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'We Need People to Stand for Us' — The Yazidis Escaping Sexual Slavery in the Islamic State

Abandoned by the international community, Yazidi activists are risking their lives to track the thousands abducted by the jihadist group. VICE News spoke to one girl who escaped her brutal captivity.

by Lara Whyte
Feb 6 2015, 1:30pm

Image via AP

At 17 years old, 'Adira' has already tried to take her own life. A Yazidi teenager kidnapped by the Islamic State as it swept through northern Iraq last summer, herding thousands of members of the minority group into a brutal enslavement, she spent the first few days of her captivity locked in a room with several other girls, sobbing with fear and desperately trying to evade their fate.

"We just cried for six days. We tried a couple of times to commit suicide. We had a scarf, so we tried to use it. We tried several times, but we were very weak. We were not strong enough to kill ourselves."

Adira, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is one of a few Yazidi girls who — abandoned by the international community — have eventually managed to make their own escapes from the deadly clutches of their Islamic State rapists.

Almost six months since the black flag of the jihadis descended across northern Iraq, thousands of Yazidis remain missing and in captivity. A small number have fled through a variety of secretive networks operated by people risking their own lives to help. Hundreds of Yazidis have been killed, and reliable figures of the scale of the catastrophe are difficult to come by as no official body appears to be counting.

In this vacuum, a group of Yazidi activists from the US, Europe and Iraq have been frantically working to track and document the missing and the dead. They have compiled the names of more than 4,000 women, children and men who are missing, and as well as a detailed report seen by VICE News on the whereabouts of those held.

Their intelligence on the location of the captives, along with some information of the capability of Islamic State fighters in those areas, has been shared with various international and local agencies, in the hope that it might lead to rescues. Murad Ismael, a Yazidi from Khanasor and one of the founders of Yazda, the NGO group formed by the activists, said they are desperate for international support.

Female Militants Publish Extremist Manifesto on the 'Women of the Islamic State.' Read more here.

"We are advocating for a military operation since August. We asked everyone, the UN, the US, the Iraqis, the Kurdistan regional government, to commit to an action to free the hostages, to free the women. But none has taken place."

They estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 people are still missing. Many of them, they fear, are now dead. Jamil Chomer, the Iraqi chief of the group, speaking from Duhok refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday, told VICE News that Kurdish forces keep finding new mass graves.

"This morning they found another one. In this grave they found many children, and women and men. So far they have found between 27 and 30 bodies."

Many Yazidi hostages have now been dispersed through parts of Islamic State-controlled Iraq, Syria, and even, it is alleged, further afield to Islamic State networks in Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. The activists say opportunities to launch rescues have been missed, multiple times, and that Iraqi officials have told them openly that no such plan to rescue those held currently exists.

Smiling through Skype and talking to VICE News through an interpreter, Adira said that when the Islamic State first advanced on the Yazidis' northern Iraqi homeland, her family believed they would be safe if they hung white flags from their homes. The fighters surrounded her village at sunrise, and as the day developed, the horror of what could happen dawned on her family. They fled in their cars, and managed to get a few miles out of their village before the Islamic State caught up with them.

"They surrounded us, separating the young girls from the men and the older women and they put them aside. They ordered the men to be on their knees," Adira said.

She was taken along with the other girls and women by truck to a school in Tal Afar, a city 50 miles west of Mosul seized by the jihadis early on in their offensive. From there she was selected by two IS fighters along with six other girls and taken to a house where they were locked in a room for six days without food or water. Separated from their mothers, the group of teens became hysterical with fear. They received no food and water.

The men she calls "guards" saw the girls attempting to hang themselves, and threatened to separate them into different rooms, and torture them. Chomer, who has been working to arrange rescues and document those who have managed to escape, told VICE News this "stage" was something many girls spoke about: extreme violence being used to frighten the youngsters into submission. Girls who attempted to resist being raped were subjected to a variety of sadistic abuse in an attempt to "break their souls," he said. There are reports that several girls have been successful in their suicide attempts.

Despite their different nationalities and languages, Adira said the guards all behaved in very similar ways: They dressed the same, had similar hair and beards, they laughed a lot together and they all took turns to molest them. Adira, remarkably composed telling her own story, became increasingly distressed as she described the cruelty the younger girls endured.

