She remembers the first calls from unknown numbers on her cell phone. It was at the dawn of August 3 and she was still asleep in her big house in the chic district of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. She did not immediately respond, but when she saw the subscriber calling on, she sensed an emergency and was landed with anxiety. “Daech fighters stormed in all the Yazidi villages in the Sinjar region in the northeast of Iraq. Women called me in total panic. And what they said was appalling.”
Through the handset, Vian Dakhil heard, petrified, screams, gunshots, sobs, threats. She understood that a large-scale massacre occurred. The men were executed and captured, women sorted by age and taken away in buses to unknown destinations. The calls interrupted abruptly but others followed, from one village, then another. One, two, ten women terrorized phoned in secret, in a final reflex, said Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, 43 years old. “During my campaign, I often gave my mobile number to women. I promised that I will always be there for them.” They remembered.
Within hours, the news had spread in Iraq and the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of Yazidis of all ages fleeing Islamist violence by seeking refuge under a scorching heat to the Mount Sinjar. Their situation was catastrophic and calls for saving amounted worldwide. But there was no information about women taken away by Daech (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State). Where were they gone? Why were they fighters cluttered with so many prisoners when their stated goal was to eradicate the Yazidi, Kurdish-speaking religious minority whose memories go back to Noah’s Ark and the Islamists have called “infidel”?
“Come free us”
It was then that Vian Dakhil received a first call of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city under the control of the Islamists since June. A furtive, distraught call from a girl who was in the middle of hundreds of women and children just landed in the Badush prison, crowded against each other, deprived of air, water, food, unaware of what would happen to them. And then another one called “Daech Men are coming to get served! They choose the girls they like and take them by force. They beat up if they resist, they hang them by the hair!” Vian Dakhil was left clinging to his laptop. “I suspected that it was not about political arrests.” And calls continued, confirming its darkest forebodings: “Girls are back! They were raped!” The voices were imploring: “You know where we are! Come free us!”
For days, the member of the calls for help multiplied, addressed to embassies and chanceries, followed by visits to Baghdad to beg Parliament, crying, the President and his colleagues to do everything to come to the assistance of Yazidi. The video of this intervention has been around the world and strengthened Yazidi people’s icon image shortly before it was seriously injured in the crash of a helicopter that was bringing aid to refugees from Mount Sinjar. But how to free women in a zone totally controlled by Daech? “I received while in prison unprecedented demand from several women,” Ask the army to bomb the site! We prefer to die!” And I understood them very well! So as a parliamentarian, I made the formal request, supported by many families. It was crazy, unachievable. But I assumed that they were better off martyrs in heaven rather than slaves.”
She stands straight in the reception room of her home in Erbil, with her auburn hair down, and the impression of fragility that emanates from her tiny frame, supported by crutches, looks contradicting. But the evocation of prisoners of Daech instantly brings tears to her eyes. Her voice trembled when she said: “Four thousand Yazidi women currently serve as sex slaves for Daech men! 4,000, do you hear? Raped, sold like cattle. Iraq, Syria, perhaps elsewhere. It is a crime against humanity. And the world does not care. Imagine the outrage and international mobilization if 4,000 Western women were thus delivered to the madness of the jihadists.”
Four thousand women… of course this figure regularly raised both by Iraqi Kurdish authorities and by many associations which sometimes include young children captured at the same time as their mothers was not verified. Censuses are undertaken in the many camps of Yazidi refugees in Kurdistan. How many people in your family have disappeared? How many women abducted? 6, 15, 18, 26 you hear when asking this question, every family rushing to list the names of mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, wife, niece missing since August 2014 in cars or pickup Daech trucks adorned with the black flag. “Thousands of women,” says Shimal Mohamed Adib, head of Baadra district in Kurdistan and who would make the release of Yazidi women a “national cause”. “God knows, Iraq has experienced enough wars! Torture, bloodshed. But that? The sale! Slavery! Who could have imagined such practices in the twenty-first century?”
These are the first calls, very brief, of some unfortunate who have hidden their cell phone in clothing, a bun or baby diapers, who quickly gave an idea of the intentions of Daech jailers. Families were picking their story snippets, stunned and horrified, even though women were careful not to mention their own rape. It happened also that their captors or men who had bought them spared their phones requiring, perversely, they use them call to tell their families and tell about their humiliation and degradation. A video has been circulating on the Internet featuring Jubilant Islamist fighters, excited at the prospect of going to the slave market to buy a “Yazidi”. If possible, with blue or green eyes, after checking the state of her teeth. Finally, Dabiq, the online magazine Daech, expressly claimed in its edition of October, the enslavement of women and children of Yazidis, he wrote, that provides sharia infidels it considers polytheists and their distribution according to the rules prevailing for the “spoils of war”: a fifth of the authorities to Daech, the rest divided among the fighters.
But it is the testimony of the few women who managed to escape from a collective detention center or house of the “master” who had bought them that provide a fairly accurate idea of Daech practice. “Try to tell about them! Tell the world indecencies of jihadists who do not deserve the title of human,” advises Vian Dakhil. But protect their anonymity! Despite the joy procured from their return, they risk rejection from their families and the community. Virginity is a key concept with us, I fear for their future.”
