For Yazidis, Baghdadi’s death ‘doesn’t feel like justice yet’

For Yazidis, Baghdadi’s death ‘doesn’t feel like justice yet’
By Raya Jalabi

SHARYA CAMP, Iraq (Reuters) – Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death will mean nothing to 19-year-old rape victim Jamila unless the Islamic State militants who enslaved her are brought to justice.

Jamila, who asked not to be identified by her last name, is one of thousands of women from the Yazidi minority religion who were kidnapped and raped by IS after it mounted an assault on the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014.

“Even if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, it doesn’t mean Islamic State is dead,” Jamila told Reuters outside the tent that is now her temporary home in the Sharya camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

“This doesn’t feel like justice yet,” she said. “I want the men who took me, who raped me, to stand trial. And I want to have my voice heard in court. I want to face them in court … Without proper trials, his death has no meaning.”

Baghdadi, who had led IS since 2010, detonated a suicide vest after being cornered in a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Sunday.

Inspired by his edicts to enslave and slaughter Yazidis, whom IS regard as infidels, his followers shot, beheaded and kidnapped thousands in a rampage which the United Nations called a genocidal campaign against them.

Along with thousands of other women and children, Jamila said she was enslaved by the militants and kept in captivity for five months in the city of Mosul along with her sister.

She was just 14 when she was seized. But her problems did not end after she and her sister managed to escape when, she said, their guards were high on drugs.

“When I first came back, I had a nervous breakdown and psychological problems for two years, so I couldn’t go to school,” she said.

Now instead of working or catching up on her years of lost schooling, she looks after her mother, with whom she shares her cramped tent at the camp.

“My mother can’t walk and has health problems so I have to stay and take care of her because my older siblings are in Germany,” she said.

NO PLANS TO GO HOME

The prospect of going home to Sinjar in northern Iraq is not an option for Jamila, and many others. The city still lies in ruin four years after the IS onslaught, and suspicion runs deep in the ethnically mixed area.

“Sinjar is completely destroyed. Even if we could go back, I wouldn’t want to because we’d be surrounded by the same Arab neighbors who all joined IS in the first place, and helped them kill us (Yazidis),” she said.

Thousands of men are being tried in Iraqi courts for their ties to IS. Iraq has so far not allowed victims to testify in court, something community leaders and human rights groups say would go a long way in the healing process.

“It is deplorable that not a single victim of Islamic State’s horrific abuses including sexual slavery has gotten their day in court,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Iraq’s justice system is designed to allow the state to exact mass revenge against suspects, not provide real accountability for victims.”

For some of the nearly 17,000 Yazidis at the Sharya camp, Baghdadi’s death was a first step in that direction though they fear the IS fighters who are still alive.

Mayan Sinu, 25, can dream of a new life after the camp as she and her three children have been granted asylum by Australia. But she also wants the men who shot her husband in the legs and dragged him off to be brought to justice. He has been missing since the incident five years ago.

“I hope Baghdadi is suffering more than we ever did, and my God we suffered,” said Sinu. “I wish he (Baghdadi) hadn’t blown himself up so I could have slaughtered him myself with my bare hands.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Accused sex cult founder could face former ‘slaves’ at New York trial

Actress Allison Mack departs the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse after facing charges regarding sex trafficking and racketeering related to the Nxivm cult case in New York, U.S., April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Joseph Ax and Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Former self-help guru Keith Raniere goes on trial on Tuesday on charges of running a secretive New York sex cult that recruited female “slaves” who were then starved, branded with his initials and blackmailed into having sex with him.

Federal prosecutors have charged Raniere, 58, with using his cultlike Nxivm group, which claimed to offer members unique insights into life, as a front for crimes including sex trafficking, child pornography and sexual exploitation of a minor.

Several of his alleged “slaves” are expected to testify at U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. While prosecutors have not said who will take the stand, former “Smallville” star Allison Mack and Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman have already pleaded guilty to playing supporting roles in the scheme.

Jurors have been warned to expect disturbing testimony and evidence during a trial that could run six weeks. Prosecutors intend to introduce explicit photographs of a 15-year-old girl alleged to have been one of Raniere’s victims, seized from his computer hard drive.

Mack and Bronfman are among five co-defendants, all women accused of involvement in Nxivm, who pleaded guilty to various charges in March and April, leaving Raniere as the sole person to face trial. The television actress tearfully acknowledged in court that she had blackmailed two women into providing services for her and other Nxivm members.

