A generator sputters into life and men in farmers’ trousers spray water on muddy tractors as the sun slips from a late summer sky. On this most ordinary of village days in a northern corner of Iraq, 20-year-old Bafrin Shivan Amo perches on a metal cot bed to speak of the most hellish of times. “They raped me every day, twice or more,” she recounts with remarkable composure. “I was just a child,” she says in her soft, steady voice. “I can never forget it.” Bafrin shares her story, as hard as that is because she wants the world to hear what happened to her and nearly 7,000 other Yazidi women enslaved for years by the fighters of the barbaric Islamic State group. The world, her tiny community believes, has forgotten them.
Four years ago, when Isis fighters swept into the furthest reaches of Iraq, images of desperate people stranded on a mountainside in the Yazidi heartland, dying of dehydration and hunger, sparked alarm and compassion for an ancient culture few had heard of. Helicopters were dispatched to drop food and water on the barren slopes of Mount Sinjar and to pull to safety the small number of people who managed to scramble on board. Now a stubborn scar stains the cluster of towns and villages in the foothills of the Yazidis’ sacred mountain. Streets lie in ghostly silence, broken hulks of houses are still peppered with the bombs and booby-traps laid by Isis before they were pushed out of this area three years ago by Kurdish forces backed by US-led airstrikes. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are now scattered in displacement camps across this northern region, unable and unwilling to go home, and uncertain where to turn for help. Few aid agencies are on the ground here, and Yazidis are left in limbo, caught in disputes between the local Kurdish administration and the central government in Baghdad. That affects the delivery of aid as well as security for a population still profoundly fearful that Isis will return.
“I cannot go back to my village,” Bafrin says as we sit in the farmyard in the baking heat, a dark blue scarf with a sparkling trim framing her broad face. She chooses not to hide her face, or her name, as she tells a story which, like the accounts of many Yazidi women, is beyond anyone’s imagination. “There is no hope there will ever be life in my village. There are only bones of the dead.” Her village is Kocho, only a short drive away. In the vast catalogue of Isis’s war crimes, Kocho set a new bar for brutality. About 400 men, the entire male population, were rounded up, shot or beheaded. Old women were killed and dumped in mass graves, younger ones sold in markets as sex slaves, boys turned into child soldiers. In that fateful summer of 2014, Bafrin was outside Kocho and tried to make her way to Mount Sinjar, along with the tens of thousands of others who fled there in a blind panic to escape Isis’s assault on a people it scorned as “devil worshippers.” Yazidis believe Mount Sinjar, a massif spanning the border area between Iraq and Syria, has always been their only protector. They see it as the guardian of their long-persecuted faith, a monotheistic religion with Zoroastrian roots, which also draws on Christianity and Islam.
Isis fighters captured Bafrin and her three brothers on the road, just south of Mount Sinjar, and locked her away, initially with several of her young female friends from Kocho. In her pain, there was also strength and a sense of purpose. “Every day I was held captive, I grew stronger,” she says. “I took every chance I could to try to escape and promised myself that I would never give up, because, in the end, either I would be killed by my captors or be free.” When the second fighter who enslaved her was killed in a suicide bombing, she wrapped herself in black clothing, scrambled over a wall, and found her way to a house in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was also then in Isis’s choking grip. Strangers opened the door to a frightened woman on the run, kept her for days, then sold her back to her family. Thirty-five members of her extended family are still missing. “My brothers are probably dead,” she admits reluctantly. “But we still live in hope. Once I was free, I felt reborn. But I can’t feel free while 3,000 Yazidi women and children are still in captivity, in a situation far worse than mine.”
While Isis fighters have been pushed from the cities that once formed their vaunted caliphate, some are still at large, on the edges of villages and in the desert expanses. One by one, after years of torment, some Yazidi women are coming home as Isis discards some of its slaves – usually for the payment of large sums of money arranged through smugglers. “I didn’t believe it would ever happen,” a visibly exhausted Gazal says, on her first day at home after her family raised tens of thousands of dollars from relatives and neighbours to free her from captors who had sequestered her in Syria. Her fetching nine-year-old daughter Dalia shadows her in silence; a bewildered little girl’s staring eyes tell of her horror. “They beat me around the face, and they beat my little girl. They beat all my four children. I was so scared for them,” Gazal says. The beatings have frozen one side of her face, a paralysis which extends down her arm. But even with tired eyes drained of any sparkle, her relief is palpable. She had thought her ordeal would never end. “Isis lied to me,” she recalls, her voice more trenchant. “They said our families would kill us if we tried to come home, so I was scared to come back. But I was so surprised at the welcome I got.”
