Al Arabiya exclusively interviewed four boys who were living under ISIS and representative of a center who aims to rehabilitate them. The children revealed details about the reality of life under the extremist group and how they came to join them as well as highlighting their military training procedures and the ideology that sustained the ISIS grip on power.
This is the full transcript of Al Arabiya's exclusive interview with former ISIS child fighter Mohammed.
Mohammed, first of all, how are you?
How old are you?
How long have you been in the center?
I’ve been here since a year and three months.
When did you come to Syria and with who?
I came to Syria in 2015 with my whole family.
The whole family?
Yes, my mother, my father, my sister, and my grandmother.
Did your family tell you why you’re coming to Syria?
My father didn’t tell me we’re coming to Syria. He told me we’re going to Saudi Arabia. He said we’ll go to Mecca and come back.
When you arrived, do you remember how you entered Syria?
Yes, I remember.
Tell me, how did you?
We first took a plane from Indonesia to Thailand. To Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Then we went to Istanbul, Turkey. Then we went to Gaziantep to enter Syria. Through the Jarablus route.
How was your way to Syria? Was it easy? Did anybody fire at you?
The way was very easy. Nobody fired at us.
When you reached Syria and realized you’re not in Saudi Arabia, what did you, your mother, and your sister do?
My father told my mother and my grandmother only. But me and my sister didn’t know. When we reached Syria, we were surprised.
Before you came to Syria, did you know what was happening there?
I only knew there’s war in Syria against Bashar al-Assad. I didn’t care about news when I was in Indonesia. I only cared about studying and playing.
After reaching Syria, what was your life like? What did you do? I think you went to a school?
Yes, honestly when I lived under ISIS I wasn’t comfortable, I was scared. There were airstrikes almost every day. We used to be so scared before we sleep. Then my father put me in Ashbal School. There, I was only learning religion and Quran, or Arabic.
Then we had military lessons. They taught me how to use weapons.
What weapons did you learn to use?
AK-47, I don’t know what it is in Arabic, and guns. They also taught us tactics of how to act when we see planes. Like sitting under the table or standing behind a tree.
Did they train you on how to kill people?
Yes, we were trained, but not with real people.
They used to get us dummies and wooden knives. And we would learn how to kill.
How did you feel when you were attending that school? Did you want to go to school? What did you think?
Honestly, my father signed me up and didn’t tell me anything. He left me there and told me I should learn well. I wasn’t comfortable there at all.
Did you sleep in school? Or did you go in and out every day?
We would stay in the school for two weeks, then go home.
How did they bring you here? Where were you?
I was in Abu Hamam, in Deir Ezzor. My father said that we will go back to Indonesia, because the place wasn’t good anymore. He said we’ll turn ourselves in to the SDF. Then we will go back to Indonesia.
We turned ourselves in on November 2017.
You told me that your mother died, right?
Tell me what do you do here? Ever since you got here?
This center is like a school. It teaches me about ethics and how the society will be when I get out and about human development. They also teach us the Kurdish language, because many of my friends here are Kurdish, so that I’d know how to talk to them. We also play sports, football and things like that.
What’s the difference between your life under ISIS and here?
My whole life there was horrifying. It was like a video game. Someone was controlling your every step, you didn’t have freedom at all.
You didn’t have freedom in what sense?
For example, when you turn 16, it’s mandatory for you to go to a battle and not leave at all.
What else did they force you to do?
Studying, if we didn’t study Quran they would punish us by hitting us for example.
What did they tell you about Islam, the Kurds, the Christians, and the Yazidis?
They used to tell us that everyone outside ISIS are heathens. They said we can’t be friends with them, and we have to hate and kill them.
Were you scared when you came here?
Yes, I was scared.
I was scared they would treat us badly because we came from ISIS. But the SDF treated us like humans, they didn’t hit us. I saw many women here.
How did you deal with them when you first came here?
I was surprised, for four years in ISIS I didn’t see women. They used to all wear black and not have freedom at all.
And when you came here?
I saw normal women and now I’m used to it.
Were you scared of them?
No, not scared, just shy.
When you leave this place, what do you want to do?
I definitely want to complete my studies in Indonesia. If I go back to Indonesia. And I want to become a footballer, like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. I love playing football, if I don’t play football I get easily bored.
What if your father told you that you have to be like ISIS and the rest of the people are blasphemous, what do you do?
I now understand life and the situation better, hopefully, I won’t go back to living like ISIS.
Do you believe that others are heathens and should be killed? Or do you accept them for who they are now?
If my parents tell me that, I will advise them. If we have a life of freedom, why would we live like we did in ISIS.