The report was completed with support of the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ)
On August 10, 2017, the Iraqi army raided a house in the west of the city of Mosul, which used to be the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They found Diana Amin and several other Yezidi women who had been kidnapped and somehow survived the bombs and missiles of the liberation war.
Diana (22) survived three years of deprivation, torture and psychological abuse. She closely followed the Yazidi Women Survivors Law (YWSL), which was passed by the Iraqi parliament in March. The YWSL qualifies the crimes committed by ISIS against women of the Yazidi minority as crimes against humanity.
“On our journey of captivity, we were subjected to heinous crimes and lost years of our lives,” said Diana, who thought the new law a small step in the attempt to meet the survivors’ needs and rights. “Like so many others, I am still experiencing the trauma of what I went through. Nothing can make up for what I lost.” Diana works in a survivors’ network in Qadia camp in Zakho in the far north of Iraq and calls for a quick application of the law to prevent it from becoming just “ink on paper,” as that would only constitute yet another source of despair.
Details of the Law
ISIS invaded the Yazidi region of Sinjar in northern Iraq in August 2014, and over the course of three years its fighters carried out horrific crimes including murder, rape, kidnapping and slavery, before the region was finally liberated in 2017.
Calling for special attention for female survivors of sexual violence in armed conflict, the YWSL is the first of its kind in the Arab world. In article 2 it stipulates the law also applies to survivors belonging to the Turkmen, Christian and Shabak minorities, and not only to women, but also to men subjected to crimes during the ISIS invasion and occupation of the Nineveh Governorate.
The law provides for the establishment of a general directorate to take care of the female survivors , which is to be headed by a Yazidi, and offers survivors a monthly compensation of up to one million Iraqi dinars (some $685), as well as a plot of land.
In addition, the law offers programs to help victims re-integrate into society and deals with the legal status of children born in captivity. They too will receive a monthly fee equal to that of their mothers.
Death or Exile
ISIS fighters attacked Sinjar on August 3, 2014. According to the Kidnapped Yazidi Rescue Office, 6,417 Yazidis were abducted, most of them women. Only 3545 were liberated, 1199 of them women, 339 men and 1992 children.
The others remain missing, despite the fact that six years having passed since the liberation of Sinjar and four since the liberation of Mosul.
There are no official statistics regarding other minorities attacked by ISIS. Data are limited to what was collected by civil society organizations. They estimate some 1,200 Turkmen, including 120 children and 460 girls and women, were abducted.
According to the Shlomo Organization for Documentation, 161 Christians were kidnapped by ISIS in 2014, including ten children. At least 49 survivors suffered sexual assault.
According to journalist Jaafar al-Talafari the Turkmen survivors, both men and women, only number 47. Others estimate the number of female survivors at only 5.
A Victory for the Victims
Manal Luqman (22) from the Tal Qasab complex in Sinjar, was 15 when she fell into the hands of ISIS, along with nine other members of her family, including her parents.
She was raped and severely beaten during the first four months of captivity, before she managed to flee. With the help of some civilians she managed to reach the Kurdistan region.
“I asked my Lord to die every day,” she said. “Death was easier for me than staying in their hands. Now, after all these years, the scenes of rape, assault, beatings, the killing of Yazidi men, still pass before my eyes.”
Most of the Yazidi survivors spent three years in captivity, before the areas under control of ISIS were liberated and talk started about finding survivors.
“Despite our suffering and the difficult humanitarian conditions in the camps after our liberation, we did not stand idly by and we continued our movement,” said Manal, who is proud of the efforts she and dozens of other Yazidis made, which ultimately resulted the female survivors law.
Manal participated in seminars in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region and helped present proposals to amend paragraphs in the law, which she deemed “not fair to the survivors and their cause.”
Despite her objections to the parts she considers “unfair to survivors,” she believes the law is a victory for the women victims and their families. It will give the survivors great impetus “to get out of their misery and be strong to face the repercussions of their past.”
Hala Sfail (21) too is a survivor and an activist for survivors rights. She was kidnapped from Tal Qasab in August 2014, while she was still a third grade student. She was liberated in Mosul in 2017.
Today, Hala, who lost her parents and three siblings, lives alone in the Bersfi camp for the displaced in the Kurdistan region. Like most survivors, Hala believes that nothing can compensate for the loss of her parents, but at the same time she considers the law a positive step that will help console her.
