Yezidi women and girls who have been enslaved, raped beaten and otherwise tortured by the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) are being failed by a lack of adequate support from the international community, said Amnesty International today.
Researchers from the organization interviewed 18 women and girls abducted by IS, during a visit to the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq in August 2016. The women and girls had either escaped or were released after payment of ransom by their families. Several were driven to the brink of suicide or had sisters or daughters who killed themselves because of the appalling abuse they endured in captivity. The suffering of survivors is compounded by their current destitute living conditions, their grief for relatives killed by IS and their fears for those who remain in captivity.
“The unimaginable horrors faced by these Yezidi women and girls in IS captivity shed new light on the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the group. Many women and girls were repeatedly raped, beaten or otherwise tortured and continue to suffer from the trauma of their harrowing experiences,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office.
“These distressing testimonies highlight the urgent need for greater international support to help survivors cope with the long-lasting physical and psychological trauma of the abuse they have endured and witnessed.”
There is currently no unified system set up to assess the needs of survivors of IS captivity. Much more needs to be done to ensure they receive the necessary care and support they urgently require to rebuild their lives.
Since IS fighters attacked the Sinjar region, in north-western Iraq in August 2014, Yezidis have been systematically and deliberately targeted. Thousands have been abducted; hundreds of men and boys have been massacred; many were threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam. Abducted Yezidi women and girls are separated from their relatives and then “gifted” or “sold” to other IS fighters in Iraq and Syria. They are often exchanged between fighters multiple times, raped, beaten or otherwise physically abused, deprived of food and other necessities, and forced to clean, cook and do other chores for their captors.
Many that Amnesty International spoke to said their children were seized from them. Boys over the age of seven were taken to be indoctrinated and trained as fighters, while girls as young as nine were “sold” as sex slaves. Local politicians, activists and care-providers estimate that some 3,800 women and children remain in IS captivity. The fate of hundreds of abducted Yezidi men remains unknown and most are feared dead.
Horrors endured in IS captivity
Jamila*, a 20-year-old woman from Sinjar city who was abducted on 3 August 2014, told Amnesty International that she was raped repeatedly by at least 10 different men after being “sold” from one fighter to another. She was eventually released in December 2015 after her family paid a huge sum to her captor.
Jamila described how fighters forced her and the other girls and women in Mosul to remove their clothes and “pose” for photographs before “selling” them on. She tried to escape twice but was caught both times. As punishment, she was tied to a bed by her hands and legs and gang-raped as well as being beaten with cables and deprived of food.
Like a number of other women, her horrific experiences in captivity drove her to contemplate suicide. But she is determined to speak out: “I don’t want to hide what happened, so people can help those still with Daesh [Arabic acronym for IS] as well as help survivors rebuild their lives.”
Nour, a 16 year-old-girl from Siba Sheikh Khidir who gave birth to a baby daughter during nearly two years in IS captivity, was moved at least six times between several locations in Syria and Iraq including Tal A’far, Mosul, Aleppo and Raqqa.
She described how IS fighters dehumanized Yezidis in their ill-treatment of them.
“To them we are ‘kuffar’ [infidels] and they can do whatever they want. It was so humiliating. We were imprisoned; they wouldn’t feed us; they would beat us [all] even the small children; they would buy and sell us and do whatever they want to us… It is like we are not human to them,” she said, adding that her three sisters and aunt are still in captivity.
“I am free now, but others are still living in this nightmare, and we do not have enough money to support ourselves and get our relatives back.”
Fahima, a 31-year-old mother of seven from the Sinjar region, escaped IS captivity in February 2016, but two of her daughters Nadia, aged 12, and Nurin, aged three, remain in IS hands, along with three of Fahima’s sisters, her father, brother and four nieces and nephews. She described to Amnesty International how, before being taken, her daughter Nadia lived in terror: “She knew Daesh took girls. She told me many times: ‘Mama if they take me I’ll kill myself’.”
Survivors repeatedly told Amnesty International that they experience bouts of severe depression as well as anger, and many have suicidal thoughts. Some have attempted suicide either in captivity or following their escape.
Shirin, a 32-year-old mother of six originally from Tel Qasab, a village in western Sinjar, was abducted from Solakh on 3 August 2014, along with five of her children aged between five and 11. Her 13-year-old daughter committed suicide after escaping IS captivity.
“There were Daesh fighters of all kinds of nationalities. I saw Europeans and Arabs, and even Kurds…They took my eldest son [aged 10] and two daughters, Nermeen [aged 11], and Seveh, [aged 17]. Seveh was taken with her baby,” Shirin said.
