“This will be the last time I see you,” the boy said. “I have a feeling that I will die.”
His friend, Hussein Hatem, loyally told his mate that he wished he could take his place, and die instead.
That afternoon, a group of IS fighters came to the boys’ primary school in a suburb on the outskirts of the city of Mosul. They knocked on the door of every classroom.
“Let them come out. We’ll teach them a lesson,” the fighters told the teachers.
Outside in the cement schoolyard, the men held Sami as the rest of the school gathered to watch.
“Then my friend got really sad. He was all alone,” Hussein remembers.
One of the men raised his sword and hacked off Sami’s head.
“They told us to learn like this,” Hussein says, his piping voice clear and strong.
Like 38,000 others, Hussein now lives in the massive Khazer displaced person’s camp near Mosul, one of more than a dozen camps set up to deal with the crisis.
On the day we visit, Hussein is with his family and safe from harm. He’s playing a robust game of catch with a soccer ball and some rowdy friends. It’s impossible to tell what’s going on inside his head. But for today at least, this young boy seems to be coping.
Almost half the people who live here are children. Almost all have seen things a child should not see.
In Save the Children's “psycho-social first aid” space at Jada’ah camp near the city of Qayyarah, Luma* edges shyly up to us. She speaks in a whisper but this is a story she really wants to tell. It's about how she tried to escape IS with her mother and little sister.
When IS discovered them leaving, they knocked her mother to the ground and then shot her dead in front of her daughters. Luma, who was 12, adopted her mother’s role. She picked up her 18-month-old sister and carried her for two hours until they reached a checkpoint – and safety.
Sabeen*, 10, is next. Her nose is scarred, her eyes sad. She walked out her front door one day to go to school when a car bomb exploded nearby. It’s hard to imagine the noise. Shrapnel killed her brother and carved new lines across her face.
Some violence came suddenly: bombings, sniper shots, air strikes. But much of it was planned, deliberate – performed by IS for an audience to project power, instil fear. When a “punishment” was about to begin, IS made announcements, closed roads, herded people together to watch. Attendance was not optional. Children were not exempt.
“One of the kids told me he used to see hands being chopped off, arms being chopped off, bodies hanging in the streets, hangings, lashing, whipping,” says Jasim Mohmad Abed, a Save the Children worker in the psycho-social support tent.
“Others are isolated. They sit alone and don’t want to talk.”
Punishments by IS had a soundtrack, too. The grisly work was accompanied by the hypnotic religious chants, known as anasheed, that Islamic State co-opted for use in their online videos and also played over loudspeakers in the public square.
In the camp, the children are learning new songs that they can sing and clap together. One is the Arabic alphabet song, others are about love and respect, another the Iraqi national anthem. On the day we visit, Leyla* twirls, smiling, at the centre of a “flower” dance formation with her new friends.
“Before, the children used to draw cars with rocket launchers,” says Maher*, a father of four. “Now they draw flowers.”
In “learning spaces” in the camps, non-government organisations run what looks a lot like a school.
But the camps are teeming with children and many are not reached by these programs. There are also hundreds of thousands of others outside.
When they were living under IS, the terror group ran the schools. They took over the curriculum, rewriting text books and forcing teachers to teach it. Their books are covered by images of guns or fighting. In some parts, the curriculum is surprisingly normal.
Then there’s this exercise: