For Yazidi survivors of Islamic State killings, the nightmares go on

Yazidi women prepare bread at a refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

By Ayat Basma and Kawa Omar

SINJAR, Iraq (Reuters) – Ever since Islamic State visited death and destruction on their villages in northern Iraq nearly five years ago, Yazidis Daoud Ibrahim and Kocher Hassan have had trouble sleeping.

For Hassan, 39, who was captured, it is her three missing children, and three years of imprisonment at the hands of the jihadist group.

For Ibrahim, 42, who escaped, it is the mass grave that he returned to find on his ravaged land.

“They burnt one house down, blew up the other, they torched the olive trees two-three times…There is nothing left,” the father of eight told Reuters.

More than 3,000 other members of their minority sect were killed in 2014 in an onslaught that the United Nations described as genocidal.

A Yazidi man walks through the ruins of his house, destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, Iraq February 5, 2019. Picture taken February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

A Yazidi man walks through the ruins of his house, destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, Iraq February 5, 2019. Picture taken February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Ibrahim and Hassan lived to tell of their suffering, but like other survivors, they have not moved on.

She will never set foot in her village of Rambousi again. “My sons built that house. I can’t go back without them…Their school books are still there, their clothes,” she said.

‘THEY WANT TO BE BURIED’

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to announce the demise of the Islamist group in Syria and Iraq, U.N. data suggests many of those it displaced in the latter country have, like Hassan, not returned home.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim and his family live in a barn next to the pile of rubble that was once their home. He grows wheat because the olive trees will need years to grow again. No one is helping him rebuild, so he is doing it himself, brick by brick.

“Life is bad. There is no aid,” he said sitting on the edge of the collapsed roof which he frequently rummages under to find lost belongings. On this day, it was scarves, baby clothes and a photo album.

“Every day that I see this mass grave I get ten more gray hairs,” he said.

The grave, discovered in 2015 just outside nearby Sinjar city, contains the remains of more than 70 elderly women from the village of Kocho, residents say.

“I hear the cries of their spirits at the end of the night. They want to be buried, but the government won’t remove their remains.” They and their kin also want justice, Ibrahim adds.

When the militants came, thousands of Yazidis fled on foot towards Sinjar mountain. More than four years later, some 2,500 families – including Hassan and five of her daughters – still live in the tents that are scattered along the hills that weave their way towards the summit.

The grass is green on the meadows where children run after sheep and the women pick wild herbs.

But the peaceful setting masks deep-seated fears about the past and the future.

A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

GRATEFUL FOR THE SUN

Until a year and a half ago, Hassan and five of her children were kept in an underground prison in Raqqa with little food and in constant fear of torture.

She doesn’t know why Islamic State freed her and the girls, then aged one to six, and hasn’t learned the fate of the three remaining children: two boys Fares and Firas, who would be 23 and 19 now, and Aveen, a girl who would be 13.

There is no electricity or running water in the camp where they live today. She doesn’t remember when her children last ate fruit. “Life here is very difficult but I thank God that we are able to see the sun,” she said.

During the day, her children go to school and are happy, but at night “they are afraid of their own shadow”, and she herself has nightmares.

“Last night, I dreamt they were slaughtering my child,” she said.

Mahmoud Khalaf, her husband, says Islamic State not only destroyed their livelihoods. The group broke the trust between Yazidis and the communities of different faiths and ethnicities they had long lived alongside.

“There is no protection. Those who killed us and held us captive and tormented us have returned to their villages,” Khalaf, 40, said referring to the neighboring Sunni Arab villages who the Yazidis say conspired with the militants.

“We have no choice but to stay here…They are stronger than us.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; editing by John Stonestreet)

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)

Three years since Islamic State attack, Yazidi wounds still open

Yazidis visit a cemetery during a commemoration of the third anniversary of the Yazidi genocide in Sinjar region, Iraq August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Maher Chmaytelli

SINJAR, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s Yazidis marked three years since Islamic State launched what the United Nations said was a genocidal campaign against them on Thursday, but their ordeal is far from over despite the ouster of the jihadist fighters.

Militants were driven out of the last part of the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq in May. However, most Yazidis have yet to return to villages they fled when Islamic State over-ran Sinjar in the summer of 2014, killing and capturing thousands because of their faith.

Nearly 3,000 Yazidi women and children remain in Islamic State captivity, and control over Sinjar is disputed by rival armed factions and their regional patrons. Justice for the crimes Yazidis suffered, including sexual enslavement, has also so far proved elusive.

