Yazidi Women Surviving Daesh: Between Psychological Traumas and the Struggle to Reintegrate to Society
By Hanene Zbiss
“I have nightmares and I dream that Daesh fighters are strangling and raping me, so I wake up terrified. I feel scared and insecure all the time and I often wonder how I can continue living my life without a father, mother and family?” Amira (a pseudonym) says, her face frowning from pain and her eyes empty, as she is remembering the painful memories. She speaks from the ground of her dusty tent in the camp of Baadra (Dohuk).
Amira is a 17-year-old Yazidi girl who was taken captive with her family by Daesh during its attack on Sinjar (August 3, 2014) and then taken to Tal Afar and Mosul, where she was sold to a quadragenarian Emir named Ahmad. She tried to escape once and failed to, so the fighters of the group imprisoned and bound her for four days without food. They beat her and threatened to kill her mother, also captive, if she did not embrace Islam and observe prayers. Undeterred, she tried escape again and managed to flee this time, receiving help from a family from Mosul.
But fleeing from the grip of the organization did not end her torment; rather, it opened a new page of her suffering. Her nightmares never stop, and she is filled with fear while thinking about the future. Although she was receiving psychiatric treatment in the Health Prevention Department of Dohuk, she cannot forget what happened to her, leading her to attempt suicide several times.
Asma (pseudonym), 20, gave birth to her son while captive in the hands of Daesh. He is 10 months old now. Not only was she tortured and sexually assaulted, but the fighters of the group also deprived her baby from having milk. She delivered in bad conditions and without any health care, with the help of her grandmother, who happened to be captive with her. But the worst for her was the fighters naming her son after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the name of the leader Daesh.
She too is receiving psychological care after her escape, but she never stops remembering her ordeal. “Every night in my dream, I recall how Daesh attacked my village Hardan (Sinjar), killing all men and taking women, raping them. Then I wake up with tears wetting my pillow.”
Despite the liberation of many Yazidi women kidnapped by Daesh, most of them return with deep psychological problems. Some of them are pregnant and others have been forced to abort, while others fall victim to the temptations of the PKK, who recruit them to fight in Sinjar. Their return is often the beginning of more suffering as they live with the memories of captivity, torture, and rape, and an attempt to overcome this heavy experience. The difficult conditions of living in the camps accompanied by the loss of members of the family, many of them still in the hands of Daesh, does not help in forgetting the past ordeals.
Multiple Mental Disorders
“We liberated so far 2,579 Yazidi kidnapped, 931 of whom are women, 1,323 children and 325 men,” says Hussein Kourou Alqaidi, known as Abu Ali, director of the Office of the Kidnapped’s Affairs, of the Office of the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He estimates those remaining in the hands of Daesh at 3,800 people. The government’s offices, as well as some local Yazidi organizations and activists, have succeeded in recuperating nearly a thousand of the survivors and returned them to the rest of their families.
Dr. Nagham Nawzad, a gynecologist working in the Health Prevention Department in Dohuk–which is dedicated to providing physical and psychological health care for the Yazidi women survivors–estimates that “the basic problem they suffer from is deteriorated psychological state. Despite the physical and psychological follow-up that we provide them with, their situation remains difficult, because they are living in camps, they have lost their families and do not have news about them, and besides all that, they hear Daesh news 24 hours a day.” She adds, with regret, “They do not have a real possibility to forget.”
The most serious psychological disorders that survivors suffer from, according to Dr. Adnan Asaad Taher, a psychologist in Azadi Hospital’s Mental Health Department in Dohuk, are “post-traumatic stress such as having nightmares, depression disorders and generalized anxiety disorder.”
Mrs. Basma Haji is a social specialist in the German organization Ouadi, working on psychological and social support to survivors since October 2014. She tells stories of girls who attempted suicide many times after their return, describing, “The family of one of the survivors called me asking me to come quickly to the camp where they are located. When I arrived I found that the girl has scratched all her body with her nails and tried to strangle herself with her scarf. When I asked her why? She told me that she had a daydream of a Daesh fighter raping her.”
Haji’s colleague, Sarah Hassan, another social specialist in the same organization, tells the story of a 12-year-old girl whose “owner,” a Daesh member, used to put a somnifacient in milk every night and rape her. While she has not yet reached puberty, she wakes up every morning to find herself covered with blood. Notes Hassan, “That girl stayed speechless for two months after returning to the camp. She did not utter a single word.”
