The Fate of Yazidi Women Captured by ISIS
“One night, I decided to commit suicide. I put a scarf around my neck and pulled it tight. I felt there was no hope that I could escape from the hands of ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]. I believed that death would be the only solution. But my relatives wouldn’t let me do it.” This is how 25-year-old Buthaina (she and other former captives interviewed have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities), one of the women and girls abducted by the extremist group and recently liberated, recounts the suffering she endured to the point of being ready to take her own life.
Buthaina is from the village of Kucho in Iraq’s northern district of Sinjar, near the border with Syria. She is a member of the Yazidi, a small ethno-religious group who have been persecuted for centuries because of their religious beliefs, which have roots in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. After ISIS attacked her village, Buthaina found herself held captive like thousands of other women and girls kidnapped by the group and kept as spoils of war.
At certain times, she lost hope of ever being free again. While some like her have tried to commit suicide—and occasionally succeeded—others have been able to escape. However, the majority remain under ISIS’s control. According to a March 2015 report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, about 3,000 people—mostly Yazidis—remain in ISIS captivity, while local activists estimate the number to be much higher.
Beaten, tortured, starved, raped, bought and sold into sexual slavery, threatened with death, forced to convert to Islam and accept “legitimate marriage” to their tormentors—this is their daily existence. With the exception of a small number of individuals and local organizations, few seem to know or care about their fate. The government of Iraqi Kurdistan points to a lack of resources to help them, while the international community has largely turned a blind eye to their plight.
The tragedy for these women and girls began in August 2014, when ISIS attacked Sinjar, home to one of the country’s largest Yazidi communities. The militants faced little resistance from peshmerga troops—the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan—who were defending the area. Feeling abandoned by the peshmerga, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to nearby Mount Sinjar, where they survived for days with little food or water. After the West launched airstrikes against ISIS fighters and made humanitarian aid drops for the refugees, several thousand Yazidis were rescued by Kurdish troops via a humanitarian corridor to Syria. Others fell into the hands of ISIS militants, who killed the men and took the women and children captive. Members of ISIS, who follow a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, regard the non-Muslim Yazidis as infidels who must be cleansed to create a pure Islamic state, and they use their faith to justify their treatment of female Yazidis.
Nineteen-year-old Seham describes how ISIS attacked her village, Kushu, and took her along with her relatives and friends. “On the evening of August 2, we learned that the group had come close to the village, so we decided to run away. But when we reached a checkpoint manned by the peshmerga, they asked us to return to our homes and reassured us that they would protect us. So we went back only to discover that they had withdrawn the next day and to find ourselves face to face with ISIS which gave us two days to convert to Islam. Before the end of these two days, a man named Abu Hamza came and told us that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [the leader of ISIS] had issued a general amnesty, and that they would treat us like Christians and allow us to leave the mountain [where many who had fled had found shelter]. Then we heard that the people of the neighboring village, who had been given the same promise, decided to escape at night. This angered the group, which turned its rage against us,” Seham recalls.
“We were ordered to go to the school building, the Kushu Secondary School for boys. There, the women were separated from the men. Then we were asked to go to the top floor. Shortly afterwards, we heard gunfire. When we asked about it, we were told that they were shooting some dogs. It was only later we learned that they had killed most of our men. Then they asked us to go down to the school yard. They separated the young women and girls from the older women and children under the age of three. Later, everyone was put into separate cars to be taken first to Tal Afar and then to Mosul. We ended up in a three-story house belonging to a Shiite judge. There were nearly 160 of us girls, mostly from Kushu.”
Seham remembers how one of the fighters promised that he would treat her like a sister and not touch her. But after a few days, he broke his promise. When she refused to submit to him, he beat her and threatened to kill her two-year-old son, who was with her when she was kidnapped.