“The Yazidis’ wound is still bleeding,” one man told Reuters at a ceremony attended by several thousand people including the mayor and other local dignitaries, held at a temple at the foot of the mountain that dominates Sinjar.

“The Kurds and the Iraqi government are fighting for Sinjar and we are paying the price,” said the man.

A U.N. human rights Commission of Inquiry, which declared the killings of thousands of Yazidis to be a genocide, said on Thursday that the atrocity had not ended and that the international community was not doing enough to stop it.

“The genocide is on-going and remains largely unaddressed, despite the obligation of States… to prevent and to punish the crime,” the commissioners said in a statement.

Islamic State fighters killed thousands of captured men during their attack on the Yazidis, a religious sect whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Islamic State considers Yazidis as devil-worshippers.

Images of desperate Yazidis fleeing up the mountain in the blazing summer heat were broadcast around the world and helped to galvanize the United States to conduct its first air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq.

At least 9,900 of Iraq’s Yazidis were killed or kidnapped in just days in the Islamic State attack in 2014, according to a study documenting the number of Yazidis affected which could be used as evidence in any trial for genocide.

About 3,100 Yazidis were killed – with more than half shot, beheaded or burned alive – and about 6,800 kidnapped to become sex slaves or fighters, according to the report published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine.

Enslaved women and girls are now reportedly being sold by Islamic State fighters trying to escape the U.S.-led assault on their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, the U.N. commission said.

DISPUTE OVER SINJAR

The array of forces that drove Islamic State out of Sinjar are now vying for control of the area near the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Kurdish peshmerga forces retook around half of Sinjar in late 2015, effectively annexing it to the autonomous region they hope to convert into an independent state. A referendum on independence is due to be held in September, which the government in Baghdad opposes.

Mainly Shi’ite paramilitary groups, some backed by Iran, retook the rest of the Yazidi homeland in May, bringing them within meters of the peshmerga.

Another group, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), also gained a foothold in Sinjar and clashed with the peshmerga earlier this year. Its presence has made the area a target for Turkey, which has fought a three-decade war against the PKK on its own soil.

“People are worried about returning,” said General Ashti Kojer, the local head of Kurdish police, known as Asayish. “The (Sinjar) region has become a conflict zone”.

Kojer and another local official said the political environment was preventing international organizations from working on reconstruction and rehabilitation in Sinjar, further discouraging Yazidis from returning.

Water has to be trucked in, electricity is supplied from private generators, schools are closed, and the closest hospital is Dohuk — around three hours’ drive away.

“The lack of services and political problems are preventing families from returning,” Jalal Khalaf, the director of the mayor’s office in Sinjar, told Reuters.

BLAME GAME

In a speech at the ceremony, the Yazidi mayor of Sinjar, Mahma Xelil, said former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was responsible for the tragedy because he was in charge when the militants overran Mosul, capturing billions of dollars of weapons they used in their attack on the minority.

Other Yazidis blame the Kurds, who were defending the area at the time, for failing to resist the IS onslaught.

At the ceremony, people carried signs saying “Stop Yazidi Genocide”. Families streamed into cemeteries to remember their loved ones. Women wore bandanas saying “Genocide”.

In the city of Sinjar, posters and banners hung up on roundabouts depict harrowing scenes from the attack three years ago: families fleeing and distressed women and children.

Large parts of the city, which was also home to Muslim Kurds and Arabs, remain empty. Around 1,000 Yazidi families have returned to Sinjar since the city was retaken in 2015, according to Khalaf. The city and the surrounding area had been home to around 400,000 Yazidis.

Farhan Lazgin brought his family back to Sinjar around one year ago because he was fed up with living in a camp.

His home was in relatively good shape, but his two children have missed out on a year of school, and may fall further behind because teachers are not returning to the city.

Zeido Shammo, one of the few shopowners to have returned to the city, said he no longer trusted local forces: “We ask for international protection,” he said, echoing the sentiment of many Yazidis.

Although Islamic State has been routed from the area, Shammo said he could not feel safe until their hardline ideology was eradicated too: “Daesh (Islamic State) is defeated but we are still worried because the mentality of Daesh still exists.”

Opposite his shop, Islamic State slogans have yet to be painted over. One reads: “The State of the Caliphate Remains”.

(Writing by Isabel Coles, additional reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Peter Millership and David Stamp)

Saudi-owned TV drama fights Islamic State propaganda

Women perform in a scene from 'Black Crows' series, believed to be filmed in Lebanon, April 19, 2016.