Haji and Hassan periodically visit the camps in the province of Dohuk to help the survivors, either psychologically or physically. Their method consists of finding a way to enter into a relationship of trust with the victims until they tell their story in a first stage; after that, they help them get psychological treatment through sending them to the hospital or to the Health Prevention Department in Dohuk. “Being Yazidi ourselves, and because, like them, we lost some of our families after the attack against Sinjar, helped us a lot in making them trust us and open their hearts to tell us what happened to them,” Haji confirms. On her side, Hassan explains that their method “relies on visiting the survivors of Daesh several times, making them feel comfortable to tell their stories or not. At the same time, we try to know their needs and we take them on tours outside the camp to the market or to the public parks, so as to get them out from the environment where they live.”
Care Exists, but is Insufficient
The Kurdistan Regional Government has given much consideration to the medical and psychological care for the Yazidi women survivors since the beginning of the crisis in August 2014. In fact, a health-care center was dedicated to them in Dohuk, since October 2014, according to Mr. Nizar Esmat, the Health Director of Dohuk.
He adds, “when a survivor comes to the care center, she is given a code number and a pseudonym, so as none can recognize her, then we submit her to a range of physical checkups to know if she carries viruses (AIDS, Ebola, Sexually Transmitted Diseases), or if she is pregnant. She is also submitted to a psychological evaluation to asses her exact situation, and, in light of all that, we offer her a special program of psychotherapy of her own.”
Serious cases are transferred to the Department of Mental Health of Azadi Hospital in Dohuk, where there are psychologists who can do the follow-up. “What we are doing is teaching patients how to deal with the psychological pressure. But if they have severe psychological disorders, we submit them to private psychological sessions that last between two and three months,” explains Dr. Adnan Asaad Taher, who supervises some cases in the hospital.
Dr. Taher confirms that many patients have already improved thanks to the psychotherapy they had. But the available psychiatric care remains insufficient given the large number of survivors suffering from difficult conditions.
Unsupportive Social Environment
While what the women experience under Daesh leaves enduring scars, their family’s reaction to their trauma can sometimes be equally problematic. The improvement of the psychological state of the survivors also depends on the environment in which they live and on how their conservative society accepts them. There is no doubt that the statement issued by the Yazidi religious authority of Baba Sheikh, on September 6, 2014 (one month after Daesh’s attack on Sinjar), played a major role in pushing families to accept the return of their daughters liberated from the grip of the organization. The first statement ever adopted in the Yazidi religion called for the reception of the returnees and considered them not guilty of what happened to them. His Eminence Baba Cheikh said: “We had to issue it because many girls were afraid to escape from Daesh for fear of being murdered by their own parents, so we estimated that we had to call on the Yazidi community to reintegrate them. Because they have been subjected to captivity and rape, they were forced to change their religion, but they did not choose to do that; they are therefore victims and not sinners.”
Indeed, the survivors were treated well by their families. “We were surprised when we saw how the families received and welcomed back their returning daughters,” asserts Haji, the social worker. “Further, many of the families cooperated with us in treating them.”
But the reactions of the Yazidi community as a whole, towards the returnees, were not all positive. The survivors continued to suffer from negative accusing looks, in addition to persisting questions about what happened to them while in captivity. “Whenever I go out of the tent, eyes hunt me and all those whom I meet on my way inside the camp, ask: Have you been raped? In addition, young men point at me with their fingers saying: That is the girl that was raped by Daesh, one can never marry her,” Faten (a pseudonym) says while holding back her tears.
Large Demand for Hymen Repair Surgery and Abortions
The suspicious looks and insinuations push many survivors to feel the need to have hymen repair surgery, in an attempt to restore an honor that was violated against their will. “When we go to visit the survivors, many of them ask us to help them find a solution to repair their hymen. When we ask why, they say that they cannot live a normal life after the sexual assault they suffered from,” explains Haji, the social worker. “So,” she adds, “we coordinated with the Government of Kurdistan and the Department of Health in Dohuk and Zakho, so we can take the girls to them in total confidentiality, so they have hymen repair surgeries.” The Director of Health of Dohuk confirms this, saying: “There are cases that ask us to do them hymen repair surgeries, and we respond to their requests following Health laws and regulations.” But he warns that “not all operations are successful,” especially if the girl was victim to gang rape.
Survivors also ask for help to abort if they fell pregnant from Daesh fighters. This is also something the Department of Health in Dohuk allows them to have. But that does not always happen in the legal periods. They may undergo abortion operations after three months of pregnancy or even in the last months because of the survivor’s insistence to get rid of pregnancy that reminds them of the tragedy they have suffered. Hassan says “we had a case of a survivor who was four months pregnant and she was determined to abort and kept saying: I do not want Daesh’s baby and if you do not help me get rid of it, I will make suicide!”
