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Freed but not free: Yazidi girls who escaped Islamic State are trapped by trauma

February 19, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Last summer, militants from the Islamic State group attacked a small ethnic group called the Yazidis, executing men and taking thousands of women and girls as slaves. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports from Northern Iraq on the rape, violence, threats and harrowing escapes that some young women endured and their continuing struggles with psychological trauma and stigma.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the Islamic State group and their brutal tactics.

Correspondent Marcia Biggs traveled to Northern Iraq for the NewsHour to report on a group of girls who managed to escape from the terrorist group. But because of their psychological trauma and shame, they are still far from free.

A warning: Her report contains graphic images and subject matter.

MARCIA BIGGS: Refugee camps dot the countryside in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where almost two million people have been forced from their homes; 29,000 people are living in this camp alone. Most of them are Yazidi, and almost all of them are missing family members.

The Yazidis are a small community of less than a million people, found primarily in Northern Iraq. A private and conservative community, they practice an ancient religion. Last August, members of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, attacked the Yazidis, whom they consider heretics.

These pictures of Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain stunned the world. Hundreds of thousands fled for their lives after I.S. fighters executed many of the men and took thousands of women and girls as slaves. This 13-year-old girl was taken and later escaped.

GIRL (through interpreter): They brought everyone to a school and put the women upstairs and drove the men away. I didn’t want to let my mother go, but they were pulling us from our mothers and beating us. The children were all put in cars. They said, “We’re going to sell you to others and you will have sex with them.”  The last time I saw my mother was when they took me away.

MARCIA BIGGS: This video, which went viral last fall, appears to show an I.S. fighter bragging about the selling of girls.

MAN (through interpreter): Where is my Yazidi girl?


MARCIA BIGGS: In the months that followed, a network of activists sprung up throughout Northern Iraq, an underground railroad of sorts, coordinating rescue efforts. Their phone numbers quickly spread among captive girls, who used smuggled phones to call for help and give their location.

At times, the Kurdish regional government has stepped in to grease the wheels.

KRG envoy Dr. Nouri Othman told us about two girls who escaped their captors in Raqqa and ran to a nearby house, but were turned away by the owner, too scared to take the chance.

DR. NOURI OTHMAN, Envoy to Internally Displaced Persons, Kurdish Regional Government: I called the person, said, listen to me. Please keep these two girls at your home for a couple of days. He said, no, I can’t. I said, I’m going to pay you. Nobody is going to make an adventure with his life without doing something for you. You have to pay them.

MARCIA BIGGS: Some families are raising money to buy back their girls, racking up thousands of dollars in debt.

Is the government funding a program to buy back the girls?

DR. NOURI OTHMAN: I’m not buying them, no. Maybe I’m paying some people. They are helping me getting them back.

MARCIA BIGGS: And so they’re going into ISIS-controlled areas and infiltrating it and getting these girls…

DR. NOURI OTHMAN: Sure. And I’m sure some of them, they have relations with ISIS or some of relatives — some of relatives, and they are doing that. But I don’t care. The important, I want these people to be back. These are my responsibility.

MARCIA BIGGS: Dr. Nouri says that his government has spent over $1.5 million to rescue the girls.

Do you face any ethical dilemma, in the sense that the money that you would pay these people might somehow get into the hands of ISIS fighters?

DR. NOURI OTHMAN: Well, I’m not — not paying ISIS fighters. This is one. Second thing, these are Kurdish citizens. And I don’t care where the money go, personally. I care how to rescue the people.

MARCIA BIGGS: As many as 400 Yazidi women and girls are now free and living in camps like this one, but their nightmare is not over. Most of them have been raped repeatedly. And in a culture where a woman’s virginity is her badge of honor, no one wants to talk about it.

But we found one brave girl who told us her whole story. Just 15 years old, she and her siblings were captured, separated, and, for four months, she was shuttled between towns and cities hundreds of miles apart, even being sent to Syria.

In that first month, she and another girl were handed over to a man she calls the sheik.

GIRL (through interpreter): He took us to his house, and for the night, he forced us to have sex with him.

MARCIA BIGGS: He raped you?

GIRL (through interpreter): Yes. He raped us together. We were together, the three of us, for the night. He told us: “You don’t have religion. I’m marrying you to make you the people of God.”

MARCIA BIGGS: What else did he say to you?

GIRL (through interpreter): He said: “We are married. You are mine. We will stay together and have children. If you try to escape or run away, you will get hurt and we might sell you.”

