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Enslaved And Exploited: Thousands of Kurdish and Yazidi Women Held By Islamic State Are Learning That Modern Slavery Is Alive and Kicking



By Ksenia Svetlova

November 28, 2014

A virgin is worth $100 on the slave market; a mother only $10 • Women are forced to convert to Islam and then turned into sex slaves • Thousands of Kurdish and Yazidi women held by Islamic State are learning that modern slavery is alive and kicking.

Every evening, silence reigns in the Khanke refugee camp, close to the Kurdish city of Dohuk in northern Iraq. Winter has already arrived, bringing with it rain, mud and cold.

Although a fire has been lit for warmth, it is potentially dangerous. A Yazidi family -- men, women, elderly people and children -- is crowded into each tent. The tents afford no protection from the rain, and if any should catch fire, they would immediately turn into death traps. About 60,000 Yazidis -- adherents of an ancient faith that contains elements of Sufism, Kharijism and Zoroastrianism and Kurdish by culture and language -- live in this camp. Last summer they managed to survive and escape from Mount Sinjar, which had been taken over by the Islamic State group. Every person at the camp knows someone who has been killed or wounded or is missing. Every person has a sister, wife or daughter who was kidnapped and raped.

Some of them have already seen the video footage on YouTube showing the modern slave markets in Syria and Iraq and the women who have fallen into bondage. According to these video clips and the accounts that are trickling out of Raqqah, the caliphate's capital in Syria, and from Mosul, its stronghold in Iraq, the women are sold at auction to the highest bidder. Prices vary -- virgins are worth $100, while women who have borne children fetch roughly $10. The members of Islamic State, fanatical jihadists who base themselves on texts from the Quran, regard the Yazidis as idol-worshippers who may be bought and sold like sheep.

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While U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who commanded the fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria, announced his resignation at President Barack Obama's request, and while Vice President Joe Biden tries to convince the Turkish government to join the fight against the jihadists, the situation in the regions of those countries that Islamic State has taken over is growing worse. Public executions and amputations mandated by Shariah, the Islamic system of religious law, are carried out every day just a few kilometres from the Turkish border. Children under 10 years old train with live ammunition, and thousands of Yazidi and Kurdish women are enslaved.

The Muslim world looks on in silence -- almost no condemnations are heard, perhaps because some of the norms of the Islamic caliphate established by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are customary in other places in the Middle East.

It is true that anyone who is not a member of Islamic State is treated badly. But for the Islamists, some of the women, who have suffered physical and emotional abuse, are not considered human beings at all. Some of them have managed to escape from slavery. Some have managed to contact their families to convey ransom demands from Islamic State. The ransom in certain cases is very high, about $5,000 for a young woman or teenage girl, and only very few are able to raise what is, for them, an enormous sum. According to the Kurdish reports, the Kurdish government has already paid Islamic State more than $1.5 million in ransom for Yazidi captives -- men and women.

A woman who manages to escape continues to live in fear of the armed Islamic State militias and of rapists and murderers in Syria and Iraq. These terrified women have made long journeys and crossed borders on foot only to find that they don't have a home to return to -- Mount Sinjar, the place where the Yadizi community lived for thousands of years, is under Islamic State control.

Now they are living in Erbil, in Dohuk, and in refugee camps set up by the Kurdish government. They are lonely, collapsing under the trauma they have suffered.

Paulo Kosaka, a well-known Portuguese politician who travelled to Erbil for a visit, describes his meeting with one of the Yazidi teenage girls who managed to flee captivity.

"When the girl was kidnapped and handed over to one of the members of Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, she was forced to convert to Islam and pray five times a day. She was forcibly married, and her husband abused her," he said/

In tears, the Yazidi girl told Kosaka about the home where she lived for several months. It was across the street from a mosque, and hearing the Adhan, or call to prayer, "was the most frightening thing in the world to her. During the conversation, as she told about the experiences she had undergone, she fainted from the pain, and after that she did not speak anymore," Kosaka says.

He says the phenomenon is more widespread than the U.N. experts who visited the region late last summer estimated.

"At least several thousand women were enslaved overnight," he says. "In many cases, these are very young girls, only 11 or 12 years old."

