DOHUK, IRAK. Hundreds of women and children were taken captive by the Islamic State during the Mount Sinjar massacre in August.
Most of them are still being held captive by the extremist movement.
Those who have escaped speak of forced marriages, slavery and rape.
Expressen’s Terese Cristiansson and Martin von Krogh have followed three Yazidi families searching for their wives, daughters and sisters.
Translation: Louise Sverud
Six young women – all of whom have managed to escape from the IS – are lifted on board the helicopter.
Safe at last.
Reports come in during the autumn that more girls have managed to flee from the IS. Some are said to have fled up Mount Sinjar, and are about to be evacuated by helicopter the iraqi helicopter squad The Night Wolves.
It is no easy mission.
The IS (info) has yet again regained control of the area around the mountain, that became a symbol for the war on IS in august.
Those who are still on the mountain are panicking about coming down, just as they were in August when IS attacked the surrounding areas and the yazidi (info) minoritygroup.
The people swarm around the helicopter when they see it, raising their arms and trying to scramble on board. The pilot realises that all these people are going to topple the helicopter, and is forced to take off without any of the women. The disappointment are enormous.
The next day they try again. They ask the Peshmerga soldiers to keep the women at a secret location. The atmosphere in the helicopter is tense, they all know that the girls have had a traumatic three months. They need to get home.
And this time they succeed. Six thin, young women who are covering their faces are lifted on board the helicopter. They are all holding hands and look terrified, but know that they will soon be safe and with their families who are waiting on the ground.
The reuniting of the families is dramatic. One of the girls throws herself at her brother, screaming with joy. The others are crying.
One of the girls in the helicopter is 15-year-old Nasira, who we meet the next day in her family’s temporary home in Dohuk. She’s tired, still wearing the same clothes she was wearing in the helicopter and her eyes are sad.
“How can I be happy when so many of my family are still gone,” she says.
Nasira’s father puts a list in front of us. Page after page of names. The IS attacked her village, stormed houses and killed anyone who got in their way. That same day they kidnapped 70 of their relatives, 20 of them were close family.
“The IS said that they would take us somewhere safe, so we did what they said. But they lied,” says Nasira.
For a while she was with her family, but then the IS soldiers came and took the pretty unmarried girls to Syria. After a while they were brought back to Iraq and locked up in different houses.
“The house was locked and there were two guards outside,” says Nasira.
They were forced to do whatever the guards told them to, but Nasira keeps coming back to the hardest part, having to convert.
“They demanded that we become Muslims and eventually I agreed, to survive. But in my heart I was still a Yazidi,” says Nasira.
For several months Nasira was convinced that they would be killed. Eventually, when they had gone without food for five days, they decided to try and escape. They saw their chance one day when the door was left open.
“We gave up caring whether we’d be killed. We hid in the trees during the daylight. Sometimes we heard someone shooting behind us, I think it was the IS. Eventually we saw a group of people and we decided to risk talking to them. They turned out to be a Yazidi family, and they helped us find our way up to Mount Sinjar.”
Nasira can’t talk for long, she needs rest and care. But over the next few days we meet several other girls who’ve managed to flee from the IS. Some were helped by Sunni Muslims in the area, some have paid ransome and others have lied their way out.
The majority of them talk about fear, terrorism and violence. Some talk about forced marriages and sexual abuse. But at least they are home.
Amina and her family were on their way up Mount Sinjar when the IS attacked them. They took her, her mother and her four siblings.(show more)
“They separated me from the others because I was unmarried. Then we were held hostage by two men,” says Amina.
During captivity she managed to stay in contact with her father and while the guards were away they decided to escape.
“We ran in the dark, but then we heard that they were behind us. I called my father and asked him what we should do.”
He told them to hide in a big hole. Several hours later he arrived there too. The IS were not far away. He decided to take a risk and ran desperately towards the hole. The IS started shooting, but a friend who was hiding on the mountain fired back at them.
