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One Woman's Story of Islamic State Captivity

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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With the recent battlefield success of the Kurdish forces against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, some of the people held captive by this Jihadist army are now being released. This includes dozens, if not hundreds, of women who were pressed into a brutal kind of sexual slavery.

This week I visited an encampment north of Mosul, Iraq, where a cleric introduced me to Najat Owdi Rashul, an Iraqi Yazidi woman whose family was released last week after six months of Islamic State detention. She described the conditions for her fellow Yazidi women who were held in a make-shift prison at a banquet hall in Mosul. 

Of all the horrors of daily life in the custody of the jihadists, Najat recalled, the worst came in the early evenings. That’s when a commander would call out the names of a few captive women and girls, saying the list was approved by special order of the governor of Mosul, or the caliph himself.

“They would scream when their name was called,” she said. “Sometimes they would begin to pull their hair out and beat their face” to make themselves appear uglier. She said they knew they would be taken away, and would never be seen again. 

At no point in our talk did Najat mention the word “rape.” This is not unusual. Pakhshan Zangana, the secretary general of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s council on women's affairs, told me that when these women return to their communities, most refuse to talk about their experiences. 

There are a few exceptions, and from their stories emerges a picture of life in sexual slavery. Kurdish television has run interviews with some women and girls who have described their treatment. One recent feature was about a young married Yazidi couple who, despite societal stigma in a culture that prizes honor, decided to stay together after the wife was abducted and raped repeatedly.

Baba Sheikh, the spiritual leader of the Yazidis -- a Kurdish-speaking people with their own, non-Muslim religion -- has issued an edict declaring that no woman should be shunned for abuse at the hands of Islamic State fighters. Another Yazidi spiritual leader, Baba Chawesh, who oversees the sacred Lalish shrine, says “It would be different if they committed these acts on their own will. But these women were forced to do this against their will.”

Despite such efforts from Yazidi leaders and also Kurdish politicians, sexual slavery is a profound source of shame. “In our culture it is not so easy to speak about rape, especially in the family,” said Zangana. “Some of the families know the girl or the woman was raped, but they pretend they do not know this.”

Zangana’s office estimates that 500 women who have returned to the Kurdish region have been sex slaves, but she acknowledges it is only an estimate, given the force of the taboo and the resulting silence. When they do speak, a kind of trauma often ensues. Sometimes, Zangana said, women will just begin to cry uncontrollably, others will freeze up and not speak at all.

Zangana said the rapes are also used as a weapon of terror against the girls' family members who have not been abducted. Women were told to phone their relatives to describe in detail their gang rapes, she said.

Najat said she was not abused. But she told me that she was terrified that her name would be called. While her account obviously cannot be verified, it comports with these other survivors' stories and reports from the press and human-rights groups.

The experience for her family and their entire village was searing. The family’s patriarch, a stout Yazidi named Murad Khallaf Ali, said that he was lucky because he was too old to be pressed into service. But many of the younger, more able men were forced to tend the sheep the Islamic State troops had stolen from Yazidi villages, or to place homemade bombs on the sides of roads. 

Survivors: Murad Khallaf Ali and family.
Photographer: Eli Lake

 Murad told me the only humane treatment his family received was the meals. For breakfast they were served lentil soup. For lunch it was cheese. And for dinner they were given chicken and rice or shawarma. Everything else, he said, was drudgery and terror.

After the family was captured outside Sinjar last year, all of their possessions were confiscated. He described how they were first herded onto pickup trucks and taken to a large open Shiite mosque in Tal Afar, outside Mosul. When they were eventually moved to Mosul in October, hundreds of Yazidis were corralled into a large banquet hall where a makeshift mosque was constructed in the center of the room. There were two bathrooms for hundreds of people in the giant hall, and no beds. It was there, Najat said, that the calling of the women's names took place.

The Yazidis were forced to convert to Islam and to pray five times a day. Ali said those too old or injured to work had to endure lectures on Islamic theology and a stream of epithets from their captors. “They told us we Yazidis were like the Americans, filthy infidels,” he said.

Said Murad, Rashul's husband and Murad's son, said he thought he would be killed at any moment. Like his father, he avoided being pressed into labor, because he had a broken leg. Then, he said, the family was fortunate. Last week, they were driven to the Kurdish border near Kirkuk and allowed to escape. The family has no idea why.

Today, three generations of Murad’s family live in a single tent inside an unfinished building near the Lalesh shrine. They have no running water and only occasional electricity. Their village is almost certainly destroyed and, like the hundreds of thousands of other refugees from the Islamic State war, they have no idea what they will do if and when the fighting stops. But at least they are alive.

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To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net