After surviving Daesh, Yazidi women ask to go home

Yazidi women hold placards during a protest outside the United Nations office in Erbil on August 2, 2015 in support of women from their community who were kidnapped by Daesh militants. (AFP)
Updated 04 February 2019
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After surviving Daesh, Yazidi women ask to go home

  • In 2014, Daesh militants rampaged across swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq
  • None perhaps have tales so harrowing as the Yazidi women

OMAR OIL FIELD: Among thousands fleeing the crumbling dream of a Daesh group “caliphate” in eastern Syria are alleged militants but also survivors of some of their worst atrocities.
“I’ll never forget,” 40-year-old Bissa says softly, as she recounts being “bought and sold” by six different militants.
“We did everything they wanted to do with us. We couldn’t say no,” says the Iraqi woman from the Yazidi religious minority, after fleeing her Daesh captors.
Bissa was one of at least seven Yazidi women and girls to finally escape captivity last week, after years as “sex slaves” at the hands of the extremist group.
Speaking to AFP in territory held by US-backed forces, the women — and at least one teenager abducted when she was 13 — say they just want to go home.
“They would sleep with us against our will,” Bissa said, wearing a dark red headscarf and appearing years beyond her age, her face and hands etched with lines.
More than 36,000 people have fled a crumbling Daesh holdout near the Iraqi border in recent weeks, among them 3,200 alleged militants.
But now in territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), none perhaps have tales so harrowing as the Yazidi women.
In 2014, Daesh militants rampaged across swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq — including the northern Iraqi region of Sinjar, home to a large Yazidi community.
The Kurdish-speaking Yazidis follow an ancient religion rooted in Zoroastrianism, but Daesh considers them to be “apostates.”
In Sinjar, Daesh fighters killed the men, forcefully enlisted boys as soldiers and kidnapped more than 6,000 women.
After Bissa was captured, she was “bought and sold” by six different militants — including three Saudis and a fighter who said he was Swedish.
She was repeatedly brutalized, but was too scared to escape.
“They said whoever tried ... would be punished by a different man sleeping with her every day,” she says inside an SDF center near the Omar oil field.
But 17-year-old Nadine, who militants kidnapped from Sinjar when she was just 13, says she twice tried to escape.
Both times the militant group’s police caught her.
“They flogged me with a hose. It left marks on my back, and I couldn’t sleep on it,” she says.
“The second time, they said I couldn’t eat for two days,” she added.
After they abducted Nadine, Daesh militants took her across the border to the group’s then de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.
Over four years, she says, six different men bought her — Saudis and a Tunisian.
She had to adapt to their brutal interpretation of religion, and adhere to their strict dress code of covering from head to toe in public.
“I love color, and I used to wear trousers,” Nadine says.
Inside the SDF center, she wears a black-and-white bead bracelet around her wrist, bearing the name of her little brother in English.
But she can’t bring herself to remove her black face veil.
“I got used to it. I can’t yet take it off,” she says. “But I will do so when I see my mum.”
After escaping, Nadine says several cousins are still being held a Daesh pocket in eastern Syria.
At the height of its rule, Daesh controlled territory the size of Britain, but today it has lost all but an eastern patch to various offensives — including by the SDF, backed by air strikes of the US-led coalition.
Between 2015 and 2018, at least 129 Yazidi women and girls were handed over to the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), who are part of the SDF.
“We’re definitely... fighting Daesh to free more captives — and not just Yazidis,” YPJ spokeswoman Nasreen Abdallah said.
At the YPJ center, Sabha, 30, waited to take her 10-year-old daughter to hospital, after a kettle of boiling water fell on her legs.
Also a Yazidi woman, Sabha fled the last patch Daesh IS territory with her six children, after the man she was forced to marry was killed in an air strike.
Five of her children are from a first husband killed by Daesh after they overran Sinjar.
But her 18-month-old girl was fathered by a Kurdish militant from the Iraqi region of Kirkuk, who said he spent 15 years of his life in Britain.
Sebha says the militant beat her and threatened to kill her children if she disobeyed.
“All I could think of was how to get out,” says Sabha, wearing a green headscarf.
“I’d wish him dead so I could escape.”
Today, Sabha looks forward to going home to her family, she says.
“But what makes me most happy is that I saved my children.”


