Sold by IS, Yazidi fe­male fight­ers back for re­venge

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

She was traf­ficked into Raqa as a sex slave by the Is­lamic State group but man­aged to es­cape. Now Yazidi fighter Heza is back to avenge the hor­rors she and thou­sands of others suf­fered. Her hair tucked un­der a tightly wrapped for­est green shawl em­broi­dered with flow­ers, Heza says bat­tling IS in its Syr­ian bas­tion has helped re­lieve some of her trauma. “When I started fight­ing, I lifted some of the wor­ries from my heart,” she says, sur­rounded by fel­low Yazidi mili­tia women in Raqa’s east­ern AlMesh­leb district. “But it will be full of re­venge un­til all the women are freed.”

She and her two sis­ters were among thou­sands of women and girls from the Kur­dish-speak­ing Yazidi mi­nor­ity taken hostage by IS as it swept into Iraq’s Sin­jar re­gion in Au­gust 2014. The women were sold and traded across the ji­hadists’ self-pro­claimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. Around 3,000 are be­lieved to re­main in cap­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing one of Heza’s sis­ters. “When the Yazidi geno­cide hap­pened, Daesh snatched up the women and girls. I was one of them,” Heza re­counts, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for IS.

The United Na­tions has qual­i­fied the mas­sacres IS car­ried out against the Yazidis dur­ing the Sin­jar at­tack as geno­cide. IS sep­a­rated Yazidi fe­males from the men in Sin­jar, bring­ing the women and girls into Raqa. “They took us like sheep. They chased us and hu­mil­i­ated us in these very streets,” Heza tells AFP, ges­tur­ing to a row of heav­ily dam­aged homes in Al-Mesh­leb.

The east­ern district was the first neigh­bor­hood cap­tured from IS by the US-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, a Kur­dish-Arab al­liance, in their months-long of­fen­sive to seize the ji­hadist bas­tion. SDF of­fi­cials told AFP that their forces had al­ready res­cued sev­eral fe­male Yazidi cap­tives, in­clud­ing a 10-year-old girl, since they en­tered Raqa city in June.

De­spite pain, I felt joy

Over the course of her 10-month cap­tiv­ity in Raqa, Heza was bought by five dif­fer­ent IS fight­ers. Her voice strained but her brown eyes still sharp, the young fighter says she prefers not to de­tail the abuses she suf­fered. But in an in­di­ca­tion of the ex­tent of her trauma, Heza-whose name means “strength” in Kur­dish-says she tried to com­mit sui­cide sev­eral times. Fi­nally, in May 2015, she es­caped from the home where she was be­ing held to a nearby mar­ket, and she found a Syr­ian Kur­dish fam­ily who smug­gled her out of the city.

She trav­elled around 400 kilo­me­ters across war-rav­aged northeast Syria back into Iraq to join the Shen­gal Women’s Units (YPS). The YPS-named af­ter the Kur­dish word for Sin­jar-is a part of the USbacked SDF. Heza un­der­went in­ten­sive weapons train­ing, and when the SDF an­nounced its fight for Raqa in Novem­ber 2016, she and other YPS fight­ers were ready. “When the Raqa of­fen­sive be­gan, I wanted to take part in it for all the Yazidi girls who were sold here in these streets,” she says.

“My goal is to free them, to avenge them.” The SDF spent months tight­en­ing the noose around Raqa be­fore break­ing into the city in June, and the YPS took up their first po­si­tions in Al-Mesh­leb sev­eral weeks later. It was the first time Heza was back in the north­ern Syr­ian city since her es­cape. “When I en­tered Raqa, I had a strange, in­de­scrib­able feel­ing. De­spite the enor­mous pain that I carry, I felt joy,” the fighter says.

Ri­fles are lined up in neat rows in­side the aban­doned home used by the YPS as their base in AlMesh­leb. Yazidi women in brand-new uni­forms gather around a crack­ling walkie-talkie for news from the front. Some of them, like 20-year-old Merkan, have trav­elled far to join the fight against IS. Her fam­ily is orig­i­nally Yazidi Turk­ish, but Merkan and her 24-year-old sis­ter Arin were raised in Ger­many. When they heard about IS’s in­fa­mous sweep into Sin­jar in 2014, they were out­raged. “I could never have imag­ined a world like this. I didn’t ex­pect things like this could hap­pen,” Merkan says. “I was in so much pain,” says the tall mili­ti­a­woman.

Her older sis­ter de­cided to travel to Sin­jar in late 2014 to join the YPS, and Merkan fol­lowed in early 2015. “I only had one goal in front of me: lib­er­at­ing the Yazidi women, and all women who were still in Daesh’s clutches.” She had scrib­bled a sim­i­lar pledge in Kur­dish on a wall be­hind her. “Through strength and strug­gle, we Yazidi women fight­ers came to Raqa to take re­venge for the Au­gust 3 mas­sacre,” the graf­fiti says, re­fer­ring to when IS en­tered Sin­jar. “We are aveng­ing Yazidi girls,” it adds.

“Yes­ter­day there was Al-Qaeda and to­day there’s Daesh. We don’t know who will come next. I want to go any­where there is in­jus­tice,” Merkan said. Fel­low fighter Basih is sit­ting qui­etly in a neigh­bor­ing room, chain-smok­ing cig­a­rettes in the muggy July af­ter­noon. “We suf­fered the ugli­est forms of in­jus­tice. Our re­venge will be pro­por­tional to it,” she said. — AFP

RAQA: Mem­bers of the Women’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPJ) ar­rive on the front­line on the east­ern out­skirts of Raqa, dur­ing the on­go­ing of­fen­sive by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), which are made up of an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers, to re­take the city from Is­lamic State (IS) group fight­ers. — AFP pho­tos

RAQA: Mem­bers of the Women’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPJ) eat on the east­ern out­skirts of Raqa.

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