A 16-year-old Christian boy who suffered for two years under the brutal rule of ISIS has shared how, in an effort to force him and his mother to convert to Islam, fighters would beat them, stick them with needles, and threaten to kill them.
Two years ago, ISIS overtook Bartella, a predominantly Christian town in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were forced to flee from their homes, but Ismail al-Kanon, a Chaldean Catholic teenager, and his mother, Jandar Nasi, stayed behind, as Nasi was too sick to travel.
"We're the only ones who stayed, everybody else left," Ismail, who is now living in Kurdistan, told PRI in a recent interview. "We had no clue what had happened."
However, after ISIS overtook Bartella and gave Christians an ultimatum: leave, convert, or pay a tax, Ismail and Nasi decided to flee.
Unfortunately, the two were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint: "There were some men at a checkpoint," Ismail recalled. "They asked me where I am from. I told one of them I was a Christian from Bartella. He ordered me to step out of the car and hit me on the head. He then tied my hands and took us to Mosul," he said. "That was the first time I saw ISIS."
In Mosul, they were imprisoned and and urged to convert to Islam by ISIS fighters.
"One of the ISIS fighters asked us, 'Why won't you become Muslims?' We told him that we didn't want to. He got angry at me," Ismail said. "They put the gun on my head and told my mother, 'If you don't convert we will kill your son.' We were scared. My mother told him to give us some time to think."
He continued, "My mother then said let's do whatever they want so that they wouldn't kill me. So we told them yes, we will convert. They asked us to say the shahada [Islamic declaration of faith] and we said it."
However, neither Ismail nor his mother truly converted, and the young man still wore a cross underneath his shirt.
Eventually, ISIS fighters released the Ismail and his mother from prison, but kept them in various houses around Mosul, where they endured horrific treatment.
"They would come and check on us every day and teach us the prayers. When we didn't learn their prayer correctly, they would beat us," Ismail recalled. "My mother is epileptic. She would learn something then forget it after she had a seizure. They would teach her, then come to her the next day, they would ask her the same question but she wouldn't know the answer."
The fighters attempted to force Ismail's mother to learn the prayers by injecting her with a needle until she bled out. Ismail said the militants told her mother that if she didn't learn the prayers the blood would keep pouring out. Meanwhile, Ismail was routinely beaten by the fighters.
Because he regularly watched the news, Ismail was aware that the Iraqi army was planning an offensive to recapture Mosul, and he wanted to get as close to the battle lines as possible so he could escape. One day, Ismail and his mother slipped away from the house they were being held in and found an empty apartment just behind the front line.
"ISIS were on the roofs of the buildings, they saw us and started shooting at us. They aimed at my mother but [the bullet] went through her robe and didn't hit her. She could have died," he said.
However, they kept running - towards freedom: "I was in disbelief. I saw the army's faces, they had no beards, their faces were clear like a shining light. I would see ISIS fighters all the time looking like monkeys, hair all over, they looked like they came from the stone ages," he said.
Today, Ismail and his mother live in Erbil. While they are physically free from ISIS, they are still mentally traumatized.
"I'm mentally and physically tired," Ismail explained. "My feelings towards ISIS are that I want to completely erase them. But at the same time our religion doesn't promote cruelty. It says 'Whoever hits you on the cheek offer him the other also.'"
His mother credited her son's bravery for keeping her alive: "He's a gift from God. He saved me from death," she said. "Many times they tortured him. If not for him, I'd be gone."
In 2013, there were around 500,000 Christians in Iraq, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a country of nearly 40 million people. However, today, there are less than 275,000 believers in the country.