Iraq: Yazidis searching for hope to grow again
On 3 August 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched a genocide in Sinjar, a town in northern Iraq, where Nadia* lived with her family. She was able to flee to Mount Sinjar with her sisters after someone alerted them to the approaching danger, but they were captured a few days later while trying to return to the town to look for food. The family members were separated. Nadia was eight years old at the time.
Nadia was then taken to a school in Mosul along with hundreds of other Yazidi women. There, they were sorted by age and split up. The young girls were taken by bus to Raqqa, Syria. Nadia spent seven months in a place that she describes as a prison. Eventually, she was sold to an older man, but when he died, she was moved several more times to various cities and passed from one man to another. At the end of her captivity she was given to a 19-year-old boy from Iraq whom she was forced to marry.
One day, her husband did not return home, and Nadia fled. She found her way to a displacement camp in Baghouz, eastern Syria, where many Yazidi people had taken refuge. On 2 May 2019 Nadia was reunited with her family, almost five years after she had last seen them.
Hassan* is a young boy from the city of Tel Qassab in northern Iraq. He was kidnapped and trained to become a soldier. Aged only nine, Hassan has been mentally scarred by images of violence, beatings, and torture that he struggles to forget. “They were always hitting us and sometimes they didn’t give us food. They taught us to hold weapons and to read the Quran. If you didn’t read it, you couldn’t leave the room.” Hassan can list the different types of weapons he learned to use in the same way that another child his age would recite the line-up of their favourite football team.
Layla, 32, was living in Bahzani when she was kidnapped by the Islamic State and forced to become a sex slave. She was sold nine times. All 19 of her family members met a similar fate. “[The people of the] Islamic State told us that we were godless, but the Yazidis are not subjecting girls to sexual violence, killing, or taking children by force. So, how is it that we are the ones who are godless?”
Layla has been interviewed by many international media outlets and even shared her story in a book, ‘Layla and the Nights of Pain’. However, she feels that nothing has changed since the defeat and withdrawal of ISIS, and that many of those who took part in the genocide against the Yazidis have returned home without suffering any consequences. It is hard for her to understand the point of telling her story, but she believes it is better than staying quiet.
Najah, 23, had the hardest time sharing her story. When ISIS arrived at her village, Shingai, she fled with her brother to a house near the mountains, but the owner of the house betrayed them. Najah fought with all her strength not to be separated from her brother. She told them that he was too young to be alone, but one of the men threatened her with violence. She lied when they asked for her age, saying she was 20 when in fact she was only 18. She also pretended to be the mother of a baby, hoping this would persuade the men to leave her alone, but it was pointless. The ISIS fighters abducted her with a group of other women and subjected them to daily beatings.
One day, a man took her away from the group. “He tortured me. Every night, he tied me up and hit me.” After a year of suffering this abuse, Najah was told by her torturer that they were to be married. She refused, but he forced her. More than two years passed before she was released. Najah has now returned home, but she constantly thinks about the hundreds of missing women and girls who may still be suffering torture in captivity or have been murdered.
Hussein* and his family were kidnapped on 3 August 2014. First, he was transferred with one of his brothers to Raqqa, Syria, but they were soon separated. At the age of nine he was sold into slavery to a local family. The abuse at his new home was constant. Even drinking water without permission would provoke a violent punishment.
A few months later, he was sold to another couple. The woman was kind to him, but her husband beat them both when he discovered she had been helping Hussein with his chores. Eventually Hussein was rescued by local military forces and returned to Iraq. He now lives with his grandmother in Sharya, in northern Iraq, but he still doesn’t know what happened to his parents or siblings.
*Names were changed for the privacy and safety of the minors involved.