The ISIS orphans

Inside the frantic search for Russian kids
stranded in Iraq and Syria after their
extremist fathers were killed in battle

The reign of terror of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has many horrific legacies, but the group’s defeat as an occupying force in the region has left behind a disturbing challenge of its own.

Thousands of young children of ISIS fighters who came from abroad to join the battle have been left to fend for themselves after their parents were imprisoned or killed on the battlefield.

Stranded far from home, with no documentation, many ISIS orphans have ended up in orphanages in Mosul and the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

And perhaps no country is trying harder to get its children back than Russia.

In republics such as Chechnya, Dagestan and other mountainous Caucasus regions, up to 2,500 Muslim men — many of them battle-hardened from years of fighting guerrilla insurgencies — left to join the ranks of ISIS. And many forced their unwitting wives and children to follow them.

In places such as Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, there’s now an emotional search effort to locate the children left behind in the war zone.

II.

On a sunny fall day recently, Ziad Sabsabi stepped off a flight at Grozny’s airport with a baby in his arms, a little girl at his side and three boys — Khamzat, 6, Abdullah, 5, and Malik, 4 — trailing him down the stairway.

He was bringing them all home from Iraq.  

Sabsabi, a 53-year-old Syrian-born Russian, was diverted from his senior job in the Chechen government in Grozny to help locate Russia’s war orphans.

“The last days of liberation in Mosul, kids were walking the streets like homeless cats.”
Ziad Sabsabi

A large crowd had been allowed past the security gates and onto the runway to meet Sabsabi, who was quickly swarmed by the children’s joyful family members.

He seemed close to tears as he watched the happy reunions.

“The emotions I have right now are pleasant ones,” he says through a translator.   

“You always worry whether you will find them or not."

Sabsabi found the three young brothers in an orphanage in Mosul, a former ISIS stronghold in northern Iraq.

The boys were among hundreds of children of foreign fighters — from dozens of countries — left stranded after ISIS was driven out of the region over recent months.

“I can’t imagine how these kids managed to survive,” Sabsabi says.

“The last days of liberation in Mosul, kids were walking the streets like homeless cats.”

The boys’ story is tragically familiar to many families in Chechnya who’ve seen their sons, husbands and brothers join the ranks of ISIS and drag their families with them.

The boys left the Grozny region with their parents in 2014 after their radicalized father told his wife he was taking the family to Turkey, ostensibly to find work.

Only his real destination was Iraq.

Family members told CBC News they believe he was killed in the final days of the fight for Mosul, which was recaptured by Iraqi forces in June.  

They say his wife — the boys’ mother — wasn’t involved in any fighting but was nonetheless treated as a terrorist and remains imprisoned.

The boys, left on their own, eventually ended up at the orphanage.  

Sabsabi visited the facility and heard the boys speaking Russian. He took their photos and shared the images with a small group of women back in Grozny who had heard about his mission.

Someone recognized the children and Sabsabi arranged the airlift to bring them home.

Malik, 4, gets a kiss from his aunt Medina after arriving at the airport in Grozny. Malik and his two older brothers were found in an orphanage in Mosul.

Malik, 4, gets a kiss from his aunt Medina after arriving at the airport in Grozny. Malik and his two older brothers were found in an orphanage in Mosul.

On the runway, the little boys ran to family members whom they appeared to recognize.

“Our emotions are on our faces,” says their aunt, Medina, as she hugs Malik.   

“Joy that they found them and brought them back. We are so thankful — for the rest of our lives.”

Abdullah and Khamzat were embraced by their grandmother and aunts.

Sabsabi has made five trips to Iraq and one to Syria and has managed to reunite 40 children with their extended families since he started his rescue mission in September.

“I hope ... to keep looking until we have found every last child.”

The boys’ relatives found out 48 hours beforehand that Sabsabi would be bringing them home. Several of their aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins were among those who came out to meet the aircraft.

Many other families with children still missing showed up hoping for a miracle.

Many are elderly women with faces racked with anguish for the missing daughters and grandchildren who haven’t returned from the war zone — and perhaps never will.

“This is my daughter-in-law,” says Zarema Gadjiba, wailing as she holds up a placard with photos of a young woman and three children.  

“We haven’t heard from them in seven months. I’m also waiting and hoping that someday my grandchildren will come back, too.”

Gadjiba is one of perhaps 30 older women who came to meet the plane so they could hold up photos of loved ones and implore Sabsabi to help find them.

As soon as Sabsabi tries to get some space from the crowd, he’s swarmed again.

“When will you bring them back?” says a woman, holding a photo of her daughter and her two children.

Another woman interrupts, claiming she has 12 family members — including her daughter, daughter-in-law and all of their children — still in Iraq.

“I need to know if they’re alive!”

In every case, Sabsabi snaps a photo of the missing children with his iPhone and promises he’ll visit every orphanage he can on his next trip.

For these grandmothers, showing up on the tarmac to share their grief and loss publicly is an act of desperation, but also one of courage in a place like Chechnya.

