They have suffered something so terrible, their eyes will always haunt you
Deep in the forests of southern Germany, where everything is green and the only sound is the wind in the trees, are hidden more than 1,000 young women and children from a far-off land. They have suffered something so terrible that their eyes will for ever haunt you, their hands twist over and over as they speak, and their children wake in the night screaming: “The men are coming, the men are coming!”
The girls in the forest — including one who is only eight years old — have been raped hundreds of times, and have witnessed or heard the slaughtering of their menfolk. It’s hard to think of anything in recent years as horrific as what happened to the Yazidis, a gentle people from an ancient minority who pray towards the sun and worship a peacock angel. When Isis swept into their homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014, killing thousands of men and capturing thousands of girls to keep as sex slaves, there was worldwide outrage. The United Nations, the US Congress and the British parliament have all denounced the attack as “genocide”. But one province of Germany decided actually to do something.
Over nearly two years, under a unique rescue programme called the Special Quota Project, 1,100 Yazidi women and children who escaped Isis have been flown from Iraq to Baden-Württemberg. There, they are housed in 23 secret shelters in remote areas, hidden from view for their own security and to shield them from society.
After getting to know Yazidis in refugee camps in Greece, I was granted rare access to meet some of these survivors.
I knew their stories would be bad. But to sit on the floor with them, hold their cold hands, look into their sad eyes and hear the agonising detail was my most harrowing experience in a lifetime of covering conflict.
The first shelter we visit is near a medieval village of colourful gingerbread houses on a river that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale. But the stories the women tell involve monsters beyond even the most evil of imaginings.
The first indication of just how bad this will be comes when the German-based Yazidi activist who has agreed to be my interpreter, Shaker Jeffrey, 20, stops answering his phone in the days leading up to my visit. “He’s going through a personal crisis,” says the Yazidi doctor who has put us in touch. Later, Shaker tells me that his own fiancée was one of the girls enslaved by Isis and taken to Syria to be repeatedly raped then handed on to two fighters who were brothers and who made her cook and dance for them in between forcing themselves on her. Two attempts at escape failed. The last time she managed to call she told him: “I wish I was dead.” A few weeks later he learnt that she had committed suicide. He shows me the screensaver on his phone of a beautiful smiling girl. “She would have been 21,” he says. Shaker himself has received so many death threats, he has asked us not to picture him.
The first shelter we visit is near a medieval village of colourful gingerbread houses on a river that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale. But the stories the women tell involve monsters beyond even the most evil of imaginings.
The three-storey building in the grounds of a mental institution looks like a student hostel. A few children are playing on bicycles near the door, though not venturing far. I am shown into a long, bare room where the only decoration is a line of children’s colourings of birds, flowers and butterflies pinned on one wall. A group of women drift in with haunted eyes like figures in a Munch painting. A number of doors lead off to bedrooms. Inside one I sit with a woman called Turko Hasan, huddled in a long, flecked-grey cardigan over a navy-blue dress, her dark hair tied back from a face that looks as if it has had all the light drawn out. She looks middle-aged, so I am shocked when she tells me she is 35.
Turko looks down at her wrist on which she wears a bracelet of blue glass eye amulets, as well as the twisted red-and-white cord worn by all the Yazidis I meet. Shaker tells me the white signifies peace and the red signifies blood — Yazidis have undergone centuries of persecution and, he says, 72 previous genocides.
Then she tells her story.
It starts on August 3, 2014, the day that Isis fighters swept into the main Yazidi city of Sinjar. Turko was from the village of Kocho, south of Sinjar, where she did odd jobs in fields or even building work, and was with her mother and three-year-old niece when three cars roared up and armed men in black jumped out. They rounded up about 40 people. “They took us to a chicken shed, where they said, ‘Give us your phones, gold and money and we will leave you,’ ” Turko recalls. “They took everything we had.” Then they separated the men from the women and children. “My uncle and cousin were with us and they killed them, and all the men — they took them to the fields and we could hear the bullets.”
Terrified, they were then driven past the dead bodies to a prison where they were held with hundreds of women, and provided no food or water. “We were so desperate, we were forced to drink from the latrines,” she says.
A man came with three Korans and told them he would teach them Islam. “We said, ‘No, we don’t want your religion, we want our families back,’ ” says Turko. “They pointed their guns at us and said, ‘We’ll kill you if you don’t convert.’ Then they pushed us against the wall and beat us with sticks.”