Bronfman, who provided key financial support for Nxivm, pleaded guilty in April and agreed to forfeit $6 million.

Raniere has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Marc Agnifilo, one of Raniere’s lawyers, has said that his client’s sexual encounters with women in the organization were consensual and denied the child pornography and exploitation charges.

The trial caps a bizarre saga for Raniere, who was arrested in March 2018 after fleeing to Mexico with Bronfman.

Nxivm, which started under another name in 1998 and is pronounced “Nexium,” was based in Albany, New York, and at one time operated numerous centers across the United States, Canada, Central America and Mexico.

The organization marketed itself as a business “providing educational tools, coaching and trainings” that would allow “humanity to rise to its noble possibility,” according to court filings.

In 2015, prosecutors say, Raniere established a sorority within Nxivm known as DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “master of the obedient female companions.”

The subgroup included “slaves” who were expected to bend their wills to “masters” in a pyramid-like structure, with slaves expected in turn to recruit their own subordinates and Raniere standing alone at the top.

The slaves were required to submit “collateral” to win acceptance that could then be used as blackmail material: Nude photos, rights to their financial assets or damaging information about friends and relatives, prosecutors said.

Several women were branded with Raniere’s initials, prosecutors said, and they were required to engage in sexual acts with him. He is also accused of having forced some women to maintain slim figures by following a dangerously restrictive diet.

If convicted, Raniere faces up to life in prison.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Brendan Pierson; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Yazidi sisters reunited after three years in Islamic State captivity

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 12, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18,

y Raya Jalabi

SHARYA, Iraq (Reuters) – When Rosa, now 14, asked her Islamic State captors about her younger sisters Bushra, 12, and Suhayla, seven, she was told they had been killed for misbehaving.

“At that point, I didn’t care about anything anymore. Even if I died,” she said. “I never thought I’d see them again.”

The sisters were finally reunited on Sunday, more than three years after being taken by the militants in an assault on Sinjar, the Yazidi heartland on August 3, 2014.

Yazidi girl Rosa, 13, who was reunited with her family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, is seen at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017.

Yazidi girl Rosa, 13, who was reunited with her family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, is seen at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Just last week, Iraq declared “final victory” over Islamic State, with parades through the streets of Baghdad in celebration after three years of bloody war.

But the damage done by the militants is not easily remedied: they brutalized Iraqis, exposing fault lines in the country’s already fragile social fabric and ripping families apart.

For Rosa and her family, though overjoyed at reuniting, the last three years will not be easily erased.

The militants shot, beheaded, burned alive or kidnapped more than 9,000 members of the minority religion, in what the United Nations has called a genocidal campaign against them. According to community leaders, more than 3,000 Yazidis remain unaccounted for.

Among them, are Rosa’s parents, thought murdered by the militants who rolled their victims into mass graves scattered across the sides of Sinjar mountain, where thousands of Yazidis still live in tents.

The girls’ nine-year-old brother, Zinal, is also still missing. Captured and held with them in the nearby city of Tal Afar, he was later driven away to Mosul in a car full of young Yazidi boys. They haven’t heard from him since.

SEPARATED AND SOLD

Reuters could not verify all of the details given by Rosa, Bushra and some of the five older brothers they now live with in a group of tents in the tiny village of Sharya in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

But Amin Khalat, spokesperson for Kurdish government office which helps return missing Yazidis, said Rosa and Suhayla had been taken to Syria and Turkey respectively after being held in Tal Afar and that his office had helped reunite them with their family.

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 12, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18,

Yazidi girls Suhayla, 7, and Rosa, 13, who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants, walk at Sharya Camp in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

He said Rosa was returned from Syria by fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Suhayla by the Iraqi government which was alerted to her existence by Turkish officials who found her at a refugee camp in Turkey. Her family then recognized her photograph.

Rosa said she and her younger siblings were sold, by the Islamic State militants who attacked Sinjar, to a fighter and his family in Tal Afar, a city of predominantly ethnic Turkmen which produced some of the group’s most senior commanders.

She said she did all the household chores and cared for her siblings and other young Yazidi captives, who lived together in a tiny room.

