Four months after the Islamic State captured hundreds — possibly thousands — of Yazidi women, the female prisoners continue to live in fear of rape, torture, and forced marriage, according to a report released Tuesday by Amnesty International.
More than 500,000 Yazidis — a predominantly Kurdish ethnic group that practices its own ancient religion — were forced to flee during an Islamic State assault in the vicinity of Iraq's Nineveh Province in August. The UN estimated that as many as 2,500 women and girls were kidnapped by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. Since then, hundreds of captives have been moved back and forth — sometimes repeatedly — across the militant-controlled northern border between Syria and Iraq.
The UN received a report soon after the women were captured that the Islamic State was selling the detainees "cheap" to young men to entice recruits to join the militant group. In September, Amnesty reported that many women "had been removed from their places of detention and sent away to be forcibly remarried." If the women refused, they were allegedly told they would be sold as slaves.
Amnesty says many of the girls are teenagers or younger, and that the Islamic State uses rape as a weapon of war — yet another alleged crime against humanity committed by the group.
"Some of them mentioned that they were being treated like cattle," Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response advisor, told VICE News. "I've spoken with women and girls that have been passed from one man to another."
Rovera spoke with several detainees held alongside a 19-year-old Yazidi woman named Jilan, who committed suicide rather than face another day of uncertainty and the specter of sexual abuse.
"One day we were given clothes that looked liked dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear those clothes," one of the girls reportedly said. "Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful; I think she knew she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself."
Another girl, Wafa, also described attempting to take her own life with a fellow captive.
"We tied scarves around our necks and pulled away from each other as hard as we could, until I fainted… I could not speak for several days after that," she said.
Yet another young woman, who was held captive with her sister for more than a month before they escaped together, described her own suicide attempt.
"We tried to kill ourselves and the man who was holding us promised not to separate us, but he was becoming more and more impatient," the woman reportedly said. "He wanted to get rid of us, to unload the responsibility for us on to someone else, and if we had not managed to escape it was only a matter of time before we would have ended up married by force or sold to some men, like many other girls."
The former captives Rovera spoke with are among more than 200 that Amnesty says escaped captivity by various means. She says there could be 2,000 female detainees remaining.
Rovera said many people living in Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria abhor the practice of sexual slavery, but others see the forced conversion of the Yazidis — considered devil worshippers by some local Muslims and Christians — and their marriage to Muslim men as proper.
"You have entire families being witness to one of the guys of the family — or more than one — bringing home a slave girl, beating her, selling her to another man, raping her or forcibly marrying her and the family is doing nothing," Rovera said. "It's beyond belief that their mothers and fathers and aunts and siblings would stand by and accept this kind of behavior in their homes."
The human rights group says foreign fighters, including Westerners, have taken part in the trading of Yazidis. Amnesty noted the testimony of four detainees who recounted being held by two Australian fighters of Lebanese origin.
"It is right and proper that these people should convert to Islam and that the unmarried women should be married to Muslim men according to Islam," one resident of Tal Afar, a northwestern Iraqi town, reportedly said.
As warplanes from a US-led coalition continue their bombing campaign against the Islamic State, Amnesty is concerned that the militants may be moving their female captives more frequently, using them to keep Western military officials — who might be fearful of killing the hostages — from attacking certain targets.
"It's certainly different than the behavior of other groups — they are doing nothing to hide their crimes and in fact are boasting about it," Rovera said. "One of the reasons why ISIS is so keen to publicize the fact they are holding all these women and girls captive is that they could be using them as human shields."
Rovera said one fear — that conservative Yazidi families would commit honor killings of the women after their return from captivity — was apparently averted thanks to early intervention by Yazidi religious authorities.
Nevertheless, Rovera added that, "in a society that attaches so much importance to the honor the women and girls of the family, I don't think there is any running away from the fact that these women and girls will themselves feel that their honor and the honor of their family has been tarnished."
According to the Amnesty report, one Yazidi detainee recounted the savage beatings — girls pulled away by their hair, others "beaten with electrical cables" — that she witnessed.
"I was not afraid of the beatings," she said, "but could not bear the thought they would attack my honor."
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