In a New York Times photo, 4-year-old Bilal looks like any other kid sitting in bed, lost in a video game on a smartphone.
But there is a back-story. Bilal grew up in Mosul, Iraq, living on the run with his father, who was a fighter for the Islamic State. And right there is the question facing officials in Russia -- Chechnya, to be specific -- and in several European states: What should leaders in these nations do with children, especially boys, who grew up witnessing people beheaded, stoned and gunned down?
What about boys who were actually forced to take part in some of these rituals, as part of ISIS efforts to turn them into ultimate warriors? Are they, as one German official puts it, "living time bombs?"
That's the question at the heart of this fine Times story, which ran with the headline: "Raised by ISIS, Returned to Chechnya: ‘These Children Saw Terrible Things’." Here is a crucial summary passage near the top of this international-desk story:
As the American-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by the Islamic State, they found among the ruins a grim human wreckage of the organization’s once successful recruitment drive: hundreds and perhaps thousands of children born to or brought with the men and women who had flocked to Syria in support of the Islamic State.
While Russia, which has so far returned 71 children and 26 women since August, may seem surprisingly lenient in its policy, its actions reflect a hardheaded security calculus: better to bring children back to their grandparents now than have them grow up in camps and possibly return as radicalized adults.
“What should we do, leave them there so somebody will recruit them?” said Ziyad Sabsabi, the Russian senator who runs the government-backed program. “Yes, these children saw terrible things, but when we put them in a different environment, with their grandparents, they change quickly.”
Now, as you would expect, I do have questions about the role of religious faith in all of this. I would have liked to have seen a bit more information about the role of Islam in this process.
After all, these children witnessed horrors that are hard to imagine. At the same time, they were raised to think of these acts as an essential part of a twisted, radicalized version of Islam. Wouldn't this leave them with hard questions, questions that children would find it hard to articulate?
In that summary passage, please note what I think is a crucial detail: Russian officials have chosen to have these young ISIS survivors assigned to live with their grandparents, as opposed to putting them into foster homes or into systems leading to adoption.
Reading between the lines, it's possible that this was done to keep these children in Islam -- which is a faith that Russian officials have granted official, historic status. Was religion part of this recovery calculus? Was any screening done to help keep these children out of whatever institutions played grassroots roles in the recruitment of their parents?
There is a passage near the end of this story that hints at the "religion ghosts" that are in play in this healing process. While most of the children are quiet or silent, there is a young mother who was willing to talk about her struggles to grasp Allah's role in all of this.
Hava Beitermurzayeva, now 22, slipped away in 2015 from her parents’ home in the village of Gekhi in Chechnya to marry an Islamic State soldier she had met online, and she wound up living in Raqqa, the capital of the militant group’s so-called caliphate in Syria.
She said in an interview that she spent most of her time cloistered at home, with a new son. The Islamic State militants, she added, enforced religious rules and staged public executions, by beheading or stoning, for crimes like adultery.
“The passers-by could stop and watch,” Ms. Beitermurzayeva said, though she says she never did herself.
Back at home now, she seems remarkably untroubled by her experiences and still enthusiastic about the caliphate, though, as she says, it was not God’s will to work out this time.
“Everything that happened to me was determined by God,” she said. “If I were to regret it, I would be unhappy with the fate that God gave me.”
God's will was thwarted this time? What does that mean?
Like I said: This is a fine story, with lots of painful, poignant details. However, I was left with all kinds of religious questions about this tricky, but essential, process with these young survivors.
FIRST IMAGE: Photo -- with no credit line -- from a report in The Baghdad Post.