Unimaginable trauma of Yazidi women is heightened by fragile psychosocial support
By— January 20, 2017
In September 2016, when I arrived at a gloomy, two-star Econo Lodge hotel in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Daey*—which means “mother” in Kurdish—was sleeping. Zara*, who is not biologically related to Daey but has come to view her as a mother figure, was sitting on the bed next to her, despondent. I apologized for the disturbance, aware that they would be leaving the next morning for “home”—the camps for internally displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan—and told them I had come because I wanted to learn about their lives. When I met them, it had been just over two years since the so-called Islamic State swept across the Yazidi people’s ancestral lands in northern Iraq, executing and abducting thousands of people.
I’d spotted the women a few days earlier at the UN General Assembly during the appointment ceremony of Nadia Murad Basee Taha as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. Daey and Zara had flown all the way from Kurdistan to support Murad with a delegation of Yazidis who belonged to an organization called Yazda, which gained prominence in the summer of 2016 when lawyer Amal Clooney announced she would represent Murad and other Yazidi survivors to bring a case forward at the International Criminal Court.
Like Murad, the women had come to the UN in New York to spread awareness about the thousands of ethnic-minority Yazidi men and women, including members of their own families, held captive by ISIS. Upon my arrival at the hotel, however, I learned I was the only person who’d reached out to them.
For Zara, who has 21 family members still missing, Yazda, a Yazidi-led organization based in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, has given critical aid to her and her surviving family members. The group has provided psychological support, treatment for trauma, and medical aid to more than a thousand survivors in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, according to its website. But, on January 2, security officers of the Kurdistan Regional Government shut down Yazda’s operation. According to Yazda, authorities cited an expired license and “political activity.”
The announcement sent a shudder through Iraq’s human rights community at a time of growing humanitarian need, Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq Researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a dispatch. Yazda told Human Rights First that about 600 Yazidi women and girls liberated from ISIS captivity were left without psychosocial services when Yazda was shut down. Then, on January 18, Yazda announced that it had resolved the situation with Kurdish authorities, and was permitted to reopen. According to Wille, high-level international lobbying had been ongoing since its closure.
Even so, the arbitrary closure of Yazda highlights the fact that trauma care and support services are precarious for Yazidi women in Iraq. And, with the operation to retake Mosul well under way, human rights groups have expressed concern about the fate of hundreds of Yazidi women who may be held captive in the area now and will require mental health care should they escape or be liberated.
Since the operation to retake Mosul began three months ago, nearly 140,000 people have been displaced, according to the International Organinzation for Migration. As many as a million people are still inside Islamic State-held areas of the city, IRIN news reported on January 16. The ongoing military offensive, according to a dispatch by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), has forced people who have already lived through extreme trauma to flee the city and nearby villages. The level of trauma, it said, is shocking MSF’s mental health workers.
“Many describe witnessing public executions in the markets and seeing the corpses of murder victims strung up and left hanging from bridges for days on end,” MSF reported on January 10. “Death by stoning, beheadings, torture, and corporal punishment have become commonplace.”
Daey and Zara, like many Yazidis in the region who feel forgotten, have witnessed similarly horrific events. Daey is a short, plump woman in her 60s. When we met, her head was wrapped in a white scarf that highlighted the heavy sadness in her eyes. It was not long after we began talking that her voice rose until she was nearly yelling. She was flipping through laminated photos she carried of the dozens of family members she’s lost to ISIS; five of her six sons had been killed, and two of her granddaughters, she said, had taken their own lives to avoid being sold as sex slaves to ISIS fighters. Other women in her family are still in captivity and, she believes, being sold as commodities in the markets.
As Daey spoke, Zara, 23, rocked on the bed, letting out loud sighs as she wiped away her tears. Zara has deep brown eyes and long black hair. She has a beautiful, round face and olive skin. Her beauty, as with so many young Yazidi women, made her more vulnerable to ISIS predation: Like Murad, Zara was one of thousands of Yazidi women abducted and sold as spoils of war for the pleasure of ISIS fighters. Zara was passed from Mosul to Raqqa, Syria. (She did not disclose whether she was used for sex, or exclusively for domestic tasks). During her abduction, Zara said, she was punished with electric shocks for her failed attempts to escape and kill herself.
