Children born to ISIL sex slaves are taken to be trained into murderers – Yazidi aid worker
While leaders of the global community are trying to figure out how to deal with the Islamic State terror group – often spending more time on political bickering between each other, or pursuing their own interests – the horrors in the jihadist-controlled territories never stop: slavery, torture and the complete absence of humanitarian rule in ISIS areas, with women suffering most. However, there are women who manage to escape – and there are groups that help the captured girls to get to freedom, and coming home, they bring the blood-chilling stories of abuse. To get the truth of what’s going on in ISIS-occupied lands, we speak to an aid worker for the Yazda Group, which is helping rescued ISIL sex slaves. Vian is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Vian, when ISIL captured your city, witnesses say they separated men from women and children, then took the men away for execution and turned the women into slaves. Do you remember that day?
Vian: Yes. We were in Sinjar that day. Our contacts up in the mountains had told us that our odds of escaping from the city were really slim, 5 percent, and that people who took refuge in the mountains were starving and thirsty. Many of those who fled were chased down by ISIL fighters. The Jihadists would kill the men… They would offer people a choice: you either die or convert to Islam and swear allegiance to Islamic State. Women and children were taken away as slaves. That day, we were in Sinjar, we saw people flee for the mountains. We couldn’t make it out of the city, because my mother was sick. So we witnessed a lot of things… Through our channels, we often got word from people in the mountains. We could hear the screams of those who had fled up there. Children and elderly women were suffering especially.
SS: But even though you didn’t make it the first time, you and your family still managed to escape. How did this happen? And why did others fail?
V: Oh no, we remained blocked in Sinjar for a whole week, or about a week. Some city residents took to the mountains. But that didn’t mean escape at all: like I said, the conditions up there were so harsh that elderly women and children would die of hunger and thirst. Besides, ISIL militants went after those who had fled into the mountains, killing the men and turning women into slaves. We stayed blockaded inside Sinjar for several days, me and my family. But we kept in touch with those who were holed up in the mountains.
SS: But how did you eventually manage to slip out of the ISIL-controlled area?
V: I can only tell you this much, because what I say may put some people’s lives in danger. I guess you could call it a miraculous escape. It happened thanks to our staying in touch with many Peshmerga fighters, who were in the mountains, or in Sinjar. We had many contacts, but at some point we gave up all hope.
And then, we decided to risk it. Through our contacts, we got hold of a phone number, of a smuggler who would secretly transport Shiite, Christian and Yazidi families out of Sinjar. We took his number without knowing this man, not knowing if he would turn us in. We knew nothing for sure, and I can't talk about it in more detail. All I can say is that this man smuggled Yazidi, Christian and Shiite families out of the captured city, taking large sums of money in reward. He would bring them to the border with Kurdistan.
SS: Have any of your family members or friends been captured by ISIL?
V: Not any of my family members or relatives, no. But looking at it from a basic human point of view, what has happened to the Yazidis has happened to all of us. For me, all of the women and girls who were abducted and enslaved during the Sinjar massacre are my sisters. All of those women are our sisters.
SS: Do Jihadists always kill men, or do they take some of them prisoner?
V: Oh yes. I have some numbers for you. Needless to say, it is hard to produce any reliable statistics on this, but, according to our sources, a total of 3,314 women were abducted, and some 1,026 men were killed or taken captive. They were offered to convert to Islam and swear allegiance to ISIL or face death. That is, they were to join the Jihadists and be trained to kill, or be killed themselves if they refuse.
SS: Vian, you've met people who have been in ISIL captivity. You’ve been assisting women who escape sexual slavery. How do you help them live life again? Or do they remain traumatized for good?
V: You want to know about women… Just try to imagine what it’s like to be an 11-year-old girl who gets sold into slavery, and then brutally raped and abused. And now she comes back from captivity, and the government won’t move a finger to help her. They do absolutely nothing, they won’t even provide her with a tent for temporary shelter. And that’s after everything this child has had to go through. Obviously, it is very hard for those girls to go back to normal life. Especially considering that their fathers and brothers are missing, dead, or fighting for ISIL, and their mothers may themselves be enslaved and abused. They come back with no passports, no ID’s, no proof of citizenship. They don’t have a place to stay, not even a tent. So it is very difficult for them. But as fellow Yazidis, we try to help them with whatever we can. We provide them food, clothes and shelter, and we try to let various organizations know about those women and their stories. The U.S. government occasionally donates some money for them. But that’s not enough. Those girls have been through the worst kind of nightmare you can think of. They come home, and their own government does nothing for them.
