Alan Ezdo, an 11-year-old with deep rings under his eyes, sits alone in his parents' living room in Sinjar, a Yazidi town in northern Iraq. His legs twitch restlessly and he has a somber gaze. He alternately pulls on the ribbons of his hoody or sucks on the eyelets. He ignores his little brother, who is waiting for even a slight gesture of affection.
In the morning, Alan briefly recognized his father and hugged him. Dakhin Ezdo, a tall man with a mustache, stands next to his son and talks happily about the encounter. Alan, on the other hand, has long since gone silent and become very withdrawn.
On this day in March, Alan had only been back with his parents for a week. Following his abduction by the Islamic State (IS), he had been separated from them for the past four and a half years. The last time he saw them was on Aug. 3, 2014, the day IS militias invaded his hometown.
His parents had tried to protect him at that time and had sent him ahead with his cousins, but the group ran straight into IS. Alan, who was 7 years old at the time, was kidnapped together with his cousins. His parents and their two youngest sons took a different path and escaped. The Kurdish autonomy government says IS kidnapped a total of 6,417 Yazidi children and women. In most cases, the men who were captured were immediately massacred, with a total of at least 1,293 killed.
A Trail of Death and Destruction
The list of crimes committed by the Islamic State is long and shocking. Yet the murder and enslavement of thousands of Yazidis in the Sinjar region still occupies a special place in history. The jihadis dismissed them as "infidels" who could be freely raped, enslaved and murdered.
IS almost wiped out the Yazidi community in the Sinjar region in what the United Nations has described as "genocide." Of the roughly 550,000 Yazidis who lived in Iraq before the terrorists' invasion, around 360,000 now reside in refugee camps. It's estimated that 100,000 emigrated, including to Germany, where special programs for Yazidi victims of IS have been set up in various states, but also to Canada and Australia.
The IS "caliphate," once as big as Jordan, has since fallen. A month ago, the largely Kurdish fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Baghuz, the last village in Syria under the jihadis' control. Some 200 Yazidi women and children were recently able to escape IS' clutches, including 50 from Baghuz.
Alan Ezdo was among those trapped in Baghuz, together with his cousin Lina Ezdo, a pale 12-year-old with black hair. They first fled to the Al Hawl camp, where most of the civilians are now staying, Lina says. Alan had remained silent during the security check by the Syrian-Kurdish led militias, who were fighting IS. But Lina told them in Kurmanji, her Kurdish mother tongue, that she and her cousin were Yazidis. The militias separated them from the IS supporters and brought them back to Iraq.
"I was so happy to see my parents again," says Lina. She no longer wears a headscarf and has put on gold earrings that she was never allowed to wear when held by the Islamic State. And yet she also still doesn't seem to be sure what is right and what is wrong. Whereas Alan usually remains silent, Lina is mostly evasive when her relatives ask her about the years with IS. It's almost as if she feels obliged to her kidnappers and doesn't want to betray them.
During their time with IS, the children were tricked into believing their parents were wicked and that infidel Yazidis were damned to hell. The children were forced to convert to Islam, pray five times a day and, in doing so, find salvation. Alan still insists he's a Muslim and not a Yazidi, his father says. And the first thing Lina asked after her return was: "Is it true that Yazidis enter into eternal fire when they die?"
It was a perfidious tactic: The children were made to distrust their own parents, forget their religious identity and shed every ounce of what made them Yazidi. The IS proceeded similarly with the girls and women who had been raped. They were often told that they were no longer Yazidi and that their families would kill them if they returned.
The Yazidi community has long been regarded as being very insular. Women who entered into a relationship with people of other faiths were rejected; "honor killings" were not a rarity. But after the IS massacres, the Baba Sheikh, the Yazidis' religious leader, decided that people who got kidnapped would be accepted back into the community. He even invented a ritual: In the village of Lalish in northern Iraq, the Yazidis' most important pilgrimage site, water is poured on returning women in a baptism-like rite. Afterward, they are considered clean again.
