Life After ISIS: For Survivors, Sparse Support Means Lasting Struggles

July 14, 2015
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The battle against ISIS has been waged largely by men. But it is women and children who have borne some of the more horrific violence, with thousands forced into slavery, where they have been subjected to rape and other forms of torture.

Sexual violence has a long history in war, but ISIS has built it into their bureaucracy, with dedicated slave markets and price lists based on the victims’ ages, according to Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nations’ special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

ISIS fighters are not just allowed to rape with impunity. They are recruited with the promise of it. “This is a war that is being fought on the bodies of women,” Bangura said. “It’s important for us to recognize that.”

For those who manage to escape their captors, there are few resources to help them. The region is already struggling to support an ever-growing community of displaced people and refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, and now the spread of ISIS. In Iraq alone, an estimated 5.6 million people have been displaced or otherwise affected by the violence, according to the UN. Many fled their homes ahead of advancing ISIS hordes, and now cannot return. They have crowded into camps for the displaced, taking shelter in sprawling tent cities.

The UN has asked for $498 million to provide food, water, shelter and some basic education and health care to those who have fled the reach of ISIS. So far, the UN has received only 30 percent of the total, said Grainne O’Hara, the deputy representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Baghdad.

“The services that are being provided to people are completely inadequate,” O’Hara said. “And I mean food — basic things — before we get into the specific things like psychosocial support for people who have been through particularly traumatic experiences.”

Members of the tiny Yazidi community in Iraq, an ethnic and religious minority, have suffered particularly difficult losses. Thousands were taken captive and sold into slavery when ISIS invaded their homes. ISIS fighters released some older women, and others of all ages have managed to escape. But they return, not home, but to makeshift camps, and an uncertain place in their community.

“There’s a lot of attention focused —  rightly — on getting them released and free, but less effort on what happens to them when they are released,” said Samer Muscati, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Muscati traveled to northern Iraq earlier this year to witness the care for Yazidis who were former ISIS victims. While he said that their medical needs were mostly being met, Muscati said that of 20 women and girls that he spoke with, only one had had any kind of sustained psychological care. Providing culturally specific counseling is difficult, and the Kurdistan regional government, already straining to feed and house new arrivals, has struggled to find the necessary means and manpower to do much more.

At least among the Yazidis, former captives are now finding some support among their own.

Among the Yazidis — as in many communities — rape victims or those presumed to have been sexually assaulted are shunned, or worse. In some cases, women have killed themselves, or attempted to take their lives, for fear of bringing dishonor to their families. Many of these women were also forced to convert to Islam, which is an unforgivable sin for Yazidis.

Baba Sheikh, the Yazidi religious leader, has announced that former ISIS captives should be welcomed back into the community. There are now cleansing ceremonies to wash away what they endured in captivity and re-convert them to the Yazidi faith. Sheikh’s pronouncements have offered some protection and a means back to a place of respect among their families.

But there are still more troubles ahead. Some women are pregnant with the children of their captors. Abortion is illegal in Iraq, and it is unclear how much support the women will receive to raise these children in their community.

And there are still more women and children yet to return. According to the latest UN report, as many as 3,500 Yazidis remain in captivity.

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