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Living in Fear

by AFP
Safin Hamed—AFP

Safin Hamed—AFP

Former Islamic State sex slave fears for Yazidi women left behind.

Haifa, an Iraqi Yazidi, held up her fingers to show the number of fighters from the Islamic State jihadist group who had bought and sold her for sex during her more than two years in captivity.

With an Iraqi campaign now in full swing to wrest back control of Mosul from I.S., the Yazidis are fearful for as many as thousands of members of their community still in jihadist hands in the city. “There were seven,” Haifa said, including men from Egypt, Morocco and a Palestinian.

Haifa, 36, and her family were among thousands of members of the Yazidi minority shown no mercy by I.S. when it swept through areas north and west of the Iraqi capital in 2014.

The Yazidis are neither Muslims nor Arabs, and the Kurdish-speaking community follows a unique faith despised by the Sunni jihadists. As the extremists advanced, they was singled out for especially cruel persecution in a campaign of violence and kidnapping which the United Nations has branded a genocide. Men were gunned down and thousands of women—including Haifa and her younger sister—were taken as sex slaves.

“There was a place like a market where they put all the Yazidi women, and the fighters came and bought them,” Haifa told AFP, asking for a pseudonym to be used. “One fighter bought 21 women at once.”

She was taken from her home region of Sinjar to the jihadist’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul before being transported to their Syrian bastion Raqa. “They dealt with us in a really harsh way. They did very bad things to us,” she said.

Twice Haifa tried but failed to escape. Just a few days ago, she finally managed to run away. She put her freedom down to the help of “good people” but gave no more details.

Some Yazidi women who have managed to get away from I.S. have escaped, others have had their freedom bought.

Now, as Iraqi forces push into Mosul as part of a major operation to eventually oust I.S. from the country, the hope for the devastated Yazidi community is that more can be liberated. It is Hussein al-Qaidi’s job to help track them down.

From an anonymous two-storey building in the city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, he runs an “Office for Kidnapped Affairs” funded by the local Kurdish authorities.

Originally over 6,000 Yazidis—men, women and children—were seized by I.S. and now some 3,000 remain in jihadist hands, he said. So far only a few Yazidis have been freed as the security forces push their assault on Mosul.

As during previous operations to capture cities from the jihadists, I.S. fighters are believed to take their Yazidi captives with them as they retreat. But now Iraqi forces have cut the last remaining route from Mosul to I.S.-controlled territory in Syria—leaving the city surrounded.

Qaidi says there could be thousands of Yazidis left in Mosul—and hopes that eventually the community will be able to rebuild. “This was a fierce campaign against us and it was not expected in the 21st century that some terrorist groups would rape our women and kill the men and the children,” he said. “But we as Yazidis are committed to our land.”

After her own escape from years of torment under I.S., Haifa said she faces a long struggle ahead to put her shattered life back together. She has been home but feels too ashamed to talk to old friends and relatives, and she is also suffering from a string of diseases. “I am so exhausted,” she said.

And while she has managed to escape, she is still desperate over the fate of other Yazidi women left behind, among them a younger sister aged 20. “I ask everyone, the whole world to help set them free,” she said. “They are still there, they are still suffering.”

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