By Claire Evans
10/16/2017 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – She was just 11 years old when ISIS captured her. As a Yazidi, the young girl belongs to a religious minority group targeted by ISIS for sexual slavery. The militant who took her as his second wife barbarically shattered her childlike innocence. The fury of his first wife had no mercy for the small child whose nights were filled with abuse. During the day, the child was beaten by the militant’s first wife. For two years, there was no mercy. No respite. No peace.
Thankfully, she was eventually rescued. But like the thousands of other women and girls targeted by ISIS because of their faith, her life would no longer be the same. Their captors stole more than years. Their captors stole their lives and freedom. ISIS stole their hope.
The sexual enslavement of religious minority women is deeply enshrined in ISIS’s theology, and even used as a recruitment tool. Despite ISIS’s physical retreat from the battlefield, the funds generated from human trafficking continue to be a significant source of income. By labeling non-Muslims as unbelievers, ISIS systematically dehumanized religious minorities in an attempt to condone barbarism.
Although ISIS targeted both Yazidi and Christian women, the experience of Yazidis was especially harsh. Christians were given the opportunity to convert, pay the jizya tax or, depending on the circumstances, leave. Yazidis had only two options: death or enslavement. Raghad, a Christian, remarked, “Over the past three years, we all heard how ISIS behaves with civilians and how it differs from treating their followers… they may kill you at any point because they hate life. Lots of women suffered from sexual slavery with ISIS, especially the Yazidi women. For us, as Christians, they allowed us to leave unlike what they did with the Yazidis at Shenkal Mountain.”
Although ISIS no longer controls territory in northern Iraq, memories of the militants’ brutality still hold many women captive. One survivor likened the experience to the forceful creation of deep sepulchral holes within one’s self and community. Many women return home from captivity with only the black niqab that their captors forced them to wear—all other colors forcefully eliminated from their lives. Some women, captured when they were young girls, have forgotten details from their life before. They return home, only to find that the physical devastation of their communities is a visible metaphor of their own internal trauma.
These women are desperately in need of support, but help is largely lacking. Most of the aid that arrives is for refugees, not internally displaced people groups. Even less of that aid reaches the Yazidi community. What aid does arrive fails to meet the special needs of the women traumatized by ISIS. Dr. Neman Ghafouri, founder of the Joint Help for Kurdistan, works to provide counseling and medical care for these women. She said, “They came back and need proper help, but the help is not there. The disappointment, the sadness in their voice is something that breaks my heart. It takes all of my energy. On top of everything that they have gone through, they come back to this life. It’s really heartbreaking.”
She described displaced Yazidi communities as places where “Everybody just waits for the day and night without any aim, without any step forward. They just wait, having lost their hope. Many places have been liberated, but no one has helped them rebuild their homes. They are just left as they are.”
Their lost hope is also partially reflective of their concern for the many women who remain lost in captivity. ISIS may be retreating from the battlefield, but the militants’ theology toward religious minority women remains intact. Some women were killed and buried in mass or unmarked graves. Others long ago disappeared along ISIS’s human trafficking routes, never to be heard from again. Still others continue to be held captive by fighters.
Families are worried about the fate of their loved ones, and many are left without answers. Throughout her work, Dr. Ghafouri has routinely noticed that “most don’t allow themselves to be happy so long as they have family in captivity.” The solution? “Show them that being happy is a sharp whip against Daesh.”
Finding happiness after trauma is no small task. The scars of their captivity will continue to haunt these women for years to come – longer, if they are unable to have the space needed for healing. As Dr. Ghafouri said, these women already “have great resilience. It is possible [to heal], and we have seen many examples of it… We need to show interest and awareness. We are all human beings.”