The dreams 13-year-old Barak Muhammad (not his real name) had of leading a normal teenage life were dashed when his father sold him to al-Qaeda militants. Being mentally handicapped, he said he was considered a burden by his family and was told he would be better off sacrificing his life for his country.
“I don’t have a mother and never went to school. I was dreaming of a day that I would go to school like my other brothers, but I was considered different. My father was always telling me that I was a mistake in his life, a boy that was just bringing expenses and problems,” Barak said.
Barak's father sold him to al-Qaeda in Iraq for US $10,000 to support his remaining five children. Now, Barak is in training to fight US and Iraqi troops.
“Today, I help some men who say they are from al-Qaeda group. They fight people who are occupying Iraq and they said that if I do my work well, God will protect me and make me be a healthy boy,” Barak said, adding that fighters promised him that he would soon join his mother in heaven.
Carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, Barak said he accompanies insurgents during night time raids and when needed acts as a decoy to divert the attention of US or Iraqi forces in the run-up to an attack.
|My father was always telling me that I was a mistake in his life, a boy that was just bringing expenses and problems.|
Abu Ahmed, who claims to be a spokesman for al-Qaeda in Iraq and Barak's trainer, said they were giving him a better life.
“We're doing a favour to Barak. We're giving him the chance to be useful and not suffer daily beatings from his father. Here, with us, he gets Islamic lessons and is soon going to be a good fighter and maybe one day even become a suicide bomber in the name of God,” Abu Ahmed said.
Suicide bombers and spies
Like Barak, dozens of other mentally handicapped children are being used by insurgents to fight US and Iraqi forces.
On 21 March, two children were used by al-Qaeda militants in a suicide attack on a market in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah neighbourhood, according to government officials.
“They were put in the back of a car with another two adults in the front. The military let their car pass though the check point since it had children as passengers. When they reached the market, they [the adults] left the car with the children inside and detonated a bomb in the vehicle, killing the children and another five Iraqis,” Khalid Sami, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said.
“Those children were later identified to have had mental problems and for sure they didn’t know what they were doing there,” Sami added.
Officials at a local NGO, who refused to be named for security reasons, said they had received many reports that mentally handicapped children were being used in insurgent attacks, especially in cities such as Diyala, Ramadi and Fallujah.
“Some children were given by their families but many others were kidnapped by insurgents when they knew that those children had mental problems. Some of them were even taken from the doors of their houses or schools,” the NGO’s spokesperson said. “We have registered many cases of the disappearance of children with mental problems. According to information we got from Anbar province, those children are working with insurgents.”
|They told me to say that I’m happy working with them but it's not true. I want to go back home and stay with my mother.|
The spokesperson added that some children, who had become orphans since the US-led invasion in 2003, had also been helping insurgents as spies.
“They are sent to make relationships with locals, to gather information and others are used to distract troops when insurgents are preparing to detonate bombs near them. At least 12 children have died in such operations when bombs exploded and they couldn’t leave the area in time,” he added.
Nine-year-old Saleh Ahmed (not his real name) said he was forced to help insurgents after they forced their way into his home and threatened to kill his mother and sisters if his father did not hand him over.
“They told me to say that I’m happy working with them but it's not true. I want to go back home and stay with my mother,” Saleh told IRIN in privacy. When his trainer, Abu Ahmed, returned to the room, Saleh changed his tune and said he was happy to fight US forces and would die to save his country.
Children lured into drugs and prostitution
Child beggars proliferate in Baghdad
Children have been the main victims of war