Iraq’s Yazidis strug­gle to re­build their bro­ken lives

Last week the BBC’s Lyse Doucet broad­cast a se­ries of re­mark­able dis­patches about the fate of a dev­as­tated com­mu­nity at Isis’s hands. Here she re­counts the sto­ries of rape the women told

The Observer - - News -

A gen­er­a­tor sput­ters into life and men in farm­ers’ trousers spray water on muddy trac­tors as the sun slips from a late sum­mer sky. On this most or­di­nary of vil­lage days in a north­ern cor­ner of Iraq, 20-year-old Bafrin Shivan Amo perches on a metal cot bed to speak of the most hellish of times.

“They raped me ev­ery day, twice or more,” she re­counts with re­mark­able com­po­sure. “I was just a child,” she says in her soft steady voice. “I can never for­get it.”

Bafrin shares her story, as hard as that is, be­cause she wants the world to hear what hap­pened to her and nearly 7,000 other Yazidi women en­slaved for years by the fight­ers of the bar­baric Is­lamic State group. The world, her tiny com­mu­nity be­lieves, has for­got­ten them.

Four years ago, when Isis fight­ers swept into the fur­thest reaches of Iraq, im­ages of des­per­ate peo­ple stranded on a moun­tain­side in the Yazidi heart­land, dy­ing of de­hy­dra­tion and hunger, sparked alarm and com­pas­sion for an an­cient cul­ture few had heard of. He­li­copters were dis­patched to drop food and water on the bar­ren slopes of Mount Sin­jar and to pull to safety the small num­ber of peo­ple who man­aged to scram­ble on board.

Now a stub­born scar stains the clus­ter of towns and vil­lages in the foothills of the Yazidis’ sa­cred moun­tain. Streets lie in ghostly si­lence, bro­ken hulks of houses are still pep­pered with the bombs and booby-traps laid by Isis be­fore they were pushed out of this area three years ago by Kur­dish forces backed by US-led airstrikes. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Yazidis are now scat­tered in dis­place­ment camps across this north­ern re­gion, un­able and un­will­ing to go home, and un­cer­tain where to turn for help.

Few aid agen­cies are on the ground here and Yazidis are left in limbo, caught in dis­putes be­tween the lo­cal Kur­dish ad­min­is­tra­tion and the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. That af­fects the de­liv­ery of aid as well as se­cu­rity for a pop­u­la­tion still pro­foundly fear­ful that Isis will re­turn.

“I can­not go back to my own vil­lage,” Bafrin says as we sit in the farm­yard in the bak­ing heat, a dark blue scarf with a sparkling trim fram­ing her broad face. She chooses not to hide her face, or her name, as she tells a story which, like the ac­counts of many Yazidi women, is be­yond any­one’s imag­i­na­tion. “There is no hope there will ever be life in my vil­lage. There are only bones of the dead.”

Her vil­lage is Ko­cho, only a short drive away. In the vast cat­a­logue of Isis’s war crimes, Ko­cho set a new bar for bru­tal­ity. About 400 men, the en­tire male pop­u­la­tion, were rounded up, shot or be­headed. Old women were killed and dumped in mass graves, younger ones sold in mar­kets

as sex slaves, boys turned into child soldiers.

In that fate­ful sum­mer of 2014, Bafrin was out­side Ko­cho and tried to make her way to Mount Sin­jar, along with the tens of thou­sands of oth­ers who fled there in a blind panic to es­cape Isis’s as­sault on a peo­ple it scorned as “devil wor­ship­pers”.

Yazidis be­lieve Mount Sin­jar, a mas­sif span­ning the bor­der area be­tween Iraq and Syria, has al­ways been their only pro­tec­tor. They see it as the guardian of their long-per­se­cuted faith, a monothe­is­tic reli­gion with Zoroas­trian roots which also draws on Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam.

Isis fight­ers cap­tured Bafrin and her three brothers on the road, just south of Mount Sin­jar, and locked her away, ini­tially with sev­eral of her young fe­male friends from Ko­cho.

