Yezidi female survivors in Lalish, baptized in Yezidism after surviving
On March 10, 2021, 10 Yezidi women survivors of ISIS were tricked by an NGO member who claimed to be taking the women to see Pope Francis in Baghdad. Instead, they were kidnapped and taken to the children they had had after sexual assaults by ISIS fighters.
Two of the kidnapped women returned home and said that they had been tricked by the Joint Help for Kurdistan organization. According to the Yezidi Organization for Documentation, prior to the experience of these 10 women, 6 other women were also individually kidnapped and taken to unknown locations. According to the women who returned, that same organization was involved in those kidnappings.
The survivors were between 10-17 years of age when they were enslaved, and gave birth to a total of 12 children from the ISIS members after they were repeatedly raped in captivity. When they were rescued, they were asked by Yezidis religious leaders to leave their children behind because Iraqi law considers them to be Muslim. According to current Iraqi law, a child of a Muslim father is Muslim. This does not allow the Yezidi community to consider them as Yezidi and to accept them as their children.
On August 3, 2014, ISIS led a genocidal campaign against Yezidis in Sinjar in Northern Iraq, which resulted in the killing of thousands of Yezidis, their bodies placed in mass and individual graves. Thousands of other women, girls and children were enslaved. And about 85% of the homes were destroyed, along with 68 shrines and temples of Yezidis in Sinjar. Thousands are still missing and in captivity.
After their liberation from ISIS captivity through purchases by their families (with huge sums of money of up to 17,000-30,000 USD), some NGOs conducted awareness raising activities to help the survivors. They built trust with the survivors and their families. Because of their need to be treated for the trauma they had experienced, many survivors actively participated in those activities and shared their stories with those organizations. However, some of those organizations, including Joint Help for Kurdistan Organization, exploited their situation. Instead of aiding them through their trauma and what they experienced in captivity, those organizations clandestinely promoted ISIS ideology in victims’ minds.
This situation can be looked at from different angles
From a psychological perspective, many of the women survivors of violence suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to one psychological specialist (who prefers to remain anonymous): Some of those women were freed about seven years ago, but they never received proper treatment from the trauma, and some have never been treated. So they reached a Stockholm Syndrome situation (which is a psychological response occurring when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers). “This psychological connection develops over the course of the days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse”, said the psychologist from Sinjar. “Those women were also brainwashed by ISIS in captivity, and when they returned, their psychological situation was mishandled due to the absence of proper treatment,” the psychologist added. The post-trauma effects are intensified because the survivors remain untreated from the complex and extended traumas they experienced.
“Many of the female survivors experienced the Stockholm disorder because they were not treated after they were liberated. Post-trauma like effects are seen every day, he added, as we see around 10 Yezidi people attempt suicide.”
He also argues that “These children and women who were taken to European countries without treatment are considered bombs because they are still suffering from brainwashing, ISIS thoughts and criminal acts. And ISIS is trying to reach them to promote their ideology even after they were rescued.”
“Yezidis gave a humanitarian lesson to the world after the world lost their humanity,” said Farhan Ibrahim, an activist and one of the co-founders of the Yezidi survivor’s office in Dohuk. When Yezidis were persecuted — with over 6000 women and children enslaved, sold in markets, and violated physically and sexually in front of the world’s eyes— those who were talking about humanity never did anything to rescue a single Yezidi child. Yezidis took the action to rescue their women and children by buying them back with large amounts of money and accepted them again in the community. The survivors were now considered as sacred figures of the Yezidi community.” Farhan added, “Joint Help for Kurdistan Organization probably got the support from ISIS, or a party that had an interest in returning those females.”
“The Yezidi community does not force their daughters to return, and at the same time they do not force them to stay after they were bought from captivity,” said Hadi Baba Sheikh, a member of the Yezidi Spiritual Council. “They have the freedom to choose whatever they want, but they are angry at the NGOs that kidnapped them and tricked them. And hiding them from their families was a very unethical behavior.” “If these NGOs wish to help the survivors, they have to come and genuinely ask in front of their families whether they want to come back or not,” he added.
Joint Help for Kurdistan Organization was unethically working on survivors’ cases, pretending that they were helping Yezidi. Instead of helping them to overcome their suffering, the NGOs worked on brainwashing them even more to reject their identity; this is despite the fact that the Yezidi community changed their religious laws in order to allow the survivors to return without taboo or stigma. To illustrate, if any Yezidi converts to any other religion, they are not allowed to come back anymore. But because these women were forced by ISIS to convert to Islam, the previous Baba Sheik, the Yezidi religious leader in Iraq and all the world, announced that whomever was forced to convert by ISIS will be accepted again in Yezidism. This encourages thousands of those who were in ISIS captivity to escape and return home.
Yezidism is not based on enforcing values on its followers, but rather on genuine, organic belief by its adherents. According to Hadi Baba Sheikh (the brother of the previous baba sheikh): “When Baba Sheikh accepted the women survivors after they came back from captivity, he was not required to do so; but Yezidis looked at the situation from a humanitarian perspective, as Yezidism emphasizes humanity. Baba Sheikh emphasized that the rescued women should be given a special status in the community because they were oppressed by ISIS members.”
He emphasized that “the Yezidis are not the ones who do not accept their children from ISIS, but the Iraqi law enforces that child of a Muslim father is Muslim.” The second clause of Article (26) of the Iraqi National Card Law No. (3) of 2016 stipulates that “minor children in religion shall follow those who embraced the Islamic religion by parents” —meaning that they become Muslim before they reach adulthood, according to Irfaa Sawtak.
Many people have an interest in separating the Yezidi community and continuing to tear it apart. And those who are trying to return female survivors to their children from ISIS want to prevent the Yezidi genocide case from being recognized internationally,” said Farhan Ibraheem. “If the genocide is recognized,” he argues, “many people will be taken to the court, as they were involved in what happened to Yezidis in 2014.”
The liberated survivors are violated and victimized for the second time. This latest trauma comes while they continue to suffer horrendously from ongoing PTSD, some seven years after being rescued, while also enduring terrible conditions in Internally Displaced Camps, without medical and psychological help (which has caused a disturbing number of survivors to commit suicide). Local and international NGOs have proven to be largely concerned with their own agendas and have failed to provide effective and long-term support to the survivors. This has resulted in a breakdown of trust between the traumatized Yezidi community and NGOs, which has only led to further suffering of the survivors of ISIS.
The overall situation of Yezidis is unbearable and will result in more tragedies if something is not done. NGOs need to act ethically and with respect for the basic rights of the survivors. But also, having long since missed the opportunity for timely aid, the international community now needs to provide ethical and effective support to the Yezidi community — based on what is best for them, rather than what is dictated by the political or financial agendas of the aid organizations.