For a Yazidi woman abducted by Daesh, a tearful homecoming

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In this Tuesday, July 3, 2018 photo, provided by Yazda, a US-based Yazidi rights group, Farida Khalaf returns to her home village of Kocho, northern Iraq. (AP)
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In this Tuesday, July 3, 2018 photo, provided by Yazda, a US-based Yazidi rights group, Farida Khalaf stands in front of a bullet-marked wall inside the schoolhouse where she had been separated from her family and first imprisoned in 2014, by Daesh militants, in Kocho, northern Iraq. (AP)
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In this Tuesday, July 3, 2018 photo, provided by Yazda, a US-based Yazidi rights group, Farida Khalaf looks at a mass grave in her home village of Kocho, northern Iraq.(AP)
Updated 06 July 2018

For a Yazidi woman abducted by Daesh, a tearful homecoming

  • Farida Khalaf somehow kept her composure as she returned to her devastated home village in northern Iraq
  • Khalaf was just 18 years old when she was captured and sold into slavery, and endured four months of rape, torture and beatings

BAGHDAD: Farida Khalaf somehow kept her composure as she returned to her devastated home village in northern Iraq for the first time in four years — until she entered the schoolhouse.
That was where the Daesh militants had separated her and other Yazidi women from their male relatives, selling the women into sexual slavery and sending the men to their deaths. Today, the walls are covered with the portraits of those who were killed.
She fell to her knees and sobbed uncontrollably.
Khalaf was just 18 years old when she was captured and sold into slavery, and endured four months of rape, torture and beatings until she managed to escape. She later wrote about her experiences in “The Girl Who Beat Isis: My Story,” published in 2016.
The Associated Press does not generally identify the victims of sexual assault, but Khalaf has gone public with her story.
On Tuesday she returned to her village of Kocho for the first time since she was captured, passing rows of homes and buildings destroyed in the battle to retake the village in 2015.
“It was very difficult for me to think that I would come back to Kocho again,” Khalaf said later, as she stood inside an empty classroom looking at the photos of the dead.
“I will never forget the day Daesh came and they gathered us in the school and separated us from our families, that will never leave my mind,” she said, using the Arabic acronym for the extremist group.
The militants swept into Sinjar, the ancestral homeland of the Yazidis near the Syrian border, in August 2014, after capturing the northern city of Mosul and declaring an Islamic caliphate in large areas of Iraq and neighboring Syria. Tens of thousands of Yazidis escaped to Mount Sinjar, where most were eventually rescued by US-backed Kurdish forces.
Those who stayed behind met the fate of Khalaf and her family.
The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority, falsely branded as devil-worshippers by Sunni Muslim extremists. IS, adopting a radical interpretation of ancient Islamic texts, declared that Yazidi women and even young girls could be taken as slaves.
Khalaf was taken to the schoolhouse and separated from her father and older brother, who were killed. She and her mother were among thousands of women who were bused from Sinjar to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the caliphate.
In the book, co-written with the German journalist Andrea Hoffmann, she describes how they were bought and sold like cattle. She says the men would kneel and pray before raping her, convinced that it was sanctioned by religion. She fought back — which often triggered her epilepsy — and tried to kill herself.
She eventually escaped when her “owner” left the door to her room unlocked, and her mother escaped five months later. Khalaf spent time in a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq before eventually relocating to Germany, where she lives now.
Ahmed Khudida Burjus, the deputy director of Yazda, a US-based Yazidi rights group, says around 7,000 women and girls were captured and sold into slavery, with nearly half eventually escaping. In Kocho alone, at least 500 men and boys were killed, and 800 women and girls taken away.
The group has documented at least 54 mass graves of Yazidis, but says a lack of resources has delayed the exhumation of the remains, and that there may be more graves yet to be discovered.
Over the past three years, Syrian and Iraqi forces have gradually driven IS out of nearly all the territory it once held. But the group still maintains a presence in the Syrian desert and remote areas along the border.
At least 3,000 Yazidi women, girls and children are still unaccounted for. Khalaf says their fate is never far from her mind.
“I was in their captivity and I know how difficult it is to be there, a day feels like a year,” she said. “We prayed every day that the day would pass without beating or torture or rape.”


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 15 October 2019

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.