Summer is the hardest season of the year in Iraq as the temperature can inch up past 120 degrees Fahrenheit. For survivors of ISIS expansion and crimes, this is the first summer of living in tents and trailer-like rooms in camps for internally displaced people. It is only June and the heat of the afternoon suffocates an eight-member Yazidi family in a camp in Erbil, where they live and sleep in a one-room trailer with a small bathroom and a kitchenette. Haider is the only male member of the family still alive. He was lucky to have been elsewhere when ISIS invaded his town last August. He now lives with members of his extended family, including sisters-in-law and the two sisters he recently managed to buy back from ISIS, delivering them from enslavement.
The silence between family members hangs in the stifling air. Haider never asked his sisters what they went through while in ISIS captivity. When he managed to pay for their release with borrowed funds, he just embraced them, welcomed them back to the family and said nothing. If the sisters are angry about their ordeal, the oldest surviving one — I’ll call her Leila, as she asked me to change her name (Haider’s name has been changed, too) — is steaming with rage at ISIS.
When I asked her if she would give me an interview about what happened to her, she responded, “I will do anything to speak up and tell the truth of what they did to me and all the women in my community.” When asked if she would give me a full account despite cultural reservations about sharing the details of rape she said, “my anger at what they did to me is bigger than anything else. I must speak.” Leila still had to ask her brother’s permission before coming with me to a private place to talk. He hesitated only briefly before giving his consent: “OK, just please block her face. We still have family members captured and we don’t want to risk any further harm to them.”
I was mesmerized by Haider’s calm demeanor and whispering voice. I asked the camp doctor, an Iraqi volunteer whose family has all been enlisted to help the refugees, if Haider knew the story of his sister. “No. He doesn’t know the details and never asked her. Too painful to talk about this subject so there is silence within the family.”
The silence was not limited to the survivors. When I wondered why we are mostly hearing women’s voices speaking up about the details of ISIS atrocities and what happened to the men, the doctor replied, “What we are understanding from the survivors is that upon capture the men are separated from the women. The men are then shot shorty after. Those who are not killed for whatever reason are given sleeping pills and kept in a state of drowsiness and sleepiness the whole time. That is what the women are reporting and that is why we are not hearing any stories from men.” The doctor added that sleeping pills and “all kinds of drowsiness pills” are apparently widely used in ISIS territories as a way to manage captives. “Many of the rape cases we have included women reporting on being in a semi-asleep state when they were raped.”
Leila not only confirmed this fact as she heard the doctor explain it but she elaborated: ISIS captors separated the men from the women, took the men to the side and shot them all. Later, they took all the women in buses to another location where hundreds of women awaited in a courtyard. “They asked us to take off our headscarves and loosen any buttons to reveal our chests. That courtyard became the marketplace where ISIS men came and chose the girls they liked, though they first sent all the older women to another place and the women with the babies and children to another place. We do not know the whereabouts of these women and that includes my mother and my sisters.”
Leila shed no tears as she narrated the details of how a fat man chose her and she was so scared that she begged another ISIS man who was thinner to take her instead. The thin ISIS member managed to take her but what he did to her afterwards left Leila wondering if the fat man might have been better.
“I had my period that night but no matter how much I told him I have my period, he did not believe me. He ordered me to strip naked in his room. He then stuck his finger in my vagina and saw that I was indeed bleeding. Only then did he believe. But that did not mean he left me alone. Instead, he put the air conditioner on a really high volume, said that I am to sit still in my nudity the whole night and he molested me throughout the night. By the time morning arrived I was frozen both physically and psychologically. Nothing mattered after that point. I didn’t know I had not seen the worst of it yet.”
Leila had officially become the slave of the thin man. After her period finished, he raped her day and night whenever he wanted. “He would put [on] horrible sexual movies and would do all kinds of things to me.” Leila commented, referring to pornography. She described how he sent her once as a gift to his friends, who raped her for two nights before returning her to him. One day, to punish her for asking him about why women were being raped and discounting his response that it was his “religious duty,” he sent her to all six of his guards who stripped naked all at once and gang raped her for an entire night.
