Photo credit: Taylor Smith
On the fringe of Khanke Refugee Camp, lives a small settlement of escaped Yazidi women from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Coming from Solak, a village 5km from Sinjar, theirs is a journey of never ending heartbreak.
“50 members of my family are in the hands of ISIS. All my sons, their wives and their children are under their control. We don’t know where they took them,” said 50-year-old Zareef.
Zareef and the other women carry a worn and blurry collage made up of pictures of their missing family members to remind them and other people of their absence. Zareef hasn’t seen her oldest son’s wife and their two daughters in two years. When ISIS came to Solak, Zareef tried to stop them from stealing her family.
“When they tried to take my son’s wife, I refused. They hit me in the head and I started bleeding. I still have pain,” said Zareef, “They put a gun to my head and I told them, ‘It’s okay, kill me, it’s better for me.”
The mini camp they now reside in has been nicknamed “Survivor’s Camp”. The women escaped together with their children. They walked for six days until they crossed the border into the Kurdistan region.
“We were walking so much, we had to give the children sleeping tablets during the day and then walk during the night so ISIS wouldn’t catch us,” explained Zareef.
Gowre, 50-years-old, said they resolved to escape after ISIS started taking their ten youngest children to a religious school every day. For two months, the children were trained in the ways of Islam and forced to pray as Muslims.
“When the children came back, they had not forgotten their religion, but ISIS members would come back everyday and threaten to take them away again,” said Gowre.
Although forced to take care of the cows and other animals, Gowre said that none of the older women were raped.
“They didn’t rape us because we’re old. But they took our girls and we don’t know but we think they raped them. Of course they raped them,” said Gowre.
Since the women have no support of male relatives, they have found it extremely difficult to provide for their children. They rely on pittance allowances from charity organizations and donations. The Foundation of Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, a small UK charity, was previously giving survivors $50 USD a month, but stopped after three months.
Now, they rely mostly on a group of young boys from Sinjar who go into town every day looking for odd jobs and return with some half rotten fruits and vegetables as compensation for their labor.
The women say the thing they want most, besides their families’ reunited, is identification cards. When ISIS came to their village, they stole all their passports and IDs. Since relocating to the Survivor’s Camp, many of the women have tried to get new identification cards from the government.
“When I went to the offices, there were a lot of men there, so I couldn’t stand with them,” said Zaytoon, one of the survivors, “I’ve been here for over a year now and no one has helped me.”
When they first arrived, the women claim the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) had promised to help them replace their documents, but every time they’ve visited a department they’ve been turned away. They’ve tried repeatedly at the Civil Service Directorate in Shekhan, Duhok, Semel, and Khanke.
“They said, ‘Look at all these people here. You are not the only woman whose escaped ISIS.’ Nobody pays attention to us because we are women, said Zaytoon.
Rojin Dnany, a volunteer for the Shingal Charity Organization (SCO), says the lack of male support presents a huge problem in Iraqi society. “They are living in very bad conditions. Most of their male relatives are dead or missing and nobody will work for them, so they desperately need financial support,” she said.
SCO attempts to put the survivors in touch with their families and provide financial support whenever possible. They were able to put Ayshu, a 55-year-old Yazidi survivor, in touch with her brother’s wife.
“ISIS was standing with my brother’s wife, they had a gun to her head, telling her to talk to me,” said Ashyu.
Allegedly, ISIS told her they would sell her ten family members back for $60,000 USD. Ashyu doesn’t have that kind of money.
“It’s hard to have the chance to see my family again, but because of money, I can’t” she said.