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'IS' abducts thousands

Martin Durm / cmkOctober 7, 2014

In attacks on the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, "Islamic State" militants are said to have abducted up to 5,000 women and girls. Five survivors tell DW what they endured in 23 days of captivity.

Jesidische Frauen und Mädchen
Image: Martin Durm

The five girls sit with their heads bowed, veils pulled down over their faces, fingers clutched firmly together. They come from Kocho, a village in the Sinjar Mountains. Ceylan, the smallest, is 10, while the oldest, Zehra, is 20. For three weeks, they were held by the militants of the terrorist group "Islamic State" ("IS").

"In early August, the jihadists invaded our village," says Zehra. "They gave residents a choice: You have two days to become Muslim, otherwise you will be killed. But people did not want to convert to Islam. And so they drove us all into a school, separating the men from the women, into groups. My father was in the last group. We never saw him again."

Up to 400,000 Yazidis have been expelled from their villages and towns in northern Iraq. Hundreds were killed and - as it has now emerged - about 5,000 women were abducted and sent to Mosul, a figure that has been confirmed by aid organizations and Western diplomats.

The "IS" terrorists conducted a veritable manhunt on the Yazidis, killing men and women and capturing women like Zehra and her four sisters. Those who could escape crossed the mountain desert of Sinjar and made ​t​heir way to Lalish, in the autonomous Kurdish region.

'The worst pogrom of all'

Baba Scheich
Baba Sheikh says the Yazidi have suffered many pogromsImage: Martin Durm

Lalish is the center of the Yazidi faith, a secluded valley in the rugged Kurdish mountains. Many displaced people have found refuge here in recent weeks - and a little comfort. They have sheltered in the shade of the old, sacred trees, in the steep alleys of the temple district, in niches and doorways. Campfires and tents are everywhere.

"Where shall we go when winter comes?" asks a woman. "We should go to Germany," replies her husband. "We can no longer go back to our villages - the 'Islamic State' is there now."

Baba Sheikh, the minority's religious leader, says that his people have already endured 73 pogroms. "But this is the worst of all." The old man looks tired and struggles to somehow place the current disaster in the Yazidi story of suffering.

Women abducted in groups

The religious community, with roots that date back to pre-Christian times, has repeatedly been the target of radical Muslim hatred. The Yazidis worship the archangel Tausi Melek as God's supreme creation; for Islamists, he is considered to be the devil, Satan or Iblis. They view Yazidi theology as being too complex, too rich in myths and hymns, a belief system that contradicts the more straightforward Islam.

"In the first night, we may have slept two hours," recalls Zehra. "At 4 a.m., they came to take us to Mosul. One asked my younger sister to take off her veil. My mother was angry, and she wanted to know why they were asking this of her daughter. He repeated himself, saying that my sister should remove the veil or she would be killed. My mother began to cry. Then, he beat her and took her away. "

In the first days of her abduction, Zehra counted how many people were abducted and disappeared on the way to Mosul: 65 elderly women, 165 unmarried girls and 400 men. "We did not know what had become of the men. Once, at night, we heard shots outside, gunfire. I asked one of the 'IS' men what it was. He told me it was nothing, just shots fired at an unfamiliar car. Later, they told us that they had killed the men."

The next morning, the women were taken in groups and transferred to Mosul, the center of the self-declared caliphate of the "Islamic State." Iraq's second-largest city was taken over by "IS" militants in June. According to several witnesses, a kind of women's market has been set up in the city center, a large building where the men can come and browse.

Jesiden warten auf die Essensausgabe in Lalish Irak Flüchtlinge IS
Yazidis wait for the distribution of food in LalishImage: Hermione Gee

Fearing the stigma

"There was also an office there, where men could look at pictures of the women and ask about prices," says Suzan Aref, a prominent human rights activist in Iraq. "Christians are more expensive than Yazidis. We know of women who were held for a time by the 'IS' and then came back. For the most part, the women were raped immediately after the abduction. They jihadists first share among themselves. When they have had enough, they then sell the women in Mosul and pick up a new group."

Of the 5,000 abducted women, about 43 have returned. How, in what way and by which route, is unclear. It's thought that Sunni tribal sheikhs in Mosul and Fallujah had a hand in their release - with cash. This may the only hope for the abducted.

It may be that the five sisters were ransomed in this way; they don't say. Instead, they think of the future and fear rejection by the traditional Yazidi society, which may stigmatize them as defiled women. And so they sit here, clutching their hands together and looking at the ground.

"Now, I have to replace my parents," says Zehra. "What is to become of us?"