For their part, workers in the Health Department of Dohuk refuse to talk about this subject, preferring to keep complete secrecy about this sensitive issue.
However, the issue is strongly problematic, especially for kidnapped girls who stayed for long periods in the grip of the organization and who have been subjected to sexual abuse and rape without been able to abort. Hassan, the social worker, tells us the story of a Yazidi woman who was captive in Syria and fled from Daesh while she was eight months pregnant to give birth in Turkey, out of sight, and then abandoned the child there in the hospital and returned to Iraq. “For her, it was impossible to keep a child from Daesh.”
It is difficult to obtain information about the children born as a result of rapes, because of the extreme secrecy on the subject both from the survivors and the governmental departments that help them, but it is certain that they exist and the local government will have to find a solution to their issue sooner or later.
Inauguration of Reintegration Centers
Under these difficult circumstances, it became necessary to find solutions for survivors’ reintegration into their communities to open new horizons.
In the beginning of July 2015, Ouadi Organization opened Jinda Center (that means giving life), with the contribution of UNICEF and other international organizations, to take care of girls affected because of Daesh. “We had that idea due to our conclusion that the survivors needed to get out of the difficult atmosphere in which they live, especially in the camps,” explains Chiman Abdul Aziz Rashid, Director of the Center. The Center transports Yazidi female survivors daily from the various camps in the province of Dohuk, where they live. It provides them with recreational, cultural and educational activities. They are thus given training in sewing, handicrafts, hairstyling, and baking. They are also taken to stadiums for sports or to public parks to entertain them. The Center also presents them documentaries about women who experienced similar tragedies like what happened to women of Kosovo, so they know they are not alone. There is also a library for those who want to instruct themselves.
“There is also a program within the Jinda center to assist survivors who cannot leave the camp because they have to care for their children; they are provided with female trainers in the camp to teach them,” Chiman confirms. Up until now, the Center has helped 260 survivors.
Two other centers were also established by international organizations to rehabilitate Yazidi survivors in Erbil, in cooperation with the Regional Government of Kurdistan, according to Abu Ali, Director of the Office of Kidnapped’s Affairs, who states that the location of the two centers remains a secret so as not to disturb the girls. He notes, “The two centers received about 200 survivors.”
Traveling Outside Iraq for Treatment
Despite the attempts to rehabilitate the survivors and help them reintegrate into their communities again, many cases remain difficult, and require transfer outside of Iraq for treatment. To address this need, a cooperation agreement was signed in 2014 between the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, and the Kurdistan Regional Government to send about 1,000 of Daesh’s Yazidi women victims with their families to Germany for treatment through the end of 2015. This program was implemented by the Organization Iraqi- German Air Bridge that is in charge of the selection and transporting the cases. The cost of the project was 30 million euros, and 1080 survivors traveled thanks to this project.
“When they arrive in Germany, they are granted residence papers for two years and provided with housing, accommodation and a salary in addition to medical and psychological treatment,” explains Dr. Mirza BnawI, Director of the organization, stressing that “what the survivors who traveled need most is to get out of the atmosphere in which they were living in Iraq, so they feel safe and stable.” After two years, the survivor has the freedom to return to Iraq or stay, where the survivor receives permanent residence papers in Germany.
A set of criteria established by the program gives travel priority to the “women who were prisoners of war in the hands of the Islamic State’s fighters and succeeded in escaping, meaning women who are in need of protection, or have been subjected to psychological trauma or contracted another disease as a result of captivity,” proclaims Ilhan Kizilhan, the German therapist and expert in trauma who travels constantly to Iraq to oversee this process, in a statement to the Deutsch Welle Channel.
Dr. Nagham Nozad, another volunteer in the Iraqi-German Air Bridge, considers that this program has had a positive impact on the survivors who were transferred to Germany. She says: “We noticed they were psychologically relieved in a dramatic way and their feelings of anxiety and fear decreased, as a result of feeling secure.” She adds, “When they travel, they get a chance to forget about what happened with them and they can get interested with things such as going back to school or learning Dutch language or enrolling in courses to learn some skills.”
Criticisms of Travel Program
Despite its success, the program received criticism from the survivors themselves, who found it difficult to adapt to the new environment and its requirements, in addition to being unable to bear staying away from their families.
