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I like to think little fazes me in this business. But the stories of the four 4 #Iraq-i boys from #Telafar got me.…
The three you see in the pictures here are the Aoun brothers: Ali, 11; Khalil, 9; and Ahmad, 7. They were kidnapped by #ISIS in 2014, when the group overran northwest #Iraq. (2)
The fourth one, 11-year old Mahdi Ghazi Mohammad, who, like the others, is a Shiite Turkmen from Telafar, you can see here. (3)…
The Aoun brothers were kidnapped when the family tried to escape #ISIS's blitz to Sinjar. Their car broke down, and the jihadis got them. Mahdi's father, who crammed his wife, mother, brother, sister-in-law, and five children into a car, took a wrong turn into isis territory.(4)
#ISIS militants killed the men, and took the women as slaves (they're still missing). The kids, they took to an orphanage in #Mosul. Mahdi's 2 youngest siblings -- Ali, 10 months old; and Ramleh, at the time only 2 weeks old-- were given to IS families.…
It was the start of a 5-year ordeal for Mahdi and the others. In the orphanage, they were taught "Quran, Fiqh, Tajweed;" religious instruction according to #ISIS. "If we made a mistake, they would beat us," said Mahdi.
As #ISIS lost ground, they were moved to different locations. When Mahdi was 8, he joined the "Cubs of the Caliphate," the group's training troupe for kids to become jihadis. He was given a rifle and learned to shoot. (7)
With #ISIS out of #Iraq, the kids were taken to #Syria, first to #Hajin, then to Shafa, then to #Soussa, then to #Baghouz. (8)…
With #Baghouz besieged and #ISIS surrounded, the orphanage's emir [the militants' term for "commander"], a fellow named Abu Musab Al-Urduni, told them to leave. (9)
They did, though another #ISIS commander tried to stop them. In the chaos, they were able to make their escape, but Mahdi lost track of his younger brother, Jamil. He's still in #Baghouz. (10)
Mahdi and the Aoun boys managed to make it to #SDF areas, when they appeared in a video taken by @mustefabali. 5 days later, thanks to the effort of @jenanmoussa, @thestevennabil, and a no. of activists, they were reunited with their families. (11)
The word "bittersweet" is overused. But there's no other way to see their homecoming. It was a miracle. What remained of their families gathered all the children to celebrate their return, and brought sheep to slaughter (a tradition in the region for joyous occasions.) (12)
After the initial party, the Aoun brothers went home for another celebration with their own family. Women ululated while kids threw candy. The Aoun brothers, meanwhile, looked dazed. (13)
The family tried to celebrate, but the kids just couldn't do it. They began to cry. Soon, everyone else was crying too. (Yes, me too, I admit.) (14)
Their father finally ushered them for the first family lunch they had in almost five years. It was a feast. But though they ate, there was something... deeply melancholic about them, especially Ali. (He's the one with the cap on his head.) (15)
The meal ended, they were given tea. Khalil was in the lap of his older brother Haidar, who couldn't stop crying and hugging him. Khalil initially barely registered any emotion, but finally was able to give a wan smile. (16)
But not so Ali. He was like a tightened spring that could not uncoil. Another one of his brothers took off his cap and rubbed his shaved head. His father followed suit. Ali looked down... then started to sob again. (17)
The remarkable thing about this story is how many others share the same fate. There are more than 120 Shiite #Turkmen and hundreds more #Yazidi children still missing. They may be in #Baghouz, but others were taken to #Turkey. (18)
1 example of that is Ramleh, brought back a few months ago from #Ankara, where she had been adopted by the brother of a now deceased #ISIS fighter. Mahdi's family tracked her down. Here she is. She's a clown, glad-handing the crowd like an effusive politician to get a laugh. (19)
Mahdi's family is still trying to get back Ali (who, if you recall, was 10 months old when he was kidnapped). The Aoun family is also still searching for two more children. Here, their father shows a poster of the missing family members. (20)
If you're still here, thank you for reading this far. It's a story that killed me, and I hope I did it justice.… (21, and the end. Whew!)
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