Naturally, only few of them are willing to share what they went through -- the auction in the slave market, the gang rapes, and the abuse.

One particularly terrible thing about the situation of these women, who have been through hell and lived to tell about it, is that they receive almost no assistance.

Dr. Mirza Dinnayi, one of the heads of the Yazidi community and a former adviser to the president of Iraq, is also in Erbil. With help from several German organizations, he is trying to get the women to Germany, where they can receive treatment and rehabilitation. At best, several dozen of them will get proper treatment and begin new lives. All the others, both men and women, will carry the trauma forever.

The Banality of Indifference

Many Yazidis who found themselves helpless against pure evil and infuriating indifference draw a parallel between the silence of some of the traumatized women and the silence of the world. When Mount Sinjar was overrun by Islamic State forces who killed and enslaved thousands of people, the global media hardly took notice.

When the American army airlifted humanitarian aid to the refugees who were dying of hunger and thirst, the Yazidis suddenly became a focus of interest in the West, but that interest did not last long. At present, it seems that the world has resigned itself to the fact that a bleeding nation remains homeless and that its women have been forced into bondage.

"Two questions come up in that context," Kosaka says. "Why was the world silent when all of this happened, and why it is impossible, at this stage, to retake these cities -- Raqqah and Mosul -- which have markets for trafficking slaves?"

Kosaka says that no firm condemnations are being made, and he quotes from the latest statement of Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, that the fight against Islamic State should be waged not only on the battlefield but also in people's minds and hearts.

"Ultimately, support given to the ideological front may be more effective than airstrikes, in bringing an end to the longstanding suffering of the people of Iraq," Al Hussein told the Security Council in New York on Nov. 18.

Al Hussein, a member of the Jordanian royal family, also expressed amazement that the Arab Muslim world did not condemn Islamic State and was not demonstrating against it and its actions. He recalled the letter written by 126 Islamic clerics two months ago in which they stated that the crimes being committed by Islamic State were a violation of Islamic law. It is not clear how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was concerned with his own survival at the time, responded to the statements, but Al Hussein's appeal barely made a ripple in the Arab world.

Shaymah (not her real name), a young woman of Egyptian origin now living in the United States, has an explanation for the world's relative indifference to the Yazidis' plight.

"Today, the Arab countries are torn with internal conflicts and struggles. The socio-economic situation, the wars and the revolutions of the Arab Spring have created an unstable atmosphere, and everyone is worried about his own problems, not the problems of others," she says.

But it is possible that many people in the Middle East simply do not see most of Islamic State's crimes against humanity, and specifically against the Yazidi women, as criminal acts. Islamic State merely does openly what others do in secret.

Black jeeps with license plates from the Gulf states arrive every day at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, in which roughly 18,000 Syrian refugees are crowded together. Inside the jeeps are wealthy men from Jordan and the Persian Gulf states who are looking for wives. The journalist Henrique Cymerman visited the camp as part of a report for Israel's Channel 2 News. He spoke with young girls who were about to be married to these men -- men who soon afterward would grow tired of their new wives and had no hesitation about divorcing them and sending them back to the refugee camp. The girls who marry these men from the Persian Gulf states are sometimes as young as 13 or 14. Their families receive a sum of money, usually a few hundred dollars, as a dowry, and the girls return to the camp shortly afterward, anywhere from several days to a few weeks later.

"I married because of my family's terrible financial situation," says Olah, a 13-year-old Syrian bride who married a 60-year-old man from Saudi Arabia.

"The situation in the refugee camps in Syria and Jordan, in Turkey and Lebanon, is unbelievable," says Ahmed, a Syrian refugee whose family is still in Syria. "The women who live there have already been through the worst -- rape, abuse, loss of all their relatives and their homes -- and now, in these camps, their suffering continues."

Ahmed mentions an interesting point: the abusers' identities. "It's very sad that the exploitation is being abetted by the Syrians themselves and by other Arabs," he says.

Cymerman tells about the Syrian women who work as matchmakers. They operate in the refugee camps, making matches between families and potential husbands.