Faten (a pseudonym), 17 years old, is one of the survivors that traveled to Germany within this program but returned to Iraq two months later to stay close to her family, especially as she was the only remaining family member of her mother and father, after Daesh killed the rest of her family.
She tells the story about her experience in the German city of Stuttgart, saying: “As soon as we arrived, me and the girls who were in the same group, we had complete medical and psychological check out, then we were given the monthly salary (325 euros per person) and free cards to use the train and we were told that we are free now to go where we desire to!”
Mona, 19 years old girl, traveled twice to Germany to finally decide to return permanently to Iraq with her sister, brother and mother. She found herself and her family, with one hundred and thirteen Yazidi families, in a four-floor hospital in Stuttgart, due to the lack of empty apartments. She says: “Our life there was like imprisonment and meaningless. We were paired two persons in each bedroom and there was only one TV for all, without any Iraqi channels. Besides, the monthly salary is only enough for food, while we cannot buy clothes with it.”
For Dr. Nagham, the reaction of the survivors currently in Germany is ordinary: “Because Europe’s environment is different from ours, it is difficult for them to adapt easily.” As for the absence of Arab and Iraqi television channels, she explains that it is due to the care of the German psychotherapists to keep the survivors away from any possible source that will remind them of Daesh and of what had happened with them in Iraq. She adds: “In any case, their stay in Germany is currently better than staying in Iraq especially if the situation does not improve, since their regions are not fully liberated nor their relatives kidnapped and captured by the Islamic state returned.”
Recruitment by the PKK
Not all of the survivors have had a chance to leave Iraq, like Faten, Mona and others, because the program of transfer to Germany only included 1,080 persons in the end, which is not an exhaustive number.
Therefore, many others submitted to the temptations of the PKK, which is active in the Sinjar border region between Iraq and Syria. The PKK exploits survivors’ status and tragedies to recruit them, persuading them it will teach them how to protect themselves and take revenge on Daesh if they fight in the party’s ranks in the Sinjar area.
Survivors tell frequent stories about Yazidi girls who have left the camps to join the Units for the Protection of Women in Sinjar of the PKK, a women’s military force that was established on January 25, 2015, specifically for Yazidi women. In many cases the enrollment happens without the knowledge of the parents.
What encouraged the PKK to recruit Yazidi survivors was its contribution to the liberation of many of them, especially those who were in the hands of Daesh in Syria. Chimen Abdulaziz, Director of Jinda Center, tells the story of a survivor who was helped by PKK fighters to flee Daesh with two other girls who had been in Syria. Then the PKK asked them to join its ranks, but this particular girl asked for three days to see her family in Iraq and never came back; rather, she stayed in one of the camps in Dohuk.
Officials of the Units for the Protection of Women do not deny the fact that they train Yazidi girls from Sinjar and other women to fight in order to subsequently join the fronts of confrontation with Daesh, but they deny they recruit the survivors, asserting that those who enroll do it as volunteers. Hezel, one of the trainers, says: “Some Yazidi women come to us from the camps where they face psychological pressure, and contact us to say they want to join our ranks. And since they find it difficult to face the prevailing customs and traditions that prevent them from joining us, we help and make it easier for them to come.”
On the other hand, the officials of PKK recognize that the recruitment of Yazidi women has become easier than before, because of the tragedies these women have been subjected to in Sinjar. Hadar, a cadre in the Units for the Protection of Women in Sinjar says: “Before the massacre, it was hard to have access to them because the families opposed that. We used to take some of them and secretly train them in their houses, or somewhere else, on how to use weapons. But after what happened in Sinjar, the field was open and it became possible for us to bring them here (Mount Sinjar) and train them.”
Naima Khalil Saado, a 28 year old Yazidi girl from Sinjar, who joined the PKK’s Unit for the Protection of Women in Sinjar earlier, says: “At first, when I saw the party’s women fighters come to our land to fight Daesh, I wanted to join them, but later on they asked me to fight in other lands where there are no Yazidi people, so I refused because my principle was to defend my land.” She adds: “They put more pressure on me and threatened me, so I ran away. They tried to persecute me, but I looked for protection from the Peshmerga forces.”
The violence and atrocities committed by Daesh are thus not the only challenges Yazidi survivors face. From facing the difficulties of gaining effective treatment to standing up to the stigmas of their ordeals, the women also find themselves stuck between the hammer of Daesh and the anvil of the PKK, victims of forces and interests that surpass them. In the meantime, they try to overcome what they have experienced to start their lives again.