The story behind the photo.
This is a boring photo, but it has a story to tell.
It was the most bizarre experience I’ve ever had. In the middle of a dusty, Iraqi village, I found myself face to face with an ISIS fighter. Let me explain.
This spring, coalition forces were battering the last territorial stronghold of ISIS. Several thousand of their fighters were forced into a tiny portion of land in Baghouz, Syria. Though ISIS had been losing land for over two years, there were (and still are) thousands of captured civilians who are unaccounted.
I was in northern Iraq at the time. Nearly every day we heard of another refugee finding out that a long lost sister, brother, or parent was still alive and returned from captivity.
That is how I came to meet “Ahmed” (name changed, pictured). We had known Ahmed’s mother for several years. When ISIS invaded Sinjar, the family was forever destroyed. The father was brutally executed. Two sons were taken to be trained as soldiers, and the nine year old daughter was sold as a sex slave for the jihadists. Only the mother escaped.
One day she showed our team a photo. It was a Facebook post from ISIS, showing a training class taught by an American who joined the Islamic State. Her sons were in the picture, posing with their teacher and raising their right hands in the ISIS salute. ISIS often taunted her by sending photos of her sons doing ISIS activities.
To escape or not?
One day her two sons had the chance to escape. One son fled. Ahmed stayed. He told his mother he would never leave, that ISIS was his home now. And so Ahmed stayed with the jihadist brotherhood. No one knew if he was dead or alive. That is, until he arrived in our village.
Ahmed returned a shell of himself. He had been in Baghouz. The fighters had so little food left he had to survive on a few handfuls of raw grain each day.
Shortly before the coalition crushed the last of the resistance, Ahmed walked across the frontline. He was taken by Kurdish forces and unceremoniously dropped off in our village. Ahmed had been fighting for ISIS the week before we met him. Now he sat in a refugee house, amongst the people he had been brainwashed to murder.
Meeting Ahmed is almost impossible to put into words. At 17, he was incredibly thin. Yet there was a fire in his eyes as well as a firm handshake. His face showed no remorse of where he had just come from. Just a month before, he had been guarding the house of an important ISIS commander when the house was hit by an air strike. Ahmed was severely wounded; the explosion broke his back and shattered his leg. ISIS quickly took him to a hospital because he was too valuable to leave incapacitated.
Drinking tea with ISIS
Ahmed seemed almost indifferent to what had happened while he was with ISIS. It seemed he was oblivious to the contradiction of what he had been doing only a week before was perfectly compatible with us drinking tea together.
I had always wondered what it would be like to meet an ISIS soldier. How would he react to an American? Would it be safe?
And yet, when I met Ahmed, what I had envisioned an ISIS fighter to be didn’t fit. Instead of a hardened, hate-filled warrior bent on destroying everything that didn’t fit his ideology, I saw a malnourished, injured, confused teenager. He was just a human being who had lost his way.
In life, we tend to “demonize” those who have done terrible things. But they are not so different from you and me. If not for a different life path, I could have been Ahmed. In the end, perhaps he is just a confused teenager who was never shown a better way. Maybe, if we were more willing to show Jesus’ way of Peace, there would be less Ahmeds in this world.
Reagan Schrock has traveled to Iraq seven times, the last time this past spring. He visits because he helped start an aid organization for refugees there. To follow him on Youtube at Bronze Bow Media, click here. To learn why Reagan keeps going back to Iraq, click here.
Photo credits: photos taken in Sinjar by Missie Sauder