Human rights groups say the conservative Muslim republic is run by one of the most repressive regimes in the world — especially toward women.

In the past, President Ramzan Kadyrov’s iron-fisted rule not only featured crackdowns on suspected militants, but intimidation of their families as well.

And yet despite the stigma associated with having a male relative leave to fight for ISIS, as soon as reports began emerging of Russian children running loose on the streets of Mosul, the grandmothers of Grozny started speaking out.    

Their advocacy helped push Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kadyrov to assign Ziad Sabsabi to locate as many Russian children as possible.

Kadyrov’s support of the rescue missions has no doubt removed some of the fear for the women. Nonetheless, they could still face repercussions or retribution from others in their community.

It's a risk Zeena Elgeava says she was prepared to take.

She openly admits her militant son duped his family and took them to war. Now, she can't even bring herself to say his name.

“I don’t have his photo. He didn’t want to live with us, and he found his life,” she says.

He also found his death, she believes, on a battlefield somewhere in Syria.

“The husband says, ‘We must travel,’ and the women just have to follow them. We must follow the husband.

“So, now I’m looking for three small kids.”

She says the last time she heard from her daughter-in-law was in July and she’s deeply worried.

III.

In almost any other place, children who’ve experienced the death of parents or survived a bombardment the likes of which Mosul endured would be taken somewhere quiet after arriving home.

Not in Chechnya.

Instead, Sabsabi and the brothers he rescued are taken to Chechnya’s state TV station for an immediate on-air debriefing by a Kadyrov-friendly host.

“I think everyone here today knows that this was only possible because of the will and authority of Ramzan Kadyrov,” the presenter says to kick off the telecast.  

The brothers play with toy airplanes on the brightly lit set as the Kadyrov love-in continues.

“All of their stories are a script from a horror movie.”
Ziad Sabsabi

The discussion eventually takes a more serious tone.

A grandmother sitting with a dozen other women in the audience is handed a microphone and stands up with tears pouring down her cheeks.

She urges the rest of the world to get serious about the ISIS-orphan issue.

Look past the sins of their fathers and mothers, she says.

“Yes, our children are to blame. Yes, they are bastards who did not listen to their parents. Now there are terrorists, and the danger is our grandkids could become terrorists, too.”

She ends with a warning about leaving children behind in Iraq and Syria.

“There are many of them. This generation that is growing up could also go in that direction.”

How the three brothers will respond to the death of their father and the imprisonment of their mother is something Ziad Sabsabi worries about.

“All of their stories are a script from a horror movie,” he says.

“Before the liberation of Mosul, these brothers survived even though they were starving. And they survived constant bombings.”

Sabsabi says they also know from their mother that their father was killed fighting for ISIS.

“They’ve been told that he was Shahid [martyred] — that he died on his true path to Allah.”

Sabsabi then plays a video of one of the brothers while he was still at the orphanage. It shows the little boy holding up a single finger and pointing it toward the sky, smiling.

It’s impossible to know for sure what he meant by the gesture, but a translator suggests it’s a common sign used by militants to show that Allah is all that matters.

Kheda Saratova, one of the few independent human rights activists in Chechnya and a key ally of Sabsabi’s in the search for ISIS orphans, shares the concern about the future of rescued children.

“It’s not the kids’ fault that parents are fools and someone used them,” she says. “But we are afraid these kids may join the ranks of the militants.”

She’s been deluged with requests for help from more than 500 families. Many of their photographs are spread out on her desk.

“I grieve every situation. I feel like every child is my own and that every woman is my close relative.”

She says it’s imperative that the children’s families — particularly male relatives — don’t glorify what happened to their fathers.

“It’s important that we start to work with these kids from this age, so that no one could say he was a hero in a foreign country and that the child needs to go back and avenge his father’s death."

Chechnya fought two devastating wars with Russia in the 1990s that scarred a generation of Chechen families.

Many of the fighters who left to join ISIS would have lost their own fathers in the conflicts and grown up surrounded by talk of jihad and revenge.

Saratova says it’s crucial to break the cycle with these children.

“This should not go to their brains,” she says. “They should not follow the paths of their fathers.”

IV.

The day after the reunion on the tarmac, aunt Medina says the three boys won’t talk about the horrors they’ve seen and can’t express how they feel.

“They don’t want to say anything,” she says at her home outside Grozny.  

The kids were playing with toys in the comfortable living room, surrounded by adults.

“Abdullah has an injury on his arm, but when we ask, he immediately goes quiet and says nothing,” Medina says.

The plan is to have the boys live here with Medina and their grandmother.

The first night went well, but Medina says the boys’ deep loss was clear when they played with the adults who came to visit.

They called nearly every woman who spent time with them “mum,” she says.

“They are still young. We will keep on living — what else?”

And she tries to sound positive that the boys’ mother will be let out of jail and they’ll have a happy ending.

“When their mother returns, she can explain it all to them,” she says.

“And to us.”