In August, when ISIS launched its attack against the twon of Shengal in Northern Irak, images of the desperate sufferings of its inhabitants led international news reports. Seven months later, the story of the experiences, suffering and resistance of captured Ezidi women is not as well known. This series explores the experiences and struggles of Ezidi women living in the Iraki town of Duhok; in the town of Derik in Rojava; and in the town of Shengal itself.
Up until now, five hundred women have managed to escape from ISIS, one by one and by their own means. Moreover, women living in Shengal are working at building a system of representation and defense at the local level. They say they do not want to see another attack like this one ever again, the last in a long line of historical massacres against the Ezidi.
According to official statistics, ISIS members kidnapped over 7 000 women and children during the attacks that began on August 3 against Shengal (also known under the name of Sinjar). The sale of these women on slave markets continued in a number of Syrian towns, as well as in towns under ISIS control in Iraq, and in others as far away as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The main markets are in the Syrian town of Rakka, at the heart of the territory under ISIS control.
The regional government of Kurdistan was criticized for having left Shengal exposed to the massacred. During the summer of 2014, ISIS was on a rampage with the stated intention of killing and driving into slavery those religious groups that would cross their path, such as the Ezidi. Despite resources obtained from decades of financial and military aid from the United States, the KDP party in power took almost no military precautions in this region.
A more extensive massacre was only avoided thanks to an operation led by fighters affiliated with the PKK – an organization appearing on the lists of Western countries as a terrorist one. It has now become difficult to speak to Ezidi women for all resquest for access are denied by leaders in Zaxo (Zakho), Hewler (Erbil) and Sulaymaniyah.
Having managed to obtain an address in Duhok, we took the road on a cold winter day. Rain fell constantly and the heater in the car had trouble warming us. We found ourselves in front of a building under construction in which migrants from Shengal live, ten families per floor.
On the second floor, we pass behind a suspended blanket that serves as a door. Between bare walls devoid of plaster on one side and plastic sheeting blocking the wind on the other, we sit near a gas stove that barely warms the air around it, not to mention the icy room.
Z.X. 24, H.X., 20 and W.X., 17, live here with their mothers and a 12 year old brother. Their fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins have all been killed. Although the women managed to escape three months ago, several of their sisters are still held captive by ISIS.
After saying they have received no aid or support, the women fall silent. In the end, Z.X. begins to talk.
“I know why you’ve come’, she says and begins to describe the day in August when she was captured.
“That day, we learned ISIS was going to attack,” she says. “My father loaded us into the car at daybreak and we headed for the Shengal mountains. We stopped on the way in my uncle’s village. We were going to eat, then take my uncle’s family with us and flee.”
“But it didn’t happen the way we wanted. Shortly thereafter, ISIS surrounded us and started shooting at the house. The father of Z.X. attempted to defend the house but the assailants were more powerful. They locked the 27 men inside, took the women and children outside and divided them into two groups.
Members of the gang herded together the 23 young women who had been married for less than 3 years and loaded them onto their vehicles. They splashed gasoline over the 13 young children and the older women, including Z.X”s mother and aunt.
“They were about to burn the group in which was my mother when their phone rang,” says Z.X. “Someone told them “bring the young ones to the village in Siba Shekh Khidir then come back and burn what’s left. While ISIS was heading for the village and returning, my mother and the other women managed to escape. But they could not free the men locked in the house, who were decapitated. One of my cousins survived by hiding under the body of his own father.”
The young women were taken to the village of Baaj where they were imprisoned in a cellar with 500 other women and girls. They had no idea of the time. They waited some two hours while ISIS members divided them into virgin and non-virgin groups and selected some of them for sale in Mosul. They took away Z.W’s sisisters and cousin, leaving her behind to look after a pregnant cousin.
“We were 300 in Baaj. They beat us every day – whether we followed their directions or not.” One day, ISIS commanders, called “amirs”, came to the village. One of the amirs chose Z.X’s friend, 24 year old Cilan for himself. Cilan barricaded herself in the toilet and killed herself.
After eight days in Baaj, 27 of the women were taken to the village of Til Kasir, an exchange center for hundreds of women and children – some were between six and nine years old. Z.X. was raped several times, first as a cook for ISIS amir Til Kasir, his wives and children. Then she was sold to someone from the village of Verdiye near Tel Azir who beat her every day for three days. The amir requested she be given back to him because he needed her to cook for the girls he had bought, including a deaf girl of seven he raped frequently.
“I stayed with the girls for five days. Then, an amir took me. He tied my hands, covered my mouth and my eyes and raped me on the way. Then he called his wife and said he had picked out a woman he wanted to bring home. When his wife refused, he had to take me back.
For a time, Z.X. stayed with the six and nine-year old sisters of her friend CILAN who had killed herself. Then a man took her and three young girls. He claimed he was bringing them back to Shengal but did nothing of the sort. One night, a man came and carried away Gali, 12 and Saha, 14.
“They said ‘they will sleep in our beds tonight’. I couldn’t accept it. So they tied me hand and foot. Two men from ISIS, Abu Kerem and Abu Abbas beat me for hours. I still can’t walk correctly,” she says. She was also wounded to the head.
During the night, she had to hear the young girls’ cries. They were taken to Mosul on the following morning.
“I still have no news of them,” says Z.X.
