When Isis took control of northwest Iraq in 2014, it shattered the lives of a generation of young women, who lost their homes, loved ones and freedom. Here, six of them tell Lena Corner about broken dreams and how, even though the conflict has ended, they are struggling to rebuild their futures.
Nadia remembers running for her life up a mountain in just the nightie she had slept in. She lost her shoes halfway up so her feet were raw and bleeding. Shimaa recalls being threatened with beheading if she dared pull out her phone. And Samira, just 13 at the time, tells of the utter terror of being wrenched apart from her mother, whose skirt she clung on to for dear life.
In June 2014, Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq, was captured by terrorist group Isis, sending shockwaves across the world, and thousands of young women and girls found themselves living under a reign of terror. Many of them were at high school about to sit their exams, just as they would be here in the UK. These were ordinary girls doing ordinary things – listening to music, going shopping, taking too many selfies.
The region was gripped with fear. Marching under their sinister black flag, Isis militants used rape and sexual abuse as a weapon of war, rounding up girls and selling them into sexual slavery. They thought nothing of beheading and burning enemy bodies and tossing them into the street. Shortly after Mosul fell, Isis declared control of around a third of Syria and much of northwest Iraq.
‘It’s estimated that Isis captured around 7,000 women and girls and sold them for sex. As many as 3,000 of those could still be in captivity,’ says Robert Cole, global head of communications at the AMAR Foundation, which works in Iraq helping these communities to rebuild their lives.
Eighteen months since the conflict ended, there’s an entire generation of women whose lives have been devastated. And it’s not just the victims of rape. There are the girls who were made pregnant by their captors and had their babies forcibly removed; ones whose health has been wrecked from being tortured, drugged and tied up for weeks in darkened rooms, and there are teenage divorcées who were hurriedly married off in an attempt to prevent them being taken captive; marriages that quickly fell apart.
‘There are still 1.8 million displaced people in Iraq,’ says Cole. ‘Some have been sitting in refugee camps for the past four years. They can’t go home. They are terrified that Isis will come back and try to kill them again.’
‘My brothers and sisters escaped, but how could I leave my mother behind?’
Susanne, 24, is from the Sinuni district of Iraq, where her father ran a successful car showroom. She is the youngest of seven highly educated siblings. ‘My brother is an engineer, my sister is in medicine, I am a qualified nurse and planned to go on to be a dentist. We all worked hard. I was always a top-ten student.’
On the day that Isis came, the family jumped into three cars, ‘but there wasn’t enough space for my father,’ says Susanne. ‘He urged us to go ahead, desperate for us to get to safety. He said he would follow on. So we were separated. They shot him before he could get out of the city. Of course we were all afraid of losing any family member but we never, ever imagined it would be him.’
Not long afterwards, Susanne’s siblings moved to Germany in one of the first waves of refugees to be welcomed there. ‘But my mother didn’t have a passport at the time so she couldn’t go with them,’ she says. ‘She was also in a terrible place – she had just lost the love of her life. And I’d lost not only my father but my close friend. After what happened to him, I was never going to be separated from my mother.’
Susanne stayed behind and now lives with her mother in the Khanke refugee camp in northern Iraq, home to more than 16,000 internally displaced people. She works as a nurse at the AMAR Foundation’s health centre, helping those in the camp with ill health. ‘The chance for me to go to Germany has gone,’ she says. ‘The only way to get in now is by smugglers. Every day I miss my brothers and sisters so much. I think of them all the time. But what could I do? I was never going to leave my mother behind.
‘I have no idea where my husband is. I’ll wait for him until the day he walks in’
Samia, 20, was two months pregnant with her first child when Isis came to her hometown of Tal Banat. She was caught, along with the rest of her family, as she tried to run to their car. They took the women to a Yazidi wedding venue in Sinjar where thousands of other women were waiting in dread. ‘They locked us in and said, “If you use your phones we will behead you,”’ she says. ‘Then they took some of us to Tal Afar and began conducting virginity tests – starting with the youngest girls. As I was pregnant they threw me into Mosul’s Badoush prison.
‘We slept on the same floor that we went to the bathroom on. They drugged our drinking water so that we slept a lot and wouldn’t try to escape. And all the time they came, selecting girls to take away. Children as young as ten were removed from their mothers by force.’
Samia was sent to Syria to work for Isis members. She was bought and sold several times. ‘Every few months I’d go to another man,’ she says. ‘One of my captives slaughtered the girl I was working with in front of me. I will never get that out of my head. I was six months pregnant when I realised my baby had died inside me. I wanted to die too. I had no idea where my husband was and now I had no baby.’
One night, Samia saw a chance to escape. ‘I jumped through a window and ran,’ she says. She kept going through the night before she collapsed on the doorstep of a house. ‘Someone carried me in. I told them my story. It turns out their son was with Isis but they hid me from him. They were extremely brave, kind people.’
Samia now lives at the Khanke refugee camp. She hasn’t seen her husband for four years and has no idea if he is alive or dead. ‘I heard that he may be captive in Syria where Isis still controls small pockets of territory, but I have no idea. However, I will never marry again. I will wait for him until the day he walks in.’
