There is something unnerving about 10 year old supporters of Junde Islam, and their jokes about decapitation. The simulated tongue, lolling out from one side of the mouth suggests they have all watched these snuff videos and indeed the Bazaar is full of them.
The region we are in is strictly Islamic, and although the extremists were defeated in 2003 there is still much support for their ideals, though not always their methods. We have been helping at a centre that is building an adventure playground. Its aim, among others, is to offer the kids a glimpse of a childhood free of religious restrictions while also encouraging them to help themselves rather than relying on outside support. As such we have spent a lot of time with them over the last couple of days and have been observing their lives.
Among their favourite pastimes are taunting one another; playing leap frog; praying; throwing bricks at animals (ourselves included); chopping snakes and insects up; and of course football. They are happy children and we get on well with them. On arrival we are mobbed, jumped on and generally treated as punching bags but behind these playful antics lies evidence of horrors past and of disturbing potential. They will wind you up, push you to your limits, and test you. They fight at the drop of a hat, rolling around on the floor until too tired to continue punching, then they simply walk away.
It must be said that there is something natural in their behaviour. Compared with the mollycoddling in much of the West they are certainly not breeding a pampered generation. However it is the ease with which they rebound, the fun that they get from destruction and their haunting stares that have more worrisome undertones.
Some of the children question you repeatedly about religious affiliation and are not best pleased by the answers. More than once I have hid behind the language barrier to avoid answering such questions, though generally I just agree in the glory of God; without specifying which one. Tattoos are a huge taboo, as are chains around the neck and one little kid has tried repeatedly to tear Rick’s off. Here again though appears the paradox that seems to crop up again and again. Last time they saw a tattoo it was of a naked blond. Having stared at it in amazement they returned the next day with bandaged arms, covering up extensive cuts and their own shoddy attempts to recreate the tattoo. Here again we see their fascination and admiration for all things western, even in the face of religious retaliation and 'god’s vengeance'.
The most worrying children here are those who believe they have nothing left, those who think they have no hope and that life has dealt them a losing hand. We have met a few who talk like this and they are the ones who would have been corrupted by fundamentalists bearing money, gifts, sweets and explosives. A few hundred dollars and the attention of someone from abroad was often enough to persuade then to strap on bombs, pick up AK’s and join the fight.
Let us hope that one government or another; be it PUK, KDP, KRG, the central or even a western one, gives them some support and a chance to aspire, before they are again swayed by the promises of the afterlife.
I want to reiterate that these children mean well - they want to live and be left alone. On settling down at night, exhausted and to a cacophany of snores, one cannot help but feel happy, and I genuinley believe that that these children are also happy. On many levels the simplicity of life here is enviable - on others it comes with untold sadness.