SS: What happens to women once ISIL captures them?
V: We met with 825 women of various age groups here, at this Yazda facility. There were senior women, 20- and 30-years-olds, and minors too. There were many minors among them.
Underage girls and unmarried women are sold, raped, gang-raped, and tortured in the most atrocious ways. Here is what one of the girls told me. When she refused to do what an ISIL man told her to do, he said, “I will kill your entire family and make you watch, and then I’ll sell you to a dozen ISIL fighters.” If girls refuse to have sex, the Jihadists sell them to one fighter after another, and they get raped anyway in the end. Married women were not exempt from any of this. Their turn came once the Jihadists would run out of unmarried girls and minors. ISIL men would hunt down and rape married women too. Even old ladies could get abducted and raped. Or, at the very least, the Jihadists could make them undress, spit on them or otherwise degrade them. How can an elderly, religious woman live with something like that? Can you imagine the pain and humiliation of having to strip in front of those men, or adopt their religion?
SS: Where do they take captured women? A slave market? You said women get resold. How does that happen? Where are those markets located?
V: I talk to many girls, and I’ve noticed they tell me the same things. They point to the same locations. Many of them even know each other from being held together in those places. They’ve told me there is a large building in the city of Tal Afar, which the Jihadists have turned into a female slave market.
There are similar markets in Al-Raqqah and Mosul. This is where they sell girls. Some girls get presented to men as gifts. ISIL slave-owners can pass on a woman to their father or brothers.
SS: Do they only sell women? Do they only use women as sex slaves, or can they merely use them as maids?
V: I can only tell you that no ethnic or religious community on Earth has experienced what the Yazidis are being put through today. We are talking about real-life sexual slavery imposed by ISIL fighters. It’s enslavement and abuse in its most abhorrent form. They turn pretty girls into sex slaves, and if they don’t find the girl attractive, they use her as a servant, and beat her up on a daily basis. And if a girl is beautiful, she can be traded from one Jihadist to another, and each of them will rape her.
SS: Does a girl’s age matter for the Jihadists? UN envoy Zainab Bangura, who investigated sexual violence by ISIL, reported cases where girls as young as one were sold as slaves. Could that be true? Why would they need babies?
V: It is true. I’ve met a girl who was only eleven. She was raped and resold by eight ISIL men.
SS: What about babies, infants?
V: They are taken away from their mothers. Many of the kids are just killed. A woman told me that militants murdered her daughter who was only one year old. She was killed cruelly right in front of her mother’s eyes. Now the woman is held in a tent camp suffering from a strong mental disorder. Yes, her one year old daughter was killed right in front of her. And the mother was taken into slavery by an ISIL fighters.
SS: I heard that children are sent to ISIL camps for military training… Is that true?
V: Yes. This is true. ISIL fighters hold about 1500 children. They send kids to special training camps or divisions to be taught to kill and behead people. That’s the training they get there. One of the women that I am working with says that her 11 year old son is still bring held by ISIL fighters. She worries so much about him. When she was held captive by Islamic State, the fighters incited her son to turn against her. He came to visit her carrying a knife, saying that all he wanted to do was to kill people. (15:26)
SS: Are mothers reunited with their children later on?
V: Yes. They reunite here sometimes. I got to know one young woman, who came here for help. She told me about her ten year old son who was held by ISIL. He witnessed awful things – killings, beheadings. He was trained to join the ranks of Islamic State militants. The woman told me that her son can’t readjust to a new life here. He keeps on threatening her, saying he will kill her and the whole family. He has become extremely cruel, he is deeply disturbed. He changed dramatically over the time he spent among Islamic State.
