THE LEVANT – By Matthew Barber – The plight of thousands of Yazidi women, kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS) during its August 3 attack on Iraq’s Sinjar mountains and in the following weeks, has received some media attention, but most people are unaware of just how far-reaching this disastrous phenomenon is. Boko Haram kidnapped girls in the hundreds, prompting international outcry and an online campaign demanding that they be freed; IS has kidnapped Yazidi women and girls in the thousands in a sexually-motivated campaign that has rent apart countless families and wrought unimaginable levels of pain and destruction.
During the Syria conflict there have been numerous allegations of forced jihadi marriages that have been difficult to confirm, and widely denied by IS supporters online. Many of those stories were dropped, lacking credible evidence. As the past few years in Syria have demonstrated, rumors run rampant in contexts of conflict, and the initially difficult-to-confirm cases of kidnapped Yazidi women of this summer have been treated with appropriate caution.
Despite this initial caution, the sheer scale of the kidnapping of Yazidi women and the firsthand reports of escaped survivors—and those still in captivity via telephone—have made details of the phenomenon, and its sexual motivations, certain.
Having stayed in northern Iraq all summer, I can confirm the assertions of the journalists who have written about the problem. I have worked directly with those involved in rescue efforts and have personally interacted with families whose daughters have been kidnapped and are now calling their relatives from captivity.
I have no trace of doubt that many women have been carried off and imprisoned; the question that remains is about the numbers. Restrained estimates have posited numbers of kidnapped Yazidi women in the hundreds. However, the reality is likely to be in the thousands.
Though the picture is grim, if the US is willing to back up its overtures of support for Iraqis and Kurds with action, we have the ability to help quickly free a large percentage of the kidnapped Yazidis.
The enslavement phenomenon is real
Yazidi leaders and volunteers have been working over the past month with families whose female members were kidnapped, and they have been able to piece together a much clearer picture of the numbers—and locations—of the kidnapped women.
It is no longer a secret that many of the kidnapped women still have their cellphones with them and are calling their families. Many of their captors haven’t even taken steps to prevent this; in some cases jihadists have exploited this contact as a means to sow further terror, in other cases the new “masters” are allowing their “slaves” to have contact with family as they seek to incorporate the kidnapped woman into a slave’s household role with certain privileges and duties.
By speaking with kidnapped women and girls by telephone, and by speaking with the families receiving calls, Yazidis working on the problem are beginning to form more accurate counts of incarcerated women in various places.
It is also no longer a secret that extensive rescue operations are underway, through the participation of local Arabs and Muslims in the communities where the girls are entrapped. Some have been able to purchase girls from IS jihadists and then return them to their parents. Others have been able to escape on their own.
Other kinds of rescue efforts are underway as well. A Yazidi friend I’ve been working with in Dohuk arranged for a group of gunmen to be paid to carry out a rescue operation in one Iraqi city, far to the south of Mosul, where girls had been taken. They broke the girls out of the house where they had been imprisoned by their jihadist “owner” and carried them to safety. Those who conducted the operation are Sunni Arab fighters who do not align with IS (and who are willing to conduct such an operation in exchange for compensation).
These particular girls were transported halfway across the country, placed in the house of their “acquirer,” and made to cook and clean. The new “master” told them: “You are our jawari [slaves taken in war], but don’t worry, you will become as our own women,” meaning that they would be integrated into the household and live as the other wives.
One of the rescued girls was only 15 and was tortured for resisting the demands of her captor for sex. Another suffered such severe psychological trauma due to the kidnapping, subsequent rape, and being shipped across Iraq that she is now very ill.
Attempts to find a religious justification
The philosophy underpinning the taking of Yazidi slaves is based in IS’ interpretation of the practices of Muslim figures during the early Islamic conquests, when women were taken as slave concubines—war booty—from societies being conquered.
Though they have robbed them of their wealth, IS has not targeted the Christian community in the same way that they have the Yazidis. As “People of the Book,” Christians are seen as having certain rights; Yazidis, however, are viewed by IS as polytheists and are therefore seen as legitimate targets for subjugation and enslavement, if they do not convert to Islam.
Many discussions will continue regarding the similarities and differences between IS’ methods and the actual practice of the early Islamic community. Historical context will be discussed by scholars, and God’s intentions will be parsed out by those with a theological bent. But regardless of how our contemporaries interpret the past, IS’ attempts to recreate and relive a period in which slaves were taken in war have shattered families that now reel in pain after their children have been snatched away from them.
Is this the Islamic State or just bands of local criminals?
The online jihadists (or “ehadists”) that defend IS on Twitter and Facebook have had three options in how they respond to this shocking moral collapse. The first is to deny that the kidnapping of Yazidi women and forcing of them into sexual slavery (“concubinage”) is occurring.
But despite the denial of IS supporters on social media, these are not rumors, but cases to which I’m personally connected. Journalists have attested to the same phenomenon in their reporting (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), and I spent the summer making contact with Yazidi families who have endured this scourge.
The second option for IS supporters on social media is a line of argumentation that acknowledges this trend of sexual slavery while attempting to justify it as a form of revenge for oppression of Sunnis (which, ironically, Yazidis have never participated in—rather, they were victims of some of the highest levels of al-Qaida violence during the Iraq war, as well as previous targets of religious persecution).
