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Six Years After The ISIS Yazidi Genocide, One Woman Reflects

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Six years ago this week, ISIS killed thousands of people - mostly women and children - and enslaved thousands more. They were Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq. ISIS was defeated, but those who survived the genocide continue to struggle with what they went through. NPR's Jane Arraf has one woman's story. And a note - it is a difficult story to hear. It includes descriptions of violence and a suicide attempt.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: We're sitting in a trailer with a woman who tells us sometimes she forgets her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: When she was held by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, they called her different names - Um Aziz, Um Khalid, Um Ruqaya. All of those mean the mother of, customary even if a woman doesn't have a child. When she had her daughter, she named her Hiba, and she became known as Um Hiba. We're not identifying her because she's still vulnerable.

The baby's father was an ISIS fighter from Mosul, the fourth man who claimed to own her in three years of enslavement. Her torment started in 2014 when ISIS took over northern Iraq and she fled with hundreds of thousands of Yazidis to the mountains. She was 16. There was no food or water or even shelter from the sun. When they came down from Mount Sinjar, ISIS captured them. Amid U.S. airstrikes, ISIS fighters took the teenager and thousands of other Yazidis deeper into Iraq and Syria. She was married at the time and two months pregnant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They were beating us with their boots, rifle butts, anything they had in their hands. I started bleeding, and the baby was gone.

ARRAF: She told me her story when we met last year in the camp she lives in for displaced families in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. She still doesn't know what happened to her husband. She says in the towns they went through, ISIS gathered the girls and women on buses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) In the market, they were calling out with a speaker, there are Yazidi girls here for sale. Sometimes ISIS fighters would board the bus and choose one of us. They would drive around with a speaker, saying, if you don't have an infidel yet, this is your chance to take one.

ARRAF: Um Hiba ended up living with the ISIS fighter in Mosul and his other wife and children. For two years, she was raped and beaten. Sometimes her ISIS husband would hit the baby, but she tried hard to keep Hiba safe. She managed to escape when Iraqi and U.S. forces started taking back Mosul.

When we meet her in the camp, Um Hiba has been here for two years. Her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail, her face scrubbed and her expression haunted. She came back with her baby even though the closed Yazidi community doesn't accept children from the ISIS fathers who killed and enslaved them. She kept her daughter with her in the camp for three months.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) When we came to the camp, people were saying that she's the daughter of ISIS. Then she got sick. She wasn't walking. I really wanted to keep her. But some people were saying, if you do not abandon her, we will either kill her or burn your tent down so you will all burn together.

ARRAF: So Um Hiba, who never went to school and can't read or write, witnessed a piece of paper from an aid organization, agreeing to give up her daughter. She gave away her right to ever see the child or find out what happened to her, and she's tormented by it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Any time I see a mother calling, carrying or taking her child to a shop, I wish I had my child, too, to take care of her, play with her, kiss her and smell her.

ARRAF: Um Hiba lives in poverty - like almost all the Yazidi survivors - with her mother, her brother and two blind sisters. She says her brother calls her names. Her mother yells at her. She tells us the night before was the last straw.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Yesterday evening, I found myself angry and in a completely different world. Our neighbor's daughter came over, and I was playing with her. I even called her Hiba by mistake, and her mother said that she didn't want me to play with her daughter. My family started shouting at me.

ARRAF: Um Hiba says she was so upset she went to the shop and bought rat poison and locked herself in the kitchen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) My friend shouted and screamed and said, you're not the only one taken by ISIS; there are thousands.

ARRAF: She says her family broke the lock with a brick and took the poison away from her. Her mother was crying. The neighbors were shouting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They said, have you lost your mind? I said, if a mother is alive and not able to see her daughter and goes through all of this, why did God make it that human beings love their children?

ARRAF: That was last year. We talked to Um Hiba again recently, and she says she's still the same, dreaming that she might somehow get her child back and find a place where she and her daughter could be together. Her story is one of many. We've interviewed other young women tormented because they were forced to leave their children from ISIS fathers behind in Syria if they wanted to come home. They know the orphanage where the children are, but the issue of children with ISIS fathers is so controversial that no one, neither governments nor international organizations, are willing to help reunite them. Amnesty International's Nicolette Waldman says reuniting them is a basic right.

NICOLETTE WALDMAN: We're calling on the national authorities in Iraq to intervene and to make sure that when women who have given birth to these children as a result of sexual violence have been separated and, if they want to reunite, they should be able to reunite with them. It's just very straightforward international law.

ARRAF: An Amnesty report concluded survivors of the genocide, particularly children, need help they're just not getting. It says the children have been essentially abandoned by their government and the international community. More than 3,000 Yazidis came back from ISIS captivity to joyful welcomes. But like Um Hiba, they're still living the trauma.

Jane Arraf, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the introduction to this report, we incorrectly say mostly women and children were killed by ISIS. In fact, it was mostly women and children who were enslaved by ISIS.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 3, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the introduction to this report, we incorrectly say mostly women and children were killed by ISIS. In fact, it was mostly women and children who were enslaved by ISIS.