She said she was then placed in an underground jail for over a month in Raqqa, where she became so traumatized she was unable to eat or speak. She was then sold back to Mosul, where, she said, a doctor performed a surgery on her stomach—although she has no idea why—and, a couple of times, she said, fighters tried to kill her: once with poison, and another time with a gun. She survived, but became listless and therefore useless to her captors.
Eventually, the wife of her captor in Mosul took sympathy on Zara for her failing health, she said. The woman linked her up with a group of elderly women who hid her and helped her escape to Kirkuk. From there, she reunited with surviving family members living in a camp for internally displaced persons in northern Iraq.
In the camp, Zara found the support of Yazda. One of the organization’s main projects has been to provide psychosocial care to women who have escaped ISIS enslavement, some of whom have only recently escaped, a person close to the organization told me. Its women’s center runs support groups, baking, and handicraft classes. Soon, Zara began cooking her favorite dishes for Yazda employees, more than 90 of whom work full-time in the camps, according to Yazda’s website. She told me she likes to cook rice, meat, and dolma—a traditional Middle Eastern stuffed-vegetable dish.
Yazda was founded in the aftermath of what has been recognized by the UN as a genocide against the Yazidi people, when ISIS wiped out Yazidi villages in Sinjar in August 2014. Beyond psychosocial support, the group also provides humanitarian aid, as well as advocates worldwide on behalf of the estimated 360,000 Yazidi people who have been displaced, according to a report published by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in August 2016. It tries to bring international attention to the fact that as many as 5,000 Yazidis have been slaughtered, the report says, and to the approximately 3,200 women and girls who remain in ISIS captivity across Iraq and Syria, according to a report released in June 2016 by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. UNAMI puts that number at 2,000 women and girls.
Roueida El Hage, head of the regional human rights office in Erbil for UNAMI, said an estimated 200 Yazidi women were being held in the region at the very beginning of the Mosul operation, in October 2016. But, she told me, they suspect those women may now have been moved to Syria, which could mean that ISIS is sending the women away along with their families before operations begin in a particular area.
“This makes it extremely difficult for us to establish the fate of these Yazidis,” El Hage said. As for the thousands of Yazidi women now being held by ISIS, El Hage says it’s not clear where they are being kept. “According to some sources, they were killed on the spot... .We believe we have a lot of mass graves,” she said.
The Yazidis have long faced persecution: They were targeted by Muslims as far back as the 16th century for their beliefs, and faced accusations of being devil-worshipers. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire carried out 72 massacres, according to The New York Times. But the trauma of ISIS atrocities has paralyzed the entire Yazidi community in northern Iraq, and worldwide.
Nearly half of Zara’s family is being held captive, and she said, she continues to deal with the trauma from her captivity. Someone close to the organization, who preferred to remain anonymous because of fear of reprisal from the Kurdish authorities, told me that the social fabric of Yazidis is unique in how close-knit relationships among families and neighbors remain: Even when a child marries, he or she often stays with the husband’s family. The man told me that before Sinjar fell to ISIS in 2014, his own family included more than 60 people.
“When something happens to one Yazidi, it harms all the others becuase of the social relationships among them,” the man said. “Harming one of the Yazidi members in the family, it harms all the others. It even crosses the border to the neighbors because they are touched. They depend on each other.”
When I heard the news of Yazda’s closure a couple weeks ago, I immediately thought of Daey and Zara. When I met Daey, I asked her what gave her hope. “The ones who are still in captivity, they make me survive...otherwise I don’t feel like I’m surviving,” she said.
I reached out to someone who keeps in touch with the women, also a Yazidi, to ask how they were doing after the closure. Zara, who managed to escape ISIS then found a community and sense of purpose with Yazda, began to cry when she heard the news it had been shuttered, my contact said. “She’s not okay,” he told me. “She’s broken.”
Back in September in that Econo Lodge hotel, Zara hinted at the support she would need to come. Then, after Yazda was shuttered, her terror was heightened: “It is very hard, not only for me but also for [others] who return from captivity,” she said. The closure “is as harsh as having my family in captivity.”
With potentially thousands more Yazidi women soon to be in her position, Zara is asking the world not to abandon them. Arbitrary closures of the limited places remaining for survivors will strip women like Zara of the few comforts of home, and self, they have left.
*Daey and Zara’s names have been changed to protect them from reprisals.