The third argument, coming from some IS supporters, claims that this sick and deplorable pattern is not occurring at the hands of the IS membership itself, but is rather the action of other local Sunnis who are opportunistically taking advantage of the war-chaos to rape, pillage, and kidnap. I have also been perplexed by the question of IS’ methods and behavior and have felt a need to understand the fact that they work according to specific ideals and a strict religious code for behavior, yet often seem to act outside of what such a code would permit. They are not alien creatures but human agents with aspirations of state building who even demonstrate acts of compassion. Christians who fled one Iraqi town described to me how IS fighters provided food for their elderly and disabled Christian relatives who were not able to flee, and then later transported them to an area near Kirkuk where they would be able to rejoin their relatives. How are we to reconcile these humane instances of goodwill with the apparent criminality and destruction that is so pervasive with IS?
Regardless of how we come to understand the IS movement psychologically, this third argument—that responsibility for all repugnant acts lies only with local, self-seeking, non-IS actors, and not with IS fighters—is patently false.
It is certain that many local actors have stepped in and plundered their neighbors’ wealth during IS attacks on new areas. However, I have confirmed with multiple eye-witnesses who were present upon IS’ initial Aug. 3 attack of Sinjar, including Sunni Muslims, that the operation of separating women from men and carrying the women off in trucks was conducted by the IS fighters themselves and was carried out as soon as the fighters reached the area.
Muslims trying to flee Sinjar city described to me how, even before reaching the city itself, fighters conducting the initial attack intercepted fleeing families on the road, stopping their vehicles and taking the female passengers—if they were Yazidi. The campaign to seize female Yazidis and enslave them as concubines is an Islamic State project.
US airstrikes could quickly free several thousand Yazidi women and even entire families
Kidnapped women have been transported all over the Sunni regions of Iraq, and into Syria. The location with the highest number of kidnapped is likely Mosul itself. Rescue efforts for many of these women will take years. Some may never return. Some may remain in captivity and reemerge at some distant point in the future. Others will continue to be rescued or escape in the near future.
Despite the enormous challenge of responding to such a monumental tragedy, the possibility exists of freeing a very large number of those kidnapped in a short time. I’m referring to around 2,000 kidnapped Yazidis currently imprisoned in towns and villages in the vicinity of the Sinjar mountains.
Just south of Sinjar are a number of sites where kidnapped Yazidis are being held. Through phone conversations with captured victims, Yazidi leaders in the Dohuk governorate who are working on the problem have been able to get counts and exact locations for most of them. In over a dozen primary holding sites within at least six separate towns, approximately 2,000 Yazidis are trapped. Most of these contain just women, but at least one site contains entire families that have been kidnapped, including male members.
One man I spoke with lost seven family members: his daughter, her husband, and their five children were nabbed by IS in one fell swoop. They were able to contact him once and inform him of their location, but contact was severed after that.
Most of these kidnapped people know where they are. They’re in familiar territory, not far from Sinjar. If their captors were subjected to an aerial campaign—an intense helicopter assault on IS targets for as little as a half-hour—most of these people would be able to flee. The attacking force wouldn’t even be required to regain control of these towns, they would only need to occupy the moderate numbers of IS fighters in the area. The window of distraction would allow many to escape.
Prior to the Kucho massacre (in which IS jihadists lined up and shot all Yazidi males of the town, on Aug. 15), my contacts inside the town (no longer alive) said that every time a US airstrike occurred on nearby IS positions, the IS militants would run for cover. This was without the IS stronghold in Kucho itself being attacked. Kucho was more isolated and even in those moments of distraction the flight of the townspeople wasn’t possible. But for the large numbers of Yazidis currently imprisoned just south of the city of Sinjar, a different outcome is possible.
US airstrikes could also be conducted while coordinating with the newly formed “Yazidi Forces for the Protection of Sinjar,” local volunteers that have been working with the Peshmerga, trying to defend the remaining parts of Sinjar not captured by IS, and hoping to regain their own villages and towns. If a more sustained aerial campaign was undertaken to combat IS in Sinjar, these local Yazidi forces could cooperate in joint rescue efforts and help free many of the enslaved.
Let’s get as many back as possible
Though US airstrikes were conducted to prevent IS from pushing into Dohuk and Erbil (without which I estimate IS might have reached Dohuk in as few as two days), no sustained campaign has been undertaken to facilitate the Kurdish re-taking of Sinjar. People are confused as to why, and I have no answers.
What I do know is that without greater US air support, 1) Sinjar will not be regained by Kurdish forces and the people of Sinjar will not be able to return home, and 2) large numbers of Yazidi women who might otherwise be freed will continue to be sold by IS jihadists as sexual objects. The Dohuk governorate is bursting at the seams with hundreds of thousands of Yazidi and Christian refugees, who, following those that already fled three years of conflict in Syria, have pushed the area’s capacity for refugees beyond its breaking point. Schools should be opening for local children this week, but they cannot, because hardly any school exists in the entire governorate that doesn’t have several families sleeping on the floors of every room.
Sinjar is the population center for the largest segment of Yazidi people in the world. The Yazidi religion is also inextricably linked to holy places in Sinjar. If they are unable to return, it will do lasting damage to one of the Middle East’s last non-Abrahamic minorities, and thousands of victimized women will remain enslaved in 2014. Let’s do what it takes to get these people safely home and free of the most selfish form of evil I’ve personally witnessed in my life.