The genocide of Yazidis by IS will have repercussions for generations to come. The memories are there to stay, not least for some 2,000 children who were freed from IS captivity and returned to their families.
These children urgently need help to come to terms with their experience of abuse, humiliation, and indoctrination, Amnesty International wrote in its recent report “Legacy of Terror: The Plight of Yezidi Child Survivors of ISIS,” published on the sixth anniversary of the genocide.
Read more: Who are the Yazidis?
In early August 2014, IS fighters attacked the Yazidis, a heterodox ethnoreligious group of Kurdish heritage and language. Nearly 10,000 people — mainly men and boys over 12 — were murdered. More than 70 mass graves have been discovered in the region. About 7,000 Yazidi women and children were abducted, sold as slaves, abused and raped.
Trauma specialist Jan Kizilhan admits that the plight of the Yazidi children has been overlooked
“So far we were focused on adults rather than youths,” says Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, co-author of the study published this week “We were overwhelmed by the pictures of slavery, rape, mass executions and so the plight of the children was more or less ignored.”
Kizilhan is a psychiatrist and heads a center for intercultural psychosomatics in southern Germany. He has interviewed thousands of IS victims, and works with psychotherapists in northern Iraq “because there are simply not enough qualified psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and doctors to cope with the huge number of traumatized adults and children,” says Kizilhan.
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Kizilhan and his team have spoken with dozens of boys and girls, who were abducted by the IS, tortured, exploited or forced into armed combat.
14-year-old Randa survived five years as a slave in IS captivity. She was sold over and over again until she was forced into marriage. When she was finally freed by Kurdish fighters after the battle of Baghouz she initially didn’t want to go. “The IS told us over and over again that we can’t return to our families, because they would kill us because we are Muslims now,” she said.
Randa is one of 1041 Yazidi girls who were freed from IS-captivity in February 2020, according to the Kurdish regional government in Dorhuk.
Most of them suffered violent sexual abuse resulting in post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. “These girls have been broken, and they’re now afraid of men in general, even their fathers and brothers,” psychiatrist Kizilhan says.
Boys are equally traumatized as girls. Most of them were forced to fight as child soldiers. Amnesty tells the story of Sahir: He was beaten continually with cables and plastic pipes, he was starved and forced to fight. “I fought to survive,” he says.
After his liberation, Sahir got no support at all, he says. “What I need is someone who cares about me and supports me and tells me ‘I am here for you,’ but I haven’t found that yet,” he says.
Others need help too. Many child survivors have debilitating long-term injuries, some have lost limbs, others still have bullets stuck in their bodies.
“While the nightmare of their past has receded, hardships remain for these children. After enduring the horrors of war at an extremely young age, they now need urgent support from the national authorities in Iraq and the international community to build their future,” said Matt Wells, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Deputy Director
Amnesty has put together a list of concrete recommendations for Iraqi and Kurdish authorities as well as the international community, stressing the need for the children to get identification papers and receive education. The children born to Yazidi women who were raped need to be accepted into the communities and criminal investigations need to be launched to bring perpetrators to justice.
Read more: Yazidi women seek acceptance for children born of IS rape
Düzden Tekkal, a Yazidi activist based in Germany, and founder of the aid organization Hawar.Help travels regularly to her old home in Northern Iraq and speaks to survivors from IS captivity there.
Activist Düzen Tekkal in one of eleven children of a Yazidi family
The perpetrators need to be prosecuted to “soothe the victims’ souls,” she says. Although they have been liberated from captivity, they “do not really feel free, and definitely not protected,” she explains. “We are talking about children who live in refugee camps. They are being shoved around and their future is insecure,” Tekkal explains. “They are caught in a noman’s land.”
Read more: Prosecuting IS returnees in Germany
350,000 Yazidis live in Northern Iraq today. Many of them dare not go back to their homeland, the Sinjar mountains. It is not safe there. IS fighters are still hiding in the region, Kurdish and Shi’ite militias are fighting there, and the Turkish military has come into play. In late June, Ankara attacked militias there with fighter planes.” 150 families had just then decided to leave the camps and return to their villages. One day later everything had been turned to rubble,” says Ilhan Kizilhan.
Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad takes to Twitter to appeal to the international community.
Activist Tekkal is calling for a safe zone protected by the United Nations. “We need a special region where Yazidi life is protected and reconstruction can start,” she says Tekkal. She means the city of Shingal, which was completely destroyed, and the villages in the area, where water and electricity and other basic infrastructure need to be restored.
This, she believes, is the basis for helping children and other victims fight the physical and mental health crisis.
The “Boxing Sisters” program was launched in late 2018 by Lotus Flower, a British NGO in Iraqi Kurdistan. Five days a week Yazidi women and girls gather for a two-hour training session in the Rwanga IDP camp. Many of these women were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual violence while held captive by the “Islamic State” (IS) before arriving at the camp.
Boxing was not the first physical activity that Lotus Flower brought to the women and girls in Rwanga camp, but it has been the most popular by far. “We thought that it would be a really good way for the women to be empowered physically as well as internally,” says Vian Ahmed, the group’s regional director.
“Many times when I do boxing, I remember the moments I had pain and depression inside myself and I try to get rid of it through boxing,” says Husna Said Yusef. She and her family have been at Rwanga camp since IS attacked her village in Sinjar in 2014. When her family learned that IS was approaching, they fled to the mountains and hid for a week, until they were able to make their way to the camp.
Said Yusef, who is 18, has always loved sports. From a young age she would practice weightlifting with her uncle in their makeshift gym at home, but boxing, she says, is something special. And even though she would like to become a doctor one day, “at the same time, I don’t ever want to leave boxing,” she says.
In the beginning, not many families in the camp were willing to let their girls attend boxing class, but after several weeks of Lotus Flower staff members going house-to-house explaining the benefits of this physical activity, things began to change. “We didn’t believe that it would be something so welcomed in this short period of time,” Vian Ahmed says.
In April, some of the women in the boxing classes were themselves trained as coaches so that they could go teach boxing to women and girls in other camps in the area. Husna Said Yusef started teaching in her own camp.
When the young women aren’t in boxing class, they can attend English language classes or “Storytelling Sisters,” a visual storytelling workshop. Some go to high school. The attack on their villages in 2014 by the “Islamic State” group had put a stop to their studies. They now have the chance to resume them.