Iraq's Yazidi women must abandon kids born in IS captivity
Yazidi women and girls who were enslaved and raped by Islamic State militants have few choices. They may have been freed, but they can't bring home the children they had with the extremists.
Five years ago on Saturday, IS militants launched attacks on Yazidi villages in northern Iraq, kidnapping, enslaving and massacring thousands. The attacks were labelled genocide by the United Nations.
The attacks traumatised the Yazidis, an ancient religious minority who are no strangers to persecution throughout the ages. But the brutality of the IS onslaught posed major challenges to the community. Although the Yazidis are a monotheistic faith, IS viewed them as heretics and sought to annihilate both the people and their religious sites.
In April, a month after the final military defeat of IS, Yazidi religious leaders made an apparent bid to protect the insular and still-grieving community by decreeing that they will embrace survivors of militant attacks. It was a move aimed at erasing the social stigma associated with rape.
Between fear and annihilation: Yazidi refugees in Iraq
Thousands of Yazidis were trapped on Mount Sinjar after being forced to flee their homes by Islamic State terrorist militias. Many have fled to Syria; others have remained in Iraq. The US has provided food and water, although Washington no longer sees the need for a rescue mission. Their situation is desperate.
In search of protection: thousands of members of the Yazidi minority have fled an onslaught by the brutal fighters of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militias. Those who managed to find shelter in a refugee camp in northern Iraq can count themselves lucky. Supplying refugees on Mount Sinjar with food and water is an extremely difficult task. Demands for more assistance from the West are increasing.
Mass exodus: the Yazidis have been almost completely driven out of the areas controlled by the IS jihadists, often with brutal force. Thousands fled to Syria, although some have since returned to Iraq, like here in Fishkhabour on the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Robbed, humiliated and traumatised: all too often, IS militiamen have robbed refugees of their money, valuables and passports. Many have nothing left but the clothes they are wearing. A great number of children have been traumatised by what they have experienced, and at least 500 Yazidis have been killed in the conflict.
Lack of basic necessities: tumult ensued as bottles of water were distributed to families of Yazidi refugees in northern Iraq. The provision of supplies to the refugees in the autonomous Kurdish regions is a massive logistical challenge.
The Red Crescent in action: members of the Kurdish Red Crescent are helping refugees near Mount Sinjar. Many refugees have been injured or are weak from the long journey, which many of them undertook on foot.
The conditions awaiting the Yazidi refugees in northern Iraq are in some cases appalling. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a total of one million people all over Iraq have now fled their homes, including Yazidis and many Christians.
A little comfort in a frightening situation: the UN refugee agency UNHCR has set up provisional refugee camps across northern Iraq, including one near the city of Erbil. The refugees are pleased to have at least some fabric walls to call their own and happy to have been able to save a few personal belongings from their homes.
Supplies by helicopter: the US Air Force has been delivering food and water to the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. The refugees urgently rely on these deliveries as they are otherwise completely cut off from the outside world. Pictured here: US soldiers prepare pallets of water for a humanitarian air drop
A crowd of refugees waited as an Iraqi helicopter came into land on 13 August. A planned large-scale rescue operation by the US army in the region was called off because the Pentagon concluded that there were considerably fewer refugees there than originally feared.
Hunger, thirst and fear for their lives: the UN estimates that some 1,000 people are still stranded on the mountain range. They are suffering from the heat and from a lack of water. There are also unconfirmed reports that IS jihadists have kidnapped around 100 Yazidi women and children from Mount Sinjar.
Women, children and the injured first: aid workers are trying to fly out the injured and the very weak, as well as women and children. Recently, a helicopter crashed during a rescue operation because it was carrying too many passengers.
Criticism of the West for its inaction: across Europe, members of the Yazidi community – including those pictured here in Hanover – are demonstrating for more support from the West. They are calling for more humanitarian aid and for weapons for the Kurds of northern Iraq to help them stop the advance of IS jihadists.
But in what appeared to be a response to backlash from conservative community members, the spiritual council put out a statement days later saying its decision had been distorted. The council affirmed that children born to IS fathers would not be accepted back into the community.
Some mothers put their kids for adoption. A few refused to return home.
One woman, a 20-year-old resident of a village south of the town of Sinjar, recounted how she sobbed and yelled as her baby boy was peeled from her arms by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who administer eastern Syria and lead the military fight against the militants there. The child was seven months old when her family paid ransom to free her from IS in October last year.
"I cried and screamed with all my might, but it didn't help anything," said the woman, who hailed from Tal Qasab village and who agreed to speak on the condition her name be withheld because of social stigma. She lives in a tent in a displaced persons' camp in Dohuk, miles from her village, which still lies in ruins.
"They said, 'You can't take him with you. He is a Daesh child.' My family also didn't accept that I bring him back with me," she said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
The militants attacked the Yazidi areas in Nineveh province on 3 August 2014. They killed hundreds of Yazidi men, sometimes identifying them as adults only by the hair under their armpits. IS kidnapped the women, girls and boys, transporting most of them into Syria.
But hundreds are still missing. Some of the children who were raised under IS and indoctrinated in jihadist ideology have refused to go home and some still live in camps in Syria.
According to the Kurdistan region's Office for Yazidi Abductees, based in Dohuk, an estimated 3,425 Yazidis have been freed from a total of 6,417 abducted. The office said 1,921 children were saved out of 2,992 children.
When IS was finally defeated in March, a number of Yazidi women and children emerged from the last militant-held sliver of land, a riverside village in southeast Syria called Baghouz.
In Nesiriya village in Iraq's northern Mosul province, an 18-year old native of Sinjar who was liberated five months ago from Syria said she wants to join her mother and sisters who took refuge in Germany. Three of her brothers are still missing.
Freed from the last IS-held enclave on 1 March, she didn't look back when she left behind her three children in Syria who were born to a Tunisian IS fighter.
They are all in an orphanage run by the Kurdish-led Syrian forces, she said.
She was only 13 when she was kidnapped. Tunisian militants bought and sold her, then forced her to convert to Islam and marry one of them.
"I told him that I don't want children, just give me pills or anything like that," she told journalists. "He said no, I will make babies."
The young girl moved around with the IS militant and had three children in three different towns. The last, a four-month-old infant, was born as IS was making its last stand.
Before leaving, she breastfed her baby and calmed the middle girl who was following her around in tears. For her eldest, a 2-year old boy, she bought new clothes and shoes.
"He ran to pick up his boots and told me: 'Mummy; take me with you in the car. Mummy, take me to the car.' I told him: 'Ok. OK. I will in a little bit,'" she recalled.
"I left him crying for me too. But they will forget me. They are still very young. They will forget me." (AP)