For many of Iraq’s Yazidis, going home is not an option

Publication: Al-Monitor 

DAHUK, Iraqi Kurdistan — When Nadine refused to marry the 25-year-old Islamic State fighter from Yemen, he took her daughter Ronia instead. Right in front of Nadine’s eyes, he tore the clothes from her daughter’s body. Then he raped the 10-year-old girl.

“Mommy, help me, my little girl cried. Ronia was so young that she didn’t even know what sex was,” said Nadine, who belongs to the ethno-religious Yazidi minority, sitting in a tent she built herself in the countryside of Dahuk.

It is just one of the countless cruel memories the 32-year-old mother recalls from two years in IS captivity. After Nadine and her four children were kidnapped by IS in August 2014, they stayed with the Yemeni fighter for seven months. He “married” Nadine and her daughter and repeatedly raped both of them. Finally, he sold Nadine, but sadly he decided to keep Ronia.

Nadine and her three other children were repeatedly sold to other IS fighters until they were smuggled out of IS-held territory eight months ago. Now they live in tents in an unofficial camp for the internally displaced near the village of Khanke, 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Dahuk, as the official camps nearby in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq were all overcrowded.

All of her neighbors are female survivors of the IS genocide who were recently rescued after years of enslavement. Their husbands are still missing, most likely kidnapped or killed by IS militants. Most of the Yazidi women here are taking anti-depressants or sleeping pills to cope with their trauma, Al-Monitor learned. They hardly get financial help, let alone psychological counseling.

“It is impossible coming back from IS to live in tents and just continue your life like nothing happened,” Nadine said. “How can we ever forget what IS has done to us? If it weren’t for my kids, I would have killed myself a long time ago. My life is over.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. “First I want to get my daughter back. Then I am planning to leave the country.”

The lack of financial and psychological support is one of the reasons many survivors want to leave the country, Nadine said. Many have already left. Before IS attacked the Yazidi community in 2014, around 550,000 Yazidis lived in Iraq. Since then, approximately 90,000 Yazidis have left and moved to countries like the United States, Canada and Germany, said Khairi Bozani, the head of the Yazidi Affairs Office of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

According to Pari Ibrahim, the founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation, large numbers of Yazidis are planning to move abroad because they don’t see a future in Kurdistan. “They are now living in IDP camps for almost three years, and they know it will probably stay like that for a long time. That’s why they want to start a new life and have a better future for their children,” she told Al-Monitor.

In the tent next to Nadine’s, Khazal, 24, told Al-Monitor that she just applied for a resettlement program with the Canadian government. Khazal and her two sons, ages 4 and 5, were kidnapped and held by IS for over two years. During these years she was repeatedly sold to fighters inside homes in Syria.

“They took the youngest and beautiful girls. They forced us to wear certain clothes, while their wives did our makeup. After that, they took our pictures, and IS fighters or leaders came to buy us,’’ Khazal said, adding that the women and girls were continuously humiliated, beaten and raped.

Last winter, Khazal and her children were brought back by a smuggler, whom they now owe $24,000. As a single mother living in a tent, Khazal cannot pay. She sometimes works in the center of Dahuk making 12,000 Iraqi dinars ($10) a day. Since her escape, she suffers from stomach pain and headaches and she cannot eat a proper meal without vomiting.

“I felt so happy when I escaped from [IS], but then I came here and found out that all the men in my family were killed or missing and that there is no support for women like me. We all came back alive, but our hearts and bodies were broken. There is nothing here for us anymore,’’ she said softly.

It has been almost three years since IS attacked the Yazidi community. Although the Sinjar area is almost completely liberated from the terrorist group, 75% of the community is still displaced. One of the reasons Yazidis do not return to their villages is the political and military conflicts between the forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the disputed Ninevah areas. At the heart of this conflict are different visions for the region: The area is claimed by both the central Iraqi government and the KRG.

However, it was the PKK that initially came to rescue thousands of Yazidis in 2014 and has not left since. Its presence has drawn in Turkey, which supports the KRG and wants to prevent the PKK from creating a “second Qandil.” To make matters worse, the village of Kocho, the hometown of UN Goodwill Ambassador Nadia Murad, was recently captured by Shiite paramilitary forces. Many Yazidis are unwilling to return to their towns and villages out of fear of being drawn into a new conflict.

But for some, returning to Sinjar will never be an option. Traumatized by the genocide and facing an uncertain future, many Yazidi women don’t want to live in a country that reminds them daily of the horrors they experienced. They point out that their community has suffered as many as 74 massacres in a region where extremism and intolerance of minorities is still on the rise. They are also afraid security forces will fail them again in the future.

“In Iraq, we are surrounded by enemies,” some women told Al-Monitor, adding that they simply want to live in a country where Yazidis feel accepted.

Although Trkew and her three children were recently rescued after being were enslaved by IS militants for two years, she is already making plans to migrate. From the prayers in the nearby mosque to men with long beards, everything religious reminds her of IS. “How they sold us, how they took our children, how they humiliated us — it’s impossible to forget what has been done to us,’’ said Trkew, who was forced to marry a Tunisian fighter who later committed a suicide attack.

Asked why she hasn’t applied for the resettlement program, Trkew said she is now pregnant with her fourth child. She was reunited with her husband after she escaped from IS. Their plan is to leave Iraq as soon as she has delivered her baby, Trkew said while gently rubbing her belly.

“My children still suffer every day from what they have experienced under IS. I cannot turn back time, but I can make sure that this child will never have to experience what we have been through,” she concluded.

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