New hope for Yazidi women raped and tortured by IS fighters
DOHUK, Iraq (AP) — It’s been less than two weeks since Perwin Ali Baku escaped the Islamic State group, after more than two years in captivity, bought and sold from fighter to fighter and carted from Iraq to Syria and then back again.
When a door slams, the 23-year-old Yazidi woman flashes back to her captors locking away her 3-year-old daughter, captured with her, to torment her. When she hears a loud voice, she cringes at the thought of them barking orders.
“I don’t feel right,” she said, sitting on a mattress on the floor of her father-in-law’s small canvas-topped Quonset hut in a northern Iraq refugee camp. “I still can’t sleep and my body is tense all the time.”
Perwin wants treatment, and is hoping to find it in a new psychological trauma institute being established at the university of Dohuk, the first in the entire region.
It’s the next phase of an ambitious project funded by the wealthy German state of Baden Wuerttemberg that brought 1,100 women who had escaped Islamic State captivity, primarily Yazidis, to Germany for psychological treatment. The medical head of that project, German trauma specialist Jan Kizilhan, is also the driving force behind the new institute, which opens at the end of the month.
The program will train local mental health professionals to treat people like Perwin and thousands of Yazidi women, children and other Islamic State victims. About 1,900 Yazidis have escaped the clutches of IS, but more than 3,000 other women and children are believed to still be held captive, pressed into sexual slavery and subjected to horrific abuse. As the fighting rages between Iraqi forces and IS in Mosul, only about 75 km from Dohuk, the number reaching freedom increases daily.
Right now there are only 26 psychiatrists practicing in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, with a population of 5.5 million people and more than 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced people. None specializes in treating trauma.
Kizilhan, himself of Yazidi background but who immigrated to Germany at age 6, has interviewed thousands of women in the refugee camps. His latest trip to Iraq was to interview prospective students for the program’s inaugural class.
As he drove in to Dohuk, his phone buzzed twice with WhatsApp messages. There were photos of three 10-year-old boys, one lifting his shirt to show an ugly wound on his torso, and a family of two women and three children, all of whom had just escaped IS. They needed psychological help.
“I get this type of message every day,” Kizilhan said, shaking his head. “We can’t bring them all to Germany.”
Perwin received brief, basic counseling after being freed Dec. 30 from IS near Mosul — “they asked do you sleep well and I said no, I can’t sleep well” — but nothing else. She looks to her toddler, dressed in a red sweatsuit with her hair in pigtails held together with cherry bobbles, who popped into the tent only to beat a hasty retreat when she saw strangers.
The child has received no treatment at all.
“She’s always scared,” Perwin said. “And she’s had nothing more than cough medicine.”
Fighters from the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, swept into the Sinjar region of northern Iraq in August 2014, an area near the Syrian border that is the Yazidis’ ancestral home.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis escaped to Mount Sinjar, where they were surrounded and besieged by Islamic State militants. The U.S., Iraq, Britain, France and Australia flew in water and other supplies, until Kurdish fighters eventually opened a corridor to allow them to safety.
Casualty estimates vary widely, but the United Nations has called the Islamic State assault genocide, saying the Yazidis’ “400,000-strong community had all been displaced, captured or killed.” Of the thousands captured by IS, boys were forced to fight for the extremists, men were executed if they didn’t convert to Islam — and often executed in any case — and women and girls were sold into slavery.
Members of Germany’s 100,000-strong Yazidi community reached out for help and found the ear of Winfried Kretschmann, Baden Wuerttemberg’s governor. Across party lines, the prosperous state’s legislature approved a 95 million-euro program over three years to bring women abused by IS to Germany.
The program has garnered international interest and acclaim. Its most famous alumna is Nadia Murad, who was captured by IS at age 19 and raped, beaten and tortured daily before she managed to escape. Following treatment in Germany, she became the best-known voice for Yazidi women, telling their ordeal to the U.N. Security Council and later being named a U.N. special ambassador.
But even Kizilhan acknowledges the program is only a partial measure, with so many others still needing help.
“We are talking about general trauma, we are talking about collective trauma and we are talking about genocide,” said Kizilhan, 50, who is also a university professor and Mideast expert. “That’s the reason we have to help if we can — it’s our human duty to help them.”
That desire gave rise to the current project, establishing the new Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at Dohuk University in cooperation with Germany’s University of Tuebingen. It’s a relative bargain at 2.5 million euros, with around 1.5 million from Baden Wuerttemberg’s regular budget to get it started and the remaining funds still being sourced.
The idea is to train 30 new professionals over three years and to extend the program to other regional universities, so that after 10 years there could be more than 1,000 psychotherapists in the region.
The students will receive a double masters degree in psychotherapy and psychotraumatology to German standards, and training from both local and German professors. After some initial training, students will start working with patients in clinics and camps to garner practical experience — and provide some immediate help.
“They will be working in a practical position under supervision and this will be very helpful,” said Nezar Taib, Dohuk province’s director of general health. “During their practice they can also treat, and this will give the opportunity for more people to have access to psychotherapy and counseling.”
The first class is made up of 17 women and 13 men, Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, with backgrounds in psychology, nursing, social work and teaching.
Among those chosen, Naji Haji, himself a Yazidi who escaped from Sinjar, has an undergraduate degree in psychology and has already been working in refugee camps for an NGO. He hopes the program will give him the additional skills to help in complicated cases.
“We are seeing many people that were exposed to incidents of trauma — PTSD, depression and anxiety cases,” the 39-year-old said.
Galavej Jaafar Mohemmad, a Kurdish native of Dohuk, also has psychological training but wants more.
“Iraq has moved from one war to another war, but this time is the worst that has ever happened to humans — that’s why I want to help,” the 45-year-old said. “Even for the women who have come back from Daesh, Daesh has taken their kids, their husbands — they’re free but they don’t feel free.”
