Geopolitics

Slaves Of ISIS, Yazidi Survivors Share Unspeakable Horrors

The minority Yazidi people were killed and taken captive by the Islamic State. Once held as sex slaves and child soldiers, several survivors tell of the psychopathic madness of the jihadists.

A Yazidi mother and her daughters in a refugee camp in Greece
A Yazidi mother and her daughters in a refugee camp in Greece
Thierry Oberlé

The tragedy of the Yazidis is never-ending. Many members of the Middle Eastern ethnic-religious minority are still trapped as slaves of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Mosul's inferno. Meanwhile, some of the girls who had been raped in captivity and boys who had been drafted as child soldiers are having a hard time recovering from the trauma. Having been released for ransom or escaped, they languish in camps for displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan. We met some of them in the Darkar camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border, in a clinic of EliseCare, a French NGO. Here are their stories:

Lion cub of the caliphate

Nassan was 14 when he was kidnapped by ISIS in August 2014, along with his mother Gulay, was was 34 at the time, and his two sisters and three brothers. The oldest of the siblings, Nassan was a frail teenager, but was forced to grow up quickly. He was forced into becoming a child soldier. Nassan was faced with the choice between revolting and being killed or betraying his own people and dying as cannon fodder. He chose the narrow path to become, in his own way, his family's hero.

The young man "belonged" to an Iraqi jihadist from Mosul, who who was convinced that the Yazidis, who believe in a single God and practice millennia-old rituals taken from other religions, are worshipers of the devil.

Nassan was born in a small village deep in Iraq, not far from the sacred sites of his sect: the Sinjar mountains and the lush green valley of Lalesh, lined with white conical-domed temples that hold the tomb of Sheikh Adi, who founded the order in the 12th century. Nissan worships Melek Taus, or Peacock Angel, and respects obscure taboos such as the prohibition of eating lettuce or wearing blue.

Marginalized among the marginalized, the Yazidis have been victims of massacres for centuries. To the Sunni Arabs of ISIS and those who have come from around the world to fight alongside them in Iraq and Syria, the Yazidis are considered the dregs of humanity, heretics who must either be forcibly converted or destroyed. In August 2014, ISIS fighters from Mosul descended upon the Nineveh Plains and the Sinjar desert in an offensive aimed to wipe the Yazidis off the map. Men were killed, women and children kidnapped. The United Nations called it a genocide. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the Sinjar mountains where, according to local legend, Noah's ark settled after the flood. They were saved with the help of forces of the Kurdish fighters coming from Syria and Turkey, as well as U.S. air power.

Nassan was not so lucky. After being a prisoner in Mosul for six months, he was deported to Syria with his family. His master, who grew tired of raping his mother, sold his prey and her children to a trafficker who, with four chartered buses full of slaves, headed for Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold on the other side of the border. There, Nassan was separated from his family. Delivered to a new owner, he said goodbye to his mother before joining the "lion cubs of the caliphate," ISIS" child-soldier factory for fighters under the age of 16.

Nassan entered a "training institute" near Suluk, on the Turkish border. He quickly discovered the fate reserved for "apostates' who try to escape: at best, imprisonment in deep, dungeon-like pits with just three dates a day to eat; at worst, execution. He was taught the Sharia with the blows of a stick. Theology classes advocated an ultra-rigorous reading of the Koran. He was also taught how to use weapons and the basics of military tactics; some notions of anatomy, mostly learining the sensitive parts of the human body like the neck muscles, the solar plexus, or the testicles; and the fundamentals of dealing with future prisoners. Nassan and his Yazidi comrades, who were also forcibly enlisted, were the scapegoats of their classmates. He absorbed the iron discipline like a good student. "We were promised we'd be free men after the classes," he said.

Everywhere I went, I was looking for my family.

Six months later, the "lion cub" was released and incorporated into a combat unit. Nassan appealed to his military-religious superiors for a dispensation based on his newly acquired knowledge of "Sharia sciences." He had only one kidney and still suffers from the effects of a leg broken in childhood. This was enough to justify an exemption according to Islamic law. He was transferred to the kitchen, where he helped prepare meals for his brigade on the front lines of Aleppo and Tabqa. "I was a jihadist among the jihadists but everywhere I went, I was looking for my family. That was my obsession. I missed my mother," he remembers.

In the beginning of 2016, he was in Palmyra, where ISIS was under threat from rebels of the Free Syrian Army. He wandered the streets of the ancient city, weapon slung over his shoulder, interrogating the city's inhabitants until one day he accidentally came across one of his brothers who was out running an errand. The family was being held nearby by a local jihadist, Abu Hamad. His mother, brothers and sister occupied the ground floor of their masters' house. The jihadist lived there with his wife and children. Abu Hamad regularly raped and beat Nassan's mother, and his wife beat her at every opportunity. The jihadist's children were charged with beating the child slaves, Nassan's siblings.

