Religion

Escaped Syrian Child Soldier: ‘Don’t Join ISIS’

isis child soldier

An escaped Islamic State child soldier in Sanliurfa, Turkey, shows the scar on his neck to a reporter on Jan. 27. He says a bullet grazed his neck during battle.

SANLIURFA, Turkey — At age 14, Khaled held his first gun. Fifteen days later, one of the world’s most feared extremist groups sent him into battle.

Khaled remembers how heavy the Kalashnikov rifle felt, how the noise hurt his ears. He recalls the terror of waking up in the hospital after a bullet grazed the back of his neck.

Now, this quiet teenager from Syria’s eastern city of Deir al-Zour is speaking out against the jihadist group that has violently seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. His message is simple: Don’t join the Islamic State.

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Khaled is just one of scores of child soldiers in Syria. While nearly all parties in the Syrian conflict — U.S.-backed moderates, Kurdish fighters, extremist groups and regime forces alike — have been accused of recruiting and using children in combat and support roles, the Islamic State is the most infamous in this regard.

Khaled says he had no idea what was in store for him when he joined ISIS last winter.

When anti-government protests broke out across Syria in the spring of 2011, the 11-year-old wanted nothing more than to take to the streets. He watched with envy as his older brothers and cousins joined the calls for freedom, but his family forbid him from going to demonstrations — it was too dangerous for a child, they said.

They were right. Soon, the Syrian regime brutally cracked down on dissent. His family could only shield him for so long. Protest soon turned to war.

That winter, Khaled’s school shut down, and regime shelling and clashes with rebel forces made it impossible for him to play outside. So Khaled spent his days indoors, tending to housework and dreaming of life outside of the confines of his war-ravaged home.

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A photo posted by khalilashawi (@khalilashawi) on Aug 11, 2013 at 12:35pm PDT

Reuters photographer Khalil Ashawi captures…

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