A woman who conducts the baptisms says that at the moment, at least one child or young woman comes by Lalish every day. But children who have been born to Yazidi women raped by IS are considered Muslims. Some of the liberated Yazidi women have even had to abandon their children in order to be allowed to return to their relatives.
'We Had Very Hard Lives'
The parents of Alan and Lina still know little about what their children experienced in IS captivity. They know only that they were both with the same family and that the father was called Abu Alaa. In the morning, Alan and Lina had to get up before everyone else, prepare breakfast, clean and help with the cooking. "We had very hard lives," says Lina. Sometimes Alan would play with the children of the IS family. How many children did the family they lived with for four and a half years have? "I don't know," says Lina.
The IS family must have been from Syria, because Lina and Alan now speak Syrian Arabic fluently. Other freed Yazidi children often switch to English, Russian or Egyptian Arabic upon their return. Alan, meanwhile, has forgotten Kurmanji, his mother tongue. He still understands it, but he's no longer able to speak it. Lina often finds herself interpreting for the boy and his parents.
The parents don't know if Lina got raped like so many Yazidis or whether Alan was given weapons training like some of the kidnapped boys. Alan's mother Leila Ezdo doesn't want to talk about these questions. "The children will forget," she says. For the most part, she's just relieved. She explains how she thought she had found her son a year ago when a boy named Alan surfaced in Baghdad who resembled her son. "I was sure: That's my Alan," she says. But a DNA test resulted in disappointment -- it turned out to be the wrong Alan. A DNA test for this Alan is still pending, but Ezdo is sure he is her son. "Because of Lina. Because they came back together," she says.
Alan's mother is pleased with the small progress made in recent days. For the past two nights, her son has been lying in bed with her and he no longer wants to sleep alone on the floor. She is also happy that he sleeps both a lot and deeply, apparently without any nightmares. And that he wants a bicycle.
"He pointed at a bike yesterday and then at himself," she says. "He said he was responsible for repairing them while he was with IS." But that's not true, counters Lina. "He was in the house with me the whole time."
'He Wasn't Like That Before'
Alan is supposed to go back to school again soon once his return has been registered with the Kurdish autonomous government in northern Iraq. "I hope it will calm him down," Ezdo says. "He's such a fidgeter now. He wasn't like that before," his mother says.
The SDF fighters who captured Baghuz have reported that IS beheaded and buried dozens of Yazidi girls and women in one of its final atrocities in the village. They claim they have uncovered mass graves with the corpses of decapitated women. Britain's Daily Mail newspaper also reported that British special forces had discovered the severed heads of around 50 women in trash bins in Baghuz.
In mid-March, officials began exhuming the first of 73 Yazidi mass graves in the Sinjar region in Kocho. It's the home village of Nadia Murad, the Yazidi recipient of last year's Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the fight against sexual assault and violence. IS terrorists also kidnapped Murad and held her for weeks.
'It's Getting Harder to Find Them'
Most of the men in Kocho were massacred, but Idris Bashir Sallo is one of the few survivors. After getting shot during the raid, the 46-year-old businessman crawled into a ditch before the terrorists returned with an excavator to cover the bodies. An Arab friend drove Sallo to the hospital in Mosul, where he lay next to a wounded IS fighter. His friend then took him to the secure Kurdish region. Sallo has since taken on the task of rescuing abducted Yazidi women and children -- 216 so far. There's still no trace of more than 1,500 people.
"Many of the kidnapped women and children are scattered," says Sallo. "They disappear among the civilians. It's getting harder and harder to find them." He says there are also bands of gangsters operating a criminal trade with the abductees. Sallo is using his former business contacts with Arab tribes to try to track down kidnapped people. "In the past, we usually paid around $300, sometimes up to $10,000 to get someone back, but now it's always more than $10,000," he says.
His two wives and five daughters were among the abducted. He found them one by one, and they are now living in Germany. "They can get better treatment there," he says. He stayed back in northern Iraq on his own. He says he wants to bring back the rest of the people who are still missing.