Children born to Isil sex slaves face orphanage and ostracism
Yazidi women who had babies by jihadis are fighting new battles with their own families, writes Brenda Stoter Boscolo
The moment she was finally reunited with her family after years of slavery under Isil should have been filled with joy, but instead it was one of the worst days of Soham's life.
The 23-year-old Yazidi woman spent the five-hour ride from Mosul to Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan in anguish, crying for the daughter she had been forced to leave behind.
It wasn't her choice to give up her one-year-old daughter, she says. But her uncle made it clear that the child, born as a result of rape by an Isil fighter, would never be accepted in the closed Yazidi community.
"I cried and screamed, told my uncle she was my flesh and blood, but he still made me sign the paper and hand her over to the Iraqi officials. He said she would go to a special place for children like her," Soham said.
More than 6,400 women and children from the Yazidi minority were enslaved by the terror group when it overran northern Iraq in 2014, with young women and teenage girls forced to marry jihadis.
And while Yazidi elders issued a decree that they should be welcomed back with open arms when Mosul was liberated last year, they ruled that none of their children born to Isil fighters could return with them.
The children are considered a painful reminder of the years of terror and a threat to the Yazidi way of life because of their Muslim heritage.
There are no official figures for the number of these children, who are sent to Iraqi government orphanages in Baghdad or left behind in Syria, where the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are reportedly running an orphanage.
But NGOs warn that the separation of mother and child is creating lasting trauma that could be felt in Iraq for generations to come.
Sitting in a poorly ventilated tent in one of the overcrowded camps for displaced people in the Duhok region where tens of thousands of Yazidis now reside, Soham talked about the second man who bought her during her three years in Isil slavery.
At first, the middle-ranking militant treated her cruelly, doling out beatings and rape. But once he discovered that Soham was carrying his child, his attitude changed a little. He called the baby Zaynab, meaning "a father's precious jewel".
"I hated him, I hated all of them. The last thing I wanted was getting pregnant by a Daesh fighter," she said, using the Arabic acronym for Isil. But she added: "Once my daughter was born, I loved her immediately. Every mother loves her child." She produced a picture of a little girl with dark, curly hair, big brown eyes and pale skin.
After the Isil militant was killed in an air strike in the summer of 2017, Soham fled to the Hamam al-Alil camp for displaced people, south of Mosul. When she contacted her family, she assumed they would accept her daughter. "If I had known [I was wrong], I would never have come back,'' she said.
We spoke with four Yazidi women who had children with Isil fighters in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, all of whom had been pressured by family members to leave their children behind.
A spokesman for the YPG confirmed similar cases among the Yazidi community in Sinjar and in Rojava, in northern Syria.
All four women asked to remain anonymous, in fear of the treatment they might receive from the community.
Some of the children left in the orphanages are claimed via DNA tests by the families of Isil fighters. But in a society where even tenuous links to the jihadi group can leave a family vulnerable to vigilante attacks, the majority are doomed to a lifetime of social ostracism.
"The problem is not living in an orphanage; the problem is the impact of war that will last way longer than after the war ends," said Hala al-Sarraf, the founder of the Iraq Health Access Organisation (IHAO), which has helped find these children homes in orphanages.
For the Yazidi women who have been forced to abandon them, the trauma of separation is compounded by the lingering stigma, despite the community's open-arms policy. Suicide rates among women forced to abandon their children are high, said Kristen Phelps, the regional manager for War Child, adding that there was little in the way of support or resources in the underfunded refugee camps where escaped Yazidis now live in limbo.
Behar Ali, the director of Emma, an organisation working with Yazidi women, believes a change in Iraqi law to enable women to pass on their family name and religion to their children could help relieve some of the stigma.
Under the current law, children born from a Muslim father are considered Muslim, and Yazidism is a closed religion; only children born of Yazidi parents are considered part of the ancient faith.
"Yazidi leaders fear that if they accept [these children], it will lead to more intermarriage with non-Yazidis in the future and that there will be no more Yazidis in a few hundred years. For them, it's a way of protecting their community,'' Behar Ali said.
But the casting out of these children is already tearing families apart.
During her three-year captivity, Nadema (31) met many Yazidi women who refused to return home out of fear of being forcefully separated from their children. She also gave birth to a son by a foreign Isil fighter. When she was freed, she told her husband in Kurdistan, with whom she also has children.
"He promised me that I could bring him. It turned out to be a lie. After I escaped seven months ago, he made me leave him with the forces at the Iraqi-Syrian border," she said from her house in a village near the city of Duhok.
At first, she thought she could visit her son every month, but she has no idea where he is. One day she ran away from home, trying to find him. Her plan failed, and she was brought back to her family, and her father threatened to kill her if she did not forget her son.
Thirty-year-old Saeed said his family had promised his sister that she could keep her baby if she accepted their help to be smuggled out of Syria. But she has heard the stories of other women too many times and refuses to come.
"I think she knows that many families said the same thing to the women, and still they took the kids from them," Saeed said. He said he didn't care what the community thought. "I just want my sister back, even if it means I have to buy a house far away from everybody and take care of her and the kid all by myself."