A 32-year-old mother relates ordeal of abduction along with five of her children, one of whom committed suicide after their eventual release
Even a three-month-old baby was beaten by sadistic ISIS fighters
Nearly 4,000 women and children thought to still be in ISIS captivity
Yezidi women and girls who’ve escaped from enslavement and systematic rape by members of the Islamic State armed group are now being failed by a lack of support from the Iraqi authorities and the international community, said Amnesty International today.
Amnesty researchers interviewed 18 women and girls abducted by ISIS during a visit to the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq in August (see TESTIMONIES below). The women and girls had either escaped or were released after payment of ransom by their families. Several were driven to the brink of suicide or had sisters or daughters who killed themselves because of the appalling abuse they endured in captivity. The suffering of the survivors has been compounded by their current destitute living conditions, their grief for relatives killed by ISIS and their fears for those who remain in captivity.
On top of coping with their trauma, many survivors are struggling to pay off huge debts - up to tens of thousands of US dollars - after their families borrowed money to pay for their release.
There is currently no unified system to respond to the needs of survivors, and most are relying on community and family networks for help. Some services and humanitarian assistance for survivors provided by government, NGOs and UN organisations are underfunded and vary in quality. One programme backed by the German government has brought 1,080 Yezidis - survivors of sexual violence and their immediate relatives - to Germany for specialised treatment, but more initiatives such as this are badly needed.
Meanwhile, so far in Iraq there have been no prosecutions of anyone accused of committing crimes against the Yezidi community.
Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office, said:
“These distressing testimonies highlight the urgent need for greater international support to help survivors cope with the long-lasting physical and psychological trauma of the abuse they have endured and witnessed.
“More can and must be done to help heal the deep physical and psychological scars that women and children endure after long periods in captivity, and to offer them a hope to rebuild their shattered lives.
“The international community must translate its shock and horror at ISIS crimes and sympathy for Yezidi survivors of horrific sexual violence and other brutality into concrete actions. Donors must do more by setting up and funding specialised support and treatment programmes in consultation with survivors, community activists and care providers.
“Iraq should cooperate with the international community to ensure effective investigation and prosecution of these crimes.”
Shirin*, Seveh and Nermeen’s story (*all names have been changed to protect identities)
Shirin, a 32-year-old mother originally from Tel Qasab, a village in western Sinjar, was abducted from Solakh on 3 August 2014, along with five of her six children aged between five and 11. Her 13-year-old daughter committed suicide after escaping ISIS captivity. Shirin said:
“There were Daesh fighters of all kinds of nationalities. I saw Europeans and Arabs, and even Kurds ...They took my eldest son [aged ten] and two daughters, Nermeen [aged 11], and Seveh [aged 17]. Seveh was taken with her baby.”
Seveh told Amnesty that she was passed between six different fighters in Iraq and Syria before she was eventually “sold” back to her family in November 2015. She was repeatedly raped and assaulted in captivity and said her captors also beat her three-month-old baby and periodically starved them. She tried to commit suicide three times, but other captives stopped her.
Seveh continues to suffer severe physical and psychological consequences from her ordeal and remains distressed about her sister Nermeen who committed suicide after her escape, as well as about the fate of her missing relatives. Nermeen was so distraught as a result of her experience in captivity that she locked herself in a cabin and set herself on fire at the camp for internally displaced people where they were living in Zakho in Dohuk Governorate. She was rushed to hospital but died three days later. Nermeen’s monther Shirin said:
“In the hospital, I asked her why she did it and she said she could not take it anymore. She was in pain all the time, she cried all the time.”
Shirin told Amnesty that the family had repeatedly requested - without success - that Nermeen be helped to receive specialised therapy abroad.
Jamila*, a 20-year-old woman from Sinjar city who was abducted on 3 August 2014, told Amnesty she was raped repeatedly by at least ten different men after being “sold” from one fighter to another. She was eventually released last December after her family paid a large sum to her captor. Jamila described how fighters forced her and the other girls and women in Mosul to remove their clothes and “pose” for photographs before “selling” them on. She tried to escape twice but was caught both times. As punishment, she was tied to a bed by her hands and legs and gang-raped, as well as being beaten with cables and deprived of food. Like a number of other women, her horrific experiences in captivity drove her to contemplate suicide but she is determined to speak out: “I don’t want to hide what happened, so people can help those still with Daesh as well as help survivors rebuild their lives.”
Nour, a 16 year-old-girl from Siba Sheikh Khidir who gave birth to a baby daughter during nearly two years in ISIS captivity, was moved at least six times between several locations in Syria and Iraq, including Tal A’far, Mosul, Aleppo and Raqqa. She described how ISIS fighters dehumanised Yezidis:
“To them we are ‘kuffar’ [infidels] and they can do whatever they want. It was so humiliating. We were imprisoned; they wouldn’t feed us; they would beat us [all], even the small children; they would buy and sell us and do whatever they want to us ... It is like we are not human to them. I am free now, but others are still living in this nightmare, and we do not have enough money to support ourselves and get our relatives back.”
Nour explained to Amnesty that her three sisters and aunt are still in captivity.
Left traumatised and impoverished
Most of the hundreds of Yezidi women and girls who’ve managed to escape ISIS captivity live in dire conditions, either with impoverished relatives or in camps for internally displaced persons in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. Many are in need of financial assistance as well as psychological counselling. A 42-year-old woman from Sinjar region, who spent 22 months in captivity with her four children, said they’re still traumatised. She described how one especially brutal ISIS fighter broke her six-year-old son’s teeth and laughed at him, and beat her ten-year-old daughter so much she urinated on herself:
“He would beat my children up and lock them up in a room. They would cry inside and I would sit outside the door crying. I begged him to kill us but he said he didn’t want to go to hell because of us.”
The woman is also worried about paying back the money borrowed to secure their release, and she has stopped going to the doctor because she can no longer afford to go.
Another woman in her sixties from the Sinjar region who now lives in the Chem Meshko camp for internally displaced people and has 32 relatives in ISIS hands or missing, told Amnesty: “The whole world knows what happened to the Yezidis … I want to know what they will do about it?”
Meanwhile, survivors’ ability to access services and move freely is also often hampered by Iraqi bureaucracy - many face difficulties in obtaining identity and travel documents which they lost when ISIS attacked Sinjar.
The 2014 Sinjar killings and mass abductions
ISIS’s attack on the Sinjar region, in north-west Iraq in August 2014, involved a systematic targeting of Yezidis. Thousands were abducted, hundreds of men and boys were massacred, and many others were threatened with death if they didn’t convert to Islam. Abducted Yezidi women and girls were separated from their relatives and then “gifted” or “sold” to other ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. They were often exchanged between fighters multiple times, raped, beaten or otherwise physically abused, and deprived of food and other necessities, and forced to clean, cook and do other chores for their captors. Many told Amnesty that their children were seized from them. Boys over seven were taken to be indoctrinated and trained as fighters, while girls as young as nine were “sold” as sex slaves.
Local politicians, activists and care-providers estimate that some 3,800 women and children remain in ISIS captivity. The fate of hundreds of abducted Yezidi men remains unknown and most are feared dead. Although the number of survivors willing to talk about their experiences has increased given the larger number who’ve escaped from IS captivity over the past two years, stigma and fears of negative social attitudes and impact on marriage prospects for women and girls held in captivity remain.