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

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.”


Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

Updated 18 October 2019

Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

  • Despite vote for change in the country, there seems to be no end of frustration among young people

SFAX/TUNISIA: It only took 10 minutes for Fakher Hmidi to slip out of his house, past the cafes where unemployed men spend their days, and reach the creek through the mud flats where a small boat would ferry him to the migrant ship heading from Tunisia to Italy.

He left late at night, and the first his parents knew of it was the panicked, crying phone call from an Italian mobile number: “The boat is sinking. We’re in danger. Ask mum to forgive me.”

Hmidi, 18, was one of several people from his Thina district of the eastern city of Sfax among the dozens still unaccounted for in this month’s capsizing off the Italian island of Lampedusa, as ever more Tunisians join the migrant trail to Europe.

His loss, and the continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the same dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

In a parliamentary vote on Oct. 6, the day before Hmidi’s boat sank just short of the Italian coast, no party won even a quarter of seats and many independents were elected instead. On Sunday, the political outsider Kais Saied was elected president.

In the Hmidis’ modest home, whose purchase was subsidized by the government and on which the family is struggling to meet the repayment schedule, his parents sit torn with grief.

“Young people here are so frustrated. There are no jobs. They have nothing to do but sit in cafes and drink coffee or buy drugs,” said Fakher’s father, Mokhtar, 55.

Mokhtar lost his job as a driver two years ago and has not been able to find work since. Fakher’s mother, Zakia, sells brik, a fried Tunisian egg snack, to bring in a little extra money. His two elder sisters, Sondes, 29, and Nahed, 24, work in a clothes shop.

Much of the little they had went to Fakher, the family said, because they knew he was tempted by the idea of going to Europe. At night the family would sit on their roof and see the smuggler boats setting off. The seashore was “like a bus station,” they said.

 

Decline

At a cafe near the Hmidis’ home, a few dozen mostly young men sat at tables, drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Mongi Krim, 27, said he would take the next boat to Europe if he could find enough money to pay for the trip even though, he said, he has lost friends at sea.

A survey by the Arab Barometer, a research network, said a third of all Tunisians, and more than half of young people, were considering emigrating, up by 50 percent since the 2011 revolution.

The aid agency Mercy Corps said last year that a new surge of migration from Tunisia began in 2017, a time when the economy was dipping.

Krim is unemployed but occasionally finds a day or week of work as a casual laborer. He points at the potholes on the road and says even town infrastructure has declined.

For this and the lack of jobs, he blames the government. He did not vote in either the parliamentary or the presidential election. “Why would I? It is all the same. There is no change,” he said.

Unemployment is higher among young people than anyone else in Tunisia. In the first round of the presidential election on Sept. 15, and in the parliamentary election, in which voter turnout was low, they also abstained by the highest margin.

When an apparently anti-establishment candidate, Kais Saied, went through to the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, young people backed him overwhelmingly.

But their support for a candidate touting a clear break from normal post-revolutionary politics only underscored their frustration at the direction Tunisia took under past leaders.

At the table next to Krim, Haddaj Fethi, 32, showed the inky finger that proved he had voted on Sunday. “I cannot imagine a young man who would not have voted for Saied,” he said.

On the bare patch of mud by the creek where Fakher Hmidi took the boat, some boys were playing. For them, the migration to Europe is — as it was for Hmidi — a constant background possibility in a country that offers them few other paths.

SPEEDREAD

The continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

At the time of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, they had great hope, Mohkhtar Hmidi said. But economically, things got worse. Fakher found little hope in politics, he said.

Despite the apparent surge of young support for Saied as president, he has been careful to make no promises about what Tunisia’s future holds, only to pledge his personal probity and insist that he will rigidly uphold the law.

The economy is in any case not the president’s responsibility, but that of a government formed by parties in the Parliament, whose fractured nature will make coalition building particularly difficult this year.

Any government that does emerge will face the same dilemmas as its predecessors — tackling high unemployment, high inflation, a lower dinar and the competing demands of powerful unions and foreign lenders.

An improvement would come too late for the Hmidi family, still waiting nearly two weeks later for confirmation that their only son has drowned.

“Fakher told me he wanted to go to France. ‘This is my dream,’ he said to me. ‘There is no future here. You can’t find a job. How can I?’,” Mokhtar said, and his wife started to cry.