Nassan tried to pressure Abu Haman into releasing his family. "I went to see him every day. He demanded $35,000 in ransom, but I had no money. He wouldn't budge. I ended up dragging him to Sharia court in Raqqa," says Nassan. Again, he relied on Islamic law to beat the jihadists at their own game. "I'm a Muslim! a member of the Islamic State! I have the right to live with my mother!" he argued. A magistrate ruled in his favor. The young man was a "free man" affiliated with ISIS, therefore he could, according to Sharia, recover his relatives. The master was ordered to free the slaves, but was nevertheless allowed to keep the eldest daughter, who was 12. The girl, who belonged to Abu Hamid's wife, remained exploitable, therefore "rape-able," at will.

Nassan also managed to get, from the "office of confiscated homes," a place in Raqqa to house his family. He could continue cooking for the jihadist combatants while putting together the last stage of his plan: fleeing Syria. Contacted by cell phone through the channels of the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, a smuggler took over the operation. The group secretly left Raqqa in December for a journey that ended at the gates of freedom: The first Syrian Kurdish checkpoint of the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Turkish Kurd forces. Two weeks later, Saleh, a friend of Nassan's, another jihadi of Yazidi origin who was with him at the caliphate lion-cub school and who was also able to save his own family, was saved through the same channels.

I am just my unhappiness.

These days, the two teens meet regularly at the camp for the displaced near Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nassan has started learning English using an old dictionary. Saleh learned of his father's death and of his brother's murder during the Kocho massacre carried out by ISIS on August 15, 2014, which claimed more than 80 lives.

About 10,000 Yazidi men, women and children died, were kidnapped or disappeared in the ethnic-religious cleansing campain carried out by ISIS.

Gulay, Nassan's mother, has found her husband, but cries over her daughter who is still being held prisoner in Raqqa. "A month ago that bastard Abu Hamad demanded $35,000 for her liberation in a recording on social media. We don't have the means to pay. His cell phone has been off since the beginning of the fighting in Raqqa." Sitting at her side, one of her children is agitated. With a sudden movement the child stretches out his arm like holding a gun, and pretends to shoot his mother in the head.

The rape of Koda's little girls

Koda is 30, but appears 60. She is flanked by Galia, 7, and Marwa, 6, both silent and still. The two girls were raped repeatedly by ISIS members for months on end. Koda does not hide her utter despair: she has no more honor to defend. "We experienced the worst of the worst with my two masters, a Saudi and a Tunisian. They abused the girls and beat them with a cane when they made noise like children their age do. I thought of committing suicide, but I couldn't abandon them. In Raqqa, there were many of us in the same situation," she says. Koda was sold by her master from Mosul for a few hundred dollars.

She was resold six times in Syria, passing from hand to hand. A broke jihadist published her photo on WhatsApp, demanding a ransom of $23,000, including the children — a common practice. Her brother-in-law managed to collect the money and 17 months ago he bought her back. Since then she's been wandering the Darkar Ajam camp, dressed in black from head to toe. "It's the color of sadness and the inside of my heart," she says. "I don't have anything. I am nothing — I am just my unhappiness. My husband disappeared almost three years ago with the rest of my family, fleeing ISIS. I don't have a present or a future. Just three broken girls."

Parwin's smile

Parwin, 23, was rescued twice. The first time was last September, when Mohammed, a kind man from Mosul, stole her from the emir Hamza, a senior ISIS official. The second time was at the end of the year when the eastern part of Mosul was liberated by the Iraqi army. On December 30, Parwin picked up her daughter Suriana, then 3, and crossed the city, destroyed by bombardments and fighting. She walked for hours in the rain to a meeting point where an Arab sheikh drove her to Bartalla, a Christian city controlled by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, an Assyrian militia.

A remarkable beauty, Parwin was most likely considered a prime catch by ISIS predators. Sold and resold from one emir to another, she had 11 masters. "There was not one worse than the other — they were all horrible and more or less violent. I was chained, raped, beaten, my daughter was beaten," she says. Those who could have shown some compassion didn't out of cowardice. She remember's Khaled, a thick brute who grabbed her just after her abduction. He was a Yazidi who had secretly converted to Islam before ISIS arrived. He died in combat a year later. But she mainly remembers her last husband, the emir Hamza, a big boss who used to offer her as a gift to his guests.

Parwin tried to escape many times. One day, she fled on foot with a fellow slave without realizing that Hamza had spun his car around. Vengeance fell upon her daughter. The girl was locked up without food and the emir threatened to send her to Syria to separate her from her mother indefinitely. Then she was saved by Muhammad the man from Mosul, who put an end to her suffering.

"The battle for the liberation of Mosul had begun. We were afraid of airstrikes. We changed hiding place at every alert," Parwin said. "Mohammed asked me for nothing and never abused me. If he had been caught, he would have been hanged."

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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