Children are among the most vulnerable groups during war and armed conflict and they often fall victims to various grave violations, such as recruitment and use as soldiers by both legal and illegal forces including armed and terrorist groups. A number of recent studies have documented high rates of mental health problems among children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups (CAAFAG), commonly referred to as child soldiers. A range of studies from African countries shows that child soldiers have high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, emotional regulation problems, and externalizing behaviors (Ertl et al., 2011; Hecker et al., 2013; Hermenau et al., 2013; Robjant et al., 2020b).
Child soldiers are among the most vulnerable victims of current conflicts, presenting with a wide range of devastating experiences during critical periods of their development. Warfare increasingly targets the civil population and brings about high rates of adversities and related psychological disorders (Betancourt et al., 2020; Catani, Jacob, et al., 2008; K. E. Miller & Rasmussen, 2017; Kenneth E. Miller & Rasmussen, 2010; Neuner et al., 2004). In addition to the direct effect of war and conflict on children (Kamoy et al., 2021), there are also multiple indirect byproducts of war and conflict that results in creating a dangerous environment for children, particularly in domestic settings. For instance, war and conflict increase the rates of intimate partner violence (Guruge et al., 2017; Horn et al., 2014) as well as familial maltreatment and child abuse (Catani, 2010; Catani, Jacob, et al., 2008; Catani, Schauer, et al., 2008; Rieder & Elbert, 2013; Saile et al., 2014). On top of this highly threatening environment, child soldiers also experience violence within their organization and direct threats in combat (Betancourt et al., 2010).
Experiencing this accumulation of potentially traumatic events can have a lasting and damaging impact on the growing mind and body of the child (Edalati et al., 2017; Roberts et al., 2013). Childhood adversity is linked to impaired physical (Oh et al., 2018; Taylor et al., 2011) and mental health (Coppock & Mcgovern, 2014; Majer et al., 2010; Nelson et al., 2020) that extends beyond childhood. The number of types of traumatic events is a key predictor of psychological disorders (Elliott et al., 2009; Haahr-Pedersen et al., 2020; Pinto-Cortez et al., 2018). Children and adolescents who encounter several types of childhood adversity experiences (ACE) have more mental health problems (Almuneef et al., 2016; Brockie et al., 2015) such as depression (Bhui et al., 2014; Giano et al., 2021), PTSD (Brockie et al., 2015; Schalinski et al., 2016), and attention and behavioral problems (Hunt et al., 2017; Ramiro et al., 2010; Voisin & Elsaesser, 2013) that often remain chronic throughout life (Lanier et al., 2018; Taylor et al., 2011). The effect of polyvictimization, the simultaneous exposure to multiple types of trauma during childhood, is linked to PTSD, depression, and anxiety (Haahr-Pedersen et al., 2020), as well as delinquency (Pereda et al., 2017) and, is also evident in war-affected children (Catani, 2010). Within this population, adolsecences and young adults who are imprisoned due to terrorist activities after a conflict may be especially vulnerable since juvenile detention is independently associated with poor health outcomes (Levitt, 2010).
To date, research on former children employed in irregular forces has been focused on the African context. However, other regions, particularly in the Middle East in countries like Syria and Iraq, have been affected by armed conflicts where terrorist forces have occupied multiple towns and regions for extended periods of time. After some decline in terrorist activities in 2014, Iraq has remained among one of the most affected countries by terrorism and activities of irregular forces (The Fund for Peace, 2021, Database, 2020, BUREAU OF COUNTERTERRORISM Country, 2020). Alongside ISIS, there are several other active terrorist groups in Iraq, operating against the background of ongoing conflicts between the different ethnic and religious groups in the country (Silverman, 2020; Ziedel & Al-Hashimi, 2019).
Terrorism comes with added layers of vulnerability for children and youth. The security response to terrorism raises protection challenges for children. Children who are stuck in the middle of counter-terrorism operations are often killed or maimed. Those who survive are usually arrested and detained for being allegedly involved with armed and terrorist groups. Children who end-up in the justice system are often treated as threats rather than victims. Many are arrested and detained, often for extended periods of time and without due process, with the risk of facing further violations of their rights such as torture, physical and sexual violence, and deprivation of access to their basic needs, and health and education services. Some of these children are even tried in military courts (Headquarters, 2018)
After the conflict, although some child soldiers may be placed in rehabilitation centers, most often they are imprisoned. Proper rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers into civil society is critically important to the functioning of both these individuals and their wider communities. To achieve this, the experiences of this group of children must be considered.
This study had the unique opportunity to access a sample of adolescents and young adults who were incarcerated for terrorism-related crimes and were living in the juvenile facilities of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). We developed scales to assess their subjective readiness to be reintegrated into the communities as the outcome variable, since we assumed that one prerequisite for a successful reintegration would be positive expectations towards life in their communities of origin. In addition, we developed an instrument to measure ongoing identification with ISIS, to index this important factor that may undermine one’s readiness for reintegration. Considering that impaired mental health, in particular high levels of depression, have been shown to interfere with positive expectations (Teasdale 1983), we hypothesized that readiness for reintegration would be negatively corelated with depression and ongoing identification with ISIS.