“When my father arrived we ran as fast as we could. They were shooting behind us but we managed to get to the mountain,” says Amina.
When the IS attacked Basima’s house they killed the men and kidnapped all the women and children.
“I was only allowed to bring one child, I had to leave the others behind,” says Basima.(show more)
They were moved several times over the next few weeks, to different locations in Iraq, mostly around Mosul. For a while they were held in a large wedding hall, then they were taken to a house in an area between Sinjar and Mosul.
“They gave us the holy Koran and told us to read it and convert to Islam. We did, because we were so scared. Anyone who refused was taken somewhere else or killed.”
Basima was never sexually abused.
“They didn’t take any of us who had children or the pregnant women, but all the unmarried women were taken away. Some of the girls that came back told us they had been raped. But my children saved me.”
Soosan was captured in her house, along with several other women. She was held hostage by the IS for 2 1/2 months.(show more)
“They weren’t from around here because they kept asking where things were. But they were dark, not European.”
Soosan also pretended to convert.
“We wore scarves and Muslim clothes to fool them. They told us to pray, but didn’t check that we did.”
One night she and six other women managed to leave the house and run to a checkpoint, where they were helped by a man from the village.
“We were lucky, but a lot of my family are stuck there so we’re still worried,” says Soosan.
“First they separated the young from the pregnant and the old women. Then they took us singles to Mosul and separated the pretty girls from the ugly ones,” says Yana.(show more)
Yana says that they never touched her, but that one of the other girls was taken outside during the nights and raped.
“I was afraid they would rape me too. So I made a plan to escape. I was lucky and met a kind taxi driver who helped me,” says Yana.
Shanaz and Sharez tried to hide upstairs when they saw the IS assemble all the men from the familly outside in the yard. First they made everyone put all their money and papers onto a large blanket. Then they lined up the men and killed them.(show more)
“They then took seven of us women. They said that they’d saved us from the fire we were living in. And that we had to convert. Otherwise they’d sell us to Saudi Arabia,” says Sharez.
They were locked in a house outside Mosul for several weeks.
“They tried to force themselves on us several times, but I pushed them away. I would rather die,” says Shanaz.
Eventually they managed to steal a SIM card.
“So we could call home and they helped us escape,” says Shanaz.
Zainab tells us that she was kidnapped with her family, but that she and Ayan were separated from them after a few days.(show more)
“They beat us until we said that we’d become Muslims. That was all they talked about. We tried to get out but the door was locked with several locks,” says Zainab.
Ayan too tells us they were beaten several times when they didn’t do what the IS soldiers told them to. But most of all they were scared of a forced marriage. They would rather have killed themselves.
“We eventually managed to escape while the door was open and run to a house. They agreed to help us, once our father had promised to pay them,” says Ayna.
15-year-old Yazidi girl Seham, was chosen as one of the beautiful ones by the Islamic State.
She was taken to Syria where she was married off to a 60-year-old IS leader in front of a judge. Four months later she managed to escape.
15-year-old Seham doesn’t know whether to flee towards the mountain or obey the man dressed in black. All around her is chaos.
Just the day before, the Islamic State extremist movement (IS) had attacked all of the villages around Mount Sinjar, calling the Yazidi ethnic group devil worshipers.
Like so many other Yazidi families, Seham and her family have left everything and fled up the steep, arid mountain. After just one night they try to come back down. There is no food or water on the mountain and for Seham’s four younger sisters and brothers and her pregnant sister-in-law, staying is not an option.
At the foot of the mountain they are stopped by a group of IS soldiers who start shooting at random. Seham, her slightly older cousin Fahida and her sister-in-law Hamsa are forced into a car, together with her four-month-old brother, her four-year-old sister and her two other brothers, seven and ten years old.
Much later, in the middle of the night, they are all shoved into big lorries and driven to a school between Mosul and Sinjar. Over the next few days they are given almost nothing to eat, but find comfort in the fact that they are all together. They manage to call home and Seham speaks to her mother, Hamida, who cries in despair. Seham promises to look after her younger siblings.
