by Laila Khoudeida
Originally from Sinjar, Iraq, Laila Khoudeida is a social worker and mental health specialist, currently serving on the board of Yazda, an organization she helped found to respond to the needs of Yazidi victims of IS ethnic cleansing in 2014.
I recorded this Sinjar survivor account in my notebook as it was related to me by “FA,” a Yazidi woman who managed to escape ISIS captivity late last year. She wanted to share her story with the world but chose not to share her name.
Originally from a town called Tel Ezer in the Sinjar region, FA is a 23-year-old Yazidi woman from a very large family. Her neighborhood was home to thirteen other families who were closely related to her—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends. On Aug. 3, 2014, when FA heard the news about ISIS entering nearby Yazidi towns, she did not realize how quickly she would be forced to become the slave of one ISIS militant after another. After learning the frightening news, she and her family members gathered themselves so that they could head for the mountains.
But they were too late. The ISIS militia had already beheaded countless Yazidi men and destroyed many nearby towns. She became very scared and held tightly to her mother and sisters as the gunshots continued. When ISIS reached her house, she was pulled by the hair with a gun pointed at her head as she along with her family were herded along to join other Yazidis who were gathered into groups. There, she witnessed her father and four uncles collapse to the ground as each was shot in the head. She said:
“I wanted to die; I wanted to be the next one to be shot in the head, because I did not want to see any more of what was to come.”
She would live to witness much more cruelty.
Another 200 men were shot and the survivors, including her, were taken to Seba Shekh Kheder, a town located south of Sinjar. There, they separated women and put them in different groups according to their age and beauty. This was the last time she would see her mother. The children, including infants, were forcibly taken from their mothers to be raised by ISIS, where they are now being taught the Caliphate’s religion so they can grow up to become future jihadis.
|My notes of FA’s story. Photo: Syria Comment|
“I wanted to know where my mother was taken and if I would ever see her again. I kept looking around but I did not see anyone her age, there were only women close to my age and younger, including 9-year-olds.”
They were ordered to walk single file to Baaj. She said, “At this point, I did not understand where they were taking us, but I noticed that we were moving farther away from my town.” After arriving in Baaj, she noticed the ISIS militants changing their minds; it seemed they did not feel safe having all of the captives there. She said:
“I was exhausted and could not cry because I felt numb; I felt like this was a nightmare that I would soon wake up from.”
They sat on the ground where the little girls clung to the older ones and one of them whispered to FA, “I am thirsty.” FA said, “That’s when my heart ached and I started crying.” They could not ask for water because the last one to do so, a 70-year-old woman, was struck across the face with a weapon.
FA said that around 12 pm they were ordered to start walking again, towards Mosul.
“We walked from 12 pm to 3 am and throughout our journey we walked over dead bodies and past destroyed homes. We would see vehicles pass by with black flags hanging out and men with long beards saying “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” as they passed us (meaning “god is the greatest”).”
The ISIS men never addressed each other by their first names, intent on keeping the captives from learning their true identities. Once moved to Mosul, they remained there for 11 days, and during this period, she was forced to “marry” one of the men.
“I resisted and was beat in the stomach and head until I became unconscious. When I woke up, I watched other women, including my sisters, go through the same experience.”
Her face was so bruised up that she no longer drew the men’s attention, as they sought out good-looking women.
“I watched my sister bang her head on the wall as one of the militants dragged her to his car.”
FA later learned that her sister was sold off to someone in Syria and was taken to live with his family. The family didn’t believe that a Yazidi woman should live in a Muslim household, so they took her to the local shari’a court (perhaps to have her officially convert). The people saw her as an infidel who should be punished. That was the last she knew of her sister.
FA was again grouped with about one hundred other women and they were ordered to walk back to Baaj. This time they stayed in Baaj for 8 days, at which point she was sold for about 10 dollars to someone in Tel Banat.
“He did to me what he desired, then sold me to someone in Tel Qasab after two days.”
In Tel Qasab, FA was tortured badly, raped multiple times a day, and beaten after each instance of rape. She was made to cook for the militant and clean his house, but since she did not look good enough for him after staying with him for two days, he brought her back to where the other women were being held.
FA added that they were very exhausted and many of the girls did not care whether they lived or died because they saw how they were being used as sex objects and at any point could be killed, if they were to resist the militants’ sexual demands.
