How they stand
ISIS may be beaten in Iraq and Syria, but for Yazidi women who have escaped its atrocities, the battle to survive such brutality and find justice for war crimes is only beginning
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One thing you notice, interviewing the survivors, is they all sit the same way: knees pulled to their chests, arms encircling their knees, hugging themselves tightly as they talk, wanting to share but also recoil from violent memories of their captivity at the hands of Islamic State.
ISIS may be defeated on the battlefield, but one thing is clear: Families made Islamic State a state. The presence of women, children, schools, and commerce lent legitimacy to an illegitimate stake in the territory militants once controlled (one-third of both Syria and Iraq until 2017), a base from where they launched attacks on Paris, Brussels, London, and elsewhere.
Forced in March from its final stronghold in Syria, ISIS fighters with their thousands of burqa-clad women and children have fled the Syrian city of Baghuz into the desert. Public attention has focused on their plight without distinction between women who voluntarily joined ISIS and captives enduring its brutal slavery.
Yet inside Islamic State, the situation for non-Muslim captives and Muslim adherents could not be more different. ISIS treats the former as property, not people. Sexual violence and other war crimes, often momentary, these women have endured for years. Those interviewed for this story told me of being chained to walls, left in dark basements with dozens of women and children, without toilet facilities or even a bucket, for days. Some were starved, and nearly all were raped.
Even as Iraqi, Syrian, and U.S. coalition forces beat back ISIS occupation, the atrocities haven’t ended. Of more than 6,700 Yazidi women and girls captured, 3,000 are still in captivity.
Yet hundreds of Yazidi women have managed to escape over the last 4½ years. Most are young women, some are girls. Martine is no different, except for this one thing I can’t get past when I first meet her: She is 12 years old.
Martine had just celebrated her eighth birthday when ISIS fighters in white trucks showed up in her village, Xanasour, on Aug. 3, 2014. They captured her mother, two sisters, and a brother on an exceptionally hot day. Militants caravanned them town to town before Martine was “sold” to an Iraqi fighter in his 40s, a married man with four children.
It’s a cold, damp, late January day in 2019 when we sit side by side on the floor of a safe house just outside Sharya, one of the camps for Yazidi survivors. I had traveled that morning from Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, passing military checkpoints and crossing a bridge under construction that ISIS had blown up in 2014. Inside the sparsely furnished concrete home, our breaths make puffs in the air until a kerosene heater warms the room.
While her cousin Maha brings hot tea, Martine, wearing high-waisted jeans and a striped shirt over her wispy frame, sits down on floor cushions, knees to chin. She pulls a parka up over her and begins to tell me what happened.
Martine briskly names the towns where ISIS trucked her and others for weeks that became months. “I stayed with my mother and one sister. My older sister was taken to one place, my brother to another.” Weeks later, she saw her brother again in Tel Afar, a city 50 miles west of Mosul. “Then ISIS took my mother away, and I stayed with my sister.” Trying to recall what happened next, she pauses, confused, then says, “I was 8 years old and I was afraid. I didn’t know what was happening.”
She and other Yazidis were living in an abandoned school when a militant came in one day to ask whether the girls wanted to see their mothers. Martine and others said yes and quickly left with him. It was a trap. “They were lying to us to get us to come without a fight.”
In a hallway, ISIS men had gathered to choose slaves from among the girls, says Martine. A man named Abbas Qahtan Khalil took Martine. She never saw her sister after that.
ISIS already controlled key territory in Syria starting in Raqqa, the capital of its self-declared caliphate, along the Euphrates River to Mosul in Iraq. A government organized into departments with documented rules and regulations guided the jihadists’ mission.
One pamphlet, issued by the Research and Fatwa Department, reads:
It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of. …
It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse. …
It is permissible to beat the female slave as a [form of] darb ta’deeb [disciplinary beating].
Rearing families using slavery was compulsory work for the state. ISIS men received monthly stipends based on how many women they owned, $50 per woman and $35 per child. A special department maintained documents of who owned what slaves. Martine says Khalil’s family traveled with him, but she was the only slave he owned.
“I lived for one year in Mosul with his family,” Martine continues. “They were good at the beginning, then they became mean.” The family treated her harshly and had her clean the house, but prevented her from entering the kitchen, saying she would contaminate the food.
Khalil began beating Martine with pieces of wood, she says. He beat her with a water hose. At night he locked her in a room away from the family and then began to rape her.