After that, they were taken in buses to Tal Afar, a town to the east, to a hotel where they were penned with hundreds of women. Those who were married were separated from the girls, some of whom were virgins, whom they would take as slaves. Turko pretended to be the mother of her niece to avoid being taken. She was held there for two months. Sometimes Isis fighters came and beat everyone and took a woman or girl for two days then brought her back. For a while, Turko was taken with some of the older women and mothers to the next village to run a bakery and make food. “But then they realised the children were not ours, and said they would take us to Syria.”
This is where it becomes incredibly hard for her to tell her story. She stops for a cigarette, then continues. “We got to Raqqa at about 11pm. They took us to a two-storey building with about 350 women and children. Every day, people were coming and looking at us, then women would be taken and handed out to Isis men.”
Turko was kept in that slave market for 40 days, fearful every day. Then it was her turn. She and her little niece were taken to the Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor and handed over to a Saudi man, a judge in the Islamic courts that Isis had set up. The first night, he summoned her to his bedroom. “I bought you and it’s written in the Koran I can rape you,” he told her.
He was referring to a pamphlet issued by “the Isis resurgence fatwa department”, which stated that Yazidis were infidels whose enslavement was a “firmly established aspect of sharia”, so they can be systematically raped. There was even a section titled Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves. One question asked: is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty? The answer was yes.
When Turko tried to resist the judge, he beat her for an hour until blood streamed from her nose.
“The next morning he grabbed me by my hair, cuffed my arms to the bed [she mimics being outstretched like a crucifix] then forced himself on me. For four months it was like this, he raped me three times every day and never let me out.”
When he went to work, he locked Turko inside. He beat her niece, but didn’t rape her. Then one day he came home with a British woman he had married who was 22 and went by the name Muslim. “Whenever he raped me, this woman went crazy, she was very jealous,” says Turko. “Eventually he put me in a black hijab, drove me to Isis headquarters in the town, locked me in the car, then after 10 minutes came and said, ‘I sold you for $350.’ ”
Her new owner was Syrian and a prison warder. He took her to stay with an Isis woman. “It was the same as before,” she says. “Every evening the Syrian came and raped me, then went away in the morning. When the Isis woman went out, she handcuffed my arms to something so I couldn’t escape. Any time any Yazidi girl fled captivity and went on TV, they would beat us more, saying they are bad-mouthing Isis so we will teach you a lesson. I often thought of killing myself, but didn’t because my brother’s little girl was with me, and she would die too.”
Turko was with the prison warder for two months until one of her uncles eventually paid $2,500 to have her freed. On May 25, 2015, after more than nine months in captivity, she was taken to a refugee camp in northern Iraq.
On her hand is a small tattoo, which she tells me is the name of her brother. “I have no one else,” she says. Her father died years ago and she has no idea what happened to her mother, whom she last saw in the Isis prison when they were captured. “From my whole family, so many died,” she shrugs.
When she heard about the air bridge to Germany, she applied to go with her sister-in-law and niece and they were flown over last September. “We came because of the children and also what should we do in Iraq any more? We got raped and dirtied.”
Turko tells me she often feels desperate, particularly as the hostel is situated in the grounds of a mental institution.
“I feel like I am dying every day,” she says. “Here I get worse and worse. I have nothing to do, just my own thoughts and we are surrounded by people with mental problems. The town is 30 minutes’ walk away and it’s expensive. I feel like the place is crowding in on me.”
“Often the kids sleep with me in the night and they were in slavery too and saw people being killed and us being raped, so they wake up 10 times in the night saying, ‘The men are coming, the men are coming!’ I’m grateful for what Germany did for me, but I want to be in my own house in a beautiful city and standing on my own feet.”
Upstairs from Turko in the hostel, I meet Rochiyan, 18, a wisp of a girl who smiles uncertainly from behind a curtain of mahogany hair. She is the niece of Nadia Murad, perhaps the world’s best known Yazidi for being the first sex-slave survivor to speak out and as the recently appointed UN goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.
Clad in a black T-shirt and sweatpants, Rochiyan’s only ornament is a gold peacock angel around her neck inscribed with the name of her father (Nadia’s brother), killed by Isis. The only decoration in her room is a Yazidi calendar. The word “Hope” is spelt out in sparkly letters stuck on her mobile phone.
Rochiyan was just 16 on August 3, 2014, when Isis invaded her village near Kocho. Some villagers escaped to Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis ended up trapped with no food or water. But it was far away, so she and her family fled to another village to the house of her aunt Nadia.
