Yazidi women, who were sold as sex slaves by Islamic State militants, are now returning to their families from formerly ISIS-controlled territories. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson visits the Yazidi religious community in Iraq to hear the stories of these survivors and what they are doing to move on with their lives.
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But first, the American war against ISIS was driven initially by the militants’ attack on the Yazidi religious minority of Iraq. The campaign of mass murder, forced displacement and enslavement of the Yazidis shocked the world.
Now many have returned to their ancestral homeland around Sinjar Mountain in Iraq’s far Northwest.
But, as special correspondent Jane Ferguson found, so much there will never be the same.
On Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain, this is a celebration of one of the world’s oldest religions people giving thanks to God and the angels for who they are.
Among the graves of their ancestors, families meet here for one of the greatest festivals of the year in the Yazidi religion, a time to celebrate their identity as a people. It’s called the Eid al-Jamma festival, or the Feast of the Assembly.
The community invited us to join them in their celebrations. It’s normally a time of spiritual rebirth for the Yazidi people, and, right now, rebirth is something they desperately need.
Man (through interpreter):
The men are not here because they are happy. They are here to pray and ask God for the return of their wives and daughters.
When ISIS gunmen swept across Iraq in 2014, they came here, to this peaceful rural community, declaring the Yazidi people infidels for their ancient religious practices. They took away thousands of women and girls as sex slaves, and they slaughtered many of the men.
The road back to Sinjar is an emotional journey for Adeeba Qasim. Her homeland is a broken, scarred place, haunted by memories of what the United Nations determined was a genocide. She is a local journalist and brought us here.
When ISIS arrived into her village, Khana Sor, the extremists showed no mercy. Adeeba grew up on this street surrounded by her extended family. When they got word ISIS was coming, her aunts and uncles decided to stay. Despite rumors of ISIS brutality, they could not imagine the stories were true. They never thought anything so terrible would happen to them.
Adeeba’s parents, alongside her and her siblings, played it safe and drove away, she says, just 15 minutes before the Islamic State fighters came down here.
Do you ever think about what would have happened if you had stayed?
My father, the other people who stayed, they all have been killed. Their bodies are in the mass graves, yes. So we were lucky.
Around 70 members of her wider family are still missing, she tells us. Some were young women sold as sex slaves. The men were probably killed.
Her half-brother has come back here now with his family. When Adeeba brings us for a visit, it’s a rare moment of joy for them. Adeeba is now 24 years old, and, like thousands of other Yazidi survivors, she is trying to recover.
She moved to the nearby capital of Kurdistan, where she works with foreign journalists and aid workers. Her whole family are scattered. Some have managed to get asylum in Germany, while others are refugees in Turkey.
And then there are those who became ISIS victims, missing or killed. She took us to her old home.
I mean, I lost everything. This house is full of memories of mine, beautiful things, but not anymore. Yes.
You don’t want to go inside?
Do you think you will ever go back to this house?
No, I don’t think so.
Helping other Yazidi women and girls is now part of Adeeba’s recovery. She took us to visit one such family she met through her work with charities providing psychological support for victims.
They are one of the only Yazidi families to return to Hardan village, and now they’re trying to move on with their lives. Zahida was just 17 when the militants came. They took her to Mosul as a sex slave for a year before she managed to escape.
Her mother, Ramzia, was held as a house slave, cooking and cleaning for an ISIS family, until finally being freed just a few days ago. We have changed their names and hidden their identities because other family members are still being held by ISIS.
Ramzia watched as nine of their children were taken from her, the girls sold as sex slaves, the boys sent to militant training camps, never returning.
Then she was sold too.
Ramzia (through interpreter):
ISIS families wanted Yazidi old women to clean for them, but not if they came with children. They put my picture and my name on social media as a slave for sale, and said I come without children.
She was bought by a Saudi family in Raqqa, at the time the Islamic State’s capital in neighboring Syria.
Ramzia (through interpreter):
I told the woman who bought me that I dreamed of going home, and she said- “You will never go home. You will die in my house.”
She didn’t die there. Instead, as Raqqa began to fall to coalition forces, her captors contacted her family and sold her back, exchanging her freedom for $13,000.
Her daughter’s story is one of personal triumph. She waited in a refugee camp after escaping, while one by one her sisters also managed to buy their freedom, and after so much pain, Zahida found love.
Zahida (through interpreter):
I never thought I would be happy again. When something so terrible happens to you when you are just a girl, just 17, it’s very hard to forget it. In the refugee camp, life was very tough, but eventually my sisters returned, and then I met my husband in the camp. We dated for a year and fell in love.
So I have experienced both great sadness and great happiness in my life.
The wedding was just a month ago. She and her husband now live in the battered village.
Just a few hundred yards down the road, a mass grave, this nameless hump of scrubland, is a cruel reminder that the men of the village who are still missing are unlikely to be coming home.
The old lady in that village just told you that she saw your cousins, she heard from them?
Yes, she told me that she saw two of them. And, I mean, the last time I saw them they were like 12 years old. And she told me that they were bought and sold. They were, like, slaves. And last time she saw them was last year. And then after that, she — she couldn’t hear from them anymore.
They were sold?
For the rest of the community, many turn to prayer to recover from the past. And celebrations like Eid al-Jamma are as much about keeping their identity alive too. Since 2014, thousands of Yazidis have left Iraq as refugees.
The religious practices of the Yazidi community are some of the oldest in the world, and with so many members of the community leaving the country, traditions like this are in danger of dying out.
Once people enter into the temple, they take pieces of colored cloth and they tie it on to the walls inside here. Each one represents a prayer or a wish.
The elders here are praying for joy to return.
Man (through interpreter):
In the past, people were coming here and dancing and celebrating, but, after the genocide, they don’t dance anymore.
During the ceremony’s climax, the atmosphere is triumphant. A bright cloth, representing the colors of life and God, is carried with elation into the temple.
For the people here, it is a brief moment of triumph, something to be savored at times like these. Standing in the way of recovery is a deep sense of betrayal. Many of the Yazidis we spoke with adamantly believe their Arab Muslim neighbors welcomed ISIS in and handed them over.
It has left a bitterness those like Adeeba struggle to overcome, especially, she says, because her father’s friends in nearby villages assured them they would be safe.
Do you think there can be never any healing?
Never. There is something in our hearts, and we will never get healing for it, never. And it will never be forgotten.
You can’t forgive?
It’s difficult to forgive. It’s not easy.
Across Iraq, the violence of recent years has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
Bitterness and mistrust have pulled diverse communities apart from one another, and in turn pulled the country apart. For the Yazidis, the memory of this genocide will last for many generations to come, and forgiveness may take generations too.