‘They fed us once every ten days’
Sohela, 17, says that Isis arrived in her hometown on 3 August 2014. ‘They separated the men from the women and girls and took me, my mother and my sister Shimaa, who was just nine, to Badoush Prison in Mosul,’ she says. ‘There was a food crisis in the city so they fed us once every ten days. We were weak and spent a lot of time lying on the floor. I was so thankful my mother and sister were with me. We smuggled a phone into the prison and called our uncle who told us his family and one of my other sisters had escaped. That gave us hope.’
After a few weeks, Sohela was told she was leaving. ‘I had been sold,’ she says. ‘They took me to a house and raped me. There were many men. One man did it for a month, another for a week and the last one did it for a year. I was just 14. I didn’t even know what a period was.’
Sohela was released last September. ‘My experience changed everything,’ she says. ‘I never want to get married or go back home. I met a girl who made me feel better. She told me, “Don’t feel ashamed. You are not the only girl who has been raped. They’ve done this to me and many others.”’
Before she was captured, Sohela dreamed of being an artist. In captivity she’d get her hands on whatever she could to draw her parents. ‘It gave me comfort to see their faces,’ she says. Recently she has returned to art. She shows me an oil painting with a windowless prison in one corner and a red explosion in the other. But in between is a dazzling blue sea and golden beach. ‘Australia,’ she grins. ‘Where I hope to live one day.’
‘As we tried to escape, we were shot at’
Yussra, 22, wanted to become a teacher, but when Isis captured Mosul she became overwhelmed by anxiety. ‘I knew they were coming for us, so I dropped out of school and tried not to think about my future,’ she says. The first time I fainted was after Isis took control of Mosul. They killed a man there and brought the head to show us. When I saw the face I realised it was my cousin. Ever since, I faint all the time and have uncontrollable panic attacks. I used to be healthy.’
Yussra fainted when her family were warned that Isis had taken the nearby town of Hardan. And when the time came to flee, ‘we were shot at ten times and forced out of our car. I fainted, and when I woke up we were in Tal Afar.’
Thankfully, Yussra was in a group of around 25 other women – family members and friends. ‘We made a plan to escape. Two women went behind a guard; one grabbed his head, the other knocked him to the floor and tied his feet with her belt. They stole his keys, locked him in a room and we ran.
Their destination was Syria, where they knew there were pockets of safety where Kurdish forces had driven Isis away. They set out on their two-day journey with no food or water, taking just one hour of rest a night.
Yussra is now married with a baby daughter: ‘I hear stories of girls who are still in captivity – I know how lucky I am,’ she says. ‘I still pass out all the time, but now I have my husband, my daughter and my freedom. Our dream is to move far away and give my daughter a completely different future.’
‘It’s impossible to study psychology now because there is nowhere to do so’
Faiza, 26, finished secondary school in 2010. ‘It was always my plan to train to be a psychologist,’ she says.
It’s estimated that as many as three million people were displaced in Iraq when Isis came. This mass exodus meant that there was simply not enough of a local workforce remaining to run educational establishments. Universities and other institutions closed down overnight. In Mosul alone, 62 schools were destroyed.
‘So many people are missing, dead, in captivity or abroad,’ says Faiza. ‘It’s impossible to study psychology now because there is no one to teach it and nowhere to study it. I’ve enrolled at the Institute of IT in Duhok and am studying computing instead. It’s not what I wanted but it’s all there is.
‘In my spare time I have started assisting a psychiatrist at the Amar Foundation Health Centre. We work with Isis survivors, people who have lost family members and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I love the work. For now, it’s as close to my ambition as I’m going to get.
‘I thought, “That’s the end of life as I know it. But I have to make a future”’
Fairooz, 24, comes from a close-knit Yazidi family who lived just outside the city of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. Her father owned acres of farmland and ran a small chain of shops in the city. Her two elder siblings were at university.
‘I used to travel by bus to college every day with my friends,’ says Fairooz. ‘I was happy. My ambition was to become a nurse.’ But her plans fell apart when, one night in July 2014, there was an explosion close to her family’s home. ‘I was revising for a maths exam when I heard it,’ she says. ‘And then the phone rang and a man’s voice warned my father, “You must take care; something terrible is about to happen to you all.” It was petrifying.’
The next day, Fairooz got the bus as usual. ‘I had an important exam. But when I got there I couldn’t focus. My mind was in pieces. I knew I’d failed. After that I gave up on all my exams.’
A few weeks later, heavily armed Isis fighters descended on Fairooz’s hometown. Everybody panicked. ‘We didn’t know what to do,’ she says. ‘My father wanted us to stay. He said, “These people won’t do anything to us, they are our neighbours.”’ But when we saw everyone else going, we jumped into our cars and left.
The family fled to the nearby Sinjar Mountains. She says, ‘There were thousands of people up there, screaming and vomiting with fear. It was summer so it was 50 degrees. People were dying. We held on to each other and said, “If we die, we die together.”’
Finally, after seven days of walking, Fairooz and her family made it to safety. They now live in a home they have borrowed from friends in a town north of Mosul. ‘We can’t go home, it’s too dangerous,’ she says. ‘There are still many unexploded bombs. Also, thousands of people are missing, so nothing in the city works.
‘When I was up in the mountains, I thought, “That’s it, the end of life as I know it. There’s no college, no nursing,”’ she says. ‘But I still have to make a future for myself. I am hoping to enrol at nursing school at the end of this year, but my priorities have changed. We are missing family members. I think about them before I think about studying. I have only one dream now and that is to live in a place that is safe.’
For more information on the Amar Foundation or to donate, visit amarfoundation.org.