Throughout her captivity Leila was kept in a house with a few other women. They were fed nothing more than rice and tomato sauce. They could only get water from the sink of the bathroom, too hot to quench their thirst. When I asked her about details of ISIS, how they look and where they are from, she was clear: “They were all from Iraq. The worst of them are from Tel Afar, a town on the edge of Mosul. They all had long hair and long beards. But the worst of all is their smell. I have never smelled such awful smell in my life. They do not bathe. They feel more like beasts than human.”
Other young women who joined Leila in the interview talked about seeing some Tunisian and some Asian men but all of their encounters were with Iraqi men. When I asked if the rape was done to all women captured, Leila quickly responded: “Only Yazidi women are taken as slaves. Shia women they burn alive. We saw one Shia woman burned alive in front of us. Christian women they leave on the condition that their family must pay a fee to ISIS for being Christians in ISIS territories. And Sunni women are left alone as long as they follow ISIS orders. If they don’t, they are whipped and tortured. Some of them are the wives of our captors. Some of the wives were as helpless as we were, and some were very mean women who encouraged their men to rape us.”
Since the Yazidis are not Muslims, and are not Christians or Jews, (acknowledged as followers of Abrahamic religions), ISIS is claiming that whatever they want to do to Yazidi women is allowed. As for the burning of Shia, ISIS justifies the murder of those it considers to be disbelievers within the religion of Islam.
Throughout her capture there is one thread that kept the spirit of hope in Leila’s heart and that was Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi parliamentarian who is championing an awareness campaign about the plight of the Yazidi community and Yazidi women in particular. “Throughout my capture, I saw Vian on Iraqi TV talking about what is happening to us, sending us messages that we have our community waiting for us with love, that they are trying to rescue us. Seeing her on TV gave me hope that if I managed to escape, I will be accepted back into my community,” Leila said as she began to recount her escape. She tried and failed several times before she managed to get out. Leila was lent and traded within the ISIS economy for sums ranging from $10 to $200. By the time she turned 21 a few months into her captivity, 13 men had already raped her. Only by being sold back to her family can a woman escape this violence.
Leila’s friend Nasreen, 18, came out of an ISIS controlled area two months ago. Nasreen had fainted when her captor started raping her. She does not speak of the details but her silence is as loud as Leila’s anger. “I am a dead person now. I have no life. I only hope that my mother comes back from capture so my life resumes.” But Nasreen is far more courageous than she gives herself credit for. She was sold to an ISIS member who brought her to his house where his pregnant wife resided. Nasreen managed to steal the cell phone from underneath the pillow of the pregnant wife during an afternoon nap and jumped off the roof of the house to make a call to her brother, who was outside of ISIS territory. Though she was re-captured by ISIS after a night alone in the forest, her brother managed to locate her and buy her back from ISIS for $10,000, a ruinous price for a poor family. It was only by borrowing that he was able to raise the funds, and like others in his position he was surely torn about enriching the coffers of ISIS terrorists, but that’s the only way to get a girl out.
In the refugee camp in Erbil I listened to a flood of horrifying stories about what women and girls are encountering in ISIS territories. The youngest rape victim I met is 15 years old, but there have been younger ones. “As long as a girl has some breast, she is considered a woman and that entitles them to rape her. Some girls are as young as 10 and 11 years old.”
When I asked Leila how she’s doing now, she said, “I have no past and no future at the moment. I am stuck in my anger and pain at what ISIS did to my family, my community and myself. I have new behavior that I can’t stop, including washing my mouth over and over and over again. There are nights I wake up more than one time to wash my mouth as I remember what they did to me and how they forced themselves on me. I don’t know what the future entails, I just want my mother and sisters back and I will continue to speak until they do that.”
Leila must not be forgotten by the world. Iraq’s refugee community is in desperate need of all kinds of help, from physiological to financial. All they know is their shock at how their lives have changed. For now, those who survived are living in trailers in camps: Their homes are destroyed, their towns are occupied, their families are captured, and no one knows what is coming next for them or the country.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoirBetween Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
Related: Vian Dakhil speaks at the 2015 Women in the World Summit