Later that day, an IS man suddenly appears, points at Seham and tells her to follow him. She tries to resist but he hits her.
Seham is taken away, along with hundreds of other young girls.
The story about Seham and how she was kidnapped by the IS, is told a cold winter’s night. But the dramatic story begins long before that – on a scorching hot day in August, when we are in Dohuk in the Kurdish part of Iraq to report on the attempted genocide of the Yazidi ethnic minority.
At a school we meet Hamida, Seham’s mother. She tells me how the IS stopped her family while they tried to run away.
“They have five of my children! What am I to do?”
She is most worried about her teenage daughter, Seham. She has just learnt that Seham has been separated from the others and dreads what could be happening to her oldest daughter. Hamida sinks heavily to the ground, as if she hasn’t the strength to hold herself upright. Tears stream down her face.
“What are they doing to her?”
In the autumn we return to Dohuk to see Hamida again. Despite global military intervention, the IS continues to occupy large areas and most of the women are being still held captive. A few have managed to flee, but not Seham.
“She’s tried but not succeeded,” says Hamida.
She’s as close to tears as she was in August and her body is even more listless. Her concern for the children is eating away at her. She’s still most worried about 15-year-old Seham.
“She’s young and beautiful and they took her to a man in Mosul. He’s forced himself on her,” says Hamida.
They’ve spoken a few times and Hamida knows that Seham has tried to escape several times.
“They were so angry last time that they beat her severely across her back. She can’t stand up,” says Hamida and starts to cry.
After the last failed escape, Seham tried to kill herself and Hamida received a call from an IS soldier.
“They told me to speak to Seham and forbid her from taking her own life. I spoke to her and explained that nothing is her fault. But I’m so worried.”
She tries to explain the absurdity of trying to convince your own daughter to continue living in this hell.
“Anything could happen to her and I’m asking her to carry on.”
Hamida knows that several other girls have been raped and married off, and understands that life is hard for her daughter. She buries her face in her hands. After a while she looks up.
“They say they are Muslims, but I don’t believe them. We’ve lived side by side with Muslims and this is not Islam.”
“They called us infidels and beat us several times.”
A few weeks later we receive a phone call from Hamida’s family. 15-year-old Seham has yet again tried to escape. It’s her fourth attempt. We return to Iraq and the school where they still live.
Waiting is a thin, pale woman, or a girl rather. Her long dress is hanging loosely on her skinny frame and her face is almost transparent.
She walks slowly and struggles to sit down. She’s in pain. Despite her frail body, her voice is clear and determined, unshakeable. She doesn’t want to show her face because her four younger siblings and her sister-in-law, Hamsa who has now given birth, are still being held hostage.
Seham explains that she was initially grouped together with other young, unmarried girls who were being forced to convert by the IS.
“They called us infidels and beat us several times,” she says.
She refused to convert for three days. An IS soldier would beat her every day, she tells us.
“They beat me with rope and a hose.”
Eventually she gave in and told them she was willing to become a Muslim.
She tried to escape early on.
“But they caught me and took me to Syria.”
They drove her to the city of Raqqa, one of the main IS strongholds in Syria. In Raqqa she was brought in front of a judge who ruled that she would be married. She was married off to a man in his sixties and who is one of the Islamic State leaders in Iraq.
“He was an old, bald man with a beard.”
After the arranged marriage, she and another friend were taken back to Mosul.
“The man kept me and another girl in a house and treated us like we were his wives.”
Did he force himself on you?
Finally Seham could not wait any longer. She wanted to die, or escape. Then one day she and the other girl decided to take the risk.
Seham tells us that they were both locked in on the second floor. But one night, around 3.30am, they managed to tie two sheets together and climb down through the window. The two guards outside the house didn’t notice.
They walked for hours, finally reaching a house where a couple of Sunni Muslims lived. They chose to help her.
“A lot of poor people don’t like the IS and when we saw this house we decided to ask for help. I called my father and he helped me to organise everything. They were kind and took us to a Peshmerga-controlled checkpoint.”