It is in a kind of barn isolated in a barren land near the village of Shariya, where the journalists met Yassemine before the nightfall (the names of young victims have all been changed), one of the first women to have escaped the clutches of Daech. The block walls let in a cold, damp wind and a dozen small children gathered outside an electric stove that we immediately of visitors. The adults sat around the room on cushions, backs to the walls. A small TV connected to a news channel continuously broadcasts a blue light in the darkness of the room, attracting tired looks. Yassemine is sitting a little away, her little 2 year old boy is on the knees. Fine lines and blond hair covered with a black scarf, the child smiled shyly. Yes, of course, she will tell her story in front of brothers, cousins, nephews, this is not ideal, but it reassures. A guarantee that it will not be called upon to say too much.
“On August 3 in the morning, on learning that Daech arrived in our village of Sinjar, we attempted to flee on foot, with other families, to the mountain. There were seven of us: my little boy, my husband, his parents, his brother and sister. Daech caught up with us and yelling and firing gunshots, separated men and women. My husband disappeared right away. “Women were made to get on a bus that made the first stop in a nearby village, and then deposited for four hours in a school where the young were sorted from old, before landing in Mosul in the immense festival room called Galaxy, teeming with over a thousand women and children. Immediately, Daech men came to make their choice. “There were all ages and from different countries, Iraqis, Syrians, Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, all with a beard, long shirt of Pakistani type and a weapon. “They were buying women by batch, first for them, but with the intention of reselling them. I saw the dollars exchanged. They shouted us to wash, to make us beautiful. I did not wash myself and did everything to be repulsive.” After ten days, Yassemine was purchased with a small group of girls we were locked in a house just evacuated by a family on the run. “New men came to take us, day and night, often violently, and the girls were scattered. When one wanted to buy me, the head of the house said: “I keep her!” This evening my son saved my life.”
The boy was thirsty and started crying in the middle of the night. The mother screamed for the blocked door to his room to be opened. No one moved. The little one kept on crying, she forced the door. Three guards were asleep in the next room. She grabbed a bottle of water, surprised that no one woke up, and felt it was now or never. In a flash, she found herself in an alley of Mosul, heart pounding, brushing the walls, the little boy in her arms. She walked for nearly four hours, from east to west, avoiding the squares and intersections, until an old man who, before sunrise, watered the plants from the terrace, started scolding her:
“How come you so impudent, my dear! You go around alone, and without wearing the full veil? Do you know that Daech could kill you for it?”
– I’m on the run from Daech home!
– Heaven! Come quickly in my house.”
The man was Sunni, hostile to Daech and as welcoming as the entire family. Telephone contact was established with a brother of Yassemine’s, refuge in Kurdistan. Then the blond hair of her son was shaved off, and a black abaya was provided for his mother and the niqab and gloves to go arund in Mosul before entrusting them both to a trusted friend who managed to smuggle them out of town and put them back – for free – with the Kurdish soldiers. It was August 28, the day when Yassemine was saved. “I have not heard about rest of my family. Nothing about the men or my stepmother. My sister-in-law, 17, sold, managed to call twice. But we heard nothing of her for forty-five days. “In the presence of her brothers and cousins, she said no more.”
“Death is better”
Sara was more eloquent, she comes from the village of Kocho, which Daech attacked by August 15, and sadly known for the massacre of all men (nearly 700) arrested that morning. But the young woman of 22, who has just found near Dohuk the only one of her eight brothers missing that day, do not seem to have been informed about it. Immediately separated from men and robbed of their money and their jewelry, women suffered a first selection between married and unmarried. Sara presently found herself in a bus going to Mosul with her two sisters and nieces aged 11 and 12, then locked up with more than 200 women in a three-story building before being shipped two days later at Rakka, Syria. “Twelve hours’ drive to the great hall of an official building full of armed Daech men. “Who wants to buy?” Shouted someone. You cannot imagine the shock of this sentence. We looked, frightened, hoping to have misunderstood. It seemed unreal. The men stared at us with wild eyes. We were not more than a commodity. “There was a burst of revolt, women shouted, protested, demanded to find their families. They were severely beaten with the butts of Kalashnikovs.”
Several days have passed. The girls slept on the carpet and the room cushions, resisting their way through a kind of toilet strike. The doors were open from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m., men of Daech coming at all times to observe and select women. Sara’s nieces are parties first. Then it was turn of one of her younger sisters. “They clung to me screaming. It took several Daech men to pull them with blows. Death is always better than what I felt that day. “On the fifteenth day, it was her turn. An Australian jihadist carried her off against some banknotes. “He was converted during a stay of four years in an Australian prison and joined Syria eleven months earlier, soon joined by his wife.” In the car, Sara begged him to also buy her sisters. “The emir prohibits you buy two sisters,” he replied, before turning around to go back to take them. Finally human? “Do not say that! The Daech are wild animals!” The Australian had already bought other Yazidi he kept in his house, raping and beating up regularly. He certainly tried to force the sisters to sex. Sara claims to have convinced him to do have them as domestic slaves, confined to the household and cooking. But she also says she had to be driven to woman’s doctor after a particularly violent episode…
The house was large, crowded with combatants. Sara said to have seen the Saudis, Iranians, Libyans, Chechens, Pakistanis, Chinese, Italian, English. On the ground floor of the house, there lived another Australian who also had bought a young Yazidi we meet later.