The house described by Seham was one of the buildings where prominent members of ISIS and Sunni tribesmen collaborating with the group would come every day to examine and choose the ones they wanted. “They used to come twice a day. They asked us to line up by the wall, and when we tried to avoid been selected by hiding our faces with our hair or our scarves, they forced us to uncover our faces,” a girl named Nadia affirms, adding that “they preferred the prettiest girls, the youngest, and the unmarried.” Most of the men were over the age of 50, since priority was given to ISIS leaders, rather than younger fighters. Many girls were raped in that house. “We could hear the ones who were chosen and taken to the upper floors scream and beg for mercy. Then they would come back to the room where we were being held, their faces and bodies covered with bruises,” 20-year-old Muna remembers.
Experiences such as these have pushed many women and girls to attempt suicide by means including trying to hang or strangle themselves, cutting their wrists, and ingesting poison. According to Nareen Shammo, one of the founders of the Initiative for Yazidis Around the World, 41 reportedly have managed to take their own lives. Others who tried to kill themselves were stopped by members of ISIS, who regard their deaths as the loss of a valuable commodity.
After a woman or girl is captured, she is bought and sold by the fighters for a price determined by her age and beauty. ISIS recently produced a document listing the prices that each of these captives can fetch. Girls who command the highest price—200,000 Iraqi dinars (about US$166)—are under the age of 9. Those between 10 and 20 years of age sell for 150,000 dinars ($125), followed by women between 20 and 30 years, who command 100,000 dinars ($83), and those between 30 and 40, who sell for 75,000 dinars ($62). Women between 40 and 50 years of age are sold for the lowest price—only 50,000 dinars ($41). After a girl or woman has been purchased, she is moved to other areas in Iraq under ISIS control, such as Mosul and Tal Afar, or taken from Iraq to Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan.
In early December, ISIS issued written instructions detailing interactions between fighters and their captives. In this booklet, ISIS justifies capturing the “infidels”—a group that includes women from the “peoples of the Scripture, or pagans.” A man may marry his captive immediately if she is a virgin, but if she is not, he must wait until she has reached puberty. The sale, purchase, or gifting of “female slaves” is also permitted since they are regarded as property. Sex with a slave who hasn’t reached puberty is allowed if she is “fit” for intercourse; if she is not deemed fit, then “it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.”
It is not only girls who have been targeted by ISIS. Boys over the age of three have been separated from their mothers and taken to isolated locations where they receive instruction in the Koran and Islamic law. Eleven-year-old Malek describes how he was kept in a house with 40 other children, and how the teacher would visit them at night to teach them the Koran. Anyone who did not memorize the verses would be beaten. “The fighters assigned to guard us used to say bad things about our religion, and when we asked about our families, they told us that they had killed them. I was afraid they would kill me too,” Malek remembers. Although he was eventually freed, he still feels scared. “Even now, when I sleep, I dream that they are coming to kidnap me.”
The Price of Securing Freedom
Despite the odds against them, not all of those held captive have lost hope. Some dare to consider the possibility of rescue or escape. Although ordered to hand over all of their possessions, some manage to keep their cell phones by hiding them in various places—even their babies’ diapers. They use this link with the outside world to maintain contact with family members and Yazidi activists, discussing possible escape plans and providing vital information about their location and ISIS’s movements.
An organization called SAIFO has helped lead the effort to rescue them. The three Kurdish men from Sinjar who founded SAIFO—Abu Dara, Mahmoud Mardin, and Dler Sinjari—benefit from their friendly relations with the leaders of local Sunni Arab tribes who are known to have contact with followers of ISIS. The tribesmen negotiate directly with ISIS to purchase one of these women or girls under the pretext of holding her captive themselves; then they offer her temporary housing. SAIFO prepares a false identification card for her and buys her an Islamic Hijab to wear. As Abu Dara explains, “We make arrangements with a taxi driver we know to take the girl from Mosul or Tel Afar, along with the driver’s family as a cover. The driver then brings her out of the area under ISIS’s control and takes her to Kurdistan, where we are waiting to deliver her to her family.”
Such operations can be expensive. The Sunni Arab tribal leader receives between $1,000 and $2,000 to cover the costs of the freed captive’s stay until her departure, and the taxi driver is paid between $1,200 and $1,300. Thus, the cost of liberating just one person from ISIS’s control can run approximately $4,000.
