Yazidi child reunited with family in Iraq after being sold by ISIL to strangersFebruary 3, 2017
|Ayman, a boy from a minority Yazidi community, who was sold by ISIL to a Muslim couple in Mosul, is greeted by a relative after he was returned to his Yazidi family in Duhok, Iraq, on January 31, 2017.|
RASHIDIYA, IRAQ // His name was Ayman, but the couple who brought the boy home to their Iraqi village after buying him for $500 called him Ahmed.ISIL militants had killed or enslaved Ayman’s parents in their purge of the Yazidi religious minority to which he belongs, then sold the four-year-old to Umm and Abu Ahmed, who are Muslims.
For the 18 months he lived with the couple, his relatives assumed he was dead, one of thousands of Yazidis who have been missing since the militants overran their homes in what the United Nations has labelled genocide.
When Iraqi forces retook east Mosul and the surrounding area last week, they found Ayman and returned him to what is left of his family. While their reunion was full of joy, breaking the bond between Ayman and his adoptive parents brought new sorrow.
At his home in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Abu Ahmed swiped through photographs of the boy on his phone, and empties a box of the toys Ayman played with, including a children’s book for learning Arabic script.
The windows of the couple’s one-story home on the eastern bank of the Tigris river have been shattered by a blast that destroyed their neighbour’s house, evidence of the fierce fighting that will continue when the army attacks the western side, which ISIL still controls.
It was Umm Ahmed’s idea to adopt a child. The couple were childless and she heard ISIL was selling orphans in the town of Tel Afar, some 40km to the west.
"My objective was to win favour (with God)," said Umm Ahmed. To be honest, I wanted to teach him my religion, Islam."
Her husband, a government employee, was against the idea but could not dissuade his wife, who went alone to get the boy from an orphanage run by the militants, paying for him with her earnings as a teacher.
Although the boy cried and did not want to go with her, she coaxed him, saying: "Come, you will be my child. We will live together and I will buy you everything."
Gradually he grew accustomed to his adoptive parents, who taught him Arabic instead of the Kurdish dialect spoken by Yazidis. They told people he was a nephew they had taken in and enrolled him at the local school under the name Ahmed Shareef, but mostly he was kept indoors.
"He was really smart. I taught him to pray and perform ablutions. Do you know how much of the Quran he memorised?" Umm Ahmed said.
They did not want him to forget who he was and encouraged him to speak about life in his village of Hardan. But she said: "I always warned him not to tell anyone (he was Yazidi)."
ISIL imposed a radical version of Islam in Mosul after establishing the city as its de facto capital, banning cigarettes, televisions and radios, and forcing men to grow beards and women to cover from head to toe.
The Yazidis, whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions, were branded devil-worshippers.
Sometimes Ayman asked about the rest of his family but Umm and Abu Ahmed knew nothing of their fate, save for a teenage sister who was taken as a slave by a militant from Tel Afar. He brought her to visit several times but nothing is known of her now. A half-brother of \ayman was also sold from the orphanage but his whereabouts too are unknown.
As the US-backed campaign to drive ISIL out of Mosul gathered pace and the Iraqi army’s ninth division reached Rashidiya, things began to unravel for Umm and Abu Ahmed.
On entering the village, a commander received a tip that a Yazidi boy was being held there and dispatched soldiers to retrieve him. The couple had no choice but to give him up. A video clip of the moment they were parted shows Ayman clinging to Umm Ahmed and crying and Umm Ahmed pleading with the soldiers as she tries to comfort him despite her own distress, saying "You will go and see your mother now ... and when you grow up you will come and see me".
Ayman’s parents and most other relatives are still missing, but his grandmother and uncle live on the edge of one of several camps to which the Yazidi community has been displaced en masse, about 50km away from Rashidiya.
Samir Rasho Khalaf thought his nephew had been killed until he saw a post on Facebook on January 28 telling of a Yazidi child named Ayman Ameen Barakat who had been found.
"I was stunned," said Mr Khalaf. "It’s a miracle: he came back from the dead."
That same night, they were reunited.
"We all cried," said Major Wathiq Amjad Naathar, the army official who oversaw the handover. That night, Ayman was beside himself and begged to be returned to Umm Ahmed, but now seems happy and calm.
Asked if he had been happy with his adoptive parents, he said yes. Asked if he was happy to be back with his real family, he said yes too.
Mr Khalaf said he was grateful to Umm and Abu Ahmed for keeping Ayman safe and healthy, and that, unlike so many other Yazidi boys abducted by ISIL, he was not forced to train as a fighter.
But he was angry the couple did not try harder to find his family to say he was alive and well, and has refused to allow them to talk to Ayman, .
"We don’t mention them (his adoptive parents) so he will forget them," he said.
Umm Ahmed said he will never forget them, however, just as they will not forget him. "I expect he will return," she said.