In her pain, there was also strength and a sense of pur­pose. “Ev­ery day I was held cap­tive, I grew stronger,” she says. “I took ev­ery chance I could to try to es­cape and promised my­self that I would never give up, be­cause, in the end, ei­ther I would be killed by my cap­tors or be free.”

When the sec­ond fighter who en­slaved her was killed in a sui­cide bomb­ing, she wrapped her­self in black cloth­ing, scram­bled over a wall, and found her way to a house in the Iraqi city of Mo­sul, which was also then in Isis’s chok­ing grip. Strangers opened the door to a fright­ened woman on the run, kept her for days, then sold her back to her fam­ily.

Thirty-five mem­bers of her ex­tended fam­ily are still miss­ing. “My brothers are prob­a­bly dead,” she ad­mits re­luc­tantly. “But we still live in hope.

“Once I was free, I felt re­born. But I can’t feel free while 3,000 Yazidi women and chil­dren are still in cap­tiv­ity, in a sit­u­a­tion far worse than mine.”

While Isis fight­ers have been pushed from the cities that once formed their vaunted caliphate, some are still at large, on the edges of vil­lages and in the desert ex­panses.

One by one, af­ter years of tor­ment, some Yazidi women are com­ing home as Isis dis­cards some of its slaves – usu­ally for the pay­ment of large sums of money ar­ranged through smug­glers.

“I didn’t be­lieve it would ever hap­pen,” a vis­i­bly ex­hausted Gazal says, on her first day at home af­ter her fam­ily raised tens of thou­sands of dol­lars from rel­a­tives and neigh­bours to free her from cap­tors who had se­questered her in Syria.

Her fetch­ing nine-year-old daugh­ter Dalia shad­ows her in si­lence; a be­wil­dered lit­tle girl’s star­ing eyes tell of her hor­ror. “They beat me around the face, and they beat my lit­tle girl. They beat all my four chil­dren. I was so scared for them,” Gazal says.

The beat­ings have frozen one side of her face, a paral­y­sis which ex­tends down her arm. But even with tired eyes drained of any sparkle, her re­lief is pal­pa­ble. She had thought her or­deal would never end.

“Isis lied to me,” she re­calls, her

fam­i­lies would kill us if we tried to come home so I was scared to come back. But I was so sur­prised at the wel­come I got.”

In a mo­bile phone video of their first mo­ments to­gether, a sob­bing Gazal is en­veloped in the tight em­brace of her mother and sis­ters. Her knees give way and she drops to the floor, over­whelmed by the emo­tion of re­u­nion and re­lief.

She had waited for what must have seemed an eter­nity be­fore try­ing to reach her rel­a­tives: an­other Yazidi girl had se­cretly kept a phone, and Gazal fi­nally sum­moned the courage to send voice mes­sages to her fam­ily, who then con­tacted smug­glers.

Within days of com­ing home, Gazal trav­els to the holi­est Yazidi tem­ple in Lal­ish, a clus­ter of shrines with dis­tinc­tive con­i­cal roofs, nes­tled in a moun­tain valley. Like all women en­slaved by Is­lamic State fight­ers, she is show­ered with water in a rit­ual seen as wash­ing her clean of her past in the eyes of her com­mu­nity. With­out this, she would not have been ac­cepted back.

Con­cern for the plight of Yazidi women, and the need for ex­pert coun­selling, led some coun­tries, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, Ger­many and Canada, to of­fer refuge to a lim­ited num­ber of women, as well as fam­ily mem­bers.

Ev­ery Yazidi fam­ily speaks of want­ing to leave, and ev­ery­one is look­ing for loved ones. At the small Of­fice of the Kid­napped, set up by the com­mu­nity in the nearby Iraqi town of Duhok, the di­rec­tor, Hus­sein al-Qaidi, speaks in a voice that booms loudly like a mega­phone, as if to broad­cast to any­one who will lis­ten.

“No one is help­ing us,” he says. “If this was hap­pen­ing some­where else, all the world would be help­ing. Aren’t we hu­man too, don’t we de­serve bet­ter than this?”