After a year together, Zinal was taken to Mosul, while Suhayla and Bushra were sold off to separate Islamic State families, close to one another, but not allowed to meet. After Bushra’s captors took her to Rosa’s house for a visit, she said she memorized the route so she could return.

“I would wait till everyone fell asleep in the afternoon, I’d pretend to fall asleep and then sneak out to see Rosa,” said Bushra. “They once caught me and threatened to sell me off if I didn’t stop seeing my sister but I didn’t care.”

Bushra said she was eventually sold again, but about a year ago, she and six older Yazidi girls ran away and reached Sinjar, where Kurdish fighters helped them find their families.

Rosa was taken to Deir Ezzor, Syria and sold twice more. She said she was originally bought for $4 in Tal Afar and last sold in Syria for $60. “Those dogs made quite a good profit out of me,” she said with a wry smile. PKK fighters came across her in Idlib and brought her back to Iraq and her family, she said.

Suhayla was taken by her Turkmen captors to a refugee camp in Turkey, where authorities discovered her situation and repatriated her. She was reunited with her sisters and other relatives on Sunday, a day after Rosa returned.

A general view of Sharya Camp, where Yazidi girls (back) who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants reside in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017

A general view of Sharya Camp, where Yazidi girls (back) who were reunited with their family after being enslaved by Islamic State militants reside in Duhuk, Iraq December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Beaten, forced to convert and forget their native Kurdish, the girls even had their names changed.

Rosa was known as Noor – hers was an infidel’s name, her captors told her. Suhayla, captured when she was three, barely recognizes her sisters and speaks in broken Turkman dialect and Arabic.

“She has to learn to remember us again,” said Rosa. “She got used to calling some strangers mum and grandpa while she was held captive.”

Her sisters say Suhayla has barely spoken since returning to her family, but wearing a pink sweater and plastic jewelry, she relaxed under a flood of kisses from her sisters.

Bushra, nine when she was captured, is only at ease with her closest relatives. Because she returned to the family first, her brothers have asked her to help her sisters, but she warned them that it would not be easy.

“It’s true we are strong, we’ve been through so much. But our hearts are weak – they’re broken.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Revenge for Sinjar: Syrian Kurds free Islamic State slaves

Noura Khodr Khalaf, 24, a Yazidi woman who was recently freed from Islamic State, stands with her children in a centre belonging to the Kurdish-led administration in Qamishli, Syria June 10, 2017. Picture taken June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said and Ellen Francis

QAMISHLI, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants enslaved Noura Khalaf for three years, dragging her from her small Iraqi village across their territory in Syria. They bought and sold her five times before she was finally freed with her children last week.

Khalaf is one of many Yazidi women that Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have set out to free from Islamic State in covert operations, a female Kurdish militia commander told Reuters.

They have dubbed the operation “revenge for the women of Sinjar”, the homeland of Iraq’s ancient Yazidi minority which Islamic State overran in the summer of 2014.

The militants slaughtered, enslaved and raped thousands of people when they rampaged through northern Iraq, purging its Yazidi community. They abducted Yazidi women as sex slaves and gunned down male relatives, witnesses and Iraqi officials say. Nearly 3,000 women are believed to be still in captivity.

Nisreen Abdallah, a commander in the YPJ militia, said around 200 women and children from northern Iraq have been freed in various parts of Syria so far.

The Kurdish YPG militia and its all-female YPJ brigade rescued them in what she described as covert operations into IS territory that began last year. Abdallah declined to divulge more details for security reasons.

The Syrian militias launched this mission as part of their U.S.-backed offensive on Raqqa, Islamic State’s base of operations in Syria, she said.

With the YPG at its forefront, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias began pushing into Raqqa last week, after advancing on the city since November.

“Since then, we have been working to liberate the Yazidi women held captive by Daesh,” Abdallah said. In the case of Khalaf, she said Kurdish fighters made contact with her and drew up “an appropriate plan” to free her unharmed.

CODE WORD

Noura Khalaf said she had been living with her children as the slave of an Islamic State militant in Syria’s Hama province for a year, when an unidentified man smuggled them out in the YPG-coordinated operation.

The plan took shape thanks to IS rules forbidding fighters from taking mobile phones to the frontlines, she said. The jihadist holding Khalaf left his at home, allowing her to call her brother who in turn asked the YPG for help.

“Abu Amir used to leave his phone at home when he went to the frontline,” said 24-year-old Khalaf. “I had memorized my brother’s number.”

