Two Yazidi teenagers who escaped the clutches of ISIS (Islamic State) have revealed the horror of their capture and captivity. They describe being tortured and forced to watch videos of men from their community being beheaded. Some were so traumatized by their experiences that they tried to commit suicide. Those who failed were severely beaten by ISIS.
Global Post 15-year-old Sara had considered suicide many times during her month-long ordeal. The old man she had been given to as a “gift” beat her frequently. He taunted her with videos of Islamic State militants beheading her neighbors. On two occasions she said he drew blood from her arm with a large syringe, making her feel weak and sickly.
“They didn’t feed us much. I used to pass out a lot, but I would make trouble for him as much as possible and fight when I could,” Sara said, sitting under a tent in a makeshift camp for the displaced outside Duhok. “Many times I thought of suicide but I kept thinking of my family and my brother. I lived only for them.”
Sara is Yazidi, a member of a minority religious group from northern Iraq persecuted for centuries for its ancient beliefs. She still bears horrific scars across the left side of her body from a double truck bombing that struck her neighborhood in 2007 — when she was just 8 years old — killing almost 800 people and injuring more than 1,500.
To the Islamic State (IS) the Yazidis are infidels. When the terror group seized control of dozens of Yazidi villages in the region of Sinjar last month, they executed men and kidnapped thousands of women and children. Those assaults on Yazidis and other minority groups — and in particular, the IS threat against tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar Mountains — were a major reason US President Barack Obama cited for authorizing airstrikes against IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq. The US has since expanded those strikes to Syria.
The escaped women’s stories offer details about the Islamic State’s systematic violence against minority communities in Iraq, and insight into the group’s methods for imposing an extreme ideology and recruiting fighters to its cause.
Sara’s ordeal began on Aug. 3 in the Sinjar village of Tal Azir, when IS launched its attack. Without a vehicle, she and her mother, her brother and his pregnant wife simply ran toward the nearby mountains. After two hours on foot, they reached a farmhouse where many of their neighbors and relatives had taken shelter on the edge of the mountain range.
Soon, IS had them surrounded. “There were about 20 cars. They all had heavy weapons,” said Sara. “They separated the men from the women. Some of the men tried to run. They shot them. They locked my mother in a room with some of the older women.” Sara said the younger Yazidi women were then loaded onto the backs of seven pickup trucks, some of the vehicles taken from villagers and others belonging to IS. She stuck close to her pregnant sister-in-law.
“I don’t know how many of us there were but they were pushing us into the trucks, as many as they could hold in each one,” she said. “The children they didn’t care about. Some women took their children. Others got left behind.”
Sara and her pregnant sister-in-law were also taken to Mosul.“There was a big hall with three floors and each floor had 5 or 6 rooms,” Sara said. “They told us if we didn’t convert to Islam they would kill all the men in our families, so we said to ourselves, ‘It’s just words. In our hearts we are still Yazidi.’ So I did it to save my brother.”
The IS captors passed out Korans to the women. Since many were illiterate, the men would read to them from the books. “They were always trying to tell us about religion,” Sara said. “In those few days they didn’t treat us so badly, but they were scary. They had dirty, hairy faces and they smelled bad.”
Later they gave the women niqabs to wear (most Yazidi women wear conservative Western-style clothing, and sometimes hijabs) before moving them to a new hall.
“A sheikh came and took away about 20 or 30 of the most beautiful girls,” Sara said, shielding her face from a gust of sand that blew through her family’s flimsy tent. “Then a man said the married women would be sent to their husbands [if the husband had converted to Islam] to make a new Muslim family. They read out names and when a woman heard the name of her husband they came forward and were taken away. I stood with my sister-in-law waiting for my brother’s name. But they never read it. We were so sad that night. We thought maybe he didn’t convert yet or he was in another city.”
Sara was then split from her sister-in-law and sent to another room with single women and girls her age. Men would come daily and choose two or three women. She said some paid the captors money. Others said the women were their “gifts.” The women didn’t return. “We would try to make ourselves look ugly. Some women would cry or scream or fight, but it made no difference. They were always taken anyway,” Sara said. “One girl hung herself. Another tried, but the IS guards stopped her and beat her very badly. No one else tried after that.”
Sara made friends with 14-year-old Banaz. They vowed to stay together, no matter what. The day her friend was chosen, Sara refused to let her go, telling the man, “You take us both or you leave her here.” He took them both. They were driven to Fallujah, where they were passed to two local men she described as “an old man and a fat man” who lived together in a mansion she says they took from a local family.
Sara described beatings, degrading treatment and having so little food the two girls were always frail and sick. The men also made them watch videos of Yazidi men being beheaded.
“In some [videos] they put the heads into cooking pots,” she recalled, cringing at the memory. “Sometimes they would stand on them. There were so many heads. And they would ask us, ‘Do you know this one?’ and laugh.” Sara described the men holding her as members of IS from Fallujah — possibly former Sunni extremists who had only recently joined the terror group.
The Yazidi Fraternal Organization, formally based in Sinjar but now working from the Kurdish capital Erbil, has registered the names of more than 12,000 missing Yazidis — 5,000 women and 7,000 men — believed to have been killed or captured during a three-day period beginning Aug. 3.
At least 47 of the women have since escaped. They tell tales of rape, forced marriage and enslavement. Many, like Sara, say they were given to IS fighters as wives or sold as slaves for prices ranging from $100 to $1,000. Late last month, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 300 cases of Yazidi women transported to Syria by IS, some of whom were then sold in Aleppo in a human trade market.
For 19-year-old Leila, the horror began as she tried to flee on foot from her village in Sinjar with her husband and his family. When IS vehicles caught up to them, militants forced the men to lie face down on the ground. Then they shot them, including boys as young as 14. Leila watched as her husband was executed.
The women were bundled into the backs of pickup trucks. Leila clung to one-year-old Murad, her only child, as the women were driven to the town of Sebai. In separate interviews, Sara and Leila, who do not know each other, gave similar accounts of what they saw on the drive through this part of Sinjar.
“We drove past so many bodies. Even the bodies of children,” Leila said. She sits now in the home of a relative in Duhok, holding baby Murad tightly in her arms.
Leila was eventually taken to Mosul, she said, and held in a hall with more than a thousand other women. They compared stories: Most often their men had been lined up and shot. Others had been taken away in trucks. “[IS] told us we must convert to Islam,” she said. “We refused and they left us alone for 10 days.” Food continued to arrive, but the men stopped bringing milk for her baby.
Then things changed.“They started to take the women away. Sometimes they let them bring their babies along, but other times they refused.” Leila said some women would disappear for several days, then return to the hall. Others never came back. Some of the men coming to choose women, mostly local Iraqis, looked as old as 70, Leila said.
Parwen Aziz of the Kurdistan National Congress has heard dozens of similar stories of capture and mass execution from members of the Yazidi community, which has sought refuge in the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq. Aid workers assisting the Yazidis have heard them, too. Aziz has been lobbying the Kurdish government and aid groups to provide more support for escaped IS prisoners like Sara, who started turning up here about six weeks ago.
Aziz said there were early fears that Yazidi women who returned from captivity may be rejected or even killed by their own families, due to local concepts of honor. However, she hasn’t heard of any women with surviving family members who weren’t welcomed back.
Her concern has now turned to the risk of suicide among survivors due to trauma, shame or hopelessness.
“Psychological support programs are not accepted here so we are trying to start income programs that will help [women] psychologically at the same time,” she said. “Some of these women do not want to talk at all. They need time. Some of them speak of frequent rape, up to six times a day. Others were not tortured or raped at all. Their situations vary often according to age or the area where they were held.”