ERBIL, Iraq — Jana was a 19-year-old in her final year of high school, with dreams of becoming a doctor. Then, ISIS came to her village last August, and her world collapsed.
She described to me in chilling detail, how the jihadis first demanded that members of her Yazidi religious minority convert to Islam. Then they stripped villagers of their jewelry, money and cellphones. They separated the men from the women.
A United Nations report explained what happened next. ISIS “gathered all the males older than 10 years of age at the local school, took them outside the village by pick-up trucks, and shot them.”
Among those believed dead were Jana’s father and eldest brother.
A different fate lay in store for the women.
Jana described how girls like herself were separated from older women, then bussed to the city of Mosul.
There they were put in a big three-story house with hundreds of other young women. The men of ISIS came periodically, and chose up to three and four girls at a time to take home with them.
“These women have been treated like cattle,” explained Nazand Begikhani, an adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government on gender issues.
“They have been subjected to physical and sexual violence, including systematic rape and sex slavery. They’ve been exposed in markets in Mosul and in Raqqa, Syria, carrying price tags.”
Perhaps more importantly, Begikhani is also a researcher at the UK-based University of Bristol’s Gender and Violence Research Center. According to the field research and testimonials of Begikhani’s team, ISIS kidnapped more than 2,500 Yazidi women.
Meanwhile Narin Shiekh Shamo, a Yazidi activist based in Iraqi Kurdistan has compiled the names of at least 4,601 Yazidi women currently missing.
In the first month after the mass abductions, Shamo says she was receiving calls and messages from up to 70 different hostages a day. Now, she can’t reach a single hostage.
After more than a decade reporting on conflict in the Middle East, I was still ill-prepared to hear about the scale of this kidnapping and modern day enslavement.
Suddenly, the words of a 19-year-old ISIS imprisoned fighter whom I interviewed last weekend in a Kurdish prison in northern Syria made sense.
The young man, horribly disfigured from bullet wounds to his abdomen and arm received during his year of fighting on the frontlines, described how ISIS attracted fresh recruits with the offer of cash and “wives.”
ISIS actually justified its enslavement of Yazidis in its own online magazine.
“One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar — the infidels — and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law,” the group announced in the ISIS publication “Dabiq.”
The Kurdish authorities say they have rescued around 100 Yazidi women, in part through the payment of ransoms to Arab tribesmen who acted as intermediaries.
Thousands of women remain hostage. And with ISIS successfully defending its territory from a loose coalition of Iraqi military, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, Syrian Kurdish militants and US-led airstrikes, it doesn’t look like a white knight will charge in to rescue these poor women any time soon.
Begikhani said all of the 100 Yazidi women rescued from ISIS appeared to have been systematically raped, likely by more than one man.
The 19-year-old girl I spoke with here in Iraqi Kurdistan was deeply traumatized, and incapable of showing any joy or humor. Her mother and two brothers are still being held hostage by ISIS.
Asked what she would say if she met the 70-year-old Arab man who took her home and ordered her to convert to Islam at gunpoint, she says: “I wouldn’t want to tell him anything. I just want to kill him.”
Jana says she has given up her dream of becoming a doctor.