Martine speaks through an interpreter, looking at the ceiling or in the distance as she talks. Her father, Khudeda Hajji, sits across the room. She has told portions of her story before, and I wonder what harm I’m inflicting to push her to tell them again. But then she leans forward in conversation, eyes on me, urgent, her small voice rising when the interpreter or her father interrupt before she’s finished. She wants the record to include important details, yet at one point she says, “Let’s stop this, it’s making me too angry.” But then she laughs and continues.
When we return to the subject of physical abuse, she slows and speaks softly, almost a whisper. “It was from the beginning,” she says, pausing for several seconds. “Animals.”
“Martine was the first case we had of a girl that young used as a sex slave,” said Zeno Gamble, chief operating officer at Virginia-based White Mountain Research. His group works alongside the Nazarene Fund, launched by television and radio personality Glenn Beck in 2015 to support persecuted minorities in the Middle East. The two organizations have assisted in 121 rescues of Christian and Yazidi women captured by ISIS. Besides helping Martine return and receive medical care, they cover rent and other expenses for her family.
The Nazarene Fund and White Mountain support a handful of special cases requiring medical and psychological support. One victim, a woman sold to more than a dozen men during captivity, returned with multiple limb fractures and venereal disease.
I met also Layla Taalo, a 29-year-old mother captured by ISIS militants with her then 12-month-old daughter Sarah and 2-year-old son Salah. Repeatedly bought and sold to ISIS men, trafficked from Iraq to Syria, Layla too was locked in a room and raped nightly, while her children listened, crying and screaming from the next room. By day her son was sent to ISIS training sessions, learning to make bombs and behead “infidels” along with other young boys.
“We were held two years, eight months, and six days,” Layla recites.
DESPITE HER AGE, Martine is not considered a special case, and those who’ve worked with her say she’s remarkable because she remains sturdy and ready to discuss her ordeal. But health officials say they’re learning the damage—psychological and physical—may be slow to emerge.
“We have seen and treated girls 9 years, 11 years, 13 years,” said Nezar Ismet Taib, a psychiatrist and director general of health for the Duhok governorate in Iraq, an area that includes most of Iraq’s Yazidi population. “Most of them when they arrived did not have any obvious damage, but you cannot, for example, see pelvic damage when they are so young.”
Taib said nearly all the returning girls need treatment for urinary tract and other infections, and a few have contracted hepatitis. A prevalent complication among those who have passed puberty is pregnancy: Numerous captives return with babies. Or, they’ve been forced to undergo abortions by fighters who did not want their children. For young girls like Martine, though, the biggest problems are psychological, said Taib. “Most of them are completely disassociated. When you talk to them they are not there.”
Taib began seeing young former captives within months of the 2014 ISIS invasion. By May 2015 his office had 500 cases; by August, more than 2,000. Taib persuaded the regional government to treat the situation as a health crisis, setting aside hospital wards for specialized care, including suicide watch units as suicide skyrocketed among returnees. Officials set up survivor camps apart from the displacement camps many Yazidis still are living in. In 2019 the camps serve 720 women and girls with specialized care.
Four years into a crisis, Taib said resources for such prolonged care are scarce, and the United Nations recently pulled funding from a project just beginning to show success. “We still have much to learn,” he said.
Many battered women come home after years away to discover that loved ones have disappeared or been killed, that homes are destroyed and towns are empty. It’s another devastation.
For the youngest victims, attachment to captors, no matter how brutal, is an issue, said Taib. “You’ve had sex with someone and he is becoming like your husband. This bond happened and now this guy is killed or she escapes, but she still has to deal with the experience, the separation, and for some the loss. Even if the men were so bad to them, they still have some attachment. A child in her emotional development phase, stopped by trauma like this that delays normal development, this is very bad.”
Boys, too, need psychiatric help upon return. Layla and her children made a harrowing escape during fighting in Raqqa after her family paid smugglers to secure her return. Upon arrival in Sharya and seeing thousands of displaced people at the camp, her son Salah asked, “Who are all these people?” Told they were Yazidis, he said, “They are infidels, and we should burn them all.”
MARTINE ALSO MOVED FROM Mosul to Raqqa with owner Khalil and his family. The family moved often according to each battle, three months in one town, four months in another, mostly paralleling the Euphrates to Deir Ezzor, an area that came under heavy fighting starting in 2017. Just south of Deir Ezzor, the final ISIS stronghold at Baghuz appeared by March near collapse. As fighting intensified last year, Khalil often was away. His 18-year-old son died during that time, detonated using a suicide vest.
