After ISIS, former Yazidi sex slaves are caught between trauma and taboo

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

Safia, a Yazidi teenager from Iraq, was captured by the Islamic State, sold into sexual slavery, raped, tortured and made pregnant, leaving deep psychological scars. Her ability to come to terms with the trauma are thwarted by taboo, shame and her forced separation from her daughter.

Safia at the Khanke refugee camp

Thursday 2 March 2020

On 3 August 2014, the fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took the town and the mountain range of Sinjar. Both had been undefended. After the Kurdish towns in northern Iraq were subjected to increasing pressure from the extremist Sunni militia, the Peshmerga fighters – members of the armed forces of the Kurdish regional government – withdrew from the strategically vital area which was mostly populated by the Yazidis, a monotheistic, gnostic people who have been targeted by numerous religious conquerors over the centuries.

Six weeks before the conquest of Sinjar, the Islamic State marched unopposed into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. This occurred despite the fact that the ISIS convoy could have been thoroughly routed with a single well-aimed aerial raid. Emboldened by their recent exploits, the ISIS leaders decided to make the Yazidis one of their key priorities. The isolated, unarmed and politically marginalised people were to be rapidly converted to Islam.

Or killed.

Genocide

Back then, Safia was not yet 14. She lived with her mother, father, older sister and two brothers in a hamlet seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. The tiny village’s isolation was really quite a blessing, sheltering the inhabitants from the worst of the permanent war raging across the land.

In spite of the Peshmerga withdrawal and rumours of the impending Sinjar raid, the Yazidis opted to stay put. The vast majority of them was simply too dependent on their farming for sustenance to leave.

“We heard that a few of the villages were surrounded, that they were killing men and kidnapping women,” Safia recalled. “We decided to run away. But we were too late. Daesh (ISIS) had already reached the gates of our village.”

That fateful day has left a savage scar across every moment that has followed. Even now, at the Khanke refugee camp near Duhok in northwestern Iraq, where, five and a half years after the genocide, some 16,000 Yazidis still reside, the now 19-year-old woman starts shivering at the very thought.

“We were hiding,” the bashful teenager picks up her tale – a tale shared by several thousand Yazidi girls and women snatched into a life of sexual slavery. “We were all gathered up in or near the centre of the village. We were surrounded. They kept killing people left and right. First, they separated the men from the women. They immediately took away my father and older brother. It was the last I ever saw of them. They are officially missing. As for my mother, my older sister, my younger brother and me… They threw us into the back of a truck and carted us off. Our village was burned to the ground.”

According to the official UN records, some 5,000 Yazidis were murdered in a matter of days. The UN, along with the EU, classifies the massacre as genocide.

Some 50,000 Yazidis managed to escape the worst of the butchery. Most of them fled to the Kurdish regions. About half a million of them remained trapped along the Sinjar range, the red-hot and dry summer taking an increasing toll on them, starting with hunger and dehydration.

Some much-needed help literally fell from the sky in the form of humanitarian packages. And the international coalition eventually deigned to drop a few bombs on the ISIS forces. Yet for thousands and thousands of Yazidis, it was a rather predictable case of much too little, much too late.

“The trucks transported us to the Basha Kidri prison where we were kept for two weeks”« Safia goes on in a disturbingly detached fashion. “My younger brother got separated from us. Our group consisted of only women and small children. And of course girls. The animals came round the prison every day to snatch the ones that caught their fancy. My older sister was among the first to be taken. I never saw her again, either.”

Sexual bondage

According to UN data, the Islamic State condemned between 5,000 and 7,000 Yazidi women to sexual slavery.

After two weeks, the ISIS soldiers took Safia and her mother to Tal Afar, a key Iraqi bastion for the self-proclaimed caliphate then stretching from a large chunk of northern and central Syria to a substantial part of northern and central Iraq.

Scores of women, some with small children, were housed in a large edifice on Tal Afar’s outskirts. They were heavily guarded and cut off from all contact with the outside world. The Islamic State members would constantly drop in to have their way with the unmarried women. Which mostly meant the girls.

“Even with the youngest ones among us, they’d always check if we’re married,” Safia recalls. Kochar Hassan, a social worker in charge of the Yazidi women’s recovery at the Khanke refugee camp, discreetly explained Safia was referring to actual virginity tests.

Safia’s existence was one of constant terror. She was well aware that, sooner or later, her turn would come. During the 15 days she and her mother stayed at Tal Afar, the ISIS members tried to convert them to Islam and made them learn verses from the Quran. All this while their captors merrily went about their main business, that of raping and killing.

