'She won't even know her mother loved her very much'
The children born of the Yazidi women enslaved by Isil have nowhere to go, writes Josie Ensor
Barfe Farho buried her face in Maria's soft brown curls and savoured the smell of her 11-month-old daughter one last time. Exhausted and traumatised after years as a slave under Isil, she handed little Maria over to the strangers who told her it would be for the best.
Ms Farho, a Yazidi kidnapped by Isil in Syria, was faced with an impossible choice: give up the daughter born of her jihadist captor or be rejected on her return to her community with all three of her children.
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"I could either give two of my children a good life, or a bad one to all three," Ms Farho said at a rescue centre for Yazidis.
Hundreds of Yazidi women have been forced into a Sophie's Choice dilemma after the fall of Isil earlier this year. Their babies have now vanished into orphanages dotted along the war-ravaged north-east of Syria and beyond. Thousands of Yazidi girls and women were captured from their homeland in Sinjar, northern Iraq, in 2014 and sold into sexual slavery by Isil, which considered them infidels because of their monotheistic beliefs. Many of them died, some thought to be buried in mass graves still being discovered.
Most survivors have been allowed to return to Yazidi communities. But their children born under Isil are still considered Muslim under the patriarchal Yazidi religion and Iraqi law - and so will not be accepted back into the Yazidi community.
Ms Farho (26) was captured while five months pregnant, along with husband Jalal and infant son Jegar. For the first 10 months, she was held with Jalal, Jegar and newborn Jan in a "sorting house" in northern Iraq. But one day Jalal was taken away with a group of other men. She has not heard from him since. Ms Farho and the boys were passed around until they ended up with a Chechen commander, Maria's father.
She was rescued in early March, at which point she only had her sons. She did not mention the daughter taken from her just days earlier. It was only once back in Iraq that she felt able to speak about the loss. Since then she has stayed at her brother's house in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Yazidis displaced from the now destroyed Sinjar have temporary homes.
Reacclimatising has been hard. It has been particularly challenging for the boys, who have no memory of life before Isil. While Jan appears well-adjusted, Jegar is deeply affected. "He's not well," Ms Farho says. "He saw too many things."
When she brings up Maria, Jegar, who is clutching his mother's arm, begins screaming: "Are you talking about my sister? Where is she? Where is she?" He refuses to leave her side, fearing he, too, could disappear.
"I wish the third one was here," says Ms Farho, finding it difficult to say her name. "She is part of me. What happened was not my fault. I never chose this. I was told she couldn't be accepted because she would always be a 'daughter of Daesh'."
The women have reopened wounds the community had been trying desperately to heal. Under Isil they were forced to convert to Islam. The Yazidis, who have faced persecution in Iraq for generations, have guarded their religion as a means of preservation. But faced with the loss of their dwindling population, Yazidi elders decreed in 2014 that women and girls could be religiously "purified" and welcomed back.
Then in April this year, the Yazidi Higher Spiritual Council issued a statement suggesting they would be willing to accept the children too. But it was retracted the next day following pressure from conservative sheikhs, who said they would be too painful a reminder of the atrocities these children's fathers had visited upon their people.
Ms Farho does not even have pictures of Maria, who was taken to an orphanage in northern Syria. "The worst part is she won't even know that she had a mother who loved her very much," she says.
Ms Farho was rescued with Jihan Khero, who was only 13 when she was captured - young, but not young enough to be spared Isil's barbarity.
She had three children with three fathers, all Isil fighters who passed the 18-year-old around like a commodity to be traded. The first, a son Qaqa, two years old, has an Iraqi father; year-old daughter Joaliya, a Syrian; and four-month-old Hafza, a Tunisian.
She thought she would be able to stay in contact with the children when she made the wrenching decision to hand them over, but her extended family discouraged her from doing so.
On a recent visit to her brother-in-law's house in Shekhan, she was asked if she missed them. But he answered for her: "She's already forgotten them, she's moved on."
Tears begin to fill in Ms Khero's eyes, which she wipes away before they fall down her cheek.
She says she is applying for asylum in Germany, where her parents are already claiming refuge, as she would be allowed to bring her children with her and make a fresh start.
Some Yazidi rights groups say, while it is less than ideal, forging a new life away from the insular community in Iraq might be for the best. Others, such as Nadia Murad, the most prominent Yazidi advocate and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, believe it is the responsibility of the Spiritual Council to adapt, not the mothers.
"The first and final decision belongs to the survivors and their families and no one has the right to prevent them from taking any step of their own," she said after the council reversed its decision, a move she believes made the women victims again.
"If they wish to return with their children, we as a society must respect their decision and welcome them and provide them with as much assistance as possible."
Reporters subsequently found an orphanage in Remilan, north-eastern Syria, where 40 Yazidi children had been sent. While carers have clearly tried hard to make it a joyful place, there is still a palpable sadness.
Four-year-old Aisha soothes her six-month-old brother, who is crying for their mother. All Aisha has been told is that she is alive and in "a nice place".
We searched for Ms Farho and Miss Khero's children, which proved difficult as their files have not been shared with the carers.
We were told Qaqa, Ms Khero's eldest, had his name changed, though it was unclear to what. The orphanage hopes changing names - like Qaqa - which were popular with Isil, will stop children being stigmatised.
One baby girl around Maria's age had a burn on her arm similar to that described by Ms Farho, but she was not the only one.
The children who survived the battle for Isil's last patch of territory in Baghouz, where Yazidi women were used as human shields, came out in a sorry state. Most had just the clothes they were wearing, lice, and skin infections.
The Department for Yazidi Affairs estimated after the fall of Baghouz in March this year the number of children born of Isil fathers stood in the hundreds.
More Yazidi women and children are being discovered every week in the Kurdish-run al-Hol displacement camp in north-eastern Syria, which shelters more than 70,000 people who fled Isil areas.
It is thought dozens, possibly hundreds more could be hiding among Isil families in the sprawling camp. Some are likely suffering from Stockholm syndrome after so many years, while others simply do not want to be separated from their "illegitimate" children.
Ms Khero at first denied she was Yazidi when the Syrian Democratic Forces asked her name. She wanted desperately to see her family in Iraq again, but not at the price she would have to pay.
"I said I was Tunisian, like the family I was living with," she says. "I wanted to go with them to the camp. It was not until the third time I was asked that I revealed myself."
Back over the border at the orphanage, the care workers are trying to figure out what is best for the children. There is no precedent.
"We are teaching them Kurdish, but not yet anything about religion or identity. When they are older we will tell them they are Yazidis," a carer says. "They have become like our own, we already have so much love for them. But still, we can only give 10pc of the love their real mothers can."
She says the plan is to look after them until they turn 18, but prays their mothers will come back to claim them before then.