There are some two dozen camps for internally displaced people in the Dohuk area.
Like the others, the Mamrashan IDP camp is crowded, with 5,353 people, primarily Yazidis, sharing 1,139 container homes. There’s space for at least another 800 homes, but no money yet to build them.
Kizilhan strolls slowly along the main dirt road, followed by a gaggle of young children calling out “Allmania, Allmania” — “Germany, Germany” — and flashing the peace sign. He and colleague Sebastian Wolf, a psychologist affiliated with the University of Tuebingen, duck inside one container and sit down cross-legged with three young boys.
Kizilhan translates as the oldest boy, Adham, tells how he and his family escaped the Islamic State in November, but his fear remains.
“They beheaded someone in front of me in the market in Tal Afar,” said the 14-year-old. “I passed out in fear.”
Soon his mother arrives with two other women, then two men, then another, and soon the small room is packed. In all, 18 members of the family escaped while their Islamic State captors were busy fighting, led on a desperate five-hour trek to Kurdish Peshmerga lines by Bashar, the boys’ 23-year-old cousin.
“We had to take the chance,” Bashar told the doctors. “It was either get killed, or be free.”
The boys’ two sisters are now living in Germany as part of Kizilhan’s program; Bashar told the doctors he also looks forward to receiving treatment himself.
“When you escape Daesh you haven’t really escaped — you look around and think that they’re still there,” he said. “They beheaded people, they threw people from grain silos — what we didn’t see with our own eyes they showed us on video to make us scared.”
After he leaves, Kizilhan makes a call to see if he can get Bashar some immediate help. If not, he said, three students from the new program could be working in the camp as soon as May.
“He’s totally traumatized,” Kizilhan said. “He can’t sleep, he’s in constant fear and has panic attacks — he needs urgent help, but he’s a real hero; he ensured that his family escaped.”
One major obstacle facing the doctors initially was getting people to open up. Even though women taken by Islamic State were forced into sexual slavery, their plight was initially perceived as an affront to their honor.
Kizilhan met with their religious leader, the Baba Sheikh, who agreed to officially accept the women back into Yazidi society. The Baba Sheikh told The Associated Press that the decision was an easy one.
“What happened to the Yazidis has never happened to anyone, especially with the youngsters of 10, 12,” he said in an interview at the Yazidis’ holy site of Lalish. “We had to do something.”
In the Sharya camp, an older facility with some 17,000 people living in row after row of white canvas tents, 39-year-old Gorwe has just been visited by two sisters-in-law who are receiving treatment in Kizilhan’s program in Germany.
“They were as good as before Daesh,” she said. “I’m not sure why, but I think the treatment has helped and they have a better life in Germany.”
However, for Gorwe herself, the ordeal is far from over. She said that for her, psychological treatment “is no use.”
“No matter how many doctors I see, I’ll still have the same pain inside me,” she said.
Twenty-four of her family members were taken by the Islamic State, including herself, and only 14 — all women and children — have returned. The fate of the other 10, including her husband and four of her children, is unknown.
Gorwe, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear that the Islamic State would harm her relatives still in captivity, slowly and methodically tells of how the militants caught up with the group of three families as they tried to escape in August 2014.
After stripping the family of their phones, cash and two cars, they separated the men from the women and children.
She and her six children were taken to the city of Tal Afar, where her oldest daughter, then 15, was almost immediately taken away from her.
“I don’t know anything about her,” she said. “All I heard is they took her to Syria.”
She was reunited with two of her brothers-in-law, and they were all forced to say they had converted to Islam and to work building houses and tending farms.
After several months, one day the militants came and separated the men and women and children, she recalled, clutching her hands tightly in her lap as she talked.
IS fighters then began taking women with one or two children, and “distributing them to themselves.”
“Then they came for me,” she said.
They took her three oldest boys — aged 14, 12, and a 10-year-old with developmental and psychological disabilities — and she tried to stop them.
“I said don’t take him, he’s crazy, and they said we are crazy too, and took him,” she recalled, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes at the memory.
“Because we tried to prevent them taking him, they beat us,” she said, pausing. “They beat us a lot.”
With her two remaining children, a boy, 5, and a girl, 7, she was taken along with about 200 other women and children to an underground prison near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, then relocated into a building.
About a month later, Gorwe said, she and group of 10 other women were taken away to an “underground marketplace” where they were paraded in front of Islamic State fighters.
“It was filled with Daesh, they were sitting on chairs and it was like a fashion show, we had to walk among them,” she said. “When it was my turn I started walking. The sign was when one of them banged their feet on the ground, that means he wants you. This man stamped his feet on the ground when I walked by, Abu Nasser was his name, I believe he was from Saudi Arabia.”
That began a months-long ordeal where she bought and sold “for work and sex” by a string of Islamic State militants along with her two remaining children.
The final time, she said her captor — a local IS leader — sold them to a young man who drove up in a car and seemed taken by her daughter.
“He said I like this girl, I like her hair, I’ll buy her,” she recalled. “He bought us all.”
Once alone in his car, the man said he was working on behalf of her family and taking them to Abu Shujaa, a Yazidi who had smuggled many people out of IS captivity. She said she thought it was just another IS mind game.
“I thought I was going to be sold again,” she said, then smiling slightly as she added: “Until I saw Abu Shujaa.”
That was Dec. 23, 2015. Since then, Gorwe said, not a day passes when she doesn’t think about her husband, daughter and missing boys. And the two children who did make it out are still “nervous all the time and are very needy.”
“I will never forget what happened to us as they were selling us and buying us and beating us, I think about it all the time,” she said. “Nobody can forget this genocide, but especially those who fell into their hands, they will never forget. How could you forget?”
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