Vian Dakheel Saeed, member of Iraqi parliament, was on stage at the Women in the World Summit in London on Thursday, begging the audience for help. She spoke on behalf of more than 5,000 Yazidi women and children who are being raped, tortured and massacred by ISIS.
Labeled as devil worshippers by Islamic militants, the Yazidi people living around Mount Sinjar were the victims of a bloody onslaught in August of 2014. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee, around 50,000 of them into the desolate surrounding mountains without food or water. Thousands of others were captured and, while the men were systematically shot into mass graves, the women and young girls were kept alive as malak yamiin (spoils of war).
Vian attracted global media attention when, in August 2014, she made a desperate plea in the Iraqi parliament for an intervention to save the Yazidi people. Her pain at the suffering of her Yazidi sisters was so consuming that she collapsed before she was able to finish her speech. Only a week later, she was injured in an aid mission aboard a helicopter brought down by desperate Yazidis trying to climb aboard. She broke her leg and several ribs, while the pilot was killed.
Since the Sinjar massacre last August, what has changed? “Nothing,” said Vian. Some 5,800 Yazidi women and children are still held, enduring rape and horrific violence in a slave industry sanctioned by the self proclaimed Islamic state. Delan Dakheel Saeed, resident doctor at the Rezgary teaching hospital in Erbil and Vian’s sister, has heard the stories of some of those women and children who have managed to escaped ISIS. “A nine-year-old girl was raped and bled to death in front of her mother’s eyes, her mother told me.” Those who survive such brutal violations and escape to refugee camps endure ongoing psychological torment.
“Who will rebuild our community after?” asked Delan. “They don’t have school, they can’t join the universities, they don’t have any money.”
The sisters were joined on stage by Jiyar Gol, a BBC World correspondent who has traveled in the area. In his experience the trauma is lingering, “Even if you bring back those people, remove them from those refugee camps, it takes a generation or more to go back to normality.”
He spoke of meeting a 19-year old Yazidi girl called Avina who was captured when ISIS militants overran her village. She escaped, but instead of going to a refugee camp, she chose to join the PKK, an armed group formed in the struggle for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey. The group now fights to keep ISIS away from Yazidi territory.
Gol described Avina’s appearance after her ordeal: “Scars on her hands, her face, there was blood in her eyes.” After suffering so much, Gol wondered why she chose the hard life of the PKK—the army volunteers must remain celibate, and they have a very low life expectancy.
“I prefer to have one minute living my own destiny than to live hundred years as a slave,” Avina responded.
Gol noticed that the members of the all-female PKK division had a joke they would remember even on the front line: Islamic militants believe that “if you are killed by a female, you go to hell.”
Despite the horrors they have witnessed, the Dakheel Saeed sisters continue in their mission because they believe there is hope. Referring to the vast sums sometimes paid to free girls—up to $25,000—Delan asked: “We have to buy our girls back, but why not free them?” And then she swore: “I will not stop, I will keep telling these stories until the whole world hears us. We will not die. We will keep fighting, and we will live.”