KUWAIT CITY, May 3: A Yazidi woman, identified only as Hanif, walked to freedom from the clutches of ISIS — freedom from a long ordeal of sexual abuse, beatings and forced labor at the hands of Islamic extremists.
She was reportedly ‘sold’ 14 times and traded between man to man like a common commodity, reports Al-Rai daily. But despite a joyous reunion with her husband Homdi, her daring escape has not ended the family nightmare. The couple’s four daughters — aged 12, 15, 17 and 19 — remain under the control of ISIS, ‘married’ to the group’s fighters
The youngest girl said: “They tortured us and assaulted us at every level,” she says, speaking through an interpreter. Hanif is among almost 16,000 people, mostly Yazidis, who have taken refuge at the Rwanga Community Camp, just outside the northern Iraqi city of Duhok.
She is weary and appears burdened by emotion that is too much to bear. She avoids the worst details of the humiliating treatment and abuse. But even this account is horrifying, as Hanif describes the abuse she endured in the grim knowledge that her daughters continue to suffer.
Like many in the camp, Hanif’s ordeal began almost two years ago as Islamic extremists began murderous advances that had Yazidis, followers of an ancient religion mostly based in Kurdish Iraq, in the crosshairs.
Once taken captive, the women were forced to convert to Islam or be killed. “We didn’t have any choice but to convert, all four of them were married against their will. All of the captive Yazidi girls were forced to do the same,” she says.
She pauses and looks at her husband, who has been sitting silent, listening. “They assaulted us a lot,” she says. “The worst part was when they raped us and when they took our girls and raped.” She described how ISIS organized auctions for the captured women. “I was bought by Saudi, Libyan and Kuwaiti men,” she added.
The couple’s two boys — Murad, 9, and Imad, 5 — were taken to mosques and given lessons in the Quran. “They were training me as to how I was going to pray,” Murad says. Despite the prompting of his father, the oldest boy refuses to say anything more about the experience.
But Hanif makes plain that she feared for what lay in store for the two boys. “I was very afraid because I saw ISIS take other children for training. They used to come to my kids and show them the weapons and how they can use them,” Hanif says.
Achingly, she was allowed a brief reunion with the daughters for three days. That was a year ago. There has been no word since. Hanif speaks with obvious pride of her daughters. She describes them as smart, good in school — her oldest had plans to go to university — and strong-willed.
Strong enough, she hopes, to allow them to survive this terrible ordeal. But she fears they have been “destroyed.” She reaches for a smart phone to show visitors pictures of her two eldest girls. It is one of the few reminders she has of them. “I feel sad when I see this photo. I remembered the things that they did to us against our will,” she says. Her escape was daring.
Telling the house owner she was going to the outside kitchen, she slipped away to a nearby home and asked for help. Using a phone, she dialed a number that put her in touch with an underground network that helps ISIS captives just like her. She was told to take a cab ride to a safe house and she did, even as her boys protested. “My two boys were crying and saying that ISIS will catch us and kill us for escaping, but I had already made up my mind and I was not going to go back,” Hanif says. “I never thought that I was ever going to escape.” Hanif speaks sitting on a pillow, her two boys by her side, in the sparse living area that doubles as a bedroom at night.
A television plays in the corner and on it the US President Barack Obama is making a speech pledging more troops to help combat the “urgent threat” of ISIS. “This remains a difficult fight,” Obama tells his German audience. Few places know that difficult fight more than this makeshift hillside community. There are thousands of heartbreaking stories here. Tales of loss, tragedy and lives stuck in limbo.
And the children who wander the gravel lanes of the camp, who curiously crowd around visitors, trying out their halting English, speak to another generation in peril unless the crisis is resolved. Most of those at this camp are Yazidis, persecuted by ISIS fighters, who view this ancient religion as worshipping the devil.
The Islamic extremists began their assault on Yazidi villages in northern Iraq in August, 2014. Some 300,000 were forced to flee. As two Canadian journalists leave the tiny home, the husband, Homdi, appeals to them to deliver a message on the family’s behalf. “I appreciate anyone or any organization which is coming and helping … our case to release our children out of ISIS’ hands,” Homdi says. “They’re my children, they’re my sisters. I want to get them back, all. I want to release all of them. We want to live in peace.”