SS: People in captivity are made to convert to Islam if they are Christians or Yazids – what for? What happens if someone refuses?
V: Such people are murdered. ISIL fighters want to convert us to Islam because from their point of view we are infidels. Disbelievers, kafirs. So they make people convert to Islam, and those who refuse to do so are killed.
SS: Are women of a different faith or ethnicity, other than Yazids, sold by ISIL?
V: As far as I know, it’s only Yazid women who are sold as slaves.
SS: What about the buyers? Are there non-ISIL fighters among them?
V: Yes. Sometimes young women are sold to non-ISIL fighters. It is all pretty complicated. I cannot speak about it because it may be dangerous. A woman may be sold to human traffickers when she plans to run away. She then is sold for a very large sum of money... Young women are held in ISIL jails, they are sold only to Islamic State fighters, just to be raped. But she may ask a fighter to sell her back to her family… ISIL fighters agree to do that for a large sum of money. They sell the woman to a human trafficker and he sells her on to her family. It’s a long and difficult process.
SS: This all sounds like a very big business, you mentioned large sums are involved. What is the cost of a human life, a slave for ISIL?
V: You mean, the price of selling a young woman back to her family or the price of selling her from one fighter to another?
SS: Both. It is sounds so surreal, how does that even work?
A. Girls who are held in ISIL jails are sold from one fighter to another very cheaply, they’re passed on from one fighter to another. Women face horrific treatment - they may be spat on, treated as a slave, beaten together with their children. But the price of selling her back to her family may amount to $2,500 and even more.
SS: How do ISIL fighters justify rape – doesn’t it contradict Islam?
V: I think… I think they believe we’re kafirs and that Yazid women should be enslaved, and our men should be killed. That’s their justification – they say we are kafirs and that we deserve all this.
SS: Women who are taken away and sold – are they considered to be wives or slaves? How many of them are there?
V: It is hard to come up with an exact number. It’s impossible to determine how many women are enslaved by ISIL. As for marriages... What kind of a marriage can it be if a girl is married against her will? But it is considered to be “official”, although it’s hard to imagine… Fighters “marry” girls and treat them like slaves. Yazid women have been held as ISIL sex slaves and treated in the most horrible and detestable way. (22:36)
SS: Suppose a woman needs a doctor? Is she allowed to see a doctor?
V: No, she’s not allowed. One woman was pregnant when she was kidnapped. She told me that she still can’t forget what she had to go through. She was in pain because she was in labour and obviously needed to go to a hospital, but the fighters said no. In their eyes, her child would be a kafir, an infidel, therefore he or she has to die, same as the mother. So they did not help her at all.
SS: And if a woman gets pregnant in captivity?
V: If it happens in captivity? Then she has to give birth to an ISIL child.
SS: What do you mean, ‘an ISIL child’?
A: They make her keep the child. For them, he is a new ISIL member, he belongs to them… A future terrorist...
SS: If a young woman refuses to have sex with an ISIL fighter – does she have a chance to stay alive?
V: She may refuse. But how can she protect herself? Captured women often say no. But how can they protect themselves? If a fighter wants to rape her, he may take her by force, may drug her, beat her up, or tie her legs and arms with iron chains. How can she protect herself? How?
SS: Have there been any cases of ISIL militants just releasing women voluntarily?
A. No, of course not. When all this began, it was much easier to escape, even without the government or other bodies interfering. Girls would wait for airstrikes to begin and make their escape. They would run away. But, as I said, a year later the only way to gain freedom is for the girl’s family to pay an enormous sum to ISIL. It’s a huge amount of money, like I’ve told you.
SS: There are reports stating that many sex slaves commit suicide. How have the girls you’re working with managed not to go down that road? How did they stay strong in such inhuman conditions?
V: Yes. Many girls that I’ve met with told me about captive women committing suicide, about how the militants treated them. One of the girls told me about her friend, who found out she was to be given to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. She committed suicide – slit her wrists in the bathroom. When the militants came and found her, they said they would feed her body to the dogs so as to teach the rest of the captives a lesson.
SS: Was there anyone who treated them like human beings? How do the residents of the towns and villages where these girls are kept react to them?