By Tarek Fahmy and Noah Browning

DUBAI, June 1 (Reuters) – A Saudi-owned television channel has launched a drama series portraying the brutality of life under the Islamic State to counter sleek propaganda from the jihadist group which has won it recruits worldwide.

Beamed across the Arab world by satellite channel MBC, the $10-million project reflects the kingdom’s self-appointed role at the forefront of a Muslim bulwark against extremism which was underlined in a May 20-21 visit by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Black Crows” shows women and children living under the jihadists and is the first television drama to tackle subjects such as mass murder and rape, contrasting sharply with the idyll of heroism and holy war projected by IS on social media.

“The main audience we target, the most important and dangerous, are those who are prone to support and even join terrorist organizations,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told Reuters in an interview.

“Media is part of their (IS) offensive strategy. Thus media organizations have the right, actually the duty, to face such an offensive – which is well-funded and on the internet and social media – with this series,” he said.

Actors and MBC staff have told local media they received death threats online from IS supporters because of the show.

Filmed in Lebanon, the more-than-20-part series that started on Saturday follows the widow of an Islamic State commander turned leader of a women’s morality police force. There are scenes of gutted homes, mass graves, big explosions and gunmen waving black flags.

Plot-lines include women from the Yazidi religion being captured and forced into sex slavery, child-soldiers and a woman with a forlorn love-life moving to territory held by the group to become a “jihadi bride”.

Since Islamic State launched its lightning offensive across Iraq and Syria staging beheadings and releasing carefully crafted films to draw in new recruits, Arab and Western governments have sought to counter their message.

BATTLING RADICALISM

During Trump’s Riyadh visit, Saudi King Salman unveiled a Global Center for Combating Extremism to monitor and rebut extremist material online, and now maintains a new Ideological War Center within its defense ministry.

“The media alone is not enough, we need religious institutes, clerics and mosques to work with the media in combating radicalism,” said Najat AlSaeed, a Saudi analyst who has written a book on Arab satellite TV.

“There is progress, but it’s slow and is not enough for the reformists or the global community.”

The show will aim to reach a big audience of Muslim viewers as they break their fast in the evening for the holy month of Ramadan – a prime season for TV dramas. MBC together with its sister entertainment and movie channels are the most watched network in the Arab world.

The subject matter strays widely from traditional programs: Middle East period drama or romantic soaps.

However, Syrian actress Dima Al Jundi who plays the morality enforcer says only art can convey the depth of human suffering the group has wrought in a way viewers need to see.

“If you open YouTube, you’ll find videos of murder or suicide bombings. But the details of their daily life, how they recruit kids, how they abuse women – this you wouldn’t know.”

Saudi Arabia follows the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, but sees the Islamist militants as posing a threat to its own stability. IS denounces the al Saud family as ungodly rulers for their alliance with the United States and has staged attacks in the country.

Senior Wahhabi clerics, whose influence in Saudi society forms part of a covenant with the royal family dating to the kingdom’s founding 250 years ago, endorse execution by beheading for offences that include apostasy, adultery and sorcery, oppose women driving or working and describe Shi’ites as heretics.

The clerics sharply differ, however, from al Qaeda and Islamic State Sunni militants in opposing violent revolt against the government.

Saudi Arabia crushed a campaign of al Qaeda attacks in 2003-06 but has been hit by Islamic State bombings in the past two years. Saudi security police closely monitor Saudis with suspected connections to militants and have detained more than 15,000 suspects in the years since al Qaeda’s campaign.

(Editing by William Maclean and Peter Millership)

Scarred Yazidi boys escape ISIS combat training camp

The Wider Image: Yazidi boys escape Islamic State training

QADIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – When nine-year-old Murad got the chance to flee from Islamic State – the group that repeatedly raped his mother and slaughtered or enslaved thousands from his Yazidi minority – he hesitated.

So powerful was the indoctrination during his 20-month captivity in Iraq and Syria that the boy told his mother he wanted to stay at the camp where Islamic State had trained him to kill “infidels”, including his own people.

Now in the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled territory, Murad’s mother told Reuters how she had struggled to persuade her son – like other Yazidi boys being prepared for battle – to escape earlier this month with her and his little brother.

“My son’s brain was changed and most of the kids were saying to their families ‘Go, we will stay’,” she said, declining to give her name. “Until the last moment before we left, my son was saying ‘I will not come with you’.”

Yazidi boys appear to be part of broader efforts by Islamic State to create a new generation of fighters loyal to the group’s ideology and inured to its extreme violence. The training often leaves them scarred, even after returning home.