She now faces a long period of rehabilitation and integration. Marriage outside the group is sometimes seen as something shameful in Yazidi culture. The worst case scenario is stoning. But the Yazidi Baba Sheik have said that this is a unique situation and that all kidnapped women will be given a new blessing.
Early the morning after when we accompany Seham to the Lalesh temple outside Dohuk, where she will receive a new blessing. Seham is wearing the traditional white dress that Yazidi women wear on special occasions. She is nervous because she’s about to meet their holy man, Baba Sheik.
Seham is allowed in to see Baba Sheik almost immediately. He’s perched on a mountain of pillows, slightly higher than the other mattresses, where the visitors sit.
“My girl, you have done nothing wrong. You must not feel any guilt and you are forgiven for everything that has happened. You have my blessing,” says Baba Sheik and looks Seham in the eyes.
She is clearly relieved when she gets up, and her cheeks are a little rosy.
I ask Baba Sheik what will happen if a man treats her badly because of what has happened to her.
He shakes his head.
“I will deal with that. No Yazidi man, or any other man, has the right to judge her. If he does he will be punished,” says Baba Sheik.
As she leaves the temple, Seham gives her mother a big hug.
Hamida smiles for the first time since our first meeting in August, and says,
“If one has managed to escape, then maybe the other children can also come home.”
In Turkey, along the Syrian border, we are waiting for some answers.
We have an interview with one of many judges deciding the fate of the kidnapped girls: forced marriage, slaves or die.
“We give them two options: become a Muslim or die.”
Judge Abu al Hareth has agreed to a Skype interview.
“Salam alaikum,” he says in greeting.
How long have you been a judge?
“I was an IS soldier at first, but was appointed judge when we restored our Caliphate.”
What kind of cases do you deal with?
“I deal with all cases, marriages, divorces, land issues, what to do with the unfaithful and so on.”
Do you make decisions about Yazidi women?
“Yes, several, and they have all become Muslims. We have arranged marriages for some of them but others remain here. We hope to arrange marriages for all of them or find another solution.”
How many women have you ruled on?
“28 Yazidi sisters have been here. They arrived a month after we took Sinjar. Only single ones come here, not ones that are married.”
Have they converted of their own free will?
“We do not force anyone, we give them two options: become a Muslim or die. Normally we give them three days to think about it. Most of them convert on the first day, some hesitate but change their mind on the second or third day.”
Did they all get married?
“18 of them are married and the others are still waiting. All of them have married an IS soldier. We have not given them to civilians since they are prisoners of war and therefore owned by IS. But when they are married they are no longer prisoners of war, but our Muslim sisters.”
Do the men have to pay for them?
“As is normal in an arranged marriage. Some soldiers have more money and pay more for their wives, others have nothing.”
Who receives the money?
“You ask these things because you know nothing about Islamic law. Usually the money goes to the father, but since they are prisoners of war the money goes to the IS, to the financial department.”
If the families want their girls back, can they pay a ransom?
“According to Islam you can pay for a prisoner of war, but in this case we prefer to marry them off to our soldiers.”
According to Islam, a girl can say no to marriage. Are the Yazidi girls allowed to say no?
“If I consider the man to be right, a religious and good man, I can marry her off to that man.”
What happens if a girl doesn’t want to convert?
How do you kill her?
“We behead her.”
Unable to explain how these actions are Muslim, Abu al Hareth just reiterates that I know nothing about Islam. A short while later he ends the conversation.
Hundreds of Yazidi women are still being held captive by the Islamic State (IS).
There’s Amina and her one-year-old son Daham. They have no chance of escaping.
And there’s 18-year-old Fahida, who first lied to the soldiers and said she was married. But they found out and made her a slave.
”My daughter’s a slave for an IS leader”
A vast number of refugees are queuing outside the Yazidi community centre in Dohuk, early August.