V: All the people living in nearby towns and villages joined ISIL, so no one was helping the captured girls.
SS: Have you ever been to the ISIL-controlled areas?
V: As I said at the beginning, I spent about a week in the Sinjar area. There was a siege and we couldn’t run away. As I’ve already told you, it was extremely difficult to escape, so I can’t give you any details. I don’t want to put certain people in danger.
SS: I want to understand what life inside the Islamic State looks like. We have this perception that the ISIL fighters drive around town firing their guns in the air, but maybe it’s not like that at all? Maybe everyone is just living their lives, going about their business as usual?
V: As far as I know, when the Sinjar area, as well as Tal Afar and Mosul were captured by ISIL, normal life was all but over. Those who stayed there joined ISIL. Our neighbours from Sinjar are now among ISIL fighters. Our neighbours joined ISIL, can you believe it? Of course, it’s impossible to lead a normal life there. The ISIL militants force Yazidi women to wear niqabs and follow other strict Muslim rules...
SS: You know, we’ve been talking about Yazidi women and the horrors they have to go through in ISIL captivity, but at the same time, there are some young women from well-off American and European families who come to ISIL of their own free will and want to marry ISIL militants. They are even called jihadi brides. Have you heard of such cases? How does ISIL treat these women?
V: Yes. I can only tell you what the girls told me based on their experience. One of those wives, for example, was Australian, and there was an Afghan one as well, etc. A former captive told me that one of the foreign wives tortured her brutally. Such wives from foreign countries are treated very well, naturally. But these women have participated in torturing, enslaving and the killing of Yazidi women.
SS: So the jihadi brides that come from all over the world, convert to Islam and marry ISIL fighters. They become terrorists’ wives and take part in all the horrors, trafficking of Yazidi women?
V: That’s right. One of the girls told me that a foreign wife burned her sister alive. Burned her alive, yes.
SS: So then, if foreign women convert to Islam and marry ISIL fighters, a Yazidi woman could, say, convert to Islam and marry an Islamist in order to survive?
A. No. A Yazidi woman would still be a Yazidi woman and a slave. She would be treated cruelly regardless, no doubt about it.
SS: Have there been cases of women killing their capturers? Have any of the girls told you stories like that?
V: Yes, many girls risked it. They gathered their courage – and it requires unbelievable courage, I don’t even know how to convey it. One of them managed to kill the militant who kidnapped her. She ran away. She came here and told me about how she killed her ISIL kidnapper and escaped.
SS: There are groups operating on Islamic State’s territory whose goal is to free women from captivity – how do they help? Do they infiltrate the organization and pretend to be ISIL fighters? How does that work?
V: I don’t know the details of such actions, since they are conducted in absolute secrecy. The aim is to try and save Yazidi women. I don’t know how exactly the operations are carried out – as I said, it’s all top secret. I mean, yes, they are trying to free the captured Yazidi women, but I’m not privy to any details, because, clearly, no information can be allowed to reach the enemy.
SS: Are there any other ways to escape from ISIL captivity? Could you tell us about them?
A. There is no other way, that’s for sure. Previously, when airstrikes were regular, our girls would wait for an airstrike to run away. But now there is no other way except for what I mentioned.
SS: You started helping women that escaped from ISIL. How did it begin for you? What led you to this decision?
V: Since it was established, our organization, Yazda, accepted 825 girls in our special center. We help by giving them clothes, food and a roof over their heads. Of course, we receive some funding from the US government, as well as from the Yazidi communities in Europe and the US. We do our part, but of course it’s not enough.
SS: What do you do to help these girls?
V: We, the Yazidi women and all the Yazda employees, focus our efforts on overcoming the consequences of this tragedy. The girls come to us, because, as I said, the government doesn’t do anything to help them. They have no ID of any kind, not to mention no money. They have lost everything. When they escape from captivity, they basically land into another terrible situation. We are trying to help them. It’s extremely important. That’s why we do what we do.
SS: I want to thank you for the interview, for your sincere answers. On behalf of all women, thank you for what you’re doing – not only for the Yazidi women, but for humanity as a whole.
V: Thank you very much.