“At three in the morning I felt a splash of cold water hit me in the face; I felt the pain of the wounds on my cheeks and head and could barely open my eyes.”
When she woke up, she saw that some women were being ordered to stand up in a line and take their scarves off.
“I felt a wire hit me hard in the back and I slowly stood up.
I did not know where my scarf had fallen off, but they were looking for women who satisfied their taste in looks.”
FA’s brother’s wife and cousin were two of many who met this desire and were taken. They were screaming and trying to find a way to escape, but they could not. Her brother’s wife still had her son with her and he looked very ill—her nephew looked dead.
“My sister wanted to come and give me a hug because she knew that that would be the last time we would see each other. But she was dragged to the vehicle.”
Her brother’s wife is still held in Mosul today, but she doesn’t know much about her sister, or whether her nephew is still alive.
The next day in the evening two women hung themselves from the ceiling fan in the building; one of them was the wife of her neighbor, a very young and beautiful woman. She had told FA that she would kill herself before they touched her, and she did so.
“I wanted to do the same, but I was too weak, and I felt the little girls needed someone to be with them. So I resisted every time they would come to sell me, and I managed to stay with the girls. Because they had found out that I could cook, one of them, their leader, bought me for a thousand dollars from the previous person who still claimed that I was his wife.
The leader ordered me to cook and bake for them and the Yazidis who had been forced to convert.
I cleaned the girls so they could be sold for better prices, and I would tell them…. ‘just do what they tell you until we find a way out of here.’
One of the girls did not follow orders when she was called to meet the man who had come to choose a girl (sabya) to be his wife, so to punish us, they mixed gas with water and forced us to wash ourselves with it.”
Continuing her tragedy, FA said that one day a 9-year-old girl was called to go into the leader’s room. The girl was so terrified, she started vomiting.
“So I fixed the 9-year-old child’s hair, and she was sent to the leader’s room. Soon after she was in there, I heard the loudest scream a nine-year-old can make.”
After about half hour, she came back out. He had raped her. Waiting outside was another man to whom she was sold before he returned to Syria.
She would not be the last. The leader would keep them until he had raped them, then they would be sold. “There were so many of us that it was very easy for him to get another girl to rape.”
FA said that one by one all the little girls that she had taken care of had been sold except for three. One of these was a 13-year-old and the other two had already been sold to ISIS fighters and were therefore considered “married” and were waiting for the ISIS men to come back from a mission in Mosul. They did not have the courage to try to run away.
“One day, the guard who was watching over us came to the kitchen and started touching me in different areas, but I pushed him each time… He pulled out a piece of paper, it was a marriage certificate.”
This man had made FA his wife in the shari’a court without informing her; he told her that he would send her off to Saudi Arabia if she didn’t comply.
“I was very scared, and the next day, I went to the leader and told him about the situation with the guard.”
FA by this time had become a prized commodity because she cooked and baked for all of them, so the leader put the ISIS guard in jail for one day before he was released. She said this man wanted to kill her, but he couldn’t because he was afraid of the leader.
The next day, the guard told his friend that he wanted him to take her in a vehicle and send her off to Saudi Arabia and kill her there. When FA heard this, she knew she had to find a way to escape.
That night, airstrikes targeting one of the ISIS bases prompted the militant leader to abruptly get in his vehicle and drive off.
“I looked to see if the guard was around, and when I didn’t see him, I told the girls that this was our chance to run away. The two who had been sold were too scared to come because the last time one of us tried to run, she was brought back, and her legs were cut off.”
The two girls did not want to go through the same experience, but FA was determined to run that night because she did not want to end up in Saudi Arabia.
The 13-year-old girl agreed to go with FA, and they started heading toward the mountain. On the run for three days without food or water, they hid behind buildings and bushes during the day and moved at night. By the time they came close to the road near the mountain, the 13-year-old girl couldn’t walk, so FA began to carry her. Because they were so dehydrated, she picked up two small rocks and gave one to the girl to place in her mouth to help with the thirst, and placed the other in her own mouth.
Once they had passed the danger zone and drawn close to the mountain, Yazidi fighters spotted them and ran to them with water. Qasim Shesho, a Yazidi leader, told his men to drive them to Kurdistan.
This woman is one of thousands of Yazidi women who have been enslaved since summer of last year. She now lives in a tent in a refugee camp that houses many other Yazidis with similar stories.