Khalaf was eventually told to await contact from a man who would come to rescue her. He uttered a pre-agreed code word, so she would know it was safe to leave with him.

“I’m happy to be staying here,” she said, speaking to Reuters in the Syrian city of Qamishli in the Kurdish-controlled northeast. She will soon return to the Sinjar mountain region. “After I rest here, I will go meet my brother,” she said.

After Islamic State kidnapped Khalaf with her four children in 2014, they bussed her around northern Iraq, including Mosul, along with dozens of women from her hometown of Kojo in Sinjar. “I still don’t know what happened to my husband,” she said.

At one point in her captivity, militants kept her in an underground jail in Raqqa, she said, and at another, they held her in a prison in Palmyra.

“They took us to an underground market for selling women, where they displayed us for Islamic State members and each one picks the girl he likes,” she said. Fighters forced her to serve and cook for them, some beating and raping her repeatedly.

Now, Khalaf and her children are staying at a shelter run by the women’s council of the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria.

Abdallah, the YPJ commander, said they deliver the women to their relatives in northern Iraq by coordinating with a Yazidi committee around Sinjar.

Two months earlier, Kurdish fighters also rescued Khalaf’s seven-year-old daughter, who had been sold off near Raqqa, and sent her to relatives in Sinjar, she said.

“We will also send Noura, through the women’s council. So she will see her daughter again,” Abdallah said.

“Those who are freed have been away from their relatives, living among Daesh for years…in alienation and degradation,” Abdallah said. “They have psychological complexes and they need care.”

The beliefs of the Yazidi community, which Islamic State regards as devil-worship, combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Mass Yazidi graves have been found since U.S.-backed Iraqi forces seized Sinjar in 2015.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria, Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff)

Dozens of Eritrean and Nigerian former Islamic State captives freed in Libya

FILE PHOTO: An Eritrean migrant touches a ring on her hand at a military building in Misrata, Libya, November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan authorities released on Wednesday 28 Eritreans and seven Nigerians who were captured and enslaved by Islamic State in Sirte and had been held in detention since the jihadist group lost the city in December.

The group, all but two of whom are women and children, escaped from Sirte, a former Islamic State stronghold in central Libya, while forces from the nearby city of Misrata battled to oust the militants late last year.

Some of the women were on their way to Europe when Islamic State fighters kidnapped and held them as sex slaves.

After they escaped from Sirte, they were investigated for possible ties to the group and held for several months in a Misrata prison.

Reuters has documented how Islamic State used enslaved refugee women to reward its fighters in Libya. In stories published last year, the women recounted how the group forced them to convert to Islam and sold them as sex slaves.

In November, a Reuters reporter visited some of the captives at a military post in Misrata. Their new captors, the women said then, starved and humiliated them. At least one woman, a 16-year-old, was pregnant and in need of urgent care.

The Libyan attorney-general’s office announced that it had cleared the women of any wrongdoing in mid-February, but their release was delayed for several more weeks, with no explanation.

On Wednesday, they were received by staff from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Libyan Red Crescent, before being taken to a shelter for medical checks.

“I’m very happy, I can’t describe how I feel, but I am very happy, I can start a new life and see my family again,” one 14-year-old Eritrean girl told Reuters before leaving the prison with the rest of the group on a Red Crescent bus.

A UNHCR official said the entire group had scabies, but otherwise appeared to be in reasonable physical condition.

The agency expects to resettle the Eritreans as refugees.

“We will send them to a safe house where they can be treated if they need medical treatment, and receive assistance from us, and be protected,” said Samer Haddadin, head of the UNHCR’s Libya mission.

“At the same time we will be processing them for refugee status determination … and we are doing this to make sure we can find a resettlement country for those who meet the resettlement criteria.”

The Nigerians, five women and two children, will be able to apply for asylum or be offered repatriation.

Dozens of women and children who escaped from Sirte or were picked up there by Libyan forces are still being held in Misrata. They include Libyans, Tunisians, and nationals from several sub-Saharan African countries. A group of Filipino nurses were freed in February.

Islamic State took control of Sirte in early 2015, turning the coastal city into its most important base outside Syria and Iraq and stationing hundreds of foreign fighters there. It took Misrata-led forces almost seven months to recapture the city.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Sahli in Misrata and Aidan Lewis in Tunis; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland)