Life After ISIS: The Struggle And Survival Of Yazidis

A Yazidi Survivor's Struggle Shows The Pain That Endures After ISIS Attack


About 200,000 displaced Yazidis are in camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Many are waiting for help to rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by ISIS in 2014.
Andrea DiCenzo for NPR

About 200,000 displaced Yazidis are in camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Many are waiting for help to rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by ISIS in 2014.

Um Hiba's trauma over being enslaved, raped and beaten by ISIS after fighters raided her village didn't end when she was freed three years ago. Instead, like thousands of other survivors of the genocide against Yazidis, she languishes, still traumatized, with what's left of her family.

The young woman was 16 when she became one of more than 6,000 Yazidis taken captive by the group that considered the ancient religious minority infidels, according to human rights groups. ISIS fighters killed another 3,000 Yazidis after Kurdish security forces protecting the Sinjar region of Iraq withdrew and ISIS took over large parts of northern Iraq in August 2014, say Yazidi activists.

Um Hiba means the "mother of Hiba" in Arabic — a customary way of identifying women by the name of their eldest child. NPR is not using her real name because of her vulnerability. Her first meeting with NPR was several months ago in a camp for displaced Yazidis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She sat on a plastic chair in a trailer, her face scrubbed, her dark hair pulled back and her expression haunted.

Um Hiba was married and two months pregnant when ISIS invaded the Yazidi homeland in Sinjar. She and her husband along with hundreds of thousands of other Yazidis tried to escape by climbing higher up Mount Sinjar. But without food, water or even shade in the searing heat, they came back down and were captured by ISIS.

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Um Hiba hasn't heard from her husband since. The fighters threw her and other women into car trunks and, amid U.S. airstrikes against ISIS ordered by then-President Barack Obama, took them to Syria.

She lost the child she was carrying.

"They were beating us with their boots, the rifle butts, anything they had in their hands," she says. "I started bleeding and the baby was gone."

ISIS drove buses full of Yazidi women and girls for sale through the markets of various towns.

"Sometimes ISIS fighters would board the bus and choose one of us," she says. "They would drive around with a speaker, saying, 'If you don't have an infidel yet, this is your chance to take one.' "

The teenager was bought by four ISIS men in the three years she was enslaved. She ended up being taken by an Iraqi fighter to live with his family in Mosul, where she was raped, beaten and starved. The fighter's wife forced her to serve as a maid.

She became pregnant by the ISIS fighter enslaving her. When she had the baby, she says, she struggled to keep him from hitting the child.

In 2017, Iraqi and U.S. forces started liberating neighborhoods in Mosul from ISIS. Um Hiba was freed and had a joyful reunion with her family in the displacement camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

But it was no home for her 1 1/2-year-old child. The closed Yazidi community doesn't accept children fathered by ISIS fighters who killed and enslaved their people. Under Yazidi religious law, only a child born to two members of the faith can be considered Yazidi.

"When we came to the camp, people were saying that she is a daughter of ISIS," says Um Hiba. She says she believes her daughter felt the hostility. "Then she got sick, she stopped walking. ... I really wanted to keep her but some people were saying, 'If you do not abandon her, we will either kill her or burn your tent down so you will all burn together.' "

Um Hiba agreed to give her daughter to an aid organization. She didn't go to school and can't read or write, so she couldn't read the document giving up her right to see the child and or find out what happened to her.

"Anytime I see a mother calling, carrying or taking her child to a shop, I wish I had my child too to take care of her, play with her, kiss her and smell her," she says.

Um Hiba knows how distraught her mother was while she was missing, dressing in black in mourning and searching constantly for anyone who might have seen her daughter in captivity. But when she returned with the baby, relations with her mother and brother deteriorated. She says her brother insults her for having been held as a slave, even though Yazidi religious authorities decreed that ISIS captivity survivors were to be respected. And her mother shouts at her.

"Yesterday evening, I found myself angry and I was in a completely different world," she says at the camp. "Our neighbor's daughter came over and I was playing with her and I even called her Hiba by mistake. Then her mother said she didn't want me to play with her daughter, and my family started shouting at me."

Um Hiba says she was so upset she decided to kill herself. She says she thought of walking out in the highway in front of a car but was too afraid. So she bought rat poison from the local shop and locked herself in the kitchen.

Her friend screamed at her from the other side of the door. "She said, 'You're not the only one taken by ISIS — there are thousands,' " Um Hiba recalls. Her mother was crying and her neighbors were shouting as her family broke the door lock with a brick to take the poison away from her.

"They said, 'Have you lost your mind?' " says Um Hiba. "I said, 'If a mother is alive and not able to see her daughter and goes through all of this, why did God make it that human beings love their children?' "

Her suicide attempt thwarted, Um Hiba still languishes in the camp. In a phone interview last week, she said she is still dreaming that she might somehow get her child back and find a place where she and her daughter could be together.

Six years after ISIS began the genocide, most Yazidis are stuck, without homes, jobs, income or psychological support. Although about 250 families (or about 2,000 people) have returned to Sinjar to either live in tents on the mountain or to try to rebuild destroyed homes, most remain in camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with surviving family members. The Iraqi government and the international community, which had pledged to help survivors rebuild their lives, have provided little concrete help.

"They are really living in limbo," says Dr. Nemam Ghafouri of the Swedish-Kurdish nongovernmental organization Joint Help for Kurdistan, which runs aid projects in some of the camps. "They are coming back to life in a camp and they are between two worlds — the emptiness of when they came back and the heaviness of what they were forced to go through."

An Amnesty International report last week found that many Yazidi survivors of the genocide needed critical psychological help they are not getting and concluded that Yazidi children have been essentially abandoned by governments. The trauma has rippled through families even after remaining relatives were reunited.

"I was really shocked by the destruction of the family unit through ISIS's attack on the Yazidi community," says Nicolette Waldman, the researcher who interviewed Yazidi women and children for the extensive report.

Despair and lack of support have led to suicides among Yazidis, says Dr. Hussein Rasho, a Yazidi physician in Sinjar.

"Just as Yazidis suffer from the genocide, from everything they've lost and from displacement, they suffer from the promises of the local governments and the international community," he says. "We no longer believe in anything."

Sangar Khaleel contributed to this story from Irbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

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