“Bring our people home” are the words forever imprinted on the arm of a young Yazidi girl, whose life was mercilessly ripped away from her at the hands of a genocide which massacred five thousand people. Three thousand women and children remain captive. Amidst story after story of what has become the largest humanitarian crisis of our time, there is one story that for thousands of victims remains untold.
We have witnessed millions of refugees fleeing areas controlled by the Islamic State (IS). Each group of refugees has their own story to tell, each story equally important because it describes the torture our fellow human beings have endured while some did nothing to stop it, and others could do nothing. The plight of the Yazidi community stands out because it reflects IS’s tension to wipe out an entire community. The Yazidis are an ethnically Kurdish religious community that have faced centuries of persecution, and since 2014 they have been defenceless victims at the hands of an ethnic cleansing programme perpetrated by Islamic State, a jihadist militant group predominantly based in Iraq. Beginning in August 2014, IS attacked Sinjar, a small town home to thousands of Yazidis, which saw the killing of at least five thousand men, women and children according to United Nations reports. This attack has since been termed a genocide by the international community. Fleeing IS, fifty thousand Yazidis driven up Mount Sinjar, facing starvation in the face of violent demands by IS to recant their religion and tradition, and join Islam.
A Unites Nations report examining IS’s relentless assault on Yazidi villages in Sinjar and the subsequent genocide of their people found numerous cases of IS brutality, including rape of women and children, and the buying and selling of females as sex slaves in online marketplaces. The report contained a section entitled: “ISIS treatment of Yazidi women and girls aged 9 and above” which accounts how Yazidi women aged twelve and above were severed from their male relatives and forcibly transported into Syria.
Some of the women and children who have managed to escape – victims of IS’s worst atrocities – have spoken up, and it is through these sources that humanity can gain insights into the unspeakable brutalities committed against these people. When people recount their experiences, a solidarity is created between those who learn and those who tell. While this solidarity cannot remedy the pain and suffering of the victims, it does give support to the victims. It also creates awareness, so that there is increasing public pressure on national governments and international organisations to channel more resources in the fight against terrorism. Countless women, some as young as nine, describe being sold to men as sex slaves, enduring constant rape and beatings, while other accounts show women who were forced to witness the rape and killing of their children.
Since the atrocities, some women have risen heroically and told their story so that the world can here. Some extracts are given here:
A twenty year-old woman held captive by IS for ten months tells her story: “We were arrested as we entered the village. They put me and 14 other girls on a truck and they took us to a small village where we stayed for 15 days. The conditions there were terrible…we were taken into Syria. They told us that we would be sold, some as slaves, some as brides for the fighters. It was hot, unbearably hot and it was 150 of us in a house without windows, without air.” It is reported that women and children had to endure appalling conditions as they were transported into Syria. They were “given food with insects in it and [had to drink water out of toilets]”, and were provided with no medical care for months. As they were thrown into overcrowded rooms ridden with disease, the sub-human conditions of living gave way to behaviours like this: “Yazidi women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.” These are the conditions that human beings are being forced to undergo for months on end.
Once freed from the horrors of such holding sites, they find themselves indefinitely trapped in a seemingly inescapable web of vicious assault, rape and slavery. A teenage girl, who was captured at fifteen, was forced to endure months of captivity under IS before she escaped. Now she describes her story. She, along with her mother, was separated from their male relatives after their attempted escape was intercepted by IS forces. A girl of fifteen who would otherwise have been coming home from school to the warm embrace of her mother describes that “the hardest moment for me that I remember is having my hand clasped to my mom’s hand and then having them forcefully broken apart. This was the hardest thing — not just for me but for all the girls and children. … They killed any woman who resisted going, they would open fire on her.” She goes on to say: “They used to tell us Yazidi girls, you are sabiya [spoils of war, sex slaves], you are kuffar [infidels], you are to be sold without a price.” There are firsthand reports that some women have been exchanged for cigarette packets. These accounts validate reports that women have been treated as property, ownable, and owned . such gross violations of an individual’s right to autonomy, to freedom of expression, is unprecedented in the 21st century.
These women go through more hardships, as they are sold multiple times to different bidders. One twenty year-old woman accounts her experience: “We were taken to a farm, where for eight days we hardly ate anything. They registered our name. They took four or five girls each time and sold them and then came back again to us to take more.” (The Yazidi Women Who Escaped Isis, Seivan M. Salim). Another teenage girl who came likewise came forward to speak about her experience when she was held captive as a sex slave by IS says: “We were as many as 200 girls in the house… One of the girls cut her wrists and committed suicide…” She goes on to describe: “I was raped every day and they sold my sister and cousin to two ISIS fighters from Iraq while one fighter kept me for himself.” She ended by saying: “I have told my story many times now, it’s all I can do…” (Yazidi Girl Exposes: ISIS Rape Hellhole).
Courage and heroism are two words which come close to adequately articulating the admiration that should be held for these women, but they are not enough to honour women speaking on behalf of thousands upon thousands of women who continue to suffer such a fate.
Payam Akhavan, former UN prosecutor and law professor at McGill University, who visited a Yazidi refugee camp in Iraq, calls for the “victims to heal their wounds by telling their stories and to ensure that the people of the region who have been brainwashed by these extremist ideologies understand the reality of what has been done to these people in the name of religion.” The creation of a truth commission, he purports, which would hear the testimony of survivors and see them propagated widely, is a process which could see not only a glimmer of solace for thousands of individuals, but may witness the start of a healing process for an entire people.
To conclude, we are left with the words echoing in the vacant chambers of the Shingal mountain:
“Why should I tell you my story? I told it before and no one came to help.”
Sahba Mohtadi, Blog Writer
Faryal Ahmed, Blog Editor