More than two months after being captured by the Islamic State in Iraq, Yazidi women continue to be subjected to forced conversions and marriages, rape and assault, according to investigators at Human Rights Watch.
The UN estimates at least 500,000 Yazidis fled their homes after the Islamic State (IS) launched a desert blitzkrieg around Mt. Sinjar in early August. Thousands who were unable to reach Kurdish controlled regions of Northern Iraq are believed to have been captured by the Sunni militants. UN officials previously told VICE News the number of women and girls captured by the Islamic State could total as many 2,500.
Researchers with Human Rights Watch interviewed 76 Yazidis who had been driven to Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as two current female detainees via telephone, and sixteen individuals who had escaped from IS.
Witnesses described IS fighters literally picking women out from among prisoners for their personal use. "You are mine," one teenager named Adlee recalled a "big bearded man" telling her, before leading her to an IS vehicle. Adlee was taken with another girl to Fallujah, a mere 43 miles from Baghdad, where she was beaten and slapped until they both "surrendered."
After running away from her captor and hiding for nearly three weeks, Adlee made it to a Kurdish-controlled area, where investigators heard her testimony. Though she noted locations and the presence of other prisoners, Adlee, like many other Yazidis, only referred obliquely to sexual violence.
"As much as we could, we didn't let them touch our bodies," said Adlee. "Everything they did, they did by force."
Even returning to their families presents yet another risk for female escapees, Tirana Hassan, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch's Emergencies Division, told VICE News.
"The biggest taboo is not being captured, it is being [sexually] assaulted," said Hassan. "The Yezidis are a small, conservative community and women will go great lengths to ensure this is private, to make sure they are not ostracized by the community. Virginity is a very important concept."
A 15-year-old girl named Rewshe told investigators she was held for three weeks before being transported to Raqqa, Syria, along with some 200 women and girls. Soon after, 20 of the prisoners were taken away, reportedly after being sold to a group of militants.
Two days after she arrived in Raqqa, Rewshe was sold, along with her 14-year-old sister, to a militant. The man, a Palestinian member of IS, told her she had cost him $1,000. He quickly sold her sister to another militant and took Rewshe to his apartment. After attempting to rape her, Rewshe was able to escape as the man dozed.
But for every story relayed to rights groups and UN officials concentrated in Erbil and other Kurdish cities, many more — and particularly cases so heinous that IS allows few witnesses — go unreported.
Escapees described girls "as young as 12" being taken away and made to enter into marriages with fighters. "They married us; we had no choice," one escapee recounted a group of girls telling her when they were briefly allowed back into the Mosul prison where they had been held, before disappearing.
In a handful of situations, Yazidis have been able to escape detention with the help of locals. One group of five sisters, ages 10 to 24, fled bondage with assistance from Sunni families, who offered them refuge for three weeks before they were able to flee to a safer area.
"They relied on the kindness of strangers," Hassan said. "In two instances, they were picked up by individuals who understood they were being held against their will, and understood they were Yazidis."
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