In 2014, Islamic State attacked the Yazidi minority community in Iraq, systematically murdering men and enslaving women. More than four years later, women who survived the horrifying ordeal of ISIS torture and captivity have returned home, but they often face difficult struggles. While the minority community welcomed back women survivors, bringing back children has been more difficult.
This week, the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a declaration that welcomed back all survivors, including women and children born from rape. For activists who have been helping Yazidis, this is an important move and means that many women and their children may find respite. The declaration comes as Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad, a survivors of ISIS, has said that its perpetrators of the 2014 genocide must be brought to justice. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Murad and another activist for their work to raise awareness about the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Recently, dozens of Yazidi victims, including their children, were repatriated to Iraq after being liberated in Syria from the clutches of ISIS. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has been pressing to bring charges against specific ISIS rapists and collaborators.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, director of the German NGO Wadi, which has promoted self-help programs in the Middle East since 1992, says this ruling is very important for helping mothers and children. In 2015, Wadi began helping hundreds of women and girls who had returned from ISIS captivity. They provided psychological help and other assistance. Osten-Sacken says that after ISIS attacked Sinjar and kidnapped thousands of women, there was fear about how the community would react to the women who were victims of sexual assault. “In their tradition this is dishonoring - and ISIS knew what they were doing by raping and selling [the women] as slaves and abusing them sexually. So it was important that they released this declaration that they welcomed the girls back and will reintegrate the girls into the community,” he says, adding that ISIS's use of systematic rape was designed to make women pregnant and to use this against the community. He links it with other examples of rape used in war, such as in Darfur and Bangladesh. “It was clear there will be babies - and the longer the girls are in captivity, the higher the possibility that they get pregnant.”
Since 2017, Yazidis told Wadi that they had more and more cases of women coming back from ISIS captivity with babies and children. By the time of the last major offensive in Syria against ISIS, some of the women had been held for four years. While the women could be reintegrated, the children faced several hurdles. Iraq was already dealing with a large number of women who were widows of ISIS members and also with children born to ISIS supporters who had become orphans. Many of these children ended up in orphanages, stigmatizes as ISIS children. These children were Muslims and according to Islamic law, in a warped way the children of Yazidi women were also seen as Muslims because their fathers were ostensibly Muslim. According to Iraqi law, the religion of children is recorded; so from the point of view of both religious and state laws the children were Muslim, not Yazidi. From the point of view of the Yazidi community leaders, this was highly problematic and they didn’t see an easy way to either integrate the children or raise them as Muslims. In other cases Yazidi women who returned from Syria felt pressures to put their children in an orphanage or even faced Iraqi border guards who wanted to send the children to the orphanages with other “ISIS children.”
“We were thinking how to solve this issue in a cultural-sensible way,” says Osten-Sacken. “The girls and the children shouldn’t pay a price for the genocide that ISIS did, so we understand it was best to give the women the chance to decide; do they want to keep the children or keep them in safe hands? So the concept was to create a safe house; if they want to leave the community and go abroad they could, or they could allow the children to be adopted,” he says.
After many difficult conversations, the Yazidi community eventually released this week’s declaration that will help smooth the process of integrating survivors. This is only a small step because the women and children need assistance, including psychological support and counselling. In some cases, foreign countries have agreed to take in Yazidis who want to go abroad, including up to 1,000 who went to Germany and others who have gone to Canada and Australia. Iraqi President Barham Saleh and others have sought to help as well.
By going abroad, the children have also been provided a legal loophole. Leaving the country, they were able to obtain recognition of being Yazidi from the state. But there is concern that Islamist groups in Iraq may still try to stir up trouble regarding the children and their right to be raised by their mothers and community in their own fashion.
There are many other challenges involved. While some women felt ostrasized from the community, in other cases the issue of the children was quietly hidden from public view and not addressed. In other cases, children were put up for adoption, including to Kurdish families from areas near where many of the Yazidi refugees now live in Dohuk and the Kurdistan region. More than 300,000 Yazidis still live in displaced-person’s camps because the area that ISIS attacked in 2014 around Sinjar has still not been rebuilt. In addition, there is a lack of security and continuing threats. Yazidis who did return say they are not provided adequate medical facilities and schools. For instance, some say they have to go to Mosul for medical care - the same city where ISIS took them to sell women into slavery in 2014.
Osten-Sacken says that the trauma and difficulty are a long-term issue as well. He mentioned Bangladesh after the 1971 war, where there were thought to be an estimated 170,000 pregnancies as a result of rape. Years later, these children have questions. “We have to be aware that these children will grow up, they will ask ‘why did you do this to us?’ - and that has long-term impact on the Yazidi community.” He says the Yazidi establishment has made a brave decision to release a statement supporting the children and women. “It is important that the international community acknowledges this step and helps find a solution - and we are talking about a couple hundred cases,” he says.
There is a lack of investment by the international community in this issue, despite the international coalition against ISIS containing 79 members. Osten-Sacken says there are up to 12,000 children being dealt with in Mosul by the department of social affairs who are in need of assistance. In Syria's Al-Hol camp there are 47,450 children under age 18, and many of them are children of female ISIS members. In addition, there are still 3,000 Yazidis missing who were kidnapped in 2014. The numbers illustrate that the long-term affects of the ISIS war and genocide are far from over.