Of course, she thought only of escape, and at the first opportunity, she stole a mobile phone from the house. The beginning of salvation. She contacted her brother and sent him by Viber maximum information and pictures that could help locate the house, including that of the Australian. A large water tower, visible from a window, provided a good benchmark. Within weeks, her brother could find – and pay – some intermediaries able to organize her escape. The day the two Australians went to battle, seven Yazidi of the house, led by Sara and dressed in abayas crept in single file on the street, incognito, to a first point of meeting where they mounted in one car, then another, then another. Until they came to Dohuk. It cost the brother 7,000 dollars. “So what, he said. I also paid 10,000 dollars to intermediaries to release my wife. I am poor, people of the community helped me, but I will not rest until I saved my other sister, my nieces, the wife of one of my brothers. I spend my time integrating information to locate them. Contacts that could help us. My head is occupied with that. It is the phone ringing that keeps me alive. What if it is they who call?” Within the family, twenty-seven women are still in the hands of Daech. His mother is 52 years old. The youngest, he said, had been born a month ealier.
Between Dohuk and Erbil, there is a dozen young women escaped from hell Daech. Their stories are complementary, soberly narrated with digressions on the horrors perpetrated against prison companions and of modest ellipses on their own suffering. No one knows what happened to their mothers to whom they refer to as “elderly”. Several of them, like Jihan, 24, tried to pass for “married” by clinging to a nephew, hoping the status of more protective wives. But a veiled woman, working under the orders of Daech Badush in prison, “checked” her by a quick pelvic exam. And woe to the liars. Many have thought about ending their life. Zarah, 19, saw a 15 year old girl opening her veins with a razor blade just outside the bathroom where she had been sent before engaging with a jihadist. Her body was immediately wrapped in a blanket, “Get rid of that dirt.” A small dresser from her village manage to strangle herself with a headscarf. A medical student, especially beautiful and raped by several jihadist, asked to prepare in the toilet before being brought to the Emir who wanted her. She cut veins with a stolen knife. Nobody dared to tell her mother that continues to wait.
The stories of young girls are sometimes complicated to follow as the movements of which they tell seem erratic. Five days in a school Baahj and eight in a gym of Mosul, ten in a private house of Tal Afar… Is it a strategy? A sign of confusion?” Perhaps these moves are to keep them available to veterans. Or to serve as human shields. Or to make impossible any rescue operation. Who would know?” Asks Dr. Nouri Abdulrahman, head of the refugee issue for the government of Kurdistan and charged every effort to facilitate the return of the captives. The issue of conversions and forced marriages is also unclear. Most say they were forced to pretend to accept Islam and have mimicked the prayers at least five times a day. He even sometimes question of marriage with jihadists. Even collective ceremony before an imam. “A parody to allow immediate sex,” say the survivors. By no means a guarantee of safety.”
An absolute tragedy for the Yazidi community. “Our religion is more than 4,700 years before Christ, explains Sheikh Baba, spiritual leader of the Yazidis, 81 years old, interviewed near the temple of Lalesh. “We survived the Flood and 74 massacres that never dissolve us, because we are Yazidi by birth, we marry only between us. But what happened to our women, this year 2014 is the worst disaster of all time.” He traveled, he said, around the world to educate governments and parliaments of the Yazidi drama. “And I still call on the international community to deliver our women.” But he also made a historic fatwa calling on each Yazidi family to welcome with warmth, tenderness, support their women returning home from Daech.
“Just yesterday evening, a survivor has come right here to beg my forgiveness. “You are in no way responsible, my dear! You’re not guilty of having been a victim!” I told her. And I gave her my forgiveness certificate. Certificate, as they call it, consists of fine sand that is found in a cave from which flows a sacred white water. Young virgins shape. A symbol of purity.
But what will happen if pregnant women return home from Daech? The case has arisen several times and the subject, says Baba Sheikh, was discussed at length during a religious council. “The community leaders are formal: a non-Yazidi children can be born at home. A medical device has been set up to deal with this tragedy. “In other words, the usual abortion which is prohibited, in this case an absolute requirement. No mixed blood! And escaped from Daech home are systematically oriented to visit knowledgeable doctors.
We seem to discover the Islamist barbarism, but have a short memory, the fellagas of Algeria accomplished in 1962 massacres against the Algerian soldiers comparable to those we now denounce. These acts were performed during their rebellion against all those who shared their struggle. We have a selective assessment of despicable acts of approval that we carry inhuman action in the name of shared highly partisan ideas.