The tragedy of the Yazidis is never-ending. Many members of the Middle Eastern ethnic-religious minority are still trapped as slaves of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Mosul's inferno. Meanwhile, some of the girls who had been raped in captivity and boys who had been drafted as child soldiers are having a hard time recovering from the trauma. Having been released for ransom or escaped, they languish in camps for displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan. We met some of them in the Darkar camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border, in a clinic of EliseCare, a French NGO. Here are their stories:
Lion cub of the caliphate
Nassan was 14 when he was kidnapped by ISIS in August 2014, along with his mother Gulay, was was 34 at the time, and his two sisters and three brothers. The oldest of the siblings, Nassan was a frail teenager, but was forced to grow up quickly. He was forced into becoming a child soldier. Nassan was faced with the choice between revolting and being killed or betraying his own people and dying as cannon fodder. He chose the narrow path to become, in his own way, his family's hero.
The young man "belonged" to an Iraqi jihadist from Mosul, who who was convinced that the Yazidis, who believe in a single God and practice millennia-old rituals taken from other religions, are worshipers of the devil.
Nassan was born in a small village deep in Iraq, not far from the sacred sites of his sect: the Sinjar mountains and the lush green valley of Lalesh, lined with white conical-domed temples that hold the tomb of Sheikh Adi, who founded the order in the 12th century. Nissan worships Melek Taus, or Peacock Angel, and respects obscure taboos such as the prohibition of eating lettuce or wearing blue.
Marginalized among the marginalized, the Yazidis have been victims of massacres for centuries. To the Sunni Arabs of ISIS and those who have come from around the world to fight alongside them in Iraq and Syria, the Yazidis are considered the dregs of humanity, heretics who must either be forcibly converted or destroyed. In August 2014, ISIS fighters from Mosul descended upon the Nineveh Plains and the Sinjar desert in an offensive aimed to wipe the Yazidis off the map. Men were killed, women and children kidnapped. The United Nations called it a genocide. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the Sinjar mountains where, according to local legend, Noah's ark settled after the flood. They were saved with the help of forces of the Kurdish fighters coming from Syria and Turkey, as well as U.S. air power.
Nassan was not so lucky. After being a prisoner in Mosul for six months, he was deported to Syria with his family. His master, who grew tired of raping his mother, sold his prey and her children to a trafficker who, with four chartered buses full of slaves, headed for Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold on the other side of the border. There, Nassan was separated from his family. Delivered to a new owner, he said goodbye to his mother before joining the “lion cubs of the caliphate,” ISIS' child-soldier factory for fighters under the age of 16.
Nassan entered a “training institute” near Suluk, on the Turkish border. He quickly discovered the fate reserved for "apostates” who try to escape: at best, imprisonment in deep, dungeon-like pits with just three dates a day to eat; at worst, execution. He was taught the Sharia with the blows of a stick. Theology classes advocated an ultra-rigorous reading of the Koran. He was also taught how to use weapons and the basics of military tactics; some notions of anatomy, mostly learining the sensitive parts of the human body like the neck muscles, the solar plexus, or the testicles; and the fundamentals of dealing with future prisoners. Nassan and his Yazidi comrades, who were also forcibly enlisted, were the scapegoats of their classmates. He absorbed the iron discipline like a good student. "We were promised we'd be free men after the classes," he said.
Everywhere I went, I was looking for my family.
Six months later, the "lion cub" was released and incorporated into a combat unit. Nassan appealed to his military-religious superiors for a dispensation based on his newly acquired knowledge of “Sharia sciences.” He had only one kidney and still suffers from the effects of a leg broken in childhood. This was enough to justify an exemption according to Islamic law. He was transferred to the kitchen, where he helped prepare meals for his brigade on the front lines of Aleppo and Tabqa. “I was a jihadist among the jihadists but everywhere I went, I was looking for my family. That was my obsession. I missed my mother,” he remembers.
In the beginning of 2016, he was in Palmyra, where ISIS was under threat from rebels of the Free Syrian Army. He wandered the streets of the ancient city, weapon slung over his shoulder, interrogating the city's inhabitants until one day he accidentally came across one of his brothers who was out running an errand. The family was being held nearby by a local jihadist, Abu Hamad. His mother, brothers and sister occupied the ground floor of their masters' house. The jihadist lived there with his wife and children. Abu Hamad regularly raped and beat Nassan's mother, and his wife beat her at every opportunity. The jihadist's children were charged with beating the child slaves, Nassan's siblings.
