Editor's note: The names of the Yazidi girls and women in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
DUHOK, Iraq — 15-year-old Sara had considered suicide many times during her month-long ordeal. The old man she had been given to as a “gift” beat her frequently. He taunted her with videos of Islamic State militants beheading her neighbors. On two occasions she said he drew blood from her arm with a large syringe, making her feel weak and sickly.
“They didn’t feed us much. I used to pass out a lot, but I would make trouble for him as much as possible and fight when I could,” Sara said, sitting under a tent in a makeshift camp for the displaced outside Duhok. “Many times I thought of suicide but I kept thinking of my family and my brother. I lived only for them.”
Sara is Yazidi, a member of a minority religious group from northern Iraq persecuted for centuries for its ancient beliefs. She still bears horrific scars across the left side of her body from a double truck bombing that struck her neighborhood in 2007 — when she was just 8 years old — killing almost 800 people and injuring more than 1,500.
To the Islamic State (IS) the Yazidis are infidels. When the terror group seized control of dozens of Yazidi villages in the region of Sinjar last month, they executed men and kidnapped thousands of women and children. Those assaults on Yazidis and other minority groups — and in particular, the IS threat against tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar Mountains — were a major reason US President Barack Obama cited for authorizing airstrikes against IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq. The US has since expanded those strikes to Syria.
The Yazidi Fraternal Organization, formally based in Sinjar but now working from the Kurdish capital Erbil, has registered the names of more than 12,000 missing Yazidis — 5,000 women and 7,000 men — believed to have been killed or captured during a three-day period beginning Aug. 3.
At least 47 of the women have since escaped.
They tell tales of rape, forced marriage and enslavement. Many, like Sara, say they were given to IS fighters as wives or sold as slaves for prices ranging from $100 to $1,000. Late last month, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 300 cases of Yazidi women transported to Syria by IS, some of whom were then sold in Aleppo in a human trade market.
The escaped women's stories offer details about the Islamic State’s systematic violence against minority communities in Iraq, and insight into the group's methods for imposing an extreme ideology and recruiting fighters to its cause.
The day IS took Sinjar
Sara’s ordeal began on Aug. 3 in the Sinjar village of Tal Azir, when IS launched its attack. Without a vehicle, she and her mother, her brother and his pregnant wife simply ran toward the nearby mountains. After two hours on foot, they reached a farmhouse where many of their neighbors and relatives had taken shelter on the edge of the mountain range.
Soon, IS had them surrounded.
“There were about 20 cars. They all had heavy weapons,” said Sara. “They separated the men from the women. Some of the men tried to run. They shot them. They locked my mother in a room with some of the older women.”
Sara said the younger Yazidi women were then loaded onto the backs of seven pickup trucks, some of the vehicles taken from villagers and others belonging to IS. She stuck close to her pregnant sister-in-law.
“I don’t know how many of us there were but they were pushing us into the trucks, as many as they could hold in each one,” she said. “The children they didn’t care about. Some women took their children. Others got left behind.”
As the trucks full of young women and children sped away, Sara could hear gunfire.
“We thought maybe our men were fighting them to save us,” she said.
Back at the farmhouse Sara’s mother Narin was also listening to the sound of gunfire, locked in a room with several other women. As bullets sprayed in a neighboring room, she blocked her ears and crouched down. Then everything went quiet.
“There were six of us ladies left,” Narin said. After waiting for a short time and hearing nothing, the women tried the door. It opened.
There were dozens of dead men, Narin said.
“When we left the room we saw the bodies. All of them. They killed my son!”
The fighters had abandoned the farmhouse. The other women urged Narin to run with them to the mountains before IS returned.
“I could barely even hear them. I was so overcome with grief,” she said. “I just sat by my son’s body, rocking and crying and hitting myself.”
Unable to pull Narin away, the other women left.
Eventually she made her way to the mountains alone. She was reunited there with her husband, who had been away from their village on business when IS attacked.
As her mother related the story from inside a hot, dusty tent in the desert IDP camp, Sara broke down in tears. Thoughts of a reunion with her only sibling had kept her strong throughout her ordeal. He was a 19-year-old newlywed; he and his elated wife were anticipating the arrival of their first child. Sara had only recently learned of his death.
Khalif Kouli, a Yazidi militia fighter based in the Sinjar Mountains, said in an interview in Duhok that his group had made it to the farmhouse three days after the massacre and found the bodies of seven executed men. Narin insisted she had seen dozens of dead right after the killings on Aug. 3.
Parwen Aziz of the Kurdistan National Congress has heard dozens of similar stories of capture and mass execution from members of the Yazidi community, which has sought refuge in the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq. Aid workers assisting the Yazidis have heard them, too. Aziz has been lobbying the Kurdish government and aid groups to provide more support for escaped IS prisoners like Sara, who started turning up here about six weeks ago.
Aziz said there were early fears that Yazidi women who returned from captivity may be rejected or even killed by their own families, due to local concepts of honor. However, she hasn’t heard of any women with surviving family members who weren’t welcomed back.
Her concern has now turned to the risk of suicide among survivors due to trauma, shame or hopelessness.
“Psychological support programs are not accepted here so we are trying to start income programs that will help [women] psychologically at the same time,” she said. “Some of these women do not want to talk at all. They need time. Some of them speak of frequent rape, up to six times a day. Others were not tortured or raped at all. Their situations vary often according to age or the area where they were held.”
'We drove past so many bodies'
For 19-year-old Leila, the horror began as she tried to flee on foot from her village in Sinjar with her husband and his family. When IS vehicles caught up to them, militants forced the men to lie face down on the ground. Then they shot them, including boys as young as 14. Leila watched as her husband was executed.
The women were bundled into the backs of pickup trucks.
