This summer, in his hometown of Raqqa, Syria, Mohammad, 13, was forced to attend a children's training camp established by the Islamic State (IS). When his father opposed his son's conscription, IS fighters threatened to kill him.
When Mohammad returned from the camp, his mother was surprised to find a large knife and a blond, blue-eyed doll in his bag. When she confronted him, he told her that the trainers had distributed dolls and knives; they asked the children to decapitate the dolls. Mohammad said they were asked to cover the dolls' faces when they chopped the head off.
It was his homework: practise beheading a doll which has the likeness of a blond, white westerner. Mohammad said older kids were asked to show the newbies how to decapitate dolls. Those who failed to perform the task were punished.
Soon after Mohammad's return, his father, spurred by the fear of seeing his son becoming an IS fighter, decided to leave Raqqa. Gathering what they could, the family fled to a refugee camp in Urfa, Turkey.
Mohammad's father said that other parents in the camp corroborated his son's story; their children, too, had been given dolls and knives. According to those living in Raqqa, IS has banned traditional children's games and are forcibly taking children under 15 to special camps where they are taught the IS's notoriously brutal interpretation of Sharia.
Some of the boys are then transferred to an adult camp, where they are trained in the use of weapons. Sources familiar with the training in the camp said that the dolls handed out for decapitation were often dressed in orange jumpsuits, like those worn by prisoners in Guantanamo.
"Nowadays, it is the children in Raqqa who come out to see the executions and crucifixions carried out by the IS," Mohammad's father said. Mohammad's mother said many families fled Raqqa because their children were being turned against them. “The regime is using everything they have against us,” she said. “The IS tries to teach our children that they should treat us as infidels and cut off our heads.”
The writer is a journalist reporting from the Middle East.