Wednesday 24 January 2018

Horror of Life under Isil

Yazidi woman's near-two-year ordeal as a captive of jihadists in Iraq is a catalogue of brutality

GRIM: A Syrian refugee woman, who is stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders, holds her child as she waits to cross into Jordanian territory, near the town of Ruwaished, at the Hadalat area, east of Amman. Photo: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
GRIM: A Syrian refugee woman, who is stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders, holds her child as she waits to cross into Jordanian territory, near the town of Ruwaished, at the Hadalat area, east of Amman. Photo: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Shona Murray in Erbil, Iraq

Lamya Haji, a 19-year-old from Sinjar in northern Iraq is a shell of a young woman. She has suffered 20 months of unimaginable brutality at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (Isil).

Captured and enslaved by the group in August 2014, she managed to escape to Kurdish-held areas over two weeks ago. Some might say she's lucky to be alive.

From her capture in 2014 until April this year, she had been raped, beaten, and forced to work in an ammunition warehouse making suicide belts for Isil militants in Mosul, the Iraqi capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

In total she was sold four times as a sex slave, and after several attempts to escape which resulted in further violent repercussions, was almost killed when on her final, and successful bid for freedom, an IED exploded on the outskirts of the Isil-occupied town of Hawija, in the Kirkuk district. Two of her fellow escapees died in the explosion, which occurred just 20 minutes from the Kurdish Peshmerga forces post that eventually led her to safety.

The impact of that blast blinded Lamya in one eye and left deep, indelible shrapnel scars on her face. She hasn't seen or heard anything from her beloved parents since the day her village was attacked and occupied by Isil - the same day as her capture - they're likely dead or still in the hands of Isil.

Rather than being lucky, Lamya's fate has been one almost worse than death.

From a relative's home in the town of Baadre near Duhok, just 40km from Isil territory, she painfully recalls the day she and her family, including her parents, three sisters, and two brothers, as well as other relatives, were attacked by Isil militants in their village of Kocho, Sinjar.

"They separated everyone - the men and boys on one side, older women in another, and girls as young as eight, as well as teenagers and young women" in a different section.

The Sinjar massacre or "genocide" as some in Kurdistan refer to it, shocked the international community; dragging the US military back into action in Iraq.

It followed the lightning advances Isil made taking over Mosul months earlier in June of that year. It bore all the savage characteristics of Isil which the world is now all too familiar with.

In Lamya's village of Kocho alone, around 400 men were rounded up and shot, and 1,000 women were captured.

According to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), altogether around 6,000 Yazidi girls and women from Sinjar were enslaved and moved around Isil territory in Iraq and Syria.

The trajectory of Lamya's time under the so-called Islamic State is one of unimaginable depravity. She was first brought to Mosul, where she was viciously raped by an Iraqi Isil member called Abu Mansour.

Soon after, she was sold to another Isil member named Abu Rami who took her to Raqqa in Syria where she was then forced to work for his family, and where he too regularly raped her. Whenever she tried to resist, he would beat her with "cables", he also told her "wear make-up" and "remove her scarf for him" she says.

Around four months later, she was taken to a market in Mosul, where in typical Isil barbarity she was sold along with three other women to another Isil member called Imad. Under Imad, a man she remembers as being particularly brutal, they were forced to work with explosives, making suicide vests for use in Isil combat missions.

"We used a paste made of chemicals, after that we'd attach wires and explosives materials and then another layer of paste; after that we would put pieces of iron inside. We'd attach them on to a military belt with a special key which would then explode."

Usually one person would come and take the vests, but she remembers one Arab man coming to collect his own vest, which he was eager to use in a suicide attack. She recalled several nationalities visiting the warehouse, including Japanese, Syrian and French.

The violence and humiliation was perpetual: "Imad would rape me and another girl called Leyla at the same time", she says.

"We would beg him not to [rape us] but he would beat us with sticks and cables. He told us it was halal [lawful] under Islam because we were 'war prisoners'."

In radical Islamic theology the enslavement of women and children of a community, town or city is allowed if said community offers "stiff resistance in a fight that was caused by that particular community", by either their "treachery or unwarranted aggression", according to Aimen Dean, a former al-Qaeda member turned M15 and M16 spy.

However, he explains, such a reference is from the 7th century, during the time of Muhammed, and since then a strong consensus has emerged among Islamic scholars which says that slavery has "ended naturally and should never be introduced again", explains Dean, who is also an Islamic scholar.

Furthermore, in Isil's case, they are "breaching" even this scant source of evidence, since Yazidis did not "start the conflict nor cause it", nor did they "offer any resistance", says Dean. Isil's campaign was not "defensive" nor "in retaliation" against Yazidis' aggression - all of which were conditions for the initial reference.

As captives, Yazidi "sex slaves" are made to take contraceptive pills, but Lamya saw pregnant Yazidi women and at least one baby during her time in the weapons warehouse, a girl born from an Isil fighter.

Every day was unbearably cruel. But towards the end of her first year as a captive, an opportunity to escape arose, when a local man whom she didn't know offered to help her and some fellow Yazidi slaves working in the explosives warehouse, promising to unlock their door on a Friday afternoon while militants were either at the Mosque or involved in battle.

It was agreed that he'd drive them to the outskirts of Mosul, where they'd flee to the safety of the Kurdish Peshmerga posts.

It later transpired one of the girls warned Imad, their captor, of the plan. And when the smuggler's car arrived at the warehouse, it was immediately intercepted by several militants. All of the girls were beaten for their escape attempt, but Lamya was taken to a nearby well for "punishment."

"They told me they were going to kill me, the well was covered in blood from where other people had been slaughtered," she remembers. Instead, she was beaten severely and days later sold to an Iraqi surgeon called 'Doctor Islam', with whom she remained for almost a year until her final escape a few weeks ago.

"All I want is to meet my parents again," she says.

Although she's no longer in Isil-occupied territory, Lamya is still vulnerable.

Last Tuesday, a US Navy Seal was killed by Isil, just 28km north east of Mosul.

Military forces charged with retaking the highly strategic city of Mosul have been beset by problems since the offensive was launched in early March, and any successes have been limited in comparison to the task at hand.

In the meantime, Lamya's application for medical treatment and asylum with the German consulate in Erbil, Iraq, is a priority.

Shona Murray is a journalist with Newstalk

Sunday Independent

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