In Syria’s Idlib, education a casualty of war

A displaced Syrian girl carries books on her head near a bus converted into a classroom in the village of Hazano in northwestern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 21 September 2019

In Syria’s Idlib, education a casualty of war

  • The conditions are dire however, with camp manager Hammud Al-Sayah explaining initial planning was done for 50 children, yet attendees now top 375

HAZANO, SYRIA: Near the village of Hazano in northwestern Syria, children come running through the olive groves every morning to meet the bus that brings school to their improvised tented camp.
Years of fighting and displacement in Idlib province have wrought chaos for the education of children, destroying schools and scattering families into homelessness across the countryside.
More than 400,000 people have been displaced since April alone, when the Russian-backed regime upped its deadly bombardment of the opposition-dominated enclave.
“These children can’t go to school, it’s too far from where they are,” said Farid Bakir, a local program manager with Syria Relief, the charity that launched the bus project.
In Hazano camp, the children get in line and hope to be among those who squeeze into the bus for a few hours.
A whiteboard is installed in the back, a thick carpet laid on the floor and a few dozen small desks, also used as chairs, are rearranged depending on the activity.
The ceiling is too low for the teacher to stand fully upright but Hussein Ali Azkour, a young boy wearing a yellow T-shirt, is enthusiastic about his classroom-on-wheels.
“The difference between a normal school and the bus, is that the bus is air-conditioned. It’s better than a thousand schools,” he said.
“When we fled here, there was no school and they started bringing the buses. If these buses were to stop coming, we would have no education and learn nothing.”
The buses cater only for ages ranging from five to 12 and include classes in Arabic, mathematics, science and sometimes English, as well as singing and drawing.
Since the project was launched in May, around 1,000 children have benefitted from the bus program, Bakir said.
That is a drop in the ocean of problems children, who represent more than half of the Idlib region’s 3 million inhabitants, are facing. According to Save the Children, the heavy bombardment since late April has damaged or otherwise impacted 87 educational facilities, while a further 200 are being used as shelters for those the violence displaced.
The UK-based NGO says some parents have been pleading with them to shut down schools for fear they would be targeted in regime air strikes.
“As the new school year starts, the remaining functional schools can only accommodate up to 300,000 of the 650,000 school-age children,” it said.
Ragheb Hassoun’s children are among the few who have been fortunate enough to receive a few hours a week of lessons through the bus project, but he says the situation is not tenable.
“We want something permanent — a school on the land where we live,” the 28-year-old said.
He and his family have been displaced several times since the start of the conflict in Syria eight years ago.

NUMBER 300K

schoolchildren out of the 650,000 can be accommodated in the remaining functional schools as the new school year starts, according to Save the Children.

Hassoun said he would be happy if his children could at least go to school during normal hours in a tent at the camp.
This is what children have in a larger camp near Dana, north of the city of Idlib, where the local school is housed under two large UN tents.
The conditions are dire however, with camp manager Hammud Al-Sayah explaining initial planning was done for 50 children, yet attendees now top 375.
Books underarm — or with bags strapped to backs — pupils are squeezed around black desks, while those unable to find a seat perch cross-legged on the floor.
Children who are four or five years apart attend the same classes.
“The pressure is huge,” Sayah said, admitting that the schooling conditions have a serious impact on the quality of education.
At 10 years of age, Abdel Razaq knows that his education is being compromised.
Standing in front of the white tent he has come to call his school, he said he dreams of a big building “where the number of children in each class is lower.”
“And where we could sit comfortably and hear what the teachers are saying.”