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.
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.
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.”
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.