Aid came at first from the Kur­dish prime min­is­ter’s of­fice to help pay the hefty ran­soms that are of­ten de­manded, but those funds are dry­ing up. Big­ger agen­cies, such as the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross and the United Na­tions, are mak­ing some ef­fort to help trace peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren, who have been lost in camps or or­phan­ages, or sold to fam­i­lies, but it is a sen­si­tive and com­plex busi­ness.

“It’s been four years and we haven’t seen our par­ents,” say Adiba and Asia, two women in their 20s who es­caped cap­tiv­ity. They have lost eight fam­ily mem­bers in all – par­ents, grand­par­ents, two aunts, two brothers. We meet in a tidy lane in a Yazidi dis­place­ment camp – a well-tended war­ren that the fam­i­lies have tried to make their own by plant­ing trees, lush green gar­dens of mint and other herbs, even strik­ing yel­low sun­flow­ers.

This fam­ily came to the at­ten­tion of Sally Becker, the Bri­tish char­ity worker who made a name for her­self in the 1980s dur­ing the Bos­nian conIn­deed, flict by cross­ing front lines and cir­cum­vent­ing bu­reau­cra­cies to res­cue in­jured chil­dren.

Us­ing her con­tacts in the Yazidi com­mu­nity, she is now on a mis­sion with her small char­ity, Road to Peace, to make the search for Yazidi chil­dren a greater pri­or­ity.

“This is my first lead out of about 1,700 chil­dren still miss­ing,” she says, shar­ing a pho­to­graph of fouryear-old Sabir, the two young women’s nephew, who was taken from his mother into Isis cap­tiv­ity when he was only nine months old.

Adiba and Asia’s six-year-old sis­ter Syl­vana sits with them. She nar­rowly es­caped the clutches of or­gan traf­fick­ers who smug­gled her to neigh­bour­ing Turkey. “They tried to take my kid­ney but a doc­tor stole me from the hospi­tal,” she whis­pers, in a child’s hes­i­tant ac­count of a jour­ney that fi­nally took her back to Iraq, where her sis­ters man­aged to find her.

Becker warns: “If more isn’t done more quickly to lo­cate miss­ing chil­dren in camps and or­phan­ages, more chil­dren could end up be­ing traf­ficked like Syl­vana.”

‘If it was hap­pen­ing some­where else, all the world would be help­ing. Aren’t we hu­man too?’ Hus­sein al-Qaidi, Of­fice of the Kid­napped

There is a sense of ur­gency and im­pa­tience on ev­ery front. Yazidi fam­i­lies know that some of the an­swers they need lie buried in the shal­low mass graves that lit­ter these blighted lands.

In Ko­cho, only a few soldiers, and flimsy strands of mesh fenc­ing, stand guard over the killing fields there. The si­lence is bro­ken only by the whis­tle of the winds, which have al­ready ex­posed some bones and bits of tat­tered cloth­ing. A year ago, the UN se­cu­rity coun­cil unan­i­mously passed a res­o­lu­tion, spear­headed by Britain, au­tho­ris­ing a team to gather ev­i­dence of Isis crimes, in­clud­ing the ex­huma­tion of mass graves.

“Peo­ple are los­ing hope,” says Farhan Dakheel of Yazda, a global or­gan­i­sa­tion that has been help­ing to doc­u­ment what the UN is call­ing a geno­cide. “So many Yazidis tell me that if noth­ing hap­pens this year, they will dig for the bod­ies them­selves.”

Last week, the first UN team was on site with an Iraqi med­i­cal unit, tak­ing blood sam­ples from sur­vivors of an­other vil­lage close to Mount Sin­jar.

“Its just the begin­ning,” Farhan says cau­tiously, in a tone that un­der­lines the Yazidis’ fear that they will never be any­one’s pri­or­ity.

Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief in­ter­na­tional cor­re­spon­dent

BBC

Gazal, right, was re­leased by her cap­tors in Syria af­ter her fam­ily or­gan­ised a ran­som.

Reuters

Yazidis flee­ing their towns for Mount Sin­jar as Is­lamic State forces ad­vanced on them four years ago.

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