The years in ISIS captivity have left deep scars
Four years ago, «Nesreen» was living with her parents and siblings in Sinjar in Iraq. That life took an abrupt end when ISIS attacked and abducted her and 72 family members. Now she’s one of hundreds of surviving Yazidi women who are struggling to come to terms with their traumatic experiences.
Prior to 2014, the family was busy building its own house. The daughters were lending at hand at home and the brothers were out at work earning money to buy materials.
Sinjar is an Iraqi town in Ninawa province near the Syrian border. On 2nd August 2014, Sinjar and the surrounding areas were taken over by the Islamist group, ISIS. Most of the population fled but many thousands were killed or taken prisoner. Norwegian People’s Aid partner organisations estimate that 6,500 men, women and children from the Yazidi minority were taken to ISIS-controlled areas. There, they were sold as slaves and the women and girls were sexually assaulted and forced into marriage with ISIS combatants. Until now, around 1,200 Yazidi women and girls have returned from captivity. Those who have survived such violence suffer extreme trauma and depression. Now they are getting help from the community centres run by Norwegian People’s Aid partners in Iraq, including the women’s and minorities’ organisation ASFL. In addition to the centres, mobile teams have been established that travel to unofficial refugee camps and other places where many internally displaced people are living.
“It took us three years to build the house,” Nesreen tells us. “We were very happy when it was finished because then we could start making the wedding arrangements for my brother. A month after the wedding, ISIS came and took us prisoner.”
Sent to Syria
When ISIS attacked, Nesreen’s father and one of her brothers were working a long way from Sinjar and thus avoided being taken. Seventeen year-old Nesreen and the rest of her family were initially taken to Mosul. A week later, they were split up and four of the daughters were sent to Syria.
“At first I was happy to be together with three of my sisters but then ISIS sold us to different people. It was difficult. I worked as a slave for ISIS combatants and their wives. I was raped and beaten,” Nesreen tells us.
After she was married off to an ISIS combatant, she was given a cell phone by her husband. She was too ashamed to ring her father as she had been forced to convert to Islam and did not know how he would react. Since she was pregnant, she said to herself that she would forget everything and live for the sake of the child. Her son, ‘Omar’ is now eighteen months old.
Contact with her father
Through the YPG branch (People’s Protection Units) of the national Kurdish army, Nesreen got to hear that her father was looking for her. It was then she plucked up courage enough to call him and ask him to buy her back. She also asked if she could bring her son with her but her father thought it better that she should wait and they could collect him later. She consequently left her son with the YPG. She has since heard that he is living in a children’s home in Syria but knows no more.
“My father even says to me now: «You must forget him and not talk about him to anyone». I’ve tried forgetting Omar but I just can’t do it. I still look at a picture of him on my cell phone when nobody’s looking. But I know that when I do that I just get upset and start crying.”
Although it’s painful, Nesreen understands her father at the same time and the way in which he thinks.
“When I got the chance to call him and ask him to buy me back from ISIS, it wasn’t easy for him. He didn’t have any money but did his best to scrape together enough by borrowing from others. It left him deeply in debt – thousands of dollars – which he has no chances of paying back – just like lots of other poor families.”
Considerable health problems
Twenty-one year-old Nesreen now lives with her family in the Essyan refugee camp in the same area where she lived before the abduction. Forty-two of her relatives are still missing, including a younger sister and four half-brothers.
“I think a lot about my little sister; we haven’t heard anything from her at all. And because I don’t have a job to take my mind off all the horrors, I go round thinking about it all the time,” she says.
Nesreen had considerable health problems when she returned from 3 years’ captivity in November 2017. Now her physical condition has improved but she is still struggling psychologically. Thanks to Norwegian People’s Aid partner organisation, ASFL, she is receiving welcome assistance, she says.
Yazidism is a religion from the Middle East, primarily found among Kurdish peoples. The Yazidis believe they celebrate the world’s oldest religion. There are no official figures as to how many Yazidis exist; different sources offer figures between 200,000 and 800,000. Most live in northern Iraq around the city of Dahuk – north-east of Mosul – where their most important holy site is located, and in the area around the Jebel Sinjar mountain plateau, south-west of Mosul. There are also Yazidis in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Georgia, Armenia and other diaspora communities, especially in Germany.
“I got crisis counseling with a psychologist from the day I arrived at the camp. I also received 120 dollars and got an appointment with a doctor who, fortunately, was able to help with the problem I had with my eyes. My conversations with the psychologist have got me to understand that I have to go on with my life. I realised that people who go through great difficulties often become stronger afterwards. The conversations have made me feel relaxed and strong.
It was also a great help for Nesreen that she was able to visit Lalish, the Yazidi’s most important holy site, and, afterwards, to take part in ASFL’s vocational training programme.
“It was good for me to be able to take part in these activities, and what I liked best of all was being a drawing teacher for the girls in the Essyan camp. I felt really happy and proud of myself because it’s so nice to be able to teach something you’re good at,” she says.
“What do you want people to know about the situation of Yazidi women in Iraq?”
“I want them to know that we are suffering because of what has happened to us. Especially those who survived ISIS captivity. They have psychological problems and need special treatment to manage to keep on living. I know that most families don’t know how to deal with these problems and that makes the girls’ lives even heavier.”
“What do you wish for in the future?
“I hope I get a chance to leave the country because it’s very difficult for me to live here after what happened to me. I think everyone who survived ISIS wants that. And life in a refugee camp is not easy either. I’d like survivors to get help to get themselves a job so that they can meet up, forget their problems and get an income for their family at the same time.