Then Safia, her mother, and several hundred other women were transported to Raqqa, the self-proclaimed caliphate’s capital on the Syrian side of the border. Safia got separated from her mother and taken to the city centre. Raqqa had already been transformed into a hub for trading in sexual slaves, most of them of Yazidi origin.

The women, teenagers and little girls were being touted and sold on the city’s slave markets. Given the Islamic State’s passion for meticulous book-keeping, there was even an official price list. For many of the foreign fighters, it was the main motive for setting out to fight the holy fight in the first place.

And then finally, tragically, inevitably, it was the not-yet-14-year-old Safia’s turn.

“Along with four other girls, I was put in a house which was visited daily by the Daesh soldiers,” Safia relates, eyes meekly on the ground.

She herself was chosen and bought by a 25-year-old ISIS fighter from Saudi Arabia. For the next six months, she became his sex slave. As the experience remains much too traumatic for the wounded teenager to discuss openly, the social workers had suggested she write it down on paper. Safia promptly filled eight large pages of yellow paper relating numerous unspeakably vile and soul-destroying details which I shall not repeat here.

The rapes and the violence were commonplace. Safia was utterly helpless, isolated and lost. Her greatest fear was she might get pregnant. She pleaded with her captor – always setting off for the various battlefields and returning even more violent than before – to use contraception. Yet he turned her down.

When she was five months pregnant, her Saudi rapist passed her off to his friends. Soon after, he perished during a coalition bombardment. Safia was promptly collected by his wife and mother. She was told that, during the time of mourning, she would not be sold on.

Born into slavery

Four months later Safia gave birth to a girl and named her Renas. Just a few days after the delivery, the two of them were bought on one of Raqqa’s slave markets by a 27-year-old man from Maghreb.

His name was Abu Barak. Safia’s infant daughter was merely part of a package deal; Abu Barak seemed quite happy to take her as well. Torn by anxiety over her baby’s immediate future and a heart-rending longing for the loved ones left behind, Safia could only hope that her second owner might prove less violent than the first.

How wrong she was.

What she and her infant daughter endured over the next 15 months was the very tenth circle of Hell, the one even Dante refused to mention. Among countless other charges, her written testimony states her second captor, an ISIS fanatic from North Africa, repeatedly tortured and savaged her. Often several times a day.

In her own words, he was “completely unstable, constantly wild with fury”. The worst times were when he was freshly returned from battle. From day one, he conscripted the frail and thoroughly exhausted young mother into a life of physical drudgery, which ultimately literally broke her back… Saddling her with a severe injury still bothering her today.

Once more, her greatest fear was the ever looming spectre of pregnancy.

For a while, she took comfort in the fact that, after Renas’ birth, her period failed to return. But then, one horrid morning, she saw blood. Severely ill and all but broken, she underwent a spontaneous miscarriage.

It was around then that she realised she had to act. The only thing she had left to lose was the life of her little girl, which had become the fulcrum of all her hopes.

Safia decided to escape. Somehow she managed to reach one of the nearby houses, tiny Renas in tow, chancing everything on a stranger’s response to her desperate plea for help.

Fortunately, the Syrian family didn’t hesitate to take her in. Soon after, Safia managed to contact her relatives and learned that her mother was located in the Khanke refugee camp. Her family managed to raise the money to buy her freedom – all part and parcel of the Islamic State’s business model.

After three years and two months, Safia was finally free of her bondage. But on reaching the aforementioned refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, fate immediately dealt her yet another blow, an all too common one for the women and girls who had become pregnant while in captivity.

As soon as she laid eyes on her daughter, Safia’s mother snatched Renas from her hands. Safia was told the 18-month-old child would be taken by one of the uncles to the hospital in Duhok for some tests, and that everything would be all right.

Except that it would not.

It was the last time Safia saw her little girl.

In place of salvation

“Forget her,” Safia’s mother instructed her after a few days. But it was the one thing Safia was unable to do. For the teenager who had been stripped of all innocence, yet had nonetheless managed to claw her way through the worst darkness imaginable, this was the final straw. The future Safia had fought so bravely and persistently for lay in ruins.

As if that wasn’t enough, she was also pregnant. She was in her second month, and she wanted to keep the baby, yet her family forced her to terminate the pregnancy.

She promptly lost all will to live. All she wanted was to die.

