In 2014, the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) rapidly gained ground throughout Iraq and Syria. In the early summer of that year, the insurgent group seized the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, causing thousands of civilians to flee for safety.
Yet in Sinjar, a town 70 miles (110km) from Mosul and home to the Yazidi minority group, life continued as normal. “We are a peaceful people,” says Ameena Saeed Hasan, a Yazidi and former Iraqi Parliament member now living in Kurdistan. “We do not have problems with anyone … so we did not think they would attack [Sinjar].”
But in the middle of the night on August 3, 2014, ISIS rolled into Sinjar. Civilians were alerted to their arrival by the sound of trucks caravanning down the road. Then the violence began. Men were killed in front of their families; children were taken away from their mothers; and women and girls were captured and loaded onto trucks. This is how the genocide started: a killing spree calculated by ISIS leadership to erase an entire religious community through murder, rape and slavery.
For Yazidis abroad, it was a different sound that raised the alarm: phones ringing in the middle of the night, the hushed panicked voices of relatives on the other end of the line. Those calls would spark an international effort to rescue those swept up in the violence – an effort led not by governments or global NGOs, but by Yazidi women living in Kurdistan and in the West whose friends and relatives have been captured by ISIS.
Hasan’s phone call came from her sister, who hurriedly described what was happening as she hid in her home in Sinjar. Her sister eventually escaped from the town and fled to Kurdistan.
Pari Ibrahim, 27, a Yazidi who moved from Iraq to the Netherlands with her family in 1991, received a similar phone call. “My family members [in Sinjar] said, ‘ISIS has entered Sinjar … they are killing the men, they are taking the women and girls,’’’ she recalls.
The ISIS attack on Sinjar resulted in the deaths of at least 5,000 Yazidi men. Yet it is the Yazidi women and girls who have suffered the brunt of ISIS’s terror campaign. An estimated 7,000 women and girls were auctioned off to ISIS fighters, and most are still being held by the group. Accounts by those who have escaped, been rescued or been released reveal that, as the group’s captives, women and girls – some as young as nine – are tortured and used as sexual slaves. “The women are raped over and over again by many different fighters … they are beaten … their children are taken from them,” says Hasan.
As the former representative for Sinjar in the Iraqi Parliament, Hasan was trusted by the Yazidi community. So it came as little surprise to her when she began getting phone calls from enslaved Yazidis begging for help.
In November 2014, Hasan and her husband, Khaleel Aldakhi, set up a network of trusted friends in Mosul to smuggle out any enslaved women who manage to get in touch with them. Hasan is hesitant to discuss the details of how she gets these women out, for fear that ISIS will disrupt her network. But it always begins with a phone call: The woman on the other end of line describes where she is being held, how many ISIS fighters are in the town and the details of her captors’ daily schedule.
Hasan passes this information to her network of helpers based inside ISIS territory and together they form a plan of escape. When the captives are freed, they are delivered to a waiting vehicle driven by Aldakhi, who then whisks the women to the safety of an internally displaced people’s camp in Kurdistan.
So far Hasan, her husband and their helpers have rescued around 170 enslaved Yazidi women and girls.
Small Steps to Justice
While Hasan works to rescue as many women as possible, Pari Ibrahim focuses on collecting evidence from survivors. Her plan is to build legal cases that will one day hold the perpetrators to account.
Prior to the attack on Sinjar, Ibrahim was busy studying law, but when she received the news that 19 of her female relatives had been captured by ISIS, she suspended her studies and became a human rights activist.
“I couldn’t carry on with how my life had been before,” she says. “It hurt me that my people were suffering.”
Ibrahim formed the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), which advocates for Yazidis and provides support and essential supplies – such as clothing and toys – for survivors. She hopes to build cases that can eventually be used in international criminal courts to try ISIS fighters for crimes against humanity and genocide. FYF focuses on matching witness testimony to known ISIS fighters or former fighters – some of whom are thought to have originated in Europe and may have returned to their home countries, including France, Britain and Germany.
Ibrahim says it can take years to cross-check enough facts to build a case for prosecution in conflict situations. Yet for Yazidi women the task may prove easier than it is for other rape survivors.
“Yazidi women are unique because they were living with their rapists as slaves for months and months and they had the ability to absorb a lot of information about their ISIS captors,” says a member of the FYF investigating team who asked not to be named.
According to Shabnam Mojtahedi, legal and strategy analyst at the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, gathering documentation on violations of international humanitarian law is vital because over the course of a conflict, information can get lost and physical signs of the violation are eroded.
“Documenting those violations is paramount because it makes them harder to ignore in a future justice process,” says Mojtahedi.
FYF believes European states are underestimating the power of their judicial systems, saying that prosecuting low-level ISIS members could be a deterrent and, eventually, a solution for terrorism. “We need to show the world what these people are guilty of,” says the FYF source. “If someone is simply being charged with terrorist crimes, they are still considered a hero jihadist who can inspire others to join. But being on trial and having to explain how you raped a child … well, that doesn’t appeal to anyone. No one says, ‘One day I want to be on trial for raping a child.’”
For every Yazidi woman and girl who escapes ISIS, there’s another chance to add to the evidence that could one day bring their captors to justice. In the meantime, Hasan and Aldakhi will continue to rescue Yazidi slaves. Hasan says they are getting fewer and fewer phone calls from captured women these days – it appears ISIS has realized women are calling for help. But she says she won’t stop until every single captive is freed.
“These are people like me and you, they had futures in front of them,” she says. “Because of this I will do my best to save them and everyone must do something to help.”
READ MORE STORIES IN OUR SERIES “WOMEN & JIHAD”:
- ‘He Was the Love of My Life’: Why Women Marry Into Boko Haram
- One Woman’s Tale of Being Radicalized by ‘Utopian’ Promises
- Selling the Militant Dream: ‘You Come Here to Live, Not to Die’
- 10 Women Leading the Way in Counter-Extremism
This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”