Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—Following an Amnesty International report that women and girls of Iraq’s Yazidi minority forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have committed suicide or tried to, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with a Yazidi girl who escaped ISIS custody about her experiences as a captive of the group’s so-called Islamic State.
The Yazidi girl, speaking under the assumed name of Ashti to protect her identity, described the climate of fear and terror, but also confusion, that greeted ISIS’s advance into western and northern Iraq. While the group’s brutal practices, particularly towards religious minorities, have been well-documented since ISIS first took control of parts of Iraq’s western Anbar province in June, the situation was not so clear in the beginning, particularly for the first wave of Yazidis who fled the ISIS advance.
Ashti told Asharq Al-Awsat: “When we heard that ISIS had arrived in Sinjar we fled with other Yazidi families to Mount Sinjar. ISIS fighters were chasing us but we managed to reach the paths leading to Mount Sinjar. However, the ISIS fighters issued a statement saying that they would not hurt us if we returned to the town and some families believed them, including my own family, and so we returned.”
“After we returned, they immediately detained us, separating the men from the women. They took us [women] to a government building in the city, and kept us there until the afternoon. At 5 pm on the same day [that we returned to Sinjar], they brought buses to take us to Mosul. We were kept in a building that bore the sign of the Ministry of Sport and Youth for 10 days. Initially, there were more than 100 of us—women and [unmarried] girls and children. After this, we were force marched to a hall in the same district where we stayed for another six days.” Ashti says.
She uses the Arabic term fata’ or girl when speaking to differentiate between the nisaa or women and the other girls. The implicit difference between girl and women, in this regard, is not just one of age but also married status. For the purposes of this article, we will translate fata’ as girl and nisaa as woman to avoid confusion.
Ashti told Asharq Al-Awsat: “After six days, ten armed ISIS fighters with long hair and beards came to us like beasts, they were from different nationalities—Turkish, Iraqi, Arabs, and they divided us into different categories according to age. The girls on one side of the room, the women on another and the children on another. They also divided the children between those over and under two years of age.”
Ashti, a young unmarried girl, found herself in line with other Yazidis like herself, and could only fear what lay in store for her. “There were more than 400 of us all together and they took us to another district in Mosul and shut us up in a large house there. They arranged us in line according to our ages, with 10 girls in each line, and they told us to sit down. A group of ISIS fighters would enter the room and choose a girl. Some of the fighters hit the girl they chose,” she said.
What Ashti describes here sounds similar to other accounts of ISIS slave markets, with confirmed reports that the jihadist group held slave auctions in Mosul where Ashti was held. However Ashti makes no explicit reference to “slavery,” saying only that Yazidi girls were forcibly taken against their will by the ISIS fighters. Luckily she was not among any of the Yazidi girls “chosen” by an ISIS fighter during this period. “We never saw any of the girls who left this house again,” Ashti tells Asharq Al-Awsat.
“We stayed at the house for another three days, and every now and then a new group of fighters wound come in and take girls out. On the third day, the remaining 50 girls, including myself, were taken away. It took two buses to take us to Baaj district [in Mosul] and we spent the night in a house on the outskirts of Baaj,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“ISIS fighters came again the next day. We were all in a state of fright and frustration. They started beating us and they took three girls with them and left. We, the ones who were left, were all in a state of despair about what would happen to us. Some of the girls tried to commit suicide but the fighters had emptied the house of anything that was sharp or dangerous. Despite this, one of the girls did manage to sever the arteries in her wrist. The guards just threw her out in the street while she was still bleeding and stopped us from helping her. She died,” Ashti said.
Her account mirrors that of another escaped Yazidi prisoner who told her story to the BBC earlier this year under the assumed name “Hannan.” It is not clear if Ashti is the same girl as Hannan, or another Yazidi girl that was held during this same period and witnessed the same incident. Or even whether there is more than one incident of a Yazidi captive cutting her wrists and being allowed to die by her ISIS captors.
However even this did not stop the successive groups of ISIS fighters, who continued to come and go, taking Yazidi girls away with them. “They took another 25 girls and forced them to marry fighters but they transferred the rest of us to an abandoned school where they tried to convince us to change our religion. They told us ‘You are infidels and you must become Muslims’. They tortured us and threatened us with even worse torture if we did not embrace Islam and they threatened our men with death if they did not pray,” Ashti told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Having been held by ISIS for more than three weeks, seeing fellow Yazidi girls being taken against their will by ISIS fighters, never to be seen again, Ashti finally found herself “chosen” by an ISIS fighter. “More fighters came. This time, they took seven girls, including me. They told us that we would be going to Raqqa [ISIS capital in Syria]. When I heard this, I felt a sense of terror and so we decided among ourselves to try and escape. On that same night, four of us managed to escape out of a window in the room where we were being held, but three others were caught by the guards,” she says.
Ashti and the other escapees made the perilous journey back to Mount Sinjar, where her journey had started. “During the journey, I broke my arm and I suffered a head injury but I still kept on going I reached the mountain,” she says, imbuing the word mountain—jabal in Arabic—with a sense of longing and belonging.
“In the beginning we hid from everything and everyone, I saw a group but did not believe they were Yazidis but they found us and took us safely to the mountain. They treated my wounds and after one week of hiding on the mountain we were rescued by a helicopter that took us to the Kurdistan region,” she tells Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ashti spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat in the same week that Amnesty International issued a harrowing report entitled ‘Torture, sexual slavery in Islamic State captivity in Iraq’ about the horrifying abuse suffered by hundreds and possibly thousands of Yazidi women and girls who have been forcibly married, “sold” or given as “gifts” to ISIS fighters.
“Hundreds of Yazidi women and girls have had their lives shattered by the horrors of sexual violence and sexual slavery in ISIS captivity,” Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor Donatella Rovera said.
“Many of those held as sexual slaves are children—girls aged 14, 15 or even younger. ISIS fighters are using rape as a weapon in attacks amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she said.
Although Ashti described scenes of horror and brutal violence to Asharq Al-Awsat, she was careful not to explicitly talk about any sexual violence or rape, only intimating at this. Asked directly what she suffered at the hands of ISIS fighters, there is a long pause, and then in a low voice Ashti says: “Detainees were raped by ISIS fighters. Many were forced to marry ISIS fighters against their will.”