites rescued Yazidi children with surviving relatives.
Days after their harrowing journey out of the jihadist proto-state, the desert dust has been washed off.
They sport colourful tracksuits and sleep on velvet-coloured mattresses in a room furnished with carpets and cushions.
Most, including Saddam, come from the Yazidi bastion of Sinjar in northern Iraq, between the jihadists' former stronghold of Mosul and the border with Syria.
In 2014, IS jihadists massacred hundreds of men and kidnapped thousands of women to be used as sex slaves or sold on.
The fate of some 3,000 remains unknown, but some may remain in the last IS pocket of Baghouz.
Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, herself an Iraqi Yazidi who was abducted and raped, called Thursday on the Iraqi government to facilitate the transfer of rescued Yazidis across the Syrian border.
"There is not one family in Sinjar that has not had a member killed... or raped," says Mahmoud Racho, one of the volunteers at the House of Yazidis.
Racho says the shelter has so far helped 300 Yazidis rescued from IS. For each new arrival, they contact relatives in Iraq, who come to pick them up after a few days, he says.
Saddam says jihadists separated his own family.
With teary eyes, he says IS fighters told him that they had killed his father.
They abducted his mother and separated her from her five children, he adds.
He has not seen his mother or siblings in four years, but Saddam does not condemn the jihadists.
He says he did not personally suffer from mistreatment but the jihadists showed him videos of executions and "spent most of their time" teaching him the Koran.
"I didn't like them, I didn't want to stay," he says. "I arranged to leave."
'Scared to death'
Saddam's reluctance to speak is no surprise to Halifa Hasso, another volunteer at the Yazidi shelter.
"Where they were, they were scared to death," she says.
"When you talk with them (at first), they close their eyes or hide their faces because they are so scared," she adds.
Saddam, who has only been at the shelter for two days, "didn't tell us anything", Hasso says.
"It usually takes four or five days for them to start telling their stories."
"We take care of them, we give them food. Some vomit, they are given medicine. After that, they get to talking. They don't cry, but tell us everything," she says.
It can take up to six months for some arrivals to start speaking, especially when their relatives are still being held by IS, Racho says.
He says some children come back brainwashed by jihadists. "We are asking for specialised medical follow-up," he adds.
Ziad Avdal, who co-chairs the association, says it's harder for some children to get rid of this mentality than it is for others.
"But little by little, these children get better," he says.
Saddam now hopes he will be reunited with his mother and siblings, who have sought refuge in Canada.
"I want to go there. I haven't seen them for four years," he says.
"I miss them a lot."