Monday 24 October 2016

The year of misery and fear for those forced to flee from Isil

Shona Murray

Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30

ACCOUNT: Reporter Shona Murray with Sanaa, a Yazidi woman who had to flee from Isil
ACCOUNT: Reporter Shona Murray with Sanaa, a Yazidi woman who had to flee from Isil

It's been one year since Isil militants targeted ethnic Iraqi Yazidis in Sinjar Province in northern Iraq, triggering a reluctant return to US military strikes in Iraq by the Obama administration. Twelve months later and the deeply disturbing plight of young Yazidi girls kidnapped and raped by the Islamist terrorists is still unfolding.

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Last August 3, more than 40,000 Yazidis fled for their lives to the top of Mount Sinjar amid the second major rampage by Isil militants on civilians, as well as the Iraqi army, in a matter of weeks.

Hundreds perished, many more were killed and around three to four thousand were kidnapped. Women and girls as young as nine or 10 have been sold as slaves and forced to marry militants from the so-called Islamic State (also knows as Isil and Isis).

"On that day in August, after Mosul and Tikrit, they [Isil] came to Sinjar with their weapons and bombs", said 56-year-old Khalafa from Sinjar City.

"We walked for eight hours until we got to Mount Sinjar and stayed for eight days. We were like sheep and they were wolves," he said.

Khalafa's 22-year-old daughter Sanaa rarely speaks now and is receiving trauma counselling after the atrocities she witnessed at Sinjar.

"We have no rights here in Iraq, we are always being persecuted," said Khalafa.

"I want to go somewhere that my daughter can be safe. What will happen to her now? She has no future."

The story of the Yazidis is just one in a plethora of humanitarian disasters in Iraq.

In the Kurdish north, Peshmerga forces are battling to keep the region secure from Isil militants. Responsibility for the vast majority of the country's displaced population, as well as a quarter of a million Syrian refugees, has been foisted upon the Kurdish government, whose territory is the most secure place in a desperately fragile state.

One and-a-half million displaced Iraqis - including 300,000 Yazidis, as well as the Syrian refugee population - all vie for precious space and vital supplies to keep them alive in August's Iraqi heat of almost 50 degrees.

Altogether, 3.1 million Iraqis have since become displaced in their own country as Isil has gained key battlegrounds in places like Fallujah and Ramadi. Accurately negotiating the ever-growing number of checkpoints is vital for civilians - some are a passage to secure zones, others to kidnapping or certain death.

Local Iraqi organisations like Reach - which is part funded by Christian Aid Ireland and Irish Aid - are distributing basic food and non-food items to refugees and the displaced. They're also funding psychological support to manage trauma, as well as networking programmes for women and children, such as sewing lessons and afterschool projects for both refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

"It never stops", and each few weeks there are major influxes, says Hero Anwar, deputy director/programme manager with Reach.

For so long it's been Syria, but last year it was Iraq, with Mosul and Sinjar, and a few weeks ago the IDPs came from Ramadi and Anbar.

As Kurds "we feel their pain", because most of the staff of Reach have been displaced at some point, says Anwar, recalling the uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991 by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

"I was displaced and nearly became a refugee but we didn't pass the border into Syria," Anwar says.

In recent months, grisly details about the fate of thousands of Yazidi women have been documented with the help of civil society and local women's organisations.

A Kurdish women's group, 'Asuda', also funded by Christian Aid Ireland and Irish Aid - is supporting the survivors by providing legal advice, cash and counselling.

Asuda case workers and psychologists have interviewed 400 Yazidi women who have escaped Isil territory. On average, the ages of the girls picked by the group range from 18 and 21, but there are several cases of girls taken from their mothers as young as nine to be sold and or married off, according to case manager and Asuda psychologist, Jwan Latif.

These girls "have been bought and sold so many times", said Latif, "and if the militant who bought a girl dies during clashes, they're sold by somebody else".

Amid the psychological torture, they suffered countless, severe beatings and sexual violence, in particular for resisting rape and for not properly converting to Islam, even though many pretend to do so, says Asuda.

In one interview with a Yazidi woman, the 18-year-old recounted to the Sunday Independent several beatings and gang rapes within the first few months of custody by 'Daesh' - the Arab acronym for Isil.

From a town near Sinjar, she was taken to Isil-controlled Tal Afar.

"One of the times I tried to escape, they beat us with cables and that night seven men raped me and eight raped my friend," she said.

One of the many other stories is the case of a 20-year-old Yazidi girl from the village of Kocho, near Sinjar.

She was looking after her 18-month-old nephew when Isil overran her area. She pretended he was her son, hoping they'd spare a mother of a young baby. They took her anyway and when her militant 'husband' realised she was a virgin and had been lying to them, "he brutally beat her", recounted Jwan Latif.

Upon capture, they were taken to Isil-occupied territories in Iraq, such as Tel Afar near Sinjar, as well as Fallujah, and Mosul, Isil's HQ in Iraq.

Escaping is extremely risky and difficult. Girls know they'll suffer severe consequences if caught but there is little choice.

"There are people inside who have helped arrange the escape of the girls," said Latif. "They need to find a phone and identify where they are."

Eighty of the Yazidi women have been given cash assistance of up to $5,000 and a programme assisting Yazidi, Iraqi and Syrian women, which Irish Aid is funding, is being rolled out presently.

In the last year, Asuda has been supporting Yazidi women and families who have escaped capture and managed to get to Kurdish border cities such as Dohuk, as well as Erbil and Suliaymeniah.

Twenty have so far successfully applied for asylum in Germany.

Sunday Independent

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