They are talking about how to safe their wifes, daughters and sisters. You can feel the panic. They’ve heard that the women might be sold as sex slaves to IS soldiers.
Suddenly, a man runs up to us holding a mobile phone. He’s managed to contact one of the captured women and hands me the phone.
Over a bad line I hear a woman’s voice coming from the bright yellow mobile phone.
It’s filled with distress.
“They’re taking the women and children now, they’re driving off in buses with them,” she almost screams.
Her name is Fahida and she says that she’s in the large Badoosh Prison outside Mosul, where there are hundreds of women and children. She doesn’t know what the Islamic State (IS) wants with them. They’ve said that everyone has to convert to Islam and there are rumours that they’re being sold, she says, but nothing’s happened yet.
“We’re trapped here, we can’t do anything. Please do something,” she pleads.
When she hangs up, a sense of helplessness fills the room. Several people pace back and forth with their face in their hands.
“What can we do? What can we do?” one of them mumbles.
Murat, a father of seven, is in Erbil when his phone rings. A relative tells him that the Islamic State (IS) has attacked Sinjar, where his wife Amina and their one-year-old son Daham were visiting Amina’s parents.
Apparently they tried to escape, together with Amina’s family, but were stopped by IS soldiers. Several family members, including Amina and Dahan, were kidnapped by the IS after a violent shootout. Murat is filled with a feeling of complete powerlessness. He should have been at home, why did he go to Erbil on those particular days?
He calls his second wife and is relieved to hear that she and his other six children – two of which are Amina’s – are safe. He quickly makes his way to Dohuk to obtain as much information as he can about his wife and son. He only realises just how immense the disaster is when he arrives in Dohuk.
He sees Yazidi refugees everywhere. Eventually he finds the other family members in a school. But he cannot stop thinking about Amina and Daham. Where are they? Who are they with? Are they alive? Again and again, he looks at photos of them on his mobile phone and starts to cry. Eventually one of his relatives takes his phone away from him and deletes the photos.
“They took my phone to stop me looking at the photos, but I can still see them in my mind.” Murat says when we meet him in Dohuk.
Murat is sitting on the grass outside the school wiping the tears from his eyes, over and over, with a white tissue, the mobile phone is in his other hand. His other children are gathered around his legs. He says he’s been in brief contact with Amina but hasn’t heard anything from her in days.
Murat buries his head in his hands.
“Please, someone must save them. The world must help us!” he pleads.
After a few days, we eventually find Fahida’s mother, Shirin, in a school in Dohuk. The soles of her feet are blistered and bleeding after the long walk down from the Sinjarmontain. She doesn’t have the energy to get up from the mat she’s lying on in the shadow of a tree. Young Amir is sitting on her lap. He’s holding a blue teddy bear. Suddenly he puts the teddy down, points his hands at it as if they were a gun and shoots the teddy bear.
“That’s what IS does,” he says.
Shirin shakes her head and tells me about the escape.
“We tried to come down from the mountain, but we were stopped by the IS. They shot and killed one of my daughters and took Fahida. All we could do was flee back up the mountain. There are no words to describe how I feel,” she says.
Shirin shows us photos of her two daughters on her mobile phone. She says that she’s been in contact with Fahida.
“When she called I was hoping that she’d escaped, but they’re being held in Badoosh Prison. They can’t go anywhere, we don’t know what will happen or when.”
Some time later, Murat, his first wife and his six children have moved into an unfinished house outside Dohuk. There’s a wall missing and there’s no water or electricity.
“But at least we can stay here and don’t have to move to one of the refugee camps,” says Murat when we meet him in october.
He has very little contact with Amina but knows roughly where she is.
“Because of her child she cannot flee like some of the other girls have done. She can’t carry him that far.”
Many of the women who have managed to escape have been helped by locals, or their families have paid.
Murat says that he’s prepared to do anything to bring Amina and Daham home.
“We just have to find the right person.”
In the late autumn we witness six girls who’ve managed to escape from the IS crying with joy as they are reunited with their families. But things have just got worse for Fahida, according to Shirin, who we meet again at the school in Dohuk where she still lives.
