Ahmet Izgi / Anadolu / Getty Images
Ahmet Izgi / Anadolu / Getty Images

Yazidi families struggle to find and free enslaved daughters

UN condemns ‘barbaric acts’ but hits roadblocks in releasing thousands of girls still held by ISIL fighters

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the humanitarian crisis the Yazidis of northern Iraq are facing. Part one is here.

DOHUK, Iraqi Kurdistan — Aysha hears screams in her sleep. Nightmarish memories flash through her mind — her husband writhing on the village road, face to the ground, hands tied behind his back; 2,000 women huddled on the floor, with men prowling around them, growling words they don’t understand; a man with a deep voice approaching, saying “You are for me.” Aysha shrinks, tosses, opens her mouth to scream but hears only wails from her 1-year-old son. Faces and noises blur together. She yells for her husband, but he is far away and cannot hear. Eventually she wakes up, realizing once again that she is one of the lucky few who have escaped.

Rain leaked into the cold, unfinished house where 19-year-old Aysha, a Yazidi, lives, dripping mud onto her mat on the floor. Her son whimpered in his sleep. Aysha (who asked that her real name not be used) cradled him in one arm, rubbing her bulging belly with the other. Five of her relatives were asleep in the same room, flies buzzing at their faces as rain pounded outside the window. “One more month,” she whispered to her unborn child. “Then you will be here.”

A Yazidi woman demonstration against the ISIL attacks, in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in September 2014.
Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu / Getty Images

The Yazidis caught the world’s attention in August when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. Some 200,000 Yazidis fled into the mountains, walking for days as the weakest died of hunger and thirst. International forces sent humanitarian supplies and attacked ISIL fighters from the air, opening a path for Kurdish militias to evacuate the Yazidis. They flooded through Syria and took shelter in tents, parks and schools in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Amid the subsequent politics of forming an international anti-ISIL coalition, few asked what happened to those Yazidis who didn’t escape.

But the captured Yazidis’ stories have come trickling and then streaming out in recent months as some manage to escape. In September the United Nations confirmed rumors flying through the Yazidi community: ISIL and associated armed groups were systematically hunting down their relatives, killing the men and abducting women and children for forced marriage, rape and slavery. The U.N. report is a litany of horrors —men massacred in the thousands, disabled people executed, shrines blown up, orphaned children under sexual assault and girls chained in markets for sale.

A month later, ISIL published its own account of sexual slavery, a swaggering explanation of why Yazidi women are “devil worshippers” who can and should be enslaved, as opposed to Jews and Christians, who can pay to keep their beliefs.

“This large-scale enslavement … is probably the first since the abandonment of this Shariah,” the article boasted, and then delved into an ostensibly religious justification for use of Yazidis as sex slaves. Men are easily tempted to commit adultery with hired maids, it stated, “whereas if she were his concubine, this relationship would be legal.”

Besides Kurds, many minorities — including Yazidis, Turkmen and Christian groups — inhabit northern Iraq.
Neda Djavaherian

‘Do all they can’

The U.N. is monitoring and reporting on the captured Yazidis’ situation to the Security Council and the Human Rights Council. It is advocating for the Iraqi government and the international community to “do all they can to rescue these women and children” and to care for escapees, said Francesco Motta, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, in an email.

U.N. officers declined to specify what “do all they can” means, explaining that their mandate does not include military or political action. The Secretary General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, and special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, made a joint statement condemning the “barbaric acts” and urging all parties to protect civilians.

Although the Kurdish parliament sent a formal delegation to the Hague asking for recognition of ISIL’s actions as genocide, the request was rejected on grounds that Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Membership would be the “first step” toward international recognition of Yazidi genocide, said Kurdish Iraqi Prime Minister Zana Rostayi. Also, it might spur international accountability for the former Iraqi regime’s anti-Kurdish campaign and chemical attacks in the 1980s, not to mention a host of ongoing human rights violations against civilians committed by the Iraqi Security Forces and affiliated forces. As long as both government and nonstate armed groups continue to violate international law, Iraqi accession to the ICC is unlikely.

Yazidi children outside a Dohuk school where they live.
Alice Su

In the meantime, who can rescue the captured Yazidis?

Helgurd Hikmet, a representative from the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said his forces’ priority is not targeted rescue but liberation of entire ISIL-held areas.

“We must save the women, children, all the people there, and the land,” he said. “There are thousands of displaced people in Kurdistan. We must free the cities so people can go back and live there.”

A rescue mission might have been possible in August, when many of the abductees were concentrated in cities like Tal Afar and Mosul. But now the Yazidi women are spread out, sold by ISIL into private households across swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“Logically speaking, these women are scattered in ISIL houses across wide geographic areas, from Sinjar and Mosul up to Raqqa and the middle of Syria,” said U.N. Population Fund program analyst Solav Mustafa. “We are talking about thousands. Can you imagine a military action that could save these women? Who even knows where they are?”

According to Mustafa, some Yazidis are negotiating with heads of tribes from Mosul and other ISIL areas to buy back enslaved family members. “They are trying all the ways in order to bring back their daughters,” she said. 

On Nov. 4 the Kurdish government announced having paid $1.5 million to intermediaries who helped 234 Yazidis escape.

“We are not paying any money to the Islamic State,” KRG official Nuri Osman told Kurdish news outlet Rudaw. “We pay the people who are helping us, and it doesn’t matter to us whether they buy them from the Islamic State.”