Two and a half years on, Safia still hopes to find her little girl. Officially, no one knows Renas’ current whereabouts. Yet both Iraq and Syria are home to a number of unofficial orphanages, where – according to Nasrin Ismail from the People’s Development Organisation – the Yazidi elders had taken “scores of children”. The actual number is said to be much higher than that.

But it is impossible to check. The Khanke refugee camp and the nearby smaller camps house several dozen boys and young men, who were allowed to remain with their mothers after their return from captivity. Many of them had been coerced to take up arms in the ranks of the Islamic State. All across these camps, the trauma they suffered and the all-pervasive PTSD is being addressed by no one.

Little wonder violence is already giving birth to further violence.

“Returning from slavery, these women and girls are deeply traumatised. Yet instead of their families coming to their aid, the poor things are being stigmatised to boot. Not only has the Yazidi community refused to accept their babies, these girls themselves have been only conditionally readmitted. Their suffering is unbearable,” states Nasrin Ismail, one of the social workers trying to give back meaning to the stolen lives of countless Yazidi women.

“Around here, sexual abuse – like everything linked to human sexuality – is a huge taboo,” Ismail reflects. “Some of these poor women needed a couple of years just to be able to start talking about their experience in bondage. But I believe we are now finally breaking the ice. Fifteen women are coming to see us for therapy on a regular basis. They are also helping each other out. Our relationship with them is an honest, forthright one. I can say that for the most part, their rehabilitation is proceeding quite successfully,” Nasrin concluded.

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Labour saving devices

 
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By Khaled Diab

Could pregnancy outside the womb save women the pain of labour and herald in a new level of gender equality?

13 August 2009

There is something mysterious, mystifying, magical and also menacing about pregnancy. The swelling belly, rising like a bun in the oven. The wall of tissue separating mother and father from child. The foetus’s tentative attempts to communicate pleasure, dissatisfaction, and hold conversations through the primitive Morse code of kicks and jabs.

For the expectant mother in particular, pregnancy carries a huge emotional cache. The foetus growing inside her is both a part of her and apart from her which enables the mother to bond in a way that a father can only dream of. The umbilical cord connecting them relays not only nourishment but also moods and emotions.

I witness this in my wife whose bond with our baby grows stronger every day: her regular communion with him, the unconscious way she holds her tummy, the subtle nuances conveyed by the way he shifts inside, and the meaning of the different pokes. Of course, I also have a connection with him – albeit a less direct one. I talk to him and see the surface evidence of his development, his faint taps through Katleen’s skin, the rare grainy glimpse of him during our visits to the gynaecologist.

In addition, he and the cat seem, after an initial period of distrust on the part of the cat, to have built something of a relationship: he pokes more when Kuku comes to lie on Katleen’s belly and even seems to hum when the cat purrs.

What sense does the baby have of the outside world from inside his cocoon? I know he can hear and feel and I wonder what he makes of his mama, papa and cat. I imagine what it must be like inside the womb – I know we have all been there but how many of us can remember? Is it as cosy and comfortable as we adults like to assume? Or would the little one, curled up in the proverbial foetal position, prefer more legroom and a womb with a view?

When it’s time to leave, will he miss the security of his confinement and the 24-hour womb service? Or will he let out a scream of delight as he dives head first towards the everyday light at the end of the tunnel and the official start of his life?

Understandably, Katleen does not yet want to think about the actual delivery (D-Day) – and I can’t blame her. It fills me with awe, bewilderment and panic – and my role is only a supporting one! Despite the undoubted pleasure and significance of bringing a life into this world, the process does involve an awful lot of pain.

Is it desirable for medical science to find a way to spare women the suffering of labour – create a new kind of labour-saving device? Perhaps some boffins will go beyond the initial spark in a petri dish at the core of IVF treatment and develop a complete incubation system – an artificial womb – that would host the unborn child for the entire nine months of the pregnancy, and the parents would pay regular visits to the incubator to watch their child develop.

Such a for-now SciFi possibility would enable men and women to play equal roles as prospective parents, and enable women once and for all to take full control of their bodies, and may even be healthier for the foetus as the womb would be perfectly calibrated for it.

The pill and other effective contraceptive devices helped not only to trigger the sexual revolution – transforming sex into a largely risk-free leisure activity – but they also evened the sexual playing field between men and women, helping cement ideas of equality.

