Iraqi women make escape from Isil's sex slavery
Families march for 45 nights to flee the brutal clutches of Islamist terror
Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30
The column of 21 escaped women and girls came up the hillside as the sun was starting to sink in the sky. They had been dodging Isil patrols since 3am that morning, when they had leaped and run from the truck in which jihadists had been transporting them to a sorting ceremony where they would be divided into "pretty" and "not pretty".
They had finally arrived at Mount Sinjar and safety.
Ibrahim Mustafa Mirza, an Iraqi police officer, was waiting for them in his Kia Sorento car as the women climbed towards him. One of his sisters, an infant niece and his mother were among the women, and his sister had managed to get a phone call through to tell him where to come to meet them - and that they were alive.
"I had thought all of them were dead," he said. "I was so happy to see them." He piled all 21 into and on to his car, and set off away from the front lines. "There are still dents in the roof," he added.
For Mr Mirza, this was a sweet moment in a tide of bitterness. It was the end of August last year, three weeks after virtually his entire extended family had been swept up in Isil's summer advances across Iraq, overwhelming the impoverished and poorly defended Yazidi community to which he belongs.
His father was still missing, along with all the rest of his 20 immediate relatives taken from their home in the town of Sinjar, apart from the three he had just rescued. Even now, he says, he thinks every day of one of his other sisters, who has managed to make phone calls from the house where she is being kept prisoner with five other teenage girls, and those men and boys whose whereabouts are unknown and who may be dead.
But the Mirza family also have some reasons for some small spark of optimism. In the last few months, a quiet project run by volunteers, smugglers, community leaders and the government of the Kurdistan autonomous region of northern Iraq has set up escape routes for the thousands of people, including an estimated 2,000-3,000 Yazidis, still held as hostages - or worse - by Isil.
The dramatic flight of Mustafa Mirza Sr's wife, daughter and grand-daughter was entirely spontaneous. But the father of the policeman and the family patriarch is also now free, along with more than half of those taken on August 3 last year. He has begun negotiations with the jihadists, via a network of smugglers, for the release of the one teenage daughter, Samira, still being held, though he is afraid for her, for what has been done to her already and for the fact he has heard nothing for two weeks, since she was allowed to ring on an Isil phone to commence the bartering process.
The going rate is normally $3,000 to $6,000 for the return of a girl, but she had been told to ask for $15,000 - right from the start, she was singled out for her good looks, her father said.
"She has told us she is not in good health," Mr Mirza said. "We do not really know how she is, or what happened, but she has not been well treated."
The girl's cousin, Marwa, sitting beside her uncle as he spoke, went through some of the same experiences, however, and still trembles as she describes them. She was bought back from Raqqa, Isil's capital in neighbouring Syria where she had been taken for use as a slave, for $3,300.
She does not go into detail about what happened to her and the other girls with whom she was initially held.
"Many of us were beaten and hurt in many ways," she says. "I wanted to die."
Her description of life in Raqqa is a revealing account of life under Isil. She says she was bought by a married Isil fighter with two children and made to act as a household servant. She was forced to wear a face-veil when visitors arrived and not allowed out of the house the entire time she was there; but apart from the raw fact of her servitude she was not badly treated, including by the fighter, she said. In fact, she owed her freedom to his wife, who eventually took pity, and, telling Marwa she should be with her family, went with her to find a middle-man to sell her back and drive her to safety.
The Kurdish government paid the $3,300 and Marwa was driven to the Turkish border and then back to Iraq.
The day the jihadists came had been a desperate one for Mr Mirza Sr, and his wife, Sahira. Like other families, they had tried to escape as Isil swarmed into Sinjar, the biggest town at the centre of the Yazidis' traditional homeland.
But Isil had stopped their vehicles and told them to go home, and they had no choice but to obey. Outside the town, there was not even that choice: several thousand Yazidi men were pulled from their cars as they fled, lined up on the roadsides and shot.
The first mass graves are now being exhumed in liberated areas.
Later, the family was brought to an administrative centre - separate rooms for men and women. Samira was taken away, despite her mother's attempts to prevent it. "They saw her and said, 'OK, give her to us'. I was crying and trying to refuse but they took her anyway."
The family were held for two months, after which Mr Mirza and some of them - including one daughter, but without his wife or the others - were placed in a house near Tal Afar. Mr Mirza was set to work as a shepherd.
The city of Tal Afar is well behind Isil lines and until April they lived a life of strange, dislocated normality, not allowed to travel but otherwise working and keeping house. There was enough freedom for Mr Mirza, too, to organise his own daring escape attempt. He had a phone, and was able to call a brother who served in the police and hired local smugglers as guides.
One night, 33 people from several families made a dash for it, with Mr Mirza and the smugglers at their head. For three days, they walked 45 miles across country at night, hiding out in abandoned houses when it was light, circumventing Isil checkpoints.
Whenever they saw a light, they fell to the ground and hid. The most difficult thing, he said, was keeping the children from making a noise when Isil fighters were nearby.
Finally, they reached the front. He was still in touch with his brother, who had warned the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, to expect them and not open fire, and they made a dash for their lines.
"Life could begin again," he said. That is true, up to a point. Most of Mr Mirza's family is now with him. They have been given a house next to one of the sprawling refugee camps now dotted across the baking hills of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Yazidis and Christians, driven out of the Nineveh plains at the same time, spend their days and survive on small handouts of food until somehow they can return home or find permanent asylum elsewhere.
At least 400,000 Yazidis are displaced, from a total population in Iraq of 600,000. In all, there are two million refugees from the war.
There are few social services, not least for the traumatised girls. Farida, the teenager who made it up the mountain with her mother, smiles a lot when she talks, something which belies her real feelings. She has tried to slit her wrists.
Many Yazidis, including her mother, mention the positive impact of the spiritual leader of the Yazidi people, Baba Sheikh, who issued a fatwa saying that anything that happened under Isil captivity should be regarded as not having happened, something that he applied both to girls' honour and to those forced to convert to Isil's Islam.
Farida, like the others of the clan, has to regard the traumas from two different perspectives.
She is clearly proud of her role leading the other 20 women to Mount Sinjar: they spotted the truck that was taking them for "distribution" seemed not to have a guard when it stopped. "Maybe he had fallen asleep," she said.
"We didn't know, but ran anyway." She knows that if she hadn't, anything could have followed.
On their hillside, with nowhere to go forward, the family say there is no going back either: "We don't want the past back," Marwa said. "We don't even want our land back. We just want our prisoners back."