Twelve days later, Isis arrived there and demanded they hand over all their valuables. They took everyone to a school and put women and children on the ground floor and men upstairs. Just as with Turko, they then took some of the men in cars and drove away. “We heard gunshots and women started screaming, ‘They are killing the men!’ Then we saw men with shovels.”
As many as 600 men from that village were killed, including six of Rochiyan’s uncles — Nadia’s brothers. Only those so young that they didn’t yet have hair on their legs were brought back, then taken away for training. The women were driven to a school, where the younger ones and virgins, including Rochiyan and Nadia, were separated from the older women and those with children, such as her mother. The virgins were taken to Mosul, to a three-storey building packed with hundreds of women and children. “A man came through and began touching our hair, breasts, backs, feeling all our body parts,” says Rochiyan. “He told us, ‘If you scream I will kill you.’ I was with Nadia and when they touched her she started screaming and all the other girls did too, so they dragged Nadia out of the room and started beating her.
“We heard they were taking the most beautiful ones, so we started rubbing dirt into our hair to try and look nasty, but a girl told them what we were doing. Then, in the night, a very fat Isis soldier came and we were very scared of him — he was like a monster. I was with Nadia, my cousin Kotrine and Nasrina, a friend from the village. The fat man shone torches in our faces and wanted to take Nadia, but we held her and refused to let him. Then Isis fighters came with electric cables and began whipping our arms and took all four of us. One of them, called Salman, took Nadia, and I was taken to a car. Then the bad fat guy who beat us at the beginning came and said, ‘Now you are mine.’ ”
“That night they were in the room next door. I never heard anyone scream so much, crying for her mother. That night I cried more for that little girl than I ever did for myself.”
Until now Rochiyan has been speaking easily. Suddenly, she puts her head down. “It was night,” she says. “We got to his house and he kept trying to touch me and I didn’t let him, so he took my belt and beat me and slapped me so hard my eye was bleeding and there was a huge mark on my face. Then he sat on my back, so I couldn’t breathe, and raped me from behind. After that he came every day to rape me three or four times.”
This went on for more than six weeks. Then the man, an Iraqi from Mosul, told her he was going to buy another girl. The girl he brought home was just 10 years old.
“That night they were in the room next door,” she says. “I never heard anyone scream so much, crying for her mother. That night I cried more for that little girl than I ever did for myself.”
I hold Rochiyan’s hand. It is cold. I ask her if she wants to stop. She shakes her head. “One day he brought us hijabs and took us downtown,” she continues. “I tried to flee, but another woman caught me and brought me back. I’d heard the stories of how, when girls were caught trying to flee, they beat the shit out of them and killed the family, so I told him I thought I saw my auntie in the car; that’s why I was running.”
One day, Rochiyan managed to steal the fat man’s phone and put it in her bag to call one of her surviving uncles. He gave her the number of a person in Mosul who was helping girls escape. One morning, the fat man took Rochiyan to a meeting where bombs were being made. “He left me in another building, so I spilt tea on myself and told them I am just going to change my clothes. I called the contact, put on my hijab and jumped from the roof into the street.”
The car that was supposed to be outside was nowhere to be seen. When she called again, the contact told her: “You are being followed by three guys, it’s too dangerous.” She pointed out this was her second attempt at escape and she would be killed if she was caught, so he gave her an address. “I got to the car and we were being followed by three guys on cars and motorbikes,” she says. “But the driver called friends to come and block the way and he managed to take me to his family.” However, he had hurt his leg and ended up in hospital for six days, leaving her with his family.
Finally the man got out of hospital and drove her through the checkpoints to Erbil and a rendezvous spot with her uncle. That wasn’t the end. “When they found out I’d fled, they took my mum from Tal Afar prison and gave her to the rapist with my siblings. He held them [for] nine months.” When they finally got out, the 10-year-old girl was still there, being raped every day. Rochiyan has no idea what happened to her.
Eventually, Rochiyan’s mum also escaped and when they heard about the air bridge to Germany, they applied to be taken. On December 1, Rochiyan, her three younger siblings and their mother left Iraq for the first time and flew to Stuttgart.
They receive €320 a month for food and clothes and Rochiyan is now going to school. Though she is happy to be safe in Germany, she says: “I don’t like school because there are only two of us Yazidi girls, the others are Afghans and Syrians and are always saying Isis things or playing Isis prayers or poetry on their phones to scare us.”