In addition, there is always the chance that those involved will demand to be paid more—sometimes much more—than the actual value of the services they provide. As Mahmoud Mardin explained, the rent of the house where the woman or girl is taken after being liberated might cost only $40, but SAIFO could be charged $2,000, and the taxi fare that usually doesn’t exceed $60 ends up costing them $1,300. A $1 fake identification card might cost $500, and a Hijab which typically sells for no more than $15 could be sold to SAIFO for $250. But as Mardin emphasizes, “The amount we pay does not matter even though it is high. What matters most to us is to free as many of those who have been kidnapped as possible.”
According to SAIFO’s most recent figures, 223 captives have been rescued, including more than 100 women and girls. The group’s efforts have extended from Iraq into Syria, where their members maintain relationships with Sunni Arab tribes in the region. They are in the process of securing the freedom of about 40 others.
These operations are fraught with danger. As Abu Dara explains. “One day, we were contacted by a man who said that he was keeping at his home two kidnapped girls whom he had freed. He asked us to send him a driver to Tel Afar to pick them up. But when the driver arrived, he was shocked to learn that the man had informed ISIS that he was coming in order to capture and kill him [as punishment for facilitating the girls’ liberation].”
Not Enough Help
Such risks haven’t stopped Abu Dara and others in SAIFO from continuing their mission. However, they are concerned about dwindling financial resources, which may force them to discontinue their operations. They are also frustrated by the lack of support they have received from governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
The regional government in Kurdistan admits that it is inadequately equipped to deal with the situation. According to Nazand Bajikhani, advisor to the president on higher education and gender issues, “We do not have enough resources to face this problem. Our goal is not just to save the kidnapped, but also to help them to get back to their normal lives with their families.” As she explains, their approach is two-fold: first, freeing those kidnapped with the help of Sunni Arab tribesmen; and second, providing them with the necessary medical care, both physical and psychological.
Meanwhile, the international community has largely turned a blind eye to this tragedy. Despite the actions of many Yazidi activists within and outside of Iraq, who have organized protests and campaigns in Europe and the United States and produced detailed reports on the plight of these captives, “we only get promises,” said the Yazidi activist Nareen Shommo. In an effort to draw international attention to their cause, civil society groups and some female members of parliament organized a protest on July 27 in front of both the American consulate and the United Nations mission headquarters in Irbil. While the American Consul refused to meet with the demonstrators, a UN mission representative promised to deliver a letter from them to the United Nations.
The Suffering Continues
The needs of these Yazidi women and girls don’t end after they have been liberated and returned to their families. Most have not received any treatment to help them heal psychologically or rebuild their lives. They continue to suffer the effects of the abuse that they experienced while in captivity and remain haunted by painful memories. “I have nightmares every night that ISIS fighters are coming to kidnap me, and I wake up terrified. I am scared to go outside alone, and each time I hear a noise I feel frightened and insecure,” said Butheina. In addition, they fear that ISIS will seek revenge against family members whom they may still be holding, a concern that leads most of them to hide their true identities.
Some are fortunate to enjoy the support of both local religious leaders and their families. Talib, who succeeded in freeing six of his female relatives, said, “We welcome our girls who were raped and who have returned. We accept them as we know that they are not at fault for what happened to them because of ISIS. We will take care of them even more than before.”
Others are not so lucky. Perhaps the greatest obstacle most of them face is overcoming hostility from members of their own communities who don’t always see them as blameless victims. Because sexual assault is a sensitive topic within the Yazidi community, many refuse to acknowledge having been raped, even to their own families. Instead, they prefer to speak about friends who have been victimized. However, circumstances sometimes make hiding the truth difficult if not impossible. Rather than admit to her family that she became pregnant by her rapist while in captivity, Seham insists that the father of her unborn child is her husband—who, along with his brother and father, was killed by ISIS in front of her.
Meanwhile, the suffering of thousands of Yazidi women and girls held by ISIS continues. Their only hope is that Western aerial bombardments will bring them freedom, either in life or in death. As Butheina says, “Each time we heard the sound of the jet fighters, we hoped for liberation—even at the expense of our own lives.”