Her daughter Seveh told Amnesty International that she was passed between six different fighters in Iraq and Syria before she was eventually “sold” back to her family in November 2015. She was raped and assaulted repeatedly in captivity, and said her captors also beat her three-month-old baby and periodically starved them. She tried to commit suicide three times, but other captives stopped her.
Seveh continues to suffer severe physical and psychological consequences from her ordeal and remains distressed about her sister who committed suicide after her escape, and about the fate of her missing relatives.
Her sister Nermeen was so distraught as a result of her experience in captivity that she locked herself in a cabin and set herself on fire at the camp for internally displaced people where they were living in Zakho, Dohuk Governorate. She was rushed to hospital but died three days later.
“In the hospital, I asked her why she did it and she said she could not take it anymore. She was in pain all the time, she cried all the time,” Nermeen’s mother Shirin told Amnesty International, adding that the family had repeatedly requested for her to receive specialized therapy abroad.
On top of coping with their trauma, many survivors such as Shirin are left struggling to pay off huge debts – of up to tens of thousands of US dollars – after their family borrowed the money to pay for their release from captivity.
Inadequate international support
Most of the hundreds of Yezidi women and girls who have managed to escape IS captivity live in dire conditions, either with impoverished relatives who have been displaced from their homes, or in camps for internally displaced persons in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Their needs outstrip the support available.
Many are in need of financial assistance as well as psychological counselling. A 42-year-old woman from Sinjar region, who spent 22 months in captivity with her four children, said they are still traumatised. She described how one especially brutal IS fighter broke her six-year-old son’s teeth and laughed at him, and beat her 10-year-old daughter so much she urinated on herself.
“He would beat my children up and lock them up in a room. They would cry inside and I would sit outside the door crying. I begged him to kill us but he said he didn’t want to go to hell because of us,” she said.
She is also worried about paying back the money borrowed to secure their release. She has stopped going to the doctor because she can no longer afford to go.
Survivors must be empowered and given the means to support themselves and their families. There is currently no unified system to assess and respond to the needs of survivors of IS captivity, and most rely on community and family networks to access help. Current services and humanitarian assistance for survivors provided by a number of government, NGOs and UN organizations are under-funded and vary in quality.
One programme backed by the German government brought 1,080 Yezidis – survivors of sexual violence and their immediate relatives – to Germany for specialized treatment, but more initiatives such as this are badly needed.
A woman in her sixties from the Sinjar region who now lives in the Chem Meshko camp for internally displaced people and has 32 relatives in IS hands or missing told Amnesty International: “The whole world knows what happened to the Yezidis… I want to know what they will do about it?”
“More can and must be done to help heal the deep physical and psychological scars that women and children endure after long periods in captivity, and to offer them a hope to rebuild their shattered lives,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“The international community must translate its shock and horror at IS crimes and sympathy for Yezidi survivors of horrific sexual violence and other brutality into concrete actions. Donors must do more by setting up and funding specialized support and treatment programmes in consultation with survivors, community activists and care providers.”
Survivors’ ability to access services and move freely is also often hampered by Iraqi bureaucracy – many face difficulties in obtaining identity and travel documents which they lost when IS attacked Sinjar.
Although the number of survivors willing to talk about their experiences has increased given the larger numbers who have escaped from IS captivity over the past two years, stigma and fears of negative social attitudes and impact on marriage prospects for women and girls held in captivity remain.
Accountability for abuses
So far, in Iraq there have been no prosecutions or trials of anyone accused of committing crimes against the Yezidi community. The few trials for alleged IS crimes that have taken place in Iraq have done little to establish the truth about violations or provide justice and reparation for victims and survivors. For example, the trial proceedings of 40 people charged with participating in the massacre of some 1,700 Shi’a cadets at Speicher training camp in June 2014 were deeply flawed and many were convicted on the basis of “confessions” extracted under torture.
“If Iraq’s authorities are serious about holding IS members to account for abhorrent crimes, they must urgently ratify the Rome Statute and declare that the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over the situation in Iraq for all crimes committed in the conflict. They must enact legislation criminalizing war crimes and crimes against humanity and reform the security and justice sectors in line with international standards,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“In the interim, Iraq should cooperate with the international community to ensure effective investigation and prosecution of these crimes. Priority should be given to preserving evidence so that those responsible for committing gross violations of human rights can be brought to justice in fair trials, which is essential for ensuring that Yezidi victims – and all victims of crimes under international law in Iraq – receive the justice and reparation they deserve.”
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of survivors