Perhaps removing the last major biological distinction between men and women would herald in a new dawn of equality, but if it becomes universal enough, it would raise the profound and fundamental question of why we need men and women – and the battle of the sexes could take on a decidedly nihilistic bent. Alternatively, just as sex has evolved from procreation to recreation, perhaps nostalgia and love of diversity would lead to us holding on to our biological differences for the sheer fun of it.

On the down side, such technology may banish the pain and discrimination associated with pregnancy, but it would also rob women off its joys. Moreover, it may be bad for the child. Millions of years of evolution have made the bond formed between mother and foetus crucial to the psychological health and well-being of the baby; tampering with that could cause massive alienation and erase the loving link between them.

Moreover, is the price of the possible convenience worth paying, considering the physical and psychological deformities it could potentially cause as we feel around blindly in this largely uncharted field? In addition, even if the science one day proves sound, the associated ethical conundrums should give us pause for thought as it could affect society in ways that end up harming men, women and babies. At the end of the day, removing pain from the equation may not actually bring about a gain.

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Birth of a new order

 
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By Khaled Diab

A revolution is on the way and it’s going to change everything – in our house.

21 July 2009

Fertility dollSleeper cells are awakening and an embryonic plot is taking shape. Small but powerful underground forces are massing – even the occasional lashing out has been reported. Great change is on the horizon.

No, this is not some movement to overthrow the government or bring in a new world order. In fact, the revolution is so localised that its ripples are unlikely to reach far outside our house. This revolutionary force is positioning itself to turn our lives upside down; to subjugate us and liberate us; to plunder our resources, but win our hearts and minds.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re having a baby.

I realise that the two opening paragraphs sound melodramatic but that’s kind of how it feels. For years, I’ve smiled indulgently when friends told me how having a child completely changed their lives. Of course we were aware, on a theoretical level, of some of the transformations that accompany parenthood.

That is partly why we took so long – the good part of a decade together – before we decided to take the giant leap from recreation to procreation. We bravely resisted the bangs of the baby boom surrounding us.

With the familial urge failing to swell up inside my bosom, I was even beginning to reconcile myself to the prospect of being forever childless. Some see this as selfish, and at some level it is.

But isn’t having a child also selfish in other ways?

Concerns aside, something imperceptible, like a continental drift, recently began to shift inside us. Then, one day, we decided to leave it to fate and, judging by her speed, Lady Fortune was in a hurry. But her timing was a little rotten.

The evening we discovered that we had crossed a very thin but significant blue line, our contemplations of the probable life forming inside my wife were cut short by her departure the very next morning for a fortnight with mine survivors in the Far East, where she had to deal with the immensity of the changes about to beset her by herself.

Even when still an embryo a few cells across, it’s amazing how much influence an unborn child exerts. There are the lifestyle changes, like cutting out booze and caffeine (my two favourite drugs), full-time for my wife; part-time for me.

You also begin to notice things that had obviously existed in another dimension before, but have now managed to worm themselves through time-space to cross your path, including prenatal shops and gynaecology wards. Then, there are all the practicalities, such as booking creches well in advance because of the waiting lists.

There’s also the gradual shifting of physical and visual centres of gravity. Suddenly, navel-gazing becomes the most entertaining pastime in the world, and my wife’s slowly swelling tummy has grown, quite literally, into an object of immense fascination to us as we try to connect with the impenetrable netherworld of the womb.

Of course, the inevitable speculations about how the child will look kick in – and with our transcontinental backgrounds, the palette of possibilities is quite broad. Our main hope is that the baby will bear something of both of us. Given that my role during the pregnancy is largely that of an observer and assistant, I’ve had more space to let the wild horses of my imagination gallop.

A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but a child’s name can actually have a significant impact on their lives. In our case, if it is too Arab-sounding, it will overlook the child’s European heritage – and vice-versa. Meanwhile, the range of names common to both cultures is quite limited and, in many cases, overused by people in our situation – so the hunt continues.

Language is another issue. Between us, we speak half a dozen languages, and we want to raise our child to be fluent in three of them. So is culture. We want our child to grow up with a keen awareness of its different cultural heritages, and to be comfortable with them. Later in life, (s)he can choose to belong to all of them, one of them or none of them.

The idea of becoming parents still sounds outlandish to us. For the first 35 years of my life, parents were other people, and I was just plain old “Khaled”. Now when our kid starts referring to me as “dad” or “baba” or even “pffft”, I will feel like a bit of an impostor! But for our future child, our status as parents will seem like the most natural, and perhaps irritating, thing in the world – and (s)he will also think parents are other people.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 18 July 2009. Read the related discussion.

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