Jun 6 • 14M

DISPATCHES: The Stateless Children of ISIS Fighters and One Marine’s Journey from Ballet to the Battlefield and Back to Ballet

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“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell


With a bright smile and blazing pink t-shirt, a small girl named Layla glides around a Baghdad living room, showing me her latest painting on a flimsy white sketchbook. A prominent activist helped shield Layla’s identity so that she could start kindergarten. She doesn’t know that her education could be taken away at any time.

“Nobody wants to talk about this, but we must deal with this. We need some law just for these children,” stresses Sarab Barkat, General Director for Survivor Affairs, which is connected to Iraq’s Ministry for Social Affairs. “We need programs, rehabilitation, ways to solve this. And now.”

Yet reconciliation is often a discarded practice here, in a country that has endured war upon war over the past four decades. Layla is just one of many thousands of children born to dead or detained Isis fathers and rendered effectively stateless. Some five years after the terrorist group was declared defeated in the war-ravaged state, Layla and her peers have no official documents and effectively no rights.

The term “stateless” refers to a person not classified as a citizen by any state, in violation of international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every child should have the right to a legal identity, nationality and immediate birth registration.

Now, thousands of babies — now school-aged children — born under the Isis regime or fathered by fighters are crumbling through the cracks of the complex Iraqi legal system, leaving them without the right to aid, school and freedom of movement.

These children, punished for the actions of their fathers, will face a painful, ostracized existence: discrimination, social shunning, inability to enter legal relationships, poverty and restricted access to basic medical, food, and community services. And as Baghdad struggles to form a government eight months after its federal elections, untangling the plight of these innocent children is far from a priority issue politicians care to solve.

“It is a big problem. What is the plan for these kids? The government should be taking care of these kids,” says Nawfal Rasheed, the former Minister of Immigration, tells me.

But it’s the lack of care for the children that lurks in the shadows.

Thousands of children remain displaced in decrepit, danger-filled camps across northern Iraq and Syria, in addition to those who hide away from their rejected mothers, trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. Under its so-called “caliphate,” Isis issued its own birth and marriage certificates, yet the Iraqi government does not recognize these. It is common for mothers to lose their original documentation or to have had it it confiscated by terrorists.

According to one high-ranking former government minister, who requested their name not be published, not only is there a lack of DNA testing, but the mothers are routinely subject to sexual abuse by security forces skirting the sprawling Jeddah camp in Mosul. The former minister pointed out that sometimes these Isis-surviving women and children can be issued “yellow cards” if they suffice to denounce Isis publicly. Although these may help to access services, they aren’t nationality documents and can lead to even more stigma. Furthermore, displaced women are sometimes made to “participate” in the cycle of abuse with the guards in reciprocation for receiving such a security card. There are no clear statistics regarding how many of these cards have been issued or even how many stateless children there are in the country. “These children should not have to bear the sins of their fathers,” she presses on.

Ryan al-Kildani, a Christian representative in parliament and former leader of the armed Babylon Brigade, explains that the yellow cards effectively make the Isis families “gypsies in Iraq.” He also points out that even the dissemination of cards attracted vehement opposition in parliament. Some politicians do not want to accept any Isis children and do not believe that “minds can be changed” through rehabilitation.

The topic is complicated further by the notion that if a child’s father is a foreign fighter, they cannot assume their mother’s nationality. And then there’s the case of thousands of Yazidi women — who were forced into sex slavery and, in many cases, gave birth as a result of that slavery — whose children cannot be documented as Yazidi. The community does not accept converts, and both parents must be Yazidi for documentation to occur. Furthermore, Iraqi law stipulates that a child must assume the father’s religion. Thus, when it comes to Isis, that is Muslim. Such a concept is a painful pill for any Yazidi mother to swallow.

Iraq’s Nationality Law was amended in 2015 to state that children born to a non-Muslim mother and a Muslim father are considered Muslims regardless of their mother’s religion or situation. This flagrant example of gender discrimination can cause children to then be abandoned entirely, left without parents, identification, or a clear place of birth or nationality.

Even children born to known fathers, such as Syrians, do not formally belong to the Syrian state because they are “born outside the government’s control.” The opportunity to obtain civil documentation for wives and children with Isis affiliation fades more by the day, relegating them to the edges of a traumatized society.

This is not a predicament that can be brushed aside in the hope that it disappears. The legal limbo of innocent children must be addressed. First, the international community can help offer DNA testing to determine the nationality of a child whose father is unclear. The onus is then on foreign governments to take in these children.



You can’t put a veteran in a box.

From ballet to bullets to ballet again, the various incarnations of former U.S. Marine Román Baca – at first glance – appear paradoxical. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes surprisingly apparent that the two professions carry a similarly complex trove of treasure and turmoil.

