Yazidi girls sexually enslaved by IS recount a version of ‘hell’
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Women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi minority have been raped, sold into sexual slavery and abused by the Islamic State (IS) group in a systematic ethnic cleansing drive, according to an Amnesty International report released Tuesday.
In a report titled, “Escape From Hell,” Amnesty International detailed the ordeals of 42 women and girls who managed to escape from their captors, who included fighters with the IS group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) as well as IS supporters such as local businessmen in northern Iraq.
Months after IS fighters swept through swathes of northern Iraq in a lightening summer offensive, details of the crimes against humanity being perpetrated in the areas they control are gradually emerging. But the full extent of the atrocities is still not known.
In August 2014, IS militants abducted “hundreds, possibly thousands, of Yazidi men, women and children,” from the Sinjar area in northwestern Iraq, according to the Amnesty report. “Hundreds of men were killed or forced to convert under the threat of the death,” the report notes.
For the women and children, a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportions had begun.
Separated from their families, sold into sexual enslavement, forced to convert, raped and sometimes tortured, the victims – including girls as young as 12 – have endured abuses that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to Amnesty International.
The 42 women and girls interviewed by the London-based advocacy group managed to escape their captors and present just a fragmented account of the extensive human rights abuses suffered by the Yazidi community in recent months.
“Hundreds of Yazidi women and girls have had their lives shattered by the horrors of sexual violence and sexual slavery in IS captivity,” said Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera in a statement released Tuesday. “Many of those held as sexual slaves are children – girls aged 14, 15 or even younger. IS fighters are using rape as a weapon in attacks amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
‘They did to me what they did to many other girls’
Shortly after IS militants swept through the Sinjar area in August, early accounts of mass enslavement and rapes started to emerge in news reports. In October, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report titled, “Iraq: Forced Marriage, Conversion of Yezidis” based on interviews with 76 displaced Yazidis in the cities of Duhok, Zakho and Erbil, as well as the surrounding areas in Iraqi Kurdistan.
None of the women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had been raped – although some admitted to fighting off violent sexual attacks and meeting other girls who said they had been raped. Given the stigma of rape in conservative rural Yazidi society, it was not known if the witnesses were withholding the truth.
Later that month, the IS group issued an admission and detailed justification of a systematic policy of mass sexual enslavement of what the jihadist group calls mushrikin (polytheists or infidel) women.
In a four-page tract titled, “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” IS states that captured mushrikin should be given the option to “repent” and convert to Islam. If they decline, the men should be put to the sword. But “their women could be enslaved unlike [other Christian and Jewish] female apostates who the majority of the fuqaha [Islamist jurists] say cannot be enslaved.” The document also noted that, “The slave girl becomes a slave to her master while his children have the status of the master over herself.”
The Yazidis are a historically persecuted minority in the Middle East who practice an ancient, syncretic religion, which include some elements similar to Christianity, Judaism and other ancient religions.
The latest Amnesty International report details many cases of rape as some of the girls were shifted around IS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria.
A 15-year-old girl identified as Arwa told Amnesty International that after her abduction, she was taken to Hassake in Syria before being brought back to northern Iraq. She was kept in Mosul for two days, then taken to Baiji with one of her sisters and some of her cousins. “In Baiji, I was kept in two different places and after about three weeks I was taken to Rambussi, near Sinjar, with my 13-year-old cousin while my sister was taken to my mother who is being held in another village with relatives,” said Arwa. “In Rambussi we were held in a house with five other girls. There they did to me what they did to many other girls. I was raped.”
Fearful of rape, some captives committed suicide, such as 19-year old Jilan, according to her brother and one of the 20 girls who were with her. “One day we were given clothes that looked like dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear those clothes,'' said one of the girls. “Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful; I think she knew she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself,'' added the girl, who was among those who later escaped.
The horror of recounting the horrors
Given the stigma of rape, accounts of the ordeals of captured Yazidi women and girls are difficult to establish and experts warn that the real scale of the tragedy is much more extensive.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 Tuesday, Amnesty International’s Rovera noted that she was in northern Iraq in June and right through August when IS militants took over the Sinjar area, sending thousands of Yazidis fleeing to the Kurdish controlled region. “I had many months to get to know the families of victims and community leaders, so it was a bit easier in a way to get to know where the girls and women who had escaped were and to build trust with them,” said Rovera.
Nevertheless, getting the victims to talk about their personal experiences was a challenge, admitted Rovera. “Most of them are not able to talk about what happened to them or they don’t want to talk about what happened to them,” said Rovera. “So, they may testify about what they have seen – the horrors and atrocities endured by those with whom they were held in captivity. But they may be much more reluctant to talk about what has happened to them personally because it is so intensely painful. Others are able to open up and talk about it. All of them are deeply, deeply traumatized.”
Wives of IS militants try to help captured girls
Contrary to earlier assumptions that abducted Yazidi women were distributed among IS fighters, the Amnesty report documents cases of captive females being bought or “married” to civilians – including local businessmen – in northern Iraq, indicating the extent of the problem.
Many of the escaped girls described being held in their captors’ homes with their captors’ wives, children, parents and siblings. In at least one case, parents disapproved of the Islamic State group’s treatment of Yazidi females but “did not interfere”.
In many cases, the wives of captors were sympathetic to the abducted girls and at times tried to help.
“His wife was very nice to us and felt sorry for us. She cried with us and wanted to help but she couldn’t,” said one of the Yazidi girls of her captor’s family. Several other girls who were held by foreign fighters said the wife of one of them helped them to communicate with their families and eventually escape. “She was more than a mother to us. I could never forget this woman, she saved our lives,” said one of the girls.
Trauma continues for 'lucky few' escapees
While the victims quoted in the Amnesty report constitute the lucky few who managed to escape, recovery and rehabilitation remain a challenge for survivors in a region hit by insecurity and poverty.
Families of survivors fear the negative social consequences of the abuses in a conservative society. The mass scale of abductions has also broken families and existing social structures, making it especially difficult for survivors struggling to cope with the loss of relatives who either remain in captivity or have been killed by IS fighters.
“The physical and psychological toll of the horrifying sexual violence these women have endured is catastrophic. Many of them have been tortured and treated as chattel. Even those who have managed to escape remain deeply traumatized,” said Amnesty International’s Rovera. “The Kurdistan Regional Government [in Iraq], UN and other humanitarian organizations who are providing medical and other support services to survivors of sexual violence must step up their efforts. They must ensure they are swiftly and proactively reaching out to all those who may need them, and that women and girls are made aware of the support available to them.”
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