We have been witnessing the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. In five years ten million people have been forced to flee Syria, leaving behind all they have known. ISIS’s attempted eradication of the Yazidis is an act of genocide as horrific as the Holocaust. In August 2014, ISIS attacked Yazidi Kurds in Sinjar, killing five thousand people.
“He tried to rape me several times, but I did not allow him to touch me in any sexual way.
Instead he cursed me and beat me every day, punching and kicking me. Shayma and I began discussing killing ourselves.” These are the words of a fourteen year-old girl whose life was ripped away from her when she was sold to an ISIS commander.
Narin (as she is referred to in the Washington Post), describes the unrestrained joy she felt when she was reunited with her parents. But her life cannot be as it once was. She says, “Now I am trying to come to terms with what happened… I want to go to a place where I might be able to start over, if that is even possible.” This is a reality that many girls and women face, and one which they are unable to escape from. Currents of pain are deeply embedded in their lives; psychological trauma silently resides within them. “I have nightmares and I dream that Daesh fighters are strangling and raping me… I often wonder how I can continue living my life without a father, mother and family,” says a seventeen year- old Yazidi girl who was imprisoned and mistreated until she was finally able to escape. But the psychological wounds she is enduring are so deep that she has attempted suicide on multiple occasions. Many do not realise that helping people physically escape ISIS is not enough. Those who have escaped and are living as refugees in Europe are still suffering, mentally. These psychological wounds need to be given more importance and more medical attention, or those who have escaped will continue to live in captivity.
A UN report describes the psychological trauma of Yazidi mothers “For many Yazidi women, who still do not know where their children are and what conditions they are living under, the mental trauma is all-consuming.”
For many the joy they feel after escaping is short-lived, as they find themselves without a home, without a family, and without any direction. Both those who remain within the borders of Iraq and those who have fled to Europe suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and severe depression. In Iraq provisions for mental care are very poor – help is scarce and sparsely available. The Guardian reported that there are just seventeen general psychiatrists in the entire Northern Kurdish region, and of those only four are trained to work with child and adolescent patients. More than 18,500 displaced Yazidis are living in Khanke Camp, “their lives reduced to the clothes on their backs and whatever else they could carry…” (The Guardian). Of these, thousands will have been subjected to severe psychological trauma, stripped of their homes and families, and witnessing the desecration of their beliefs and principles. Consequently, there is a dire need for comprehensive psychiatric support systems. Upon visiting these camps, Dr. Nagham Nawzad observed, “the basic problem they suffer from is deteriorated psychological state. Despite the physical and psychological follow-up that we provide them with, their situation remains difficult … they do not have a real possibility to forget …” (Women across Frontiers)
But poor healthcare is not the only challenge faced by these women. They are often unable to return to a safe and supportive environment in which to heal. While victims receive considerable acceptance and support by family members, the Yazidi community as a whole has not welcomed them with kindness. After suffering physically and mentally, the stigma that some women are undergoing makes it more difficult for them to recover.
To cope with these problems, German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan has set up a clinic for women who are victims of ISIS. Kizilhan’s project is an attempt to rehabilitate female Yazidi victims by changing their environment, as part of an agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government, Germany, and the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. Kizilhan’s project has treated more than a thousand female ISIS victims. In an interview Kizilhan refers to “patterns of mistreatment”, that there is something systematic and coordinated about the attacks conducted by ISIS. He argues that it is necessary to identify this pattern, and this knowledge should shape the health treatment of victims.
Kizilhan suggests that the road to successful rehabilitation is to acknowledge what they have endured, and to give them a sense of justice. It cannot erase or make them forget the suffering embedded in the consciousness of the community. But it can provide a sense of optimism for the future, which he claims is a “way of dealing with past wrongs and present traumas, reinforcing memory”. Payam Akhavan, former UN prosecutor in genocide cases, also seems to favour this suggestion: “if there’s to be co-existence, there needs to be an apology and a telling—an acknowledgement of the atrocities.”
Sahba Mohtadi, Blog Writer
Faryal Ahmed, Blog Editor