"There were girls who were nine-years-old, and there were girls who were ten-years-old, and they were doing the same with the nine-year-old as they were doing to the older girls and married women," she said.

The strikingly pretty 17-year-old was bought, along with a 13-year-old, by an Islamic State fighter in one of the group's first "sales" of its Yazidi captives. Both were taken to Mosul, the Islamic State's stronghold in Iraq, and placed in another house, where they were raped again "many times." When the 13-year-old was taken away, Adira was left alone in the house for a few days, and decided to attempt her escape.

"I climbed up the stairs and got to the roof of the building. I could see there was another house close to the one I was in, so I ran and jumped from the roof of the house I was in to the roof of the other building.

"I stepped on to the stairs — they were on the side of the building — and ran down them, and then climbed the gate and jumped over it and out on to the street. The guards saw me and ran after me. I managed to outrun them for about 100 yards, but they captured me and brought me back to the room."

As punishment for attempting to escape, Adira described being handcuffed and starved for four days, kept in freezing room with the air conditioning blasted fully as she cried and begged for her mother.

"I was trying with my teeth to put a blanket on my legs. I was so cold, but I could not put the blanket on my legs as my hands were handcuffed."

She was then taken to the fighters' family home, where she lived with his wife, and his wife's mother and sisters. She worked as a servant for the family when not being abused by the fighter. The wife, she said, "was not too bad," but her sisters were "awful" and she was forced to read the Koran and "practise Sharia." She lived here for about two months in this way, she said, before daring to attempt her second escape.

It was on a Friday evening, she related, and she was about to begin eating dinner when she excused herself to go and wash her hands. One upstairs she grabbed a niqab belonging to one of the sisters and climbed out the window and jumped over the fence that divided the family home with their neighbors.

"I jumped over the fence, but there was no one in that house, so I ran across and jumped on to the other house beside it, but there was no one in that house either, so I ran and jumped out into the street," she said.

Once on the streets, fully covered this time, she spent the next hour or so knocking on doors to ask for help. Initially, it seemed liked her efforts were in vain: "I was crying a lot, especially when the families wouldn't accept me."

After being refused by another family and fearing she would be recaptured, she climbed over a fence and found herself in a compound with a family who agreed to shelter her.

At this point, she said, she was crying uncontrollably and was convinced the family were lying, but they managed to calm her down and eventually convinced her by saying that Tawsi Melek, the leader of the seven Yazidi angels, would keep her safe.

She stayed for a week in this home and then made contact with her uncle in Kurdistan. The family arranged with her uncle to move her from Mosul to Kirkuk, and from Kirkuk it was easy to come to the Kurdistan area, where she remains.

Living in the relative safety of an overcrowded refugee camp in Duhok, Adira is lonely and longs for her family, particularly her mother. Her ordeal is far from over. She has had no counseling, nor any specialist healthcare treatment, though the Yazda group are applying for funds from various bodies on her behalf. But she said she does not really care about her health, because her family are still missing.

Despite the initial media frenzy last summer during the siege of Mount Sinjar, when thousands of fleeing Yazidis became stranded on the northern Iraqi mountain, the fate of the hostages and refugees has failed to attract the same headlines as the grisly propaganda of Islamic State barbarity. Aid agencies are struggling with underfunding and what has been described by refugee advocates as the "collapse of international solidarity."

Adira's sense of isolation is profound, and her position indicative of the plight faced by hundreds of kidnapped girls and thousands of missing Yazidis. Her two sisters are still being held by the Islamic State in Mosul — she has sporadic contact with them — while her mother and her sister in-law are inside Syria, also captive.

She has not seen her little brothers, her older brothers, her father or her grandfather since they were separated outside their village last August. Her voice dipped as she said: "It is very difficult to live now without my family. I hope to see them again. "

The sense of abandonment felt by those activists working around the clock to try and help the living and count the dead is painfully clear. Ismael is clear on the political, diplomatic and moral failures of the international community.

"What Yazidis have gone through is a massive genocide — in all its elements. Many of our people were told — convert or be killed. They are killing our identity, and our people. Then the women who do come back come back to nothing.

"We need people to stand for us. It is a holocaust against the Yazidi people, it is a holocaust against us, and we require international support."

Follow Lara Whyte on Twitter: @LaraWhyte

Main image: A displaced Yazidi woman at a school turned refugee shelter in northern Iraq.