“The rape rendered my 15 year old friend Nazdar mentally unstable. There was a nine-year old girl by the name of Silan they raped repetitiously, saying they were giving her lessons in the Koran. My friend did not want to abandon her.” For three days, the men locked Silan in a room, hands tied, and raped her.
“They sold her to a Syrian in Mosul. I haven’t any news of her either.”
“I was sold once again and started cooking for children again.” The children under her “care” were raped frequently. “In the house where I was, they raped two little deaf girls, aged seven and eight. When the little girls’ cousin resisted, they beat her and fractured her skull in two places,” says Z.X.
“Later, they took me with a 13 year old girl to another place with children. They kept telling us “we’re going to sell you in Saudi Arabia or in Syria. ” I couldn’t stand it and started looking for ways to escape. I don’t know how I managed, but it worked. I took the 13 year old with me. I couldn’t take the others. They stayed behind.”
“We walked until we reached a house. The people took us in but they put us out on the street in the morning, saying “they will kill us all.” They walked through the streets for two days, without food or water, until they reached Zasim Seso’s group, the commander of the Shengal defence units.
“I still can’t believe those days are behind me. Think of it, every day, they mixed stuff into our water and forced us to drink it. They tortured us with cold water.”
“Lately, one of my friends called me and told me they were in Tal Afar. I know for a fact that women are being sold in Tal Afar, Baaj, Aseyba, Rabia, Shengal, Kocho, Tel Azer, in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar and especially in Rakka in Syria,” says Z.X; listing places mainly within the province of Ninive.
She recalls that the virgins were sold $2 500. “Many women claimed they were pregnant in order to avoid being sold. Then, they stopped believing them and administered urine tests. But there were some hundred pregnant women. Some of them provided their own urine for the others’ tests, so they could avoid being sold.”
“I was sold almost 30 times, once for $700 and sometimes for as little as $10. Being in their hands was very painful. My sisters are still in Syria and there is nothing we can do for them. No matter the number of times my sister has escaped, they’ve always managed to catch her. They beat her and rape her every day.”
“I saw women immolate themselves. There were children aged three and six they raped. I thought of killing myself many times but when I saw the children, I couldn’t abandon them. I am still in a state of shock. I can’t get over it.”
Silence falls for a long time on the room. Then Z.X. asks: “Would you like some tea?”
H.X., 20, beings to speak, eyes on the ground as she rubs her hands one against the other. We are filled with shame at being the latest in a long list of groups that have come here, asking her to relive this trauma, without giving her anything in exchange. But we listen in silence.
“You understood, yes? They decapitated my father,” H.X. says. “I stayed in Baaj for tend ays with my eldest sister and three of my younger sisters. Then, they separated us, they took me with one of my sisters and sent us to Mosul.
“We were terribly frightened. We were about 500. They forced us into taking the oath in the Islamic faith. They beat those who refused.” The ISIS gangs would tie their hands and gather them in groups of thirty for mass sales. The buyer would then re-sell each one individually on the market.
“I can’t recall the number of times I was sold. Several times. They sold me in Syria, in Baaj, Shengal, Tal Afar and Mosul. They sold us really cheaply,” she says. The first time, she was sold to an Islamic religious leader who kept her for three months.
“My sister and my cousin were sold to him also and he raped us. Then he gave us to his friends. They would draw heads or tails to know who got first choice.
Those were very bad days. How could it have been otherwise since we were filled with sorrow, beatings and rapes? We spent our days being beaten by people to whom we belonged against our will. They called us “infidels”.
We were completely desperate between their hands, as if we were dead. They sold me to an old man. He died before he could rape me. Then, they sold me to someone else…
One day, there was an airstrike. The one who had bought me died in the attack. Thanks to this, I was able to escape. I put on a long black dress and ran, bare foot, as fast as I could. This is how I managed to escape.”
W.X., 17, is the only one who hasn’t spoken. “She hasn’t spoken ever since her rescue. She doesn’t talk,” the others says. But suddenly, W. gets up and comes to sit next to us.
“I also want to speak,” she says.
“They took me with my sisters. I was terribly frightened; I’m still frightened. I was in Mosul and I saw the sales on the marketplace every day. They sold a little 10 year old girl with whom I was to a 50 year old man. The child started to yell and cry. Everything was terrible.” W. falls silent again and starts to bite her nails.
We tell her: “No need to speak if you don’t want to talk about it.” But she doesn’t listen.
“They chose me by drawing lots. They took my eldest sister the same way. I didn’t want to go, but they dragged me forcibly, beating me. A man took me to Mosul and there was no one in the house. On the second day, they brought my eldest sister and one of my friends.”
On several occasions, a man of 45 tied her hands and raped her, she says. She stayed in the house for two months in which mostly girls were kept. She could hear the little 10 year old being raped every night.
“I tried to escape a number of times, without succeeding,” she says. “My life in Shengal was really fine. I went to school. I had dreams. I had my father. Now, I don’t have him anymore. I have no more dreams. I have no more school.”
“I don’t feel well at all, psychologically speaking. I hate all men that look like them. Every night I have nightmares where they rape me and where they come back to kidnap me again. Just talking about them, I’ afraid. I am so afraid.”
W.X. falls silent again and bites her nails for several minutes. Then she lifts her head, begins to smile, and then to laugh.