“I don’t think I will ever get over this,” she adds, “it will never go away.”
The idea of giving women such as Turko and Rochiyan shelter in Germany surfaced in September 2014, when Winfried Kretschmann, premier of Baden- Württemberg, a member of the Green Party and a committed Christian, was approached by leaders of the Yazidi community in Germany. They showed him pictures of mass killings, beheadings and crucifixions, and begged: “Please do something!”
He was shocked and spoke to Dr Michael Blume, who was responsible for religious minorities for the state and married to a Turkish Muslim. They found that under German law it is possible for a state to intervene in a humanitarian crisis overseas, but it had never been done.
That October, the state government called a refugee summit with political parties, churches and mayors and all agreed they should help and arrange an air bridge from Iraq to bring out 1,100 women and children, to whom they would give three-year visas. Blume was appointed to head the project and €90m was apportioned.
In the camps in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, about 1,600 women were referred to the project. Each one underwent an hour-long psychological evaluation, a medical and a discussion of how they might benefit from the programme.
The stories were shocking. “After listening you don’t sleep,” says Blume.
There was, for example, the mother who told him how she was forced to convert and read the Koran, but stumbled over a passage, so they tortured and killed her baby in front of her. Or the eight-year-old girl who had been raped hundreds of times.
“The hardest thing was deciding who to take and who not to take, can you imagine?” he says. “How do you decide between a woman who has lost two children and another who only lost one, but it was killed in front of her?” The three key criteria were whether they had suffered traumatising violence; whether they had family support — if their husbands were alive, they tended not to take them; and whether taking them to Germany would help. The first priority was emergencies. “Some were suicidal,” he says, “or would have died because they were sick — gynaecological damage or terrible burns from self-immolation.”
In March last year, the first were flown from Erbil to Stuttgart. The average age of the girls is 19. Among the children are boys who had been beaten and forced to be child soldiers. They are aged up to 13, as those 14 or over were killed — “They were killed if they had hair on their ankles,” says Blume. As agreed, 1,100 women and children have arrived in Germany. But more than 5,000 Yazidi women are thought to have been enslaved. Blume estimates that 2,000 who have fled or been freed are now in need of urgent help. “It was awful not to take all,” he says. “But every life is worth the effort.”
Surprisingly, none of the women I meet has had a baby as a result of being raped. Blume suggests this is because Isis fighters didn’t want Yazidi children and used precautions, or the babies were aborted.
German social workers come to visit the women every day, but Blume explains that psychotherapy has proved less useful than expected. “There was one session, for example, where the Yazidi woman came out and complained, ‘She said she’s a doctor, but she only talked.’ In Iraq doctors give pills. What’s actually working is therapy like art, painting, yoga and working with animals such as horses to rebuild trust in their bodies and trust in other people. That’s a big problem: many feel betrayed by everyone.”
I ask Blume why the girls have been put in such remote locations, almost as if they were outcasts. “At the start, they were very fearful and didn’t want to be seen by others,” he explains. “Some were very ashamed. Also most had never left Iraq before and we didn’t know how they would react to the cultural shock. At the start they were very afraid of men, especially of Arab origin, so to put them in big cities would have really stressed them. The psychologists told us it was important to bring them to a place where there were no triggers. The places are not all ideal, but the important thing was survival, not beauty.”
Indeed, despite everything the women have gone through, not a single one has committed suicide since arriving in Germany. He says the idea is now to integrate them into society, putting them in apartments. “For a whole year we didn’t hear children sing or make a rhythm, but now we see in the kindergarten they are laughing again and playing games, and of course that helps their mothers.”
The other significant achievement has been getting their husbands, fathers and brothers to accept rather than reject them. “We asked Baba Shaikh [the Yazidi spiritual leader] in Lalish, their holy place [in northern Iraq], to bless every group before they left and tell them, ‘You did nothing wrong; the only people who lost their honour were the perpetrators, not you; you are still our daughters and our sisters and can return any time.’ Now we see them slowly being accepted in the community.”
I see evidence of this when I visit another shelter on a wooded hillside, where I am welcomed into a one-room bedsit by a couple celebrating their first anniversary. Vian Mirza Qassim, 31, and Ali Khider Ziblo, 33, both wearing the peacock angel gold necklace, sit on a green mattress on the floor next to a carrycot. Inside is a perfect tiny baby boy wrapped in swaddling, just 20 days old. On the wall is a white and red flag with a golden sun — the Yazidi flag.