Yazidi activist Khidher Domle clarified that the KRG reimburses local Yazidi committees, who pay middlemen in ISIL territory providing temporary protection and transportation to escaped Yazidis. “We never pay to buy a woman back from [ISIL],” Domle said of indirect efforts to rescue people from ISIL. “But there are still good people in Mosul who help us. They protect women who run away.”

U.N. officers, Kurdish MPs, international human rights workers and Yazidi leaders alike rejected the idea of direct negotiation with ISIL. “Their only means of negotiation is the sword,” said one U.N. employee who asked to remain anonymous, adding that there can be no reasoning with a barbarian group that brutalizes civilians in the name of God. 

“It’s completely inhuman," he said. "There is no jihad by the name of sex slavery.”

Each stick figure above represents 100 disappeared Yazidis who were either enslaved or killed.
Neda Djavaherian

Sexual stigma

Many parties are trying to track the kidnapped and escaped Yazidis, but their efforts are disparate and uncoordinated. Meanwhile, the Kurdish government’s special committee on Yazidi refugees and escapees issues numbers for those who have fled. “Everyone is trying to do something but has no idea what the others are doing,” said Mustafa.

The result is redundancy at the advocacy level and disillusionment from the girls who have escaped. Aysha said she has told her story to several journalists and NGO workers who promised they were there to help. A few of them gave her some money, she said, about $300 altogether.

The special sensitivity of sexual abuse makes rescue efforts difficult to coordinate. The escaped girls are not only physically wounded and mentally traumatized but also vulnerable to public shame that can lead to further violence. Early in the conflict, U.N. agencies set up a 24/7 hotline in Dohuk, wanting to publicize the number and provide medical services, shelters and specialized trauma counseling for escaped women. But the Dohuk Directorate of Health asked the U.N. to stay out.

Since Jan. 1, UN reports a huge number of IDPs.
Neda Djavaherian

“This is a strict society where sexual stigma has serious cultural and social consequences,” said Dr. Bakhtiyar Ahmed, head of the directorate’s technical department. He said his team provides immediate medical care, psychosocial support and any other services to the women, but he would not identify locations or aid providers.

“We prefer to keep this completely confidential. Refer any escaped women to us, and we will give them directions,” he said. “We do not want their trauma used for other sensational or political purposes.”

As a result of the high level of sensitivity, many women do not know about available services. Saad Babir, a doctor who recently spent 10 days on Sinjar mountain attending to sick Yazidis and injured fighters, said 16 escaped women from Tal Afar arrived while he was there.

When asked if he referred them to medical or psychosocial services in Dohuk, he scoffed. “There aren’t any places that help those girls,” said the doctor, who volunteered through the Directorate of Health. “The government doesn’t care. There’s no real place to go.”

According to Babir, the women weren’t even told the fate of their loved ones.

“We knew the women’s families had been killed, but we told them they’d only been captured,” he said. “They were already traumatized enough.”

‘This is a strict society where sexual stigma has serious cultural and social consequences. We prefer to keep this completely confidential. Refer any escaped women to us, and we will give them directions.’

Dr. Bakhtiyar Ahmed

Dohuk Directorate of Health

A Yazidi family in an unfinished building where they live in the town of Shariya, after fleeing from ISIL's advance.
Alice Su

Aysha said she had never received or heard of free assistance for victims of sexual violence. But she wasn’t seeking it. Since escaping a month ago, she went to a doctor to check on the pregnancy but didn’t mention anything about having been in ISIL captivity. “There are so many sick people. He doesn’t have time for more stories about suffering,” she said.

Luma, a doctor and sexual violence specialist in Dohuk who asked to be identified by first name only, said most women would not come forward for help. “The problem is not finding them,” Luma said. “The problem is convincing them to come and follow instructions when they don’t want to talk about the subject at all.”

When the U.N. had its 24/7 hotline, only one or two cases were identified over two weeks of service, according to UNHCR protection officer Nabeela Sweisat. All the escapees interviewed for this article said they hadn’t been sexually abused, although all said they knew other women who were. Many of them had male relatives in the room who interrupted to say, “She is clean.”

Iraq’s displacement crisis is dire. Many Yazidis are living without blankets or roofs, and winter rains have begun. The girls run away from rape only to live under plastic tarps, nameless and shamed among 1.9 million newly displaced people, more than half of whom do not have basic food, water and shelter. Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that three escaped Yazidi women attempted suicide in the displaced people’s camps since August. One of them succeeded.

“In this whole conflict, it’s the women who have paid more and more,” said Mustafa. “They are used like wood for a fire.” Amid all the horrors of this crisis, the Yazidi women’s plight must be especially addressed, she said. Those who talk to these girls must not only take their stories but also refer them to the groups that can help before it’s too late.

Aysha seems to have given up on obtaining help. She refuses to approach the service providers in Dohuk, even when told they will maintain confidentiality and offer free help.

“I’d rather stay at home,” she repeated. Her baby is coming, and she’s tired.

“Write my story if you want,” she said, “but nothing will happen.” She turned toward the window and watched the rain, rocking back and forth, eyes glazing over, alone.

A grandmother displaced to the town of Khanke was stuck on Mt. Sinjar for a week, escaping on the back of her son.
Alice Su

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