Leila clung to one-year-old Murad, her only child, as the women were driven to the town of Sebai. In separate interviews, Sara and Leila, who do not know each other, gave similar accounts of what they saw on the drive through this part of Sinjar.
“We drove past so many bodies. Even the bodies of children,” Leila said. She sits now in the home of a relative in Duhok, holding baby Murad tightly in her arms.
Leila was eventually taken to Mosul, she said, and held in a hall with more than a thousand other women. They compared stories: Most often their men had been lined up and shot. Others had been taken away in trucks.
“[IS] told us we must convert to Islam,” she said. “We refused and they left us alone for 10 days.” Food continued to arrive, but the men stopped bringing milk for her baby.
Then things changed.
“They started to take the women away. Sometimes they let them bring their babies along, but other times they refused.”
Leila said some women would disappear for several days, then return to the hall. Others never came back. Some of the men coming to choose women, mostly local Iraqis, looked as old as 70, Leila said.
Sara and her pregnant sister-in-law were also taken to Mosul.
“There was a big hall with three floors and each floor had 5 or 6 rooms,” Sara said. “They told us if we didn’t convert to Islam they would kill all the men in our families, so we said to ourselves, ‘It’s just words. In our hearts we are still Yazidi.’ So I did it to save my brother.”
The IS captors passed out Korans to the women. Since many were illiterate, the men would read to them from the books.
“They were always trying to tell us about religion,” Sara said. “In those few days they didn’t treat us so badly, but they were scary. They had dirty, hairy faces and they smelled bad.”
Later they gave the women niqabs to wear (most Yazidi women wear conservative Western-style clothing, and sometimes hijabs) before moving them to a new hall.
“A sheikh came and took away about 20 or 30 of the most beautiful girls,” Sara said, shielding her face from a gust of sand that blew through her family’s flimsy tent. “Then a man said the married women would be sent to their husbands [if the husband had converted to Islam] to make a new Muslim family. They read out names and when a woman heard the name of her husband they came forward and were taken away. I stood with my sister-in-law waiting for my brother’s name. But they never read it. We were so sad that night. We thought maybe he didn’t convert yet or he was in another city.”
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Sara was then split from her sister-in-law and sent to another room with single women and girls her age. Men would come daily and choose two or three women. She said some paid the captors money. Others said the women were their “gifts.” The women didn’t return.
“We would try to make ourselves look ugly. Some women would cry or scream or fight, but it made no difference. They were always taken anyway,” Sara said. “One girl hung herself. Another tried, but the IS guards stopped her and beat her very badly. No one else tried after that.”
Sara made friends with 14-year-old Banaz. They vowed to stay together, no matter what. The day her friend was chosen, Sara refused to let her go, telling the man, “You take us both or you leave her here.”
He took them both.
They were driven to Fallujah, where they were passed to two local men she described as “an old man and a fat man” who lived together in a mansion she says they took from a local family.
Sara described beatings, degrading treatment and having so little food the two girls were always frail and sick. The men also made them watch videos of Yazidi men being beheaded.
“In some [videos] they put the heads into cooking pots,” she recalled, cringing at the memory. “Sometimes they would stand on them. There were so many heads. And they would ask us, ‘Do you know this one?’ and laugh.” Sara described the men holding her as members of IS from Fallujah — possibly former Sunni extremists who had only recently joined the terror group.
Meanwhile in Mosul, Leila had been moved to a small house. Men had been coming daily to select women, until she — still with baby Murad — was the only one left.
“It was late at night. Murad was screaming. He needed water, so I banged on the door and screamed to the guards but no one came,” Leila said. “I broke the door open. Still no one came. I found water in the kitchen and then snuck through the house and found [the militants] sleeping. So I ran.”
At that point, Leila said, she wasn’t afraid of being caught. Either she and Murad would get away, or they would be killed — both better fates than being sold, she said.
Once outside, she didn’t know where to turn.
“People were staring at me in the street. There were no other women anywhere. Then an old Arab man came and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was Yazidi and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll help you.’”
The man took her to his family’s home and gave her his daughter’s ID card. Then he drove her and Murad to the IS checkpoint and told the militants that his grandson needed urgent medical care in Erbil. They got through.
In less than an hour, they made it to the peshmerga checkpoint. Leila was met by relatives from Duhok she had called using the old man’s cellphone. She now lives with them there in a home overcrowded with displaced relatives and friends.
In Fallujah, Sara was planning her own escape. She needed to find her brother, she told herself, so he could save his pregnant wife. When the men holding her left the house for Friday prayers, Sara saw her chance. She and Banaz broke down the door to their room and escaped into the Arab city, now an IS stronghold.
“We decided our best chance was to find a house with children. We walked for about 2 hours. People were staring at us. Two girls walking alone is not allowed. Finally we found a house with children playing outside. We just walked in the front door and said, ‘Help us.’ There were men and women sitting inside. They were scared. They said IS would kill them all if they knew we were there, but they let us stay with them anyway.”
The next day, the family gave Sara and Banaz two of their ID cards and sent them by taxi to Baghdad, where they were dropped at a hotel owned by a Yazidi man.
The first thing Sara did was borrow a phone to call her brother, anxious to hear his voice. The line was dead. Next she called her mother, who answered.
The hotel owner secured a flight to Erbil for the girls, who were reunited with what remained of their families.
Along with Leila, Sara and Banaz have now joined more than 2.8 million internally displaced Iraqis. Their homes are gone, their families decimated. The only things left for them in Iraq, they say, are nightmares and a meager existence on international aid supplies.
Sara starts to talk about suicide again.
“The thought of seeing my brother and my parents again was the only thing that kept me alive,” she said. “I do not want to live, not like this, but I have to become both a son and a daughter to my parents now. I live only for them, but I don’t know how long I can last if we remain in Iraq.”