“First, there is the physicality. Getting up and doing physical training, running drills, and then going to target practice wasn’t a big shift from the long dance rehearsals seven days a week. I tell people the drill instructors I met at Boot Camp weren’t any meaner than the Russian ballet teachers I had,” Baca says me from his London home, where he temporarily resides, working as a professional dancer and artistic director. “But the military is very much like the performing arts; you are learning choreography in both cases. Both use visualization, memorization, and rehearsals to instill the choreography into your body and work together as a team. It is just used for a different purpose. The military strengthened the discipline I had as a dancer; it strengthened the perseverance.”

For the Veteran and New Mexico native, life today revolves around continuing his military mission, fusing his past and present in a unique way. In 2000, Baca took hiatus from his performing arts career – a year before airplanes struck the World Trade Center in New York City – to follow a family legacy into the U.S. Military.

“I had had the opportunity to dance a very diverse repertoire by some choreographers that imbibe their work into social causes. And that is when I felt very driven toward doing something bigger, being part of something larger than myself. I needed to rediscover the feeling of being of service, and my family has a long history of service in the military,” Baca continues. “My grandfather served in the Korean War, and it had been this profound shift for him. He came home and married my grandmother, got a job and started a family. I thought maybe that is what I needed, so I decided to join the Marine Corps.”

Nonetheless, detailing a dance career in a hardened military landscape came with mixed responses. Baca notes that he spent much of his free time teaching or guest performing off-base but, for the most part, kept his shadow existence under wraps.

“I figured that the topic of being a ballet dancer would not be well-received. During my initial Bootcamp training, one of my dancing friends sent me a photo album of us dancing together. A few of the guys saw it. Some were like, ‘wow, that is cool,’ and another guy stopped talking to me altogether,” Baca recounts. “I didn’t tell many people about it after that, not until years later in Iraq.”

Baca served in the Marines until 2008, and he spent seven months as a machine gunner and fire-team leader in Fallujah in 2005, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Here, wrapped in the dust, darkness, and uncertainty of war, he rekindled his love of the arts.

“I missed being creative. So, I sketched while I was in Fallujah. I would climb up the roof where we were staying in the mornings with my coffee,” Baca tells me softly. “And I would spend the couple of hours I had by myself just sketching before we got on with the day.”

After retiring in 2008, he moved to the sleepy streets of Connecticut with his girlfriend – now wife and fellow classically trained dancer – purporting to live a life that oozed with normality. Yet bearing the burden of battle scars while adjusting to civilian life defined by a steady desk job quickly became too much to bear.

“I didn’t do so well at it. I developed a lot of anxiety. It was hard for me to work in an office setting and learn how to deal with other people. My wife suggested I go back into the studio and start choreographing, not with a real kind of purpose; just to start collecting that artistic muscle again,” Baca explains. “I started kicking around some choreography and sending it around to some artistic directors for their feedback.”

The most heart-searing feedback came from an Austin-based ballet associate who said, “Find your voice, find that one thing in you that is dying to come out, and talk about it from a very real space.”

“For me,” Baca continued, “that was war.”

“I had just been in this military experience. I had just had all these people around me who had been in war, and left the war, and were trying to find their place back home,” Baca recalls. “So, I turned my choreographic lens and research toward putting war stories on stage, and I have been doing that ever since.”

In fact, the lightbulb moment led to the creation of his own nonprofit contemporary dance company, Exit12, centered on epitomizing the experience of war and conflict and bridging the cross-cultural gap between veterans, their families, and civilians. Baca’s study into the potency of movement as a healing art form is enriched further by his current Ph.D. research through York St. John University in the U.K., which hinges on the notion that “one effective modality is finding unique choreography to help people find a new embodied imagination, much like they did in military training, to move through the civilian world, in an Aristotelian-like way of underlining the connection between action and ethics.”

Now, Baca gives lectures and performs around the world, shedding light on the power and nutrition drawn from the narrative of dance, headlining everywhere from West Point Military Academy, Stanford University and Lincoln Center to Walter Reed Military Medical Center, and Arlington National Cemetery. He also leads workshops for families of veterans and those on active duty, dabbling in themes stretching from grief and loss to life as an Iraqi crushed in the crossfire of a country on fire.

“We had an Army mother who had once been a dancer come in a create a ballet about her two sons who are still in the U.S. Army and had been deployed to Afghanistan at the same time. While she was in the studio, her boys were in the desert. She created a ballet looking at their service through the eyes of a mother, watching her children grow up and fall in love with their first girlfriends, and then seeing them leave for war,” Baca details. “We had another dancer friend join us in New York in 2011. Two years later, her brother joined the military. In 2016, three days before he was set to be discharged, he was tragically killed. She courageously created a ballet called ‘For My Father,’ which looks at her father’s journey through her brother’s life and service.”

There was not a dry eye in the audience.


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