IRBIL, IRAQ - One in five children in Iraq are now at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, abduction and forced recruitment into armed groups, according to the U.N. children's agency.
“Children in Iraq are in the firing line and are being repeatedly and relentlessly targeted,” said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s Iraq representative.
According to the latest UNICEF report, in the past two and a half years, an average of 50 children a month have been abducted and forced into fighting or sexually abused.
Aziz (not his real name), an 11-year-old boy, was abducted by an armed group in northern Iraq in mid-2014.
“They came in pickup trucks,” he said in a video provided by UNICEF. “The back of those trucks were full of men with a machine gun. They had long beards and long hair.”
Aziz was forced to learn religion, forced to learn how to use weapons and made to watch videos of extreme violence by his captors against civilians.
“[They showed us] videos when they were entering Iraq fighting, when they were capturing spies, when they were beheading them with a sword,” Aziz said.
Khalaf, was also kidnapped, held and beaten by his captors for eight months. Both boys managed to escape, one through a network of contacts, and the other by walking for nine days and nights.
“The kidnapping of children from their homes, their schools and from the streets is horrifying,” said Hawkins.
He said some of the children are being taken by criminal gangs, but the majority are grabbed by Islamic State.
“Most of them are targeting minority groups and we believe most of it is either for sexual violence or recruitment purposes,” Hawkins told VOA.
It is unclear how the children are being targeted for abduction, but children of all ages are being taken.
“Criminal gangs are doing it for extortion, financial gain, and some children are abducted for political purposes,” Hawkins said. “But for the past year and a half, most have been abducted in Ninewah by IS.”
“Some of the boys have been abducted to be child fighters, and the girls to be used as ‘wives’ or sexually used as slaves,” he added.
According to the report, almost 10 percent of Iraqi children, more than 1.5 million, have been forced to flee their homes, often multiple times, because of violence since the beginning of 2014.