Khalil sent Martine to live with a neighbor, also Muslim, in Dashisha—where the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battled ISIS with support from French warplanes. She stayed there for seven months, while the neighbor’s wife “watched after me as a daughter and treated me well,” Martine said.
With war closing in, relatives of the neighbor’s wife contacted a female soldier with Kurdish defense units fighting ISIS. She offered to contact Martine’s family. Martine at first was suspicious of another trap, but eventually with the woman’s help reached her father by phone, traded photos and messages, and finally arranged to go home. A Kurdish unit escorted her across the border back to Iraq, where she met her father and cousin Maha, who cares for Martine in her mother’s absence.
Gamble told me no one paid ransom or a smuggler’s fee for Martine, which is unusual. Yazidi families over the years have constructed elaborate networks, using social media and word-of-mouth, to locate enslaved family members and hire go-betweens to negotiate and arrange their release, sometimes paying thousands of dollars. Layla’s family paid $7,500 to rescue her and her children.
Martine has returned to school, and her father has applied for the family to emigrate to Australia. None of her childhood friends or other family members have returned. “I have only my cousin and a few new friends and studies,” she says.
When I ask her about her mother and sister, her father interjects, “We have information about her sister, but nothing about her mother yet.”
Do you think she is alive? I ask.
Hajji responds, “We hear different things. There are a lot of Yazidi women in Syria so we are hoping.”
Beside me Martine also answers, so softly I almost miss it: “She is not coming back.”
EARLY THIS YEAR a UN investigative team arrived in northern Iraq to begin collecting evidence of war crimes and atrocities—two years after the UN Security Council passed a resolution forming it, and a year after Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Karim Asad Ahmad Khan to head it.
Khan is a Scottish-born lawyer of Pakistani descent, an expert in Islamic law who participated in international tribunals on war crimes in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Liberia.
His mandate is long-delayed, and daunting: Besides examining atrocities against Yazidi survivors, his team must analyze the remains of more than 12,000 bodies buried in more than 200 mass graves across Iraq.
Khan’s team completed the first mass grave study on March 21, exhuming the remains of up to 30 individuals in Kojo. He told a local gathering, “You have already waited a long time. And I’m sorry to say you will have to wait longer. Because the road to real justice is a long one.”
The Nazarene Fund and other organizations I contacted say the UN team has not approached them, but they are collecting evidence just the same. Yazidi groups long have archived accounts like Martine’s to add to the data, even as more Yazidis are freed.
Layla Taalo was on hand in Sinjar Feb. 28 to receive 21 Yazidis—18 children and three women—rescued from Baghuz. As Yazidis continued to return through March, she said she wanted to make them feel welcome to begin re-entry to a much-changed homeland. The Nazarene Fund said it planned to support the returnees, including those wounded in the Baghuz battle.
When I ask Taib, the health official, what’s the most important thing he’s learned, he responds: “We learn from these Yazidis how to stand all this trauma. This resilience among the survivors is something. As Kurds we have been through many wars, but to see these women, it’s amazing.”
What accounts for their resilience? I ask.
“I think they’ve kept their faith and hope in their community,” says Taib. “The community leadership has been good in dealing with it, and the Yazidi women are strong. They have more coping mechanisms than you can imagine, and that too is something really we need to study.”
Yazidis number perhaps 700,000 in the world, a community centered in Iraq and dating to the 12th century. Their religion draws on a mixture of Zoroastrian, Christian, Sufi, and Muslim rituals. They worship an angel some consider Satanic, a teaching cited by Muslim extremists who want to wipe them out.
Long before 2014, Yazidis were the target of Islamic State groups. Four coordinated bombings in one day in August 2007 killed more than 500 Yazidis in villages west of Mosul—until 2014 the largest terror attack anywhere since 9/11.
A historically closed community of large families and intermarriage, Yazidis find their community pried open to the world, and pushed to change by what its women have endured.
Early on the Yazidi religious council in Sinjar issued a statement saying the returning women “are our daughters” and should be welcomed back without dishonor. The Kurdistan Regional Government did the same, pledging to help them. “These two statements have repaired a lot of damage,” said Taib.
More challenging is what Yazidis will do with children fathered by ISIS, who are not welcomed into the community. Leaders opened an orphanage in Sinjar for them and ordered some sent to Baghdad, but many mothers understandably want to keep their children. In many cases, that’s not considered acceptable, by families or the community at large. “We are trying to find understanding, and hope it’s an area of controversy that will progress,” said Taib.
For women like Layla and Martine, being called “daughter” after “infidel” and “slave” is a needed first step on the way to a long recovery.
—This story has been updated to reflect events in Syria.
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