A secret operation to reunite Yazidi women and children after genocide

The secret operation in Iraq and Syria to help Yazidi women be reunited with children they had during captivity under ISIS was reported by the New York Times this week.

A girl from the Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in Sinjar rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, in 2014 (photo credit: YOUSSEF BOUDLAL / REUTERS)
A girl from the Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in Sinjar rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, in 2014
One of the enduring legacies of the ISIS genocide of the Yazidi minority in Iraq has been that after the mass murder of the men and enslavement of the women and children in 2014, almost nothing has been done for the survivors.
Some 500,000 Yazidis had to flee and many still live in internally-displaced persons camps. The tragedy has commonalities with the Holocaust because after the war ended, Jews also had to live in IDP and cross-border DP camps and some Europeans continued to target them with antisemitism.
A secret operation in Iraq and Syria to help Yazidi women be reunited with children they had during captivity under ISIS was reported by The New York Times this week. It presents the difficulties that genocide survivors face when they are also victims of sexual assault.
“The secret operation on the Syrian-Iraqi border last week, witnessed by journalists for The New York Times, was so far the only reunion of Yazidi women from Iraq and the children they had while sexually enslaved and raped by their Islamic State captors,” the Times noted in a piece by Jane Arraf this week.
The women were aided by key individuals. “Nobody can really understand what a huge step these women have taken, what risks they are taking, how incredibly brave they are,” Dr Nemam Ghafouri, an Iraqi-Swedish physician told the Times. Peter W. Galbraith, a former US diplomat, also played a key role in helping this operation. “For now, the nine women and 12 children are hiding in a safe house at an undisclosed location in Iraq,” stated the article.
Promised refuge in a Western country by the reunion organizers, they are desperately hoping that other countries will take them in.
About 20 more mothers with children in the Syrian orphanage are watching to see how they fare. The New York Times “agreed to delay publication of the exchange until the women and their children were safe, and is not identifying them for their protection,” the article notes.
The reason for the operation relates to the complex nature of the genocide. ISIS invaded Yazidi areas around Mount Sinjar in August 2014. They rounded up thousands of Yazidis who were unable to flee. They then separated the men from younger women and children.
Men were taken out to the fields to be executed in mass murders similar to what the Einsatzgruppen did to Jews in 1941. Dozens of mass graves were left behind by ISIS.
I went to northern Iraq in December 2015 after several of the graves had been found by Kurdish fighters who helped liberate areas from Yazidi control. In many cases, the bones and human hair remains of the people – including IDs and shirts – could be seen caked in mud, barely covered over by the ISIS murderers.
The genocide didn’t end there because the survivors of the mass murder in 2014, mostly women and children and some men, were taken to be traded as slaves or held for ransom. The women and children were sometimes sold in Mosul in Iraq, but many thousands were taken to Syria. Over the years, thousands returned to their families, through escapes or being ransomed.

MANY DISAPPEARED and thousands remain missing. Others turned up as far away as Idlib in Syria. Some were trafficked by ISIS to Turkey, a country that often turned a blind eye to ISIS crimes and enabled ISIS volunteers to go to Syria.
In 2019, as the last foothold of ISIS was cleared by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Baghouz near the Euphrates river in Syria – backed by the US-led coalition – tens of thousands of women and children were found. Many of these were wives of ISIS fighters, including thousands of foreigners who supported ISIS. Many hundreds of European ISIS members were among them. In addition, some Yazidi women and children were found.
In April and May 2019, the first stories appeared focusing on the dozens of women who had survived ISIS captivity. In these cases, they were held for five years by the extremists and returned with children. Amnesty International estimated in 2020 that some 2,000 Yazidi children had returned since 2014. These numbers are complex because some of them were children who were captured by ISIS in places like the Iraqi village Kocho or were girls who were sold by ISIS.
For children born during the captivity, Iraqi law mandated that they be raised as Muslims by the Yazidi community. This is because the law in Iraq assumes the fathers were Muslim and in Islam, the father’s religion usually determines that of the children of Muslim men.
This is a quiet way for the genocide to continue long after it is over. This is happening first by trying to exterminate the Yazidi community through gunshots, and then through forcing the children to be raised in another faith. These kinds of laws are an invitation to encourage rape as a form of conquest.
It would be similar to forcing children born during the Holocaust to be raised as German-speaking Christians, as opposed to allowing their Jewish families decide how to raise them. This has its commonalities in European history when Jews were targeted for rape, such as in 1241 when Frankfurt’s Jewish community was attacked and women forcibly converted.
There are studies about the history of attempts to forcibly convert Jews to Christianity in Europe through methods targeting women and children. After the Shoah, Jews had to struggle for years to get hundreds of children kept in Catholic orphanages returned. The priests had baptized the children, seeking to keep them. Unlike the Yazidis, Jews were able to flee Europe for Israel or other countries where they could raise their children as they wanted rather than living in the shadow of their former persecutors. Most Jews kept in DP camps after the Shoah had left the camps by 1952.
Yazidis faced a similar complex struggle in 2019. Since Iraqi law wanted the children raised as Muslims the community rejected them. “Yazidi elders have said they would not accept the children back into the community,” the article notes.
TO UNDERSTAND the complexities one has to put themselves in the place of the women who were kidnapped in 2014 and held for years. They survived horrors and after five years emerged in the liberated zone in eastern Syria. But then, a bureaucratic nightmare of returning began. This is because some were taken to Al-Hol refugee camp and continued to hide their Yazidi identity due to fear. In Al-Hol many ISIS supporters, who are women, continue to search out and hunt down minorities, murdering other women. Some of the survivors finally left Al-Hol and said they were Yazidis.
However, after being moved to a half-way house, they were unable to take their children back to Iraq. Instead, their families told them to come back without the kids, who were seen as Muslims.
Rather than having a right to raise their children as they wish, the laws that continue to govern these areas provided the women little choice. The only choice for those who wanted to stay with their children – as opposed to either remain in an isolated area of Syria or pretend to be Arab or agree to leave their own faith and raise their kids as Muslims, the presumed religion of their captors and rapists – was to go to a western country where people have some freedom of choice concerning raising children. This is the conundrum that necessitated the operation.
The story is emblematic of the larger international failure to help Yazidis, help rebuild Sinjar, or help eastern Syria. The US-led coalition in eastern Syria helps the Syrian Democratic Forces fight ISIS but threats from Turkey – which has ethnically-cleansed Yazidis from Afrin and other areas – and threats from the Syrian regime, keep the area unstable.
Almost no aid money flows to this region and the border is often closed or partially closed with Iraq. Turkey continues to bomb Yazidis in Sinjar, claiming that the Yazidis have joined “terrorist” groups. There is no evidence of any “terrorism” but Turkey knows the international community does not mind the bombing of Yazidi minorities.
The difficult task of helping women who had children under ISIS captivity and would like to raise their children as they choose has unfolded over the last two years. “The women were not allowed to talk to their children by phone. The orphanage staff had been texting the women photos and videos of the children, but stopped last year after Yazidi elders asked them to,” the article notes.
It is not entirely clear if the secret operation that helped a handful of women and children will result in more help. It is a testament to the overall failure of the international community to help eastern Syria that such operations are so complex. Many western countries have forced authorities in eastern Syria to continue to hold their citizens who are ISIS detainees, refusing to take them back. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided another excuse for countries to do little to help.