Islamic State, known by its opponents in Arabic as Daesh, captured Murad, his mother and brother in August 2014 at their village near the Iraqi town of Sinjar. During that offensive, the radical Sunni Muslim group massacred, enslaved and raped thousands of Yazidis, whom they consider to be devil-worshippers.

The United States launched air strikes against the militants partly to save the survivors and last month said the attacks on Yazidis, whose faith combines elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam, and other groups amounted to genocide.

More than a third of the 5,000 Yazidis captured in 2014 have escaped or been smuggled out, but activists say hundreds of boys are still held.

Dressed in a long brown skirt and matching headscarf, the mother described how Murad had finally agreed to escape, allowing people smugglers to spirit the family by a convoluted route to a refugee camp near the northern Iraqi city of Duhok where they are living now.

Murad, wearing a jersey of the Spanish football club Real Madrid, sat with his mother on the floor of a spartan trailer in al-Qadiya camp, twiddling his thumbs and resisting answering questions.

BATTLING THE INFIDELS

Most of the time Murad’s mother managed to stay with her two sons as Islamic State shuffled them around cities and towns in its “caliphate” spanning the borders of Iraq and Syria. These included its de-facto capitals Mosul and Raqqa, as well as the ancient city of Palmyra which has since fallen to Syrian government forces.

“They were teaching the children how to fight and go to war to battle the infidels,” the mother said, adding that those to be killed included Shi’ite Muslims, the peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

Islamic State dressed the boys in the same long robes they wore, and trained them how to use guns and knives. “They were assessing them for how well they had learned to fight. Daesh then showed the families videos of killing. Among them they saw their sons also taking part.”

Islamic State also forced Murad to pray, study the Koran and sit through extremist religious lessons, according to his mother, who said she had been beaten as well as raped by at least 14 men.

TAUGHT TO HATE

A 16-year-old boy taken from the same village south of Sinjar recounted similar treatment. He spent two months in a religious school where Islamic State taught its ultra-hardline ideology which labels most outsiders as infidels and has been denounced by senior Muslim authorities.

“They told us, ‘You are Yazidis and you are infidels. We want to convert you to the true religion so you can go to heaven’,” said the teenager, who withheld his name and wrapped his head in a scarf, fearing retribution against his brother and father still under Islamic State rule.

The teenager said he was made to work in a sweatshop with other boys, sewing military clothes for the fighters.

Around 750 other children have escaped in recent months but a few thousand more remain missing, according to Yazidi activists Khairy Ali Ibrahim and Fasel Kate Hasoo, who document crimes against their community.

Twenty-five children who escaped from Islamic State training camps have since passed through Qadiya, 10 km (6 miles) south of the Turkish border, but only six remain, they said. The rest have sought refuge in Europe, joining the wave of migrants fleeing conflict across the region.

READJUSTING

Murad’s family escaped when the fighter who had “purchased” his mother left the house where she and the boys were staying to get food. Put in contact with the people smugglers by a friend, they spent the night at a safe house before a nine-hour journey by motorbike to territory held by Syrian Kurds.

After three nights in the town of Kobani on the Turkish border, they made their way to Iraqi Kurdistan.

For boys who have reached relative safety, new burdens await them and their families. Most Yazidis have had to spend small fortunes on smugglers’ costs to rescue loved ones – Murad’s family raised $24,000 to get the three home.

Many families take small loans from relatives and neighbors, who later demand repayment. Promises from charities and government agencies to help cover those costs have fallen through, they say.

There are also psychological costs.

Murad’s mother said she could tell her boys had been traumatized by the ordeal.

Her younger son, five-year-old Emad, speaks little but plays peek-a-boo and trots in and out of the room. Murad is clearly more affected: he rarely smiles, struggles to maintain eye contact, and fidgets constantly.

The teenager who was put to work in the sweatshop says he was mature enough to brush off Islamic State’s brutality.

“I was dealing with them only because I was afraid, but now that I’m back, I’m just like I was before,” he said. A cousin, though, later admitted his reintegration had not been easy, declining to go into details.

Children introduced to Islamic State’s ideology are likely to consider it normal and defend its practices, according to Quilliam, a London-based anti-extremism think tank.

“They are unable to contribute constructively to their societies because they do not develop the ability to socialize,” it said in a report last month.

The Yazidi children at Qadiya need regular psychological treatment which remains out of reach, said the activist Hasoo.

“Most of the boys after fleeing tried to implement Daesh’s ideas,” he said. “There were cases of children wanting to kill one of their friends in the camp. Others would play out the actions they had been trained on.”

(Additional reporting by Mahdi Talat and Emily Wither; Writing by Stephen Kalin; editing by David Stamp)