The news from Syria and Iraq is most often dominated by besieged cities and airstrikes on the strongholds of the Muslim extremists of the Islamic State. What those fighters are doing to women they abduct is often hidden by the terrorizing captivity under which they are held. The daily horror of torture, rape and slave conditions cannot be seen from outside those pockets of fear and misery.
In a new report, “Escape From Hell: Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity in Iraq,” Amnesty International has found and interviewed extensively 46 women and girls who had escaped their captors — 42 of them in face-to-face meetings with an Amnesty researcher in northern Iraq and four others still in captivity who were reached by telephone. Lists were compiled of hundreds more captive women and girls. Amnesty reports that about 200 girls and women had escaped, but hundreds more have not.
The report is focused in particular on the communities of the Yazidi minority religion around Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, where thousands of Yazidi people were trapped for months in 2014 until Kurdish forces were able to open a corridor to them late in the year. By then it was too late for hundreds of girls and young women.
In its report, published in late December, Amnesty said (using an alternate spelling for the victimized group) that “even within the context of its persecution of minority groups and Shi’a Muslims, the IS has singled out the Yezidi minority, notably its women and children, for particularly brutal treatment.”
The women and girls interviewed described their captors as both local and foreign, with some not speaking Arabic. “According to the testimonies of those who escaped from captivity, the majority of the men they encountered during their ordeal — those who captured, held or abused them, prospective ‘buyers’ and others — were Iraqis and Syrians, Amnesty said.
“Some were from other Arabic-speaking countries, and a few were from other countries. Four women and girls said they had been held in the homes of two Australian fighters of Lebanese origin, one of whom was living with his Australian wife (also of Lebanese origin) and children. Most were in their 20s and 30s, some were older, and few were considerably older, up to mid-50s. Many, but not necessarily all, were IS fighters and some were believed to be IS supporters.”
If any faint hope for others existed in the former captives stories, it was that in a few cases they were treated sympathetically by families to which the militants assigned them. Notably, most of the people who were described as “very nice” to them were women, often older “first” wives and mothers. Occasionally, captives found men willing to aid in their escapes.
But for the most part, life was a daily horror lived in terror and abuse, sexually molested, beaten with electric wire, crudely probed to test their virginity, among other methods, and threatened repeatedly that their families would be harmed if they did not cooperate. It was a systematic policy.
“The IS has also boasted about subjecting abducted Yezidi women and girls to sexual violence and slavery, seeking to legitimize these abhorrent and criminal practices according to their own interpretation of Islam,” Amnesty said in its report. “Discussing the treatment of the Yezidi minority population in areas under IS control in its publication (Dabiq), it states:
‘After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums [fifth]. . . . Before Shaytān [Satan] reveals his doubts to the weak-minded and weak hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffār [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah. . . .’
In one account of captivity and escape, a 16-year-old girl named Randa was abducted from her village south of Mount Sinjar with her parents, siblings and scores of other relatives. “She was sold or given as a ‘gift’ to a man twice her age who then raped her, Amnesty said. “Her father was killed along with other male relatives. Her mother, who was heavily pregnant when she was abducted, gave birth in IS captivity and continues to be held with scores of other women and children from the family. Some are being held in Syria, others in Iraq.”
Randa, who with close relatives was taken to the city of Mosul by her captors, told the Amnesty researcher that she has lost touch with her mother and wonders whether they will ever meet again.
Amnesty concludes that the “torture and cruel treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, hostage taking, arbitrary deprivation of liberty and forcing persons to act against their religious beliefs are prohibited and constitute war crimes.” These acts certainly violate Security Council resolutions intended to protect civilians — women in particular — in conflict areas and are violations of humanitarian law. Under humanitarian law, Amnesty says, “individuals, whether civilians or military, can be held criminally responsible for war crimes.”