Friday 18 October 2019

Yazidi father tells of his agony over wife and three children kidnapped by Isil


A member of Isil. Stock photo
A member of Isil. Stock photo

Josie Ensor

Khudida Haji has followed news of the battle for the caliphate's final stronghold more closely than most. For four and-a-half years, he has been hoping for information on family members captured by the jihadists. Out of the five that went missing the day Isil overran the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, northern Iraq, in 2014, only one returned.

He had clung to the outside chance that his wife, two of his daughters and his youngest son were still alive and being held in the group's ever-dwindling territory.

But when it was reduced to just a single square mile in the Syrian desert, he was forced to confront a more painful possibility.

"With every day that passes, my heart grows colder," Mr Haji said in his brother's house on the outskirts of a camp for displaced Yazidis in Sheikhan, northern Iraq.

"I think constantly about where they might be and whether they are too hot or cold, if they have enough to eat or going hungry.

"The guilt of surviving is a heavy weight," he said.

On August 3, 2014, he made a decision that haunts him.

"We heard Daesh was coming so my son Majid and I quickly went to get a car. The plan was to drive the family to Erbil to be safe," he said, using an Arabic name for Isil.

On their way back home, however, he got a call from his daughter Majida, saying Isil had surrounded the town and that they had been captured.

It was three days before he was able to return and his family was nowhere to be found.

He got another phone call several weeks later from Majida, who said they had been separated and taken to the nearby town of Tel Afar.

Isil had set up a market in Tel Afar, where the younger of the women were sold into sexual slavery and the older among them into domestic servitude.

Men were of little use to them and mostly killed, while the younger boys were taken to training camps. That was the last Mr Haji (51), who had been the manager of a restaurant in Sinjar, heard from them.

For four long years he heard nothing, until one day - a miracle. Martine, who was eight when she was abducted and now 12, was found.

She was discovered in a refugee camp in north-eastern Syria six months ago. She said she had been kept as a maid, forced to cook and clean for a senior Iraqi fighter.

"I was beaten when I did something wrong, I was not allowed to leave the house," she said in Arabic, having now lost her native Kurmanji. "They were bad, bad people."

She said for the first few years she tried to send a message to her father to tell him that she was alive, but had no access to a phone.

"When I got to the camp, I didn't tell anyone that I was a Yazidi," she said, playing with a bow on her pink pyjamas. "I had been brainwashed and told that if anyone found out I was a Yazidi I would be killed."

Her father heard news that Martine might be in the camp and sent a copy of his only family photograph to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) guards to help identify her.

"When they showed me his picture, I cried because I hadn't seen his face in so many years," Martine said. "I couldn't deny it any more." (© Daily Telegraph London)

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