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'An attempt to destroy the community'

Martin Durm/ ccOctober 6, 2014

The terrorist militia "Islamic State" is reported to have abducted, raped and abused thousands of Yazidi women. Thomas von der Osten-Sacken says it is a targeted attempt to destroy this religious community.

Jihadist fighters. (Photo: DW/S. Dörhage)
Image: DW/S. Dörhage

DW: Thousands of Yazidi women and girls are believed to have been abducted by the terrorist militia "Islamic State" in August in the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq. What does this mean - what is happening to them?

Von der Osten-Sacken: For the women and girls who have been systematically kidnapped and abducted, it means they will be sold, or else sexually or otherwise abused by members of "Islamic State." In the past few weeks and months some girls and women have escaped from this imprisonment. What they're telling us is worse than anything it is possible to imagine. It's straight out of some perverse horror movie. I know from experience that the IS fighters allow some of the girls to hold on to their mobile phones. That way the family, if they've managed to flee and are now sitting in a refugee camp somewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan, can call their sister, mother or daughter. Either they get to speak directly to the person concerned - or an "IS" member answers the phone and describes in detail what they're doing to these girls and women.

I myself have spoken many times to male family members in the refugee camps who are still in contact with their female relatives this way. This is quite clearly part of the terror campaign "IS" is carrying out over there.

You say that a few young women were able to escape. How did they manage this and where are they now?

There are a few who acted as if they had converted to Islam. You have to realize that the Yazidis follow a Zoroastrian tradition from the Middle East and do not regard themselves as Muslims. So "Islamic State" doesn't treat them as followers of a religion of the Book, which means they're right at the bottom of the hierarchy, they're seen as fair game. Men who didn't immediately convert were executed on the spot. And the women are seen as spoils, there to be sexually abused. Some of them were able to escape, because they declared that they had converted. Others were ransomed at slave markets, which are said to take place in Mosul. And some others were able to flee during the bombardments by anti-"IS" coalition troops. But there aren't many. So far, a few dozen have managed to escape. They then struggled through to Iraqi Kurdistan, and if their family also survived the disaster in August and can be identified, they're able to rejoin them.

How are they received there?

In terms of its attitude to marriage and sexuality, the attitude of the Yazidi community is similarly conservative to that of its Muslim neighbors. A Yazidi woman actually dishonors her family if she has sexual contact outside of marriage or sexual contact with a non-Yazidi. That leads to serious clashes. In the past there have been so-called "honor killings" in both Iraq and in Germany aimed at restoring honor within the Yazidi community. This means that there is another, additional component to this catastrophically traumatic form of systematic sexual abuse: it is incredibly difficult for the families to deal with the sexual abuse against the background of their own tradition or their religion.

Both the Yazidi leadership and Yazidi clerics have emphasized repeatedly that the girls are not to blame for the abuse. They have called on the families to take the girls in again and to embrace them. But of course we are aware of the incredible conflict potential there will be when the first unwanted pregnancies occur, which we know happens as soon as rape is deployed as a weapon of war – as in Bosnia in the 1990s, or in Bangladesh in the early 1970s.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken. (Photo: WADI)
Von der Osten-SackenImage: WADI

You're referring to other conflict zones where mass rape was a kind of strategy. Is "Islamic State" also following this strategy?

Quite clearly: against Yazidis, against Christians, and against other minorities. According to their interpretation of the Koran, from the age of nine these women are just sexual prey for Islamic fighters, and of course the aim is to spread unbelievable terror and fear on all levels. Alongside these rapes there are also systematic beheadings, executions; so anyone who fights against "Islamic State" or whom "Islamic State" marks as an enemy is extraordinarily afraid of these barbarians masquerading as a master race. The systematic abuse of girls and women, both Yazidis and, to a lesser extent, Christian and Shia women, is of course also a targeted attempt to destroy this community and these groups from the inside and, in a society in which what is perceived as honor is very strongly attached to girls and women and their purity, to destroy this honor, and quite simply to crush these families.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken is the chief executive of the Iraqi-German human rights association WADI. He has been working in Iraq since the early 1990s. WADI supports projects to empower people and strengthen women's and human rights in the Middle East.

The interview was conducted by Anne Allmeling.