According to Hamida, Fahida told the IS that she was married for a long time, so they locked her up with the other pregnant and married women. But one day one of the IS soldiers came into the house.
“He said that another girl had revealed that Fahida was single, and told her to go with him.”
Fahida tried to resist but he was violent and forced her to go with him.
“She’s now a slave for one of the IS leaders,” says Shirin.
She starts to cry hysterically. One of her relatives plays a Yazidi song on a mobile phone.
“I listen to this for comfort. It’s a tune we play when someone’s died,” says Shirin and holds the phone close to her face.
Murat is strong. He comforts the children and carefully explains his thoughts. Male grief is difficult. Within the Yazidi culture there is little or no place for a man to cry. But in the end he can’t hold it back any longer. Tears stream down his face.
“I’m still hoping that the US or NATO will help us. The Peshmergas aren’t strong enough, and they have such a large area to protect. But can the rest of the world just allow all these hundreds of women to be kidnapped?”
The next time I meet Shirin, she tells me that Fahida was allowed to return to the married and pregnant women, briefly, to help a relative who was about to give birth. But the soldiers took her away again a few weeks later.
“Now they’ve cut off all contact between us,” says Shirin.
She’s still sad, but the fact that several hundred girls have managed to escape gives her hope.
“Fahida is clever, she might think of a way to get out. After that I want her to leave the country. She will never be safe here,” says Shirin.
It’s now winter. There’s a cold wind blowing through the house Murat and his family are living in. The children huddle together to keep warm. There’s only one radiator, and the whole family is gathered around it. Since I last saw them, they’ve gone from despair to hope that a miracle might happen.
Just one week earlier Murat was convinced that Amina and Daham would return.
“I thought we’d found someone who could help us,” he says.
But then Amina and Daham were moved and that opportunity disappeared.
“They aren’t eating properly and they want to come home. But they are okay and I don’t want them to flee if it’s too dangerous. My biggest hope is still that the military will go in and save them. We hope that day will come soon,” says Murat.
In mid-December the Kurdish Peshmerga forces begin an operation around Mount Sinjar, together with Yazidi voluntary troops. They manage to reclaim control of some of the area. It’s a symbolically important victory but they still have to win back Mosul, Tal Afarand and the villages between Sinjar and Mosul, where most of the women and children are being held hostage.
Some of them have managed to get home, and in mid-January the IS released more than a hundred Yazidis, most of them elderly or sick.
But hundreds are still being held captive – among them Amina, Daham and Fahida.
FOOTNOTE. All names in this article have been changed, as many women are still being held captive. For the same reason, we have not revealed the exact locations where the women were captured.
Yazidism is an ancient religion with approximately 800,000 followers, many of them in the Kurdish areas of Iraq.
Their religion is a combination of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, and this minority group often lives isolated from the rest of society. Some of the clans still live by strict rules, for example, it is forbidden to marry outside the group, eat salad or wear blue.
In other groups these rules have been relaxed.
The Yazidis were heavily attacked by the IS in August, when the extremist group took the Sinjar area. The UN is calling it attempted genocide.
Also known as ISIS and ISIL but they call themselves IS, the Islamic State.
Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Muslim who was previously held prisoner by American troops, named the movement in 2014.
He and his followers are a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda in Iraq and are believed to consist mostly of Sunni Muslims. They are estimated to have somewhere in the region of 10,000-20,000 soldiers.
Al-Qaeda is a major threat to the western world, but the IS still has an ongoing issue with them as they want a Caliphate; a state ruled by strict Sharia laws and al-Qaeda finds the leader, Baghdadi, too radical.
The IS has successfully occupied large areas of both Iraq and Syria. They received a lot of attention when they gained control of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, where they seized weapons that the Iraqi army had received from the US, giving them a very powerful and mobile warfare.
Several countries, including the US and France, have carried out air strikes together with the Iraqi army, but the IS continues to occupy large areas.