Ali recounts, smiling, how he had been pursuing Vian for a year to give him a photo of her, and on the eve of August 3, 2014, she finally did. The following day Isis arrived and Vian was captured and taken in a bus to Mosul. “They had long beards and hair, no shoes, and took us to Syria to a big school,” she says. “I was very frightened. They told us if you don’t convert we will kill you.”
Twisting the edge of the baby blanket round and round in her fingers, she continues: “Every day, fighters came with pieces of iron and wood and took some girls for a couple of days for pleasure. They divided us into three groups — the beautiful group, middle group and ugly group. I was in the middle group.”
She says she pretended she had mental problems, beating her head against the wall in the hope they wouldn’t take her.
Meanwhile, Ali was desperate. When Vian managed to call him from Mosul, he promised he would do everything to get her back. “I told her even if you marry an Isis fighter and have kids by him, I will still marry you and you will be mine.”
She told him their location and begged: “Tell the airstrike people to blow it up so we won’t have to go through something worse than death.” After that Ali heard screaming and the phone went dead. “I was so worried, I didn’t eat for two days,” he says.
Instead, he went to Mount Sinjar to join the fight against Isis. “Four of my friends were killed on the mountain and people were starving, but I refused to leave because of my promise to Vian.”
Finally, when she was transferred to another village, she escaped with a small group and they managed to find their way up the mountain. Ali was overjoyed to see her, but initially she didn’t recognise him with his beard and uniform and weapons.
She left for Germany in June of last year. He borrowed $10,000 and made his own way on the refugee trail to meet her there. Three months after she arrived they married. The ceremony was attended by many in the community, as the first marriage of one of the abducted girls.
For all the international outcry over what happened to the Yazidis, many of the girls fear they have now been forgotten. Two years on from the attack that so shocked the world, thousands of girls remain enslaved by Isis and the slave market remains in operation in Mosul.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis are living in tented camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border along with other displaced Iraqis. Though some Yazidi areas, including Sinjar, have been liberated by Kurdish peshmerga and the coalition fighting against Isis, their homes have been destroyed and they fear what might await them going back. Their biggest fear, however, is lack of justice. Isis has lost half its territory in Iraq over the past year and the US-backed coalition has started operations to try to retake Mosul.
“The day Mosul falls, I fear Isis men, like the one who kept me, will just shave off their beards and escape to the West,” says Rochiyan. “They should be punished for what they did.”
To lobby for justice, Dr Blume went to New York last month for the UN General Assembly with Nadia Murad and her lawyer, Amal Clooney, who has taken up the Yazidi cause. “I am ashamed as a lawyer that there is no justice being done,” Clooney told the UN. “I am ashamed as a woman that girls like Nadia could have their bodies sold and used as battlefields. I am ashamed as a human being that we ignore their cries for help. We know that what we have before us is genocide, and we know that it is ongoing. We know exactly who the perpetrators are. Isis brags about its crimes online. Yet two years on, 3,200 Yazidi women and children are still held captive by Isis, and not a single Isis member has been prosecuted in a court anywhere in the world for crimes committed against the Yazidi.”
Afterwards, Clooney told me: “The UN has said that the Yazidis are victims of genocide — but has not done anything about it. I have called on the members of the Security Council to fulfil their obligation under the Genocide Convention to punish those who have committed these crimes. I hope the council will now act — with leadership from the UK — to ensure that Isis is brought to justice.”
Some 72 mass graves have been found around Mount Sinjar so far, containing hundreds of bodies. But there has been no international effort to excavate them or seal them to preserve the evidence — they are simply roped off. Even though Isis made no effort to hide its barbarity — videoing atrocities such as burning virgins alive in cages — there has been no effort to collect evidence.
Britain has refused to take any Yazidi refugees, even though Theresa May, the prime minister, recently told the Today programme that what makes her most angry is sexual abuse of children. “They told us they only take Syrians and Yazidis are Iraqis,” said Ahmed Burjus, the UK representative of Yazda, the Yazidi organisation, who accompanied the women to meet government ministers.
Despite the Yazidis having so little, while I was talking to Rochiyan, it turns out her silent mother and the other women on their floor have prepared a Yazidi feast of spiced chicken, flat bread, barley and wild rice with nuts. For a short while as we eat and chat it is almost as if life is normal. But their scars will never really heal. Outside the forest is dark and as we drive away I know I will see their haunted faces in the trees for ever more.
Picture credits: Christina Lamb; cover photograph by Georgios Makkas