MARCIA BIGGS: They escaped through the help of a local mechanic, who was able to get them a taxi. They were discovered out at an Islam checkpoint and returned to the city of Mosul, where she was bought and sold again to a man who she says raped her over and over.

GIRL (through interpreter): He said bad words, ugly words. He told me: “If you don’t let me have sex with you, I’m going to sell you again. I will send you to Syria, where 10 men will be doing the same. And he beat us.”

MARCIA BIGGS: She says she attempted suicide twice, the first by drinking bleach, and the second by strangling herself with her scarf.

During those dark days, she used a razor and a pen to tattoo herself with the words which is Arabic for “Mommy and daddy, I love you.”  She says that’s what kept her going.

You hadn’t seen them for four months and you didn’t know where your sisters were.

GIRL (through interpreter): No, I hadn’t heard anything about my sisters.

MARCIA BIGGS: She finally managed to escape once more, through a small kitchen window. A family took her in until a taxi driver, paid by the local government, drove her north towards the town of Dohuk. She says she walked the final hours on a road littered with bombs.

And she’s still missing. And she’s still missing as well.

Her four sisters and brother are still missing. Her mother can barely speak as we swipe through the pictures on her phone of her missing children. It’s too dangerous for us to show you their faces. She may be back with her family, but, like all the girls we met, she is suffering severe trauma, with very few resources.

DEREK FARRELL, Psychotherapist: When you sleep at night, do you have bad dreams, do you have nightmares?

MARCIA BIGGS: Dr. Derek Farrell is a British psychotherapist working with a foundation that aims to open a trauma center for Yazidi girls. He told us some of the horror stories he’s heard.

What has struck you the most?

DEREK FARRELL: Well, one is the level of sexual violence, which is horrific. These are the members of the Yazidi community, where their faith is very important to them. And it’s the fact that, within their trauma, their faith is in some way being used against them, in a way which is very dehumanizing.

A number of them felt that they wanted to kill themselves. And some of the women were given a gun by their ISIS captor and were offered that they could kill themselves, but, when they pushed the trigger, the gun was empty, you know. And it was the sheer, you know, humiliation and ridicule that went with that. These are girls who can’t sleep. They’re having bad nightmares. They are having flashbacks.

MARCIA BIGGS: So many of the girls are afraid to admit that they were raped. They use the words honor and virginity interchangeably. This woman told me she had gone to a doctor who performed a test to prove she was still a virgin.

The Ministry of Health is trying to treat the girls both mentally and physically. But Dr. Nizar Esmat says less than half the girls who have returned have come in for a medical exam.

Is a virginity test part of this initial medical exam?

DR. NIZAR ESMAT, Director General of Health, Dohuk Province: Not all the cases.

MARCIA BIGGS: So you don’t have to have a virginity test if you come for the medical evaluation?


MARCIA BIGGS: But I just wonder if that’s maybe why some of the girls are staying away, because they’re scared to have that test?

DR. NIZAR ESMAT: Yes, this may be one of the reasons, but we are not pushing anyone for this examination.

MARCIA BIGGS: Some girls have had their hymens repaired, a sort of revirginization surgery provided by the government for those that want it.

Did you have any kind of a surgery?

GIRL (through interpreter): I had surgery to become a virgin.

MARCIA BIGGS: Did you feel like you had to have that surgery?

GIRL (through interpreter): Yes.


GIRL (through interpreter): To return to that time when I was a virgin.

DR. NIZAR ESMAT: The priority is to provide good medical care, but some of them are hopeless, because, they say we lost our virginity, so we cannot marry again, for example. We cannot make a family. And we don’t want to disclose this to any one of our family.

They are really in a situation that is really a barrier for us to treat her or to overcome her traumas and depression.

MARCIA BIGGS: Dr. Nizar wouldn’t confirm reports of underground abortions, but said that he is working with the court to try to find a way to make abortion legal for girls returning from captivity.

Throughout the camp, we notice the older women and the little girls, but very few young women. They prefer to stay inside.

Do you think that you will some day marry and have a family?

GIRL (through interpreter): No. Because of what happened to me, I can’t. I don’t want to marry again. I can have a family, but I don’t want to.

MARCIA BIGGS: We ask her if there is anything that makes her happy now. “The thought of meeting my brother and sisters again is the only thing,” she says.

For the little ones in the camp, there are smiles and laughter. They were spared the pain of their older sisters’ captivity. But they embark upon a life in a culture and a community which has been decimated by death and trauma.

Marcia Biggs, for PBS NewsHour, near Dohuk, Northern Iraq.