"The men order the brides according to specific criteria -- 16 or 17 years old, virgins, and with a specific eye colour," he says. Similar stories take place not only among refugees, who are usually less protected and in greater need than other segments of the population, but also in countries such as Egypt, where the phenomenon of "bride cities" such as El Hammadiya, about 20 kilometres from Cairo. In El Hammadiya, which is not known as a tourist destination, several motels and lawyers' offices arrange legal marriages between wealthy men from Persian Gulf states and local girls. According to reports in the Arab and Egyptian media, marriages of this kind can be arranged for only $80.

Psychological Warfare under Religious Auspices

So how can anyone expect the West to issue strong condemnations of Islamic State, whose members convert their Yazidi slaves and then marry them? A horrific video shared on social media shows members of Islamic State boasting about the slave girls that they had just bought or would soon be buying -- and the response of many Internet users in Egypt and Jordan was frighteningly supportive.

"Islam does not prohibit owning male or female slaves as long as they are treated fairly," wrote one person who took the screen name al-Bukhari, after the well-known Muslim philosopher of the ninth century.

According to Kosaka, Islamic State excels at using psychological warfare, and there is no prominent Islamic leadership to set a moderate example in Arab and Muslim countries.

"The members of Islamic State frighten the Iraqi soldiers," Kosaka says. "They tell the soldiers that if they free the Yazidi women who converted to Islam and return them to their families, they will cause the women to renounce Islam. Anyone who does such a deed will burn in hellfire, they say, since he will be given the same judgment as an apostate. So what is necessary is a decision by religious clerics in Iraq that such conversions are a violation of Islamic law."

Slavery in Europe?

Legally, one might argue over the difference between the forced marriages of Syrian minors or young women in Jordan's refugee camps or girls from poor Egyptian families on the one hand, and the enslavement of Yazidi girls or women on the other. But when we look closely at the case of the Syrian brides from the Zaatari refugee camp, it seems that the hypocrisy inherent in the wedding ceremony is even worse than the brutality of Islamic State in Raqqah or Mosul.

Women, be they Yazidi or Egyptian, are treated like objects that may be bought, sold and discarded when they are no longer needed. The members of Islamic State did not come out of nowhere, after all; before they even joined the group, they were raised to follow radical Islam and lived in a traditional society that sees women as less valuable than men. As evidence, we may recall remarks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "It is impossible to treat men and women equally in the workplace," he said. "Women are not equal to men; that goes against natural law. The feminists do not understand the importance of motherhood in Islam."

The Islamist Erdogan is the president of a country established by the reformer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is surely turning over in his grave.

Islamic State's actions are often fuelled by kinds of legal and newsworthy precedents that are hard to read and believe. Several days ago, the first physician to be prosecuted for performing female genital mutilation was acquitted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl. This sets a dangerous legal precedent that would allow physicians to perform such procedures on little girls and on teenagers even though doing so violates a law that was passed in 2008.

In his speech to the Security Council, Al Hussein quoted from a letter signed by 126 Islamic clerics who condemned the crimes of Islamic State, saying: "It is forbidden in Islam to oversimplify Shariah matters and ignore established Islamic sciences. It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings. ... It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat -- in any way -- Christians or any 'People of the Scripture.' It is obligatory to consider the Yazidis as 'People of the Scripture.'"

That is all well and good, but there are many more than 126 clerics in the world who support the revival of slavery. What is amazing is that many of them live and work in Europe. Recently, Dr. Ammar Nakshawani, a British lecturer of Iraqi origin who lives in London, gave a lecture in which he explained why slavery could not be abolished. Another lecture that he gave on slavery in 2007 is available for viewing on YouTube, and hundreds of people watch it every day. Anjem Choudary, a Salafist cleric who also lives in London, said publicly several weeks ago that he would be happy to move to the Islamic caliphate if he were promised that he would not be punished in Britain afterward. If Islamic clerics who work in downtown London are making statements like these, then we should not be at all surprised that hundreds of young Muslims from Europe are going off to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State.

When we look at Islamic State's actions in the context of regional reality instead of under a spotlight, the reason why thousands of Muslims are not going out to demonstrate against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the movement he established seems clearer. In the meantime, Yazidi women and girls who have been forced into sexual slavery in Syria and Iraq will continue to pray for deliverance. Rescue may come from the government of Kurdistan, which sometimes pays ransom for captives, or from families who survived -- or it may never come at all.