“To us, she’s dead.”
However, the law cannot alleviate the social stigma attached to the victims. Many suffer from marginalization and face great social pressure, as a result of the stigma abducted women carry in a conservative societies. The survivors often suffer from persecution even after their release from captivity.
Many tragic stories have befallen these women, though they are not much talked about in public. According to Raed Bahjat Mahmoud, an expert in religious minorities, tribal norms prevent the emergence of organizations representing the Turkmen and Shabak to demand a search for the women who were kidnapped by ISIS from 2014 onward.
Turkoman families, for example, often refuse to talk about the kidnapped women, who are considered dead or killed. “We lost her forever,” said a brother of one kidnapped woman. “To us, she is dead.”
But his Kurdish friend, who left the city months before ISIS arrived, said: “They do not search for her. My friend once said that her return would be a greater problem than losing her. So they prefer to consider her dead.”
Mahmoud believes the number of kidnapped among Turkmen and Shabak is much greater than what has been reported. More than half of them are from the Shiite community, he explained and therefore were apostates in the eyes of ISIS.
As for Christians, most of them left Mosul before ISIS took control due to the tense security situation that has prevailed since 2006. As for those who stayed, ISIS offered a choice: Islam, paying tribute or leaving. All preferred the latter option after giving up their property.
The Yazidi’s did not have such options, according to Mahmoud. ISIS fighters treated them as infidels, killing the men, exiling women.
Sinjar Remains Destroyed
Despite promises made by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi to apply the law, Yezidi activists are concerned that implementation may be obstructed by bureaucratic procedures and conditions. This in addition to some objections that are still pending and mainly concern the children born as a result of the survivors’ dreadful treatment at the hands of ISIS.
According to Hussam Abdullah, director of the Yazidi Organization for Documentation, the importance of the law lies in its handling of this very sensitive issue that will have future repercussions.
Ahmed Khadida Barjas of the global Yazidi organization Yazda hopes the law will offer a practical solution to help survivors and not merely remain “ink on paper,” although he asked himself how and where lands would be distributed to survivors. Seeing how the survivors are scattered in more than one place, lawyer Shihab Aziz shared Barjas’ concerns.
“Especially in the light of the current circumstances in the Sinjar district, with the presence of the Popular Mobilization Forces and groups affiliated with them on the one hand and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on the other,” he said.
Their concerns are further fueled by the fact that many Yazidi towns have been destroyed and received many reconstruction promises in recent years, yet none of them were met. The city of Sinjar remains destroyed and the overwhelming majority of its Yazidi and Kurdish residents has not returned.
These concerns also haunt Nadia Murad, the Yazidi survivor who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. She described the YWSL as “an important and decisive step,” yet emphasized that “implementing was much more important than ratifying.”
According to Yazidi survivor Shireen Khairo the law represents an official recognition of what happened to the Yazidi’s, which has had positive repercussions on her and her fellow survivors.
“We were looking forward to enacting the Genocide Law,” she said. “But a little achieved is better than nothing.”
During the parliamentary debate on the law, Sherine Kant had suggested that the Iraqi government should punish anyone who attempted to exploit the survivors.
Sherine, who managed to escape captivity, objected to the paragraph in the law addressing the legal status of survivors’ children. She insists that they were born as a result of rape and no law should link them to the survivors. “The children of rapists should not be granted rights,” she said.
The issue of children born to ISIS fighters is a hugely complex problem. Their rejection by society prompted many survivors to abandon them, while others were forced to abandon the idea of returning to their families. Some even preferred to remain prisoners or wives of ISIS militants, so that they would not be detested and harassed by their families.
According to Turkmen human rights activist Rasha Wahab the law neglects the victims’ families. It was supposed to allocate a paragraph to them, so that they could deal with the survivors in a therapeutic way and be part of the treatment.
Passing the law has raised the level of optimism among ISIS survivors, mostly Yazidis, in the displacement camps in the Kurdistan region. They hope it will lift them out of poverty and help restore part of their dignity.
Meanwhile 2,887 Yezidis remain kidnapped, and it is believed that some of them are living in Syria under threat of extremist Islamic groups. The YWSL calls for efforts to search for them “with force” and for perpetrators of crimes against Yazidis to be prosecuted and never be included in any kind of amnesty deal. Never.