Nassan tried to pressure Abu Haman into releasing his family. "I went to see him every day. He demanded $35,000 in ransom, but I had no money. He wouldn't budge. I ended up dragging him to Sharia court in Raqqa," says Nassan. Again, he relied on Islamic law to beat the jihadists at their own game. "I'm a Muslim! a member of the Islamic State! I have the right to live with my mother!" he argued. A magistrate ruled in his favor. The young man was a "free man" affiliated with ISIS, therefore he could, according to Sharia, recover his relatives. The master was ordered to free the slaves, but was nevertheless allowed to keep the eldest daughter, who was 12. The girl, who belonged to Abu Hamid's wife, remained exploitable, therefore "rape-able," at will.
Nassan also managed to get, from the "office of confiscated homes," a place in Raqqa to house his family. He could continue cooking for the jihadist combatants while putting together the last stage of his plan: fleeing Syria. Contacted by cell phone through the channels of the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, a smuggler took over the operation. The group secretly left Raqqa in December for a journey that ended at the gates of freedom: The first Syrian Kurdish checkpoint of the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Turkish Kurd forces. Two weeks later, Saleh, a friend of Nassan's, another jihadi of Yazidi origin who was with him at the caliphate lion-cub school and who was also able to save his own family, was saved through the same channels.
I am just my unhappiness.
These days, the two teens meet regularly at the camp for the displaced near Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nassan has started learning English using an old dictionary. Saleh learned of his father's death and of his brother's murder during the Kocho massacre carried out by ISIS on August 15, 2014, which claimed more than 80 lives.
About 10,000 Yazidi men, women and children died, were kidnapped or disappeared in the ethnic-religious cleansing campain carried out by ISIS.
Gulay, Nassan's mother, has found her husband, but cries over her daughter who is still being held prisoner in Raqqa. "A month ago that bastard Abu Hamad demanded $35,000 for her liberation in a recording on social media. We don't have the means to pay. His cell phone has been off since the beginning of the fighting in Raqqa." Sitting at her side, one of her children is agitated. With a sudden movement the child stretches out his arm like holding a gun, and pretends to shoot his mother in the head.
The rape of Koda's little girls
Koda is 30, but appears 60. She is flanked by Galia, 7, and Marwa, 6, both silent and still. The two girls were raped repeatedly by ISIS members for months on end. Koda does not hide her utter despair: she has no more honor to defend. "We experienced the worst of the worst with my two masters, a Saudi and a Tunisian. They abused the girls and beat them with a cane when they made noise like children their age do. I thought of committing suicide, but I couldn't abandon them. In Raqqa, there were many of us in the same situation," she says. Koda was sold by her master from Mosul for a few hundred dollars.
A Yazidi boy at a refugee camp in Greece — Photo: Marios Lolos/Xinhua via ZUMA
She was resold six times in Syria, passing from hand to hand. A broke jihadist published her photo on WhatsApp, demanding a ransom of $23,000, including the children — a common practice. Her brother-in-law managed to collect the money and 17 months ago he bought her back. Since then she's been wandering the Darkar Ajam camp, dressed in black from head to toe. "It's the color of sadness and the inside of my heart," she says. "I don't have anything. I am nothing — I am just my unhappiness. My husband disappeared almost three years ago with the rest of my family, fleeing ISIS. I don't have a present or a future. Just three broken girls."
Parwin, 23, was rescued twice. The first time was last September, when Mohammed, a kind man from Mosul, stole her from the emir Hamza, a senior ISIS official. The second time was at the end of the year when the eastern part of Mosul was liberated by the Iraqi army. On December 30, Parwin picked up her daughter Suriana, then 3, and crossed the city, destroyed by bombardments and fighting. She walked for hours in the rain to a meeting point where an Arab sheikh drove her to Bartalla, a Christian city controlled by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, an Assyrian militia.
A remarkable beauty, Parwin was most likely considered a prime catch by ISIS predators. Sold and resold from one emir to another, she had 11 masters. "There was not one worse than the other — they were all horrible and more or less violent. I was chained, raped, beaten, my daughter was beaten," she says. Those who could have shown some compassion didn't out of cowardice. She remember's Khaled, a thick brute who grabbed her just after her abduction. He was a Yazidi who had secretly converted to Islam before ISIS arrived. He died in combat a year later. But she mainly remembers her last husband, the emir Hamza, a big boss who used to offer her as a gift to his guests.
Parwin tried to escape many times. One day, she fled on foot with a fellow slave without realizing that Hamza had spun his car around. Vengeance fell upon her daughter. The girl was locked up without food and the emir threatened to send her to Syria to separate her from her mother indefinitely. Then she was saved by Muhammad the man from Mosul, who put an end to her suffering.
“The battle for the liberation of Mosul had begun. We were afraid of airstrikes. We changed hiding place at every alert," Parwin said. "Mohammed asked me for nothing and never abused me. If he had been caught, he would have been hanged.”
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