Reportage. A young prisoner of jihadists in Syria returns home after years of slavery. But ISIS is still there and her journey to save herself, and her child, continues.

A Yazidi woman’s return to Iraq, under a new threat of ISIS

A telephone conversation with Father Tabeth Karamlis, bishop of the diocese of Alqosh, is always useful to get an up-to-date idea of the situation in the plain of Nineveh and in Northern Iraq. The resurgence of violence and the multiplication of attacks and assaults on military and civilian targets by ISIS cells, recently protagonists of a number of kidnappings, has not gone unnoticed in those regions.

Before answering our questions, Father Tabeth wants to tell us the “good news.” Another Yazidi girl, freed from ISIS in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, after an ordeal that lasted months, has returned home to Iraq and has been able to embrace her family. In the meager statement released by the Iraqi authorities, for security reasons, the girl is not named. All that is known is that she is originally from Hardan and that two days ago, she met her family in Sinjar.

“This is news that makes us hope for a return to normality that unfortunately is still far away. Too much grief, too much pain has been suffered by the people of these lands, it will take time, and the climate that we’re breathing at the moment certainly does not help,” Karamlis says.

He reminds us of the massacres carried out by ISIS militiamen in August 2014, and of the over 7,000 Yazidi women taken prisoner, forced to marry jihadists and often turned into sex slaves. He remembers the hundreds of thousands of Christians forced eight years ago to leave their homes to escape captivity and even death. The Christian cleric also emphasized the complex political picture in Iraq. Months after the elections, there is still no government because of the divisions tearing apart the political parties representing the Shiite majority of the population.

Yazidism, the religion of the Yazidis (ethnically Kurds), because of its particular esotericism and its veneration of Melek Taus, an angel with the appearance of a peacock that in other faiths is a symbol of evil, is looked upon with distrust, and often with explicit hostility on the part of its detractors. The most radical Sunnis, starting with the jihadists of ISIS, consider the Yazidis “worshippers of the devil Melek Taus,” and therefore apostates deserving of the severest punishments, including death. A fate suffered by at least 3,000 male Yazidis in northern Iraq.

Unitad, the United Nations team that investigates the crimes of ISIS in Iraq, has discovered more than 80 mass graves in Sinjar and has exhumed bodies from 19 of them, identifying 104 bodies so far through DNA samples. There were also a large number of Yazidi women who were killed, but the women taken prisoner mostly became slaves to the men of the Caliphate, taken to Syria and sold, for a few hundred dollars each. Two thousand of them were never heard from again.

The young woman from Hardan who came back home two days ago was one of those slaves; but she is not Roza Barakat, the Yazidi woman who was in the news a few days ago because she was interviewed by the American agency AP. Roza embodies the horror that started with her kidnapping in 2014 and the absurd fate that the women freed or escaped from ISIS are so often facing nowadays. Roza was 11 years old when she was captured in Sinjar in 2014: in a few days, the jihadists took full control of a large portion of northern Iraq. She was taken to Syria, sold several times and raped repeatedly.

Today, at 18, she speaks little of her native Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji. The Caliphate no longer exists. ISIS is now represented only by armed cells, certainly dangerous, but only a pale memory of the army of tens of thousands of men put together by Emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Yet, Roza has preferred to slip into the shadows and has yet to return home. She has long lived in a Yazidi women’s shelter set up by a local association.

“I don’t know how to deal with my community,” she told the AP, trying to explain the complicated realities faced by several Yazidi girls who have become women under the brutal authority of ISIS, while their community is at odds over how to receive and accept them.

She continued her story: after selling her a couple of times, the jihadists forced a choice on her: convert to Islam and marry a fighter or be sold again. She chose to marry a Lebanese man who supplied ISIS fighters with food and equipment. At just 13 years old, in the city of Raqqa, she gave birth to a son, Hoodh. In early 2019, as Al Baghdadi’s Islamic State was collapsing, Roza fled first to Deir Ezzor and then to Baghouz, the last jihadist stronghold later conquered by the Kurdish Democratic Forces. At this point, the young Yazidi woman could have come forward and identified herself, but instead she took Hoodh in her arms and left the city together with other wives of jihadists.

After finally arriving in Idlib, the Syrian province which, due to pressure from Turkey and the hypocrisy of Western countries, has been under the control of Al-Qaedists and jihadists for years, the young woman was planning to get to Turkey when Kurdish security forces stopped and interrogated her.

“I did everything I could to hide that I was Yazidi,” she said. Once the truth was discovered, she was taken to a Yazidi Home Center shelter, which is assisting more than 200 women who have been in the hands of ISIS. Roza was undecided, not sure what to do. The Iraqi Yazidi community is also forcing a choice on the kidnapped women returning to Sinjar: they have to give up their children fathered by Daesh men.

There are 2,800 Yazidi women who are trying to rebuild their lives elsewhere because they fear being separated from their children. The story of young women like Roza Barakat is masterfully told in “Sabaya” (“Prisoners”), the documentary by director Hogir Hirori, which in recent months has been winning awards and recognition all over the world.

Fear is insidious: it grows little by little, taking away your peace as the risk increases. This applies to all the communities that populate that intriguing and at the same time ruthless mosaic that is Iraqi society, especially in the northern regions.

Daesh’s revival is also of great concern to Christian Iraqis: “There have been attacks south of Kirkuk, in the Diyala area but also in the west. Every now and then, mortar shells fall and bombs explode. It’s clear that [the members of ISIS] have reactivated themselves,” Father Tabeth Karamlis tells us, reporting the fears in his community. Hopes for an improvement in the political and economic situation, which had also been fueled by Pope Francis’s visit last year among the Christians in the north of the country, have already vanished.

“Nothing has changed since a year ago,” adds Karamlis. “Here in Iraq, there is no desire to give a solution to the problems that are affecting Christians, both those who live in the Nineveh Plain, who, in part [45%], have returned home after the defeat of ISIS, and those who are in Baghdad and other cities. Christians are Iraqis, and like all Iraqis, they’re waiting for the government to be formed, they are asking for work and public services such as electricity. All unresolved problems which, together with fear, are pushing many not to return (to Nineveh) and to search for a new life elsewhere.”

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