Exactly five years ago, Isis fighters committed arguably their most horrific crime – attacking the northwestern Sinjar region where the majority of the Yazidi population lived, they began rounding up and separating men and women.
Men were killed, children were abducted, Yazidi pilgrimage sites and houses of worship were destroyed. Women and girls were raped, enslaved and forced to endure unspeakable atrocities, with girls as young as nine tested for virginity and many sold into sex slavery.
Some 3,500 women were abducted by Isis and half remain unaccounted for to this day. While others have escaped, life remains arduous. And those women who had children as the product of rape are faced with the torturous dilemma of abandoning their babies in order to be allowed back into the Yazidi community, or keeping the babies but remaining ostracised.
Pari Ibrahim, founder and executive director of the Free Yazidi Foundation, lost many relatives in the Sinjar massacre, which marked the beginning of Isis’s genocide against the Yazidis – an ethnoreligious group in Iraq – in August 2014. She still has 17 female members of her family who remain missing. Nineteen were kidnapped by Isis in total but two managed to escape. Some 21 men from her family were taken but she assumes none of them are alive.
“We assume the men are dead,” she tells The Independent. “The women who came back told us the men were massacred and the elderly women also. They are my cousins and other relatives.”
Ibrahim, whose organisation helps those Yazidi civilians worst affected by the Isis attacks, says those Yazidi women whose children are the result of rape by Isis militants face many difficulties due to not being welcomed back in the community with their children.
The Yazidi Spiritual Council, the supreme body tasked with binding religious decisions for Yazidis, decided these children could be accepted into the Yazidi community with their mothers back in April. But a clarification was issued just days later – partly prompted by fierce anger and consternation from the Yazidi population – which explicitly warned such children would not be welcomed.
“No one knows how many children were born of Isis,” Ibrahim says. “We support women with whatever they choose to do. If they want to put the baby up for adoption or the keep the baby – it is their choice.
“Of course, it is very difficult to live in the community if the child faces stigma. We know of cases where Yazidi families take the child away by force and put them up for adoption or give them to organisations that find a family or put them in an orphanage. These women are left very sad. Yazidi women survivors are left out of discussions.”
She says the organisation, which is based in the Netherlands, had put one Yazidi mother in contact with their child who was adopted by another family.
“When Yazidi women who escape out of captivity and flee Isis come back, it is like they are a body without a soul,” Ibrahim says.
“They have no hope anymore and see no future. All they want to do is sit in a tent and mourn for their family members and lost life. It is very difficult to compare the girl before she was kidnapped with her now she is sat in a tent or an unfinished building.
“I started the foundation to give Yazidis a chance to rebuild their lives. We have seen a lot of change with women we have been treating.”
She says one Yazidi woman, who lost her whole family in the massacre, had gone from saying she no longer wanted to live and asking why she was alive to becoming a yoga teacher at the Free Yazidi Foundation. She says the help she received has been transformative and she is now far happier.
Ibrahim, who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with her family when she was three, says the circumstances endured by the Yazidi community living in camps was “dire” – explaining they are in desperate need of both basic amenities and mental health support.
“The Yazidi people are being failed by the international community,” she says. “They want the Yazidis back in Sinjar because they do not want them in their countries as refugees. Yazidis don’t have a voice. There is no justice for our people.”
She says members of the Yazidi community often get messages from family members that their children are in al-Hol camp – a locked desert camp in northeast Syria where more than 11,000 foreign women and children related to Isis suspects are being held.
Human Rights Watch has described the conditions there as “deadly” and “appalling” and found overflowing latrines, sewage seeping into tattered tents, and inhabitants of the camp drinking wash water from tanks which contained worms.
Ibrahim says Yazidi representatives go into al-Hol and other camps to look for Yazidis but many are scared to identify themselves due to being among Isis fighters and in fear of “endangering their own life”.
Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of Women for Women International UK, who has been involved in efforts to help Yazidi women, raised alarm bells about the plight suffered by Yazidi women with babies born to Isis fighters.
“They saw them as being tainted by the devil,” she says. “A lot of women who were raped by Isis find it hard to find partners. A psychologist told me about a rare instance where a young Yazidi man married a girl knowing she was raped. For him, it didn’t matter.
“Many of these women will have children – they are called the ‘children of Isis’ – which is damaging. Just think for a moment what that does to those children. Women have to choose between living a life of utter stigma or a life of utter isolation.
“As a rape victim, you carry this enormous burden of stigma but if the rapist is Isis this is even more so. One government official said the only solution is repatriation to a third country because they can’t go back to the original community and can’t stay where they are not safe.”
The campaigner says the only way you can be deemed to be Yazidi is if both of your parents are Yazidi. She visited Khanke camp in Dohuk in the Kurdish region of Iraq in April.
She says: “Those 16,000 people who live there are Yazidi. It was the worst place I have been to. There were five to 10 people in one tent. There is no running water. There are many children. They have been there for five years.
“A psychologist there told me she feels like she is ‘drowning in an ocean of pain’. You can see that level of trauma in the camp.
“They want to go back to Sinjar but they don’t know if they ever will because it was so badly destroyed. Even though Isis has left, houses and infrastructure have been destroyed. It felt like they were trapped in refugee camps with nowhere else to go.”
A 2016 report by the United Nations said Isis subjected the Yazidi population – which has already survived centuries of persecution – to “some of the most horrific crimes imaginable”.
Yesim Arikut-Treece, a psychologist who worked with women in the camp for the foundation for a year and a half, says she thinks 16,000 additional Yazidis are living in satellite camps around Khanke camp.
She says a lot of women who have children who are the product of rape by Isis do not return to the community.
“They stay with the Isis families because they know the community does not accept the children,” she adds.
“It is a very complicated problem. They are a minority group under threat already – the only way they can hold on to their identity is by holding on to their rules. But both the mothers and the children are suffering a lot. I have heard from Yazidi women who were captured who left their children behind that there were women who stayed because they were unable to leave their children behind. Women who return to the Yazidi community with babies are stuck in safe houses or the child is put in an orphanage.”
Arikut-Treece says she contacted Kurdish officials after a Yazidi woman she worked with wanted to know if her child was safe in an orphanage but they refused to disclose anything. They were worried about what Yazidi families might do to non-Yazidi children, she adds.
She says she has heard “horrendous stories” of the Sinjar massacre from people who had witnessed the suffering firsthand and had many close relatives who remain missing.
“Everyone has a traumatising story,” she says. “People have flashbacks. When they realised Isis was coming and killing people, they started fleeing but not everyone could fit in the cars to escape.
“There was a very sad story of a pregnant woman who left her husband behind because he could not fit in the car. The last words he said were ‘look after the children for me’. She had one child with her. She loved him very much and they had a very happy marriage. She was very traumatised and suicidal. The only thing that made her continue to live was to look after the children. Nobody has heard from the husband since. Presumably, he is dead.”
Arikut-Treece expresses horror at the sexual slavery Isis subjected Yazidi women to, saying it was “unbelievable” it happened in the 21st century.
“They were very organised,” she says. “They organised slave markets. They brought the girls from one location to another. The person who bought the girl or the women resold them and again. One Yazidi girl’s best friend was beheaded by Isis in front of her. There were beatings and tortures. They saw their husbands, brothers and fathers killed in front of them.”
Nadia Murad, who survived the Isis torture camps, chronicled the horrors faced by women like herself who were sold in markets, and even on Facebook, sometimes for as meagre amount as $20 in her book The Last Girl. The Nobel Peace Prize winner is an advocate for the Yazidi minority and for refugee and women’s rights.
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