In a mobile phone video of their first moments together, a sobbing Gazal is enveloped in the tight embrace of her mother and sisters. Her knees give way, and she drops to the floor, overwhelmed by the emotion of reunion and relief. She had waited for what must have seemed an eternity before trying to reach her relatives: another Yazidi girl had secretly kept a phone, and Gazal finally summoned the courage to send voice messages to her family, who then contacted smugglers. Within days of coming home, Gazal travels to the holiest Yazidi temple in Lalish, a cluster of shrines with distinctive conical roofs, nestled in a mountain valley. Like all women enslaved by Islamic State fighters, she is showered with water in a ritual seen as washing her clean of her past in the eyes of her community. Without this, she would not have been accepted back.
Concern for the plight of Yazidi women and the need for expert counselling led some countries, including Australia, Germany and Canada, to offer refuge to a limited number of women, as well as family members. Every Yazidi family speaks of wanting to leave, and everyone is looking for loved ones. At the small Office of the Kidnapped, set up by the community in the nearby Iraqi town of Duhok, the director, Hussein al-Qaidi, speaks in a voice that booms loudly like a megaphone, as if to broadcast to anyone who will listen. “No one is helping us,” he says. “If this were happening somewhere else, all the world would be helping. Aren’t we human too, don’t we deserve better than this?” Aid came at first from the Kurdish prime minister’s office to help pay the hefty ransoms that are often demanded, but those funds are drying up. Bigger agencies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, are making some effort to help trace people, particularly children, who have been lost in camps or orphanages or sold to families, but it is a sensitive and complex business.
“It’s been four years, and we haven’t seen our parents,” say Adiba and Asia, two women in their 20s who escaped captivity. They have lost eight family members in all – parents, grandparents, two aunts, two brothers. We meet in a tidy lane in a Yazidi displacement camp – a well-tended warren that the families have tried to make their own by planting trees, lush green gardens of mint and other herbs, even striking yellow sunflowers. This family came to the attention of Sally Becker, the British charity worker who made a name for herself in the 1980s during the Bosnian conflict by crossing front lines and circumventing bureaucracies to rescue injured children. Using her contacts in the Yazidi community, she is now on a mission with her small charity, Road to Peace, to search for Yazidi children a greater priority. “This is my first lead out of about 1,700 children still missing,” she says, sharing a photograph of four-year-old Sabir, the two young women’s nephew, who was taken from his mother into Isis captivity when he was only nine months old. Adiba and Asia’s six-year-old sister Sylvana sits with them. She narrowly escaped the clutches of organ traffickers who smuggled her to neighbouring Turkey. “They tried to take my kidney, but a doctor stole me from the hospital,” she whispers, in a child’s hesitant account of a journey that finally took her back to Iraq, where her sisters managed to find her. Becker warns, “If more isn’t done more quickly to locate missing children in camps and orphanages, more children could end up being trafficked like Sylvana.”
There is a sense of urgency and impatience. Yazidi families know that some of the answers they need lie buried in the shallow mass graves that litter these blighted lands. In Kocho, only a few soldiers, and flimsy strands of mesh fencing stand guard over the killing fields there. The silence is broken only by the whistle of the winds, which have already exposed some bones and bits of tattered clothing. A year ago, the UN security council unanimously passed a resolution, spearheaded by Britain, authorising a team to gather evidence of Isis crimes, including the exhumation of mass graves. “People are losing hope,” says Farhan Dakheel of Yazda, a global organisation that has been helping to document what the UN is calling a genocide. “So many Yazidis tell me that if nothing happens this year, they will dig for the bodies themselves.” Last week, the first UN team was on site with an Iraqi medical unit, taking blood samples from survivors of another village close to Mount Sinjar. “It’s just the beginning,” Farhan says cautiously, in a tone that underlines the Yazidis’ fear that they will never be anyone’s priority.
Credit: Lyse Doucet for The Observer, 9 September. Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent.