Heza speaks softly, sitting next to her companions at the headquarters of the Yazidi Self-Defense Units in Khanasur. She is dressed in the uniform of the YJS, the women’s units, with a colored shawl on her neck, in front of a group of Italian journalists and members of the Association for Kurdistan.
“Women were the first target that day,” she says.
Heza was one of the 5,000 women kidnapped by the Islamic State after the August 3, 2014 massacre in the northwestern Iraqi region of Sinjar. Kidnapped, sold, passed from hand to hand, raped. “When Daesh launched the attack,” she recounts, “I was in my village. We tried to escape, but the peshmerga [the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan] prevented us. When we finally found a way to escape to the mountains, Daesh had already arrived.”
“They took us to the slave markets. We suffered from that massacre more than anyone else,” she continues. “When I was freed, my conscience could not bear the idea of not avenging what they had done to me and not freeing the women who were still prisoners.” That’s why she joined the YJS.
The years after the liberation of Sinjar were years of reconstruction, both physical and psychological, individual and collective. This reconstruction is still in progress, weakened by the absence of half of the original population: 250,000 of the 500,000 Yazidis of Sinjar are still refugees or live in the diaspora, and hundreds of women are still missing and have never been found.
The weight of that massacre is crushing for women above all, and here Daesh achieved—in part—the objective it was pursuing: to break up society, personal relationships, family relationships in a community that had closed in on itself over the centuries, hoping to ward off the threat of yet another persecution, and which entrusted itself to the spiritual guidance of sheikhs who “rigidified” a religion that was much freer in the past. The Yazidi count 74 historical massacres against their community, with the Ottoman Empire at the top of the list of tormentors.
Today, Yazidi women are attempting a complex rebirth from the collective and individual drama they have suffered: the loss of a son or daughter in the fight against Daesh, being kidnapped and raped, children born from the violence. This is why the Yazidi Women’s Liberation Movement (TAJE) was founded. Naam is one of its members. She is 50 years old and tells us about her escape to Mount Sinjar with her children and brothers, about spending eight days without food or water, about the quick runs to the villages to get a little flour with which to bake bread over improvised fires.
Then she gives the floor to Sabiha, the young spokeswoman of TAJE: “Here, we heal the wounds of women. And we do it starting from what happened after the attack: women have taken up arms and have shown they can fight, overcoming old prejudices. We also fought in Raqqa, Syria, and we found some of our kidnapped women there. Today we are present all over Sinjar, in neighborhoods and villages.”
The goal is to give women their lives and dignity back. To bring them back into the community, freeing them from unbearable ghosts of the past and from the shame of some families who reject or hide them away, in the hope that oblivion would cover up their suffering.
Then, TAJE is still looking for the 1,117 women that are still missing, some of whom are known to have given birth to the children of Islamist militiamen, and their shame is so great that they prefer exile. There are also those who return with unwanted children: orphanages in Rojava take them in, TAJE tells us. Others have been brainwashed by the propaganda of their captors.
“The psychological problems to be faced are enormous,” Sabiha continues. “There is a need for real therapy, and we are not able to provide it. We work on the social aspects, we train these women for a job and in this way we reintegrate them.”
“Subgroups” have branched off from TAJE, committees for specific training that have achieved results: some women have opened businesses, bakeries and agricultural cooperatives together. This work has been done in collaboration with the Assembly of Yazidi Women, which began in the mountains: “The first fruits blossomed on Mount Sinjar,” says Suham Shengali. “At the core was a clear idea: we would no longer suffer, we would build up a strong woman who exists and resists. That’s why the priority has been self-defense.”
“Society does not change from one day to the next,” continues Suham. “Many Yazidis have embraced this mentality, while others haven’t. To change, you need an ideology, and if it’s not there, you create it. We have encountered Ocalan’s theories. The YPG and the YPJ [Rojava’s defense units] have also given us inward freedom, individually.”
This path, which started with weapons, now continues with political and social education: one more blow against the notion that gender equality is an unattainable utopia.