Olivia Ward – Foreign Affairs Reporter
They lay in wait for their prey. They carefully planned their attack. They struck without mercy. And when they were done, thousands of victims had disappeared.
The savagery of the Islamic State militants, who sliced through Syria and Iraq with high-tech weapons and old-fashioned swords, is no longer a surprise in the daily news. What is shocking is the extent of their brutality toward women.
It has revealed another face of the jihadists: not just ideologically driven killers, but systematic sexual predators.
“The attack on women in Sinjar (in Iraqi Kurdistan) was meant to destroy the dignity of the Yazidi community,” says Matthew Barber, a graduate student at University of Chicago and expert on the Yazidis. “But it was more than that. Their prime motivation was sexual.”
Yazidis, a religious minority of up to 600,000 in Iraq, have been persecuted for centuries as heretics. Islamic State militants attacked them in early August, killing hundreds or more and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes.
According to witnesses, survivors and a recent UN report, captured women and girls were systematically separated from the men and told to convert to Islam or face execution or sexual violence.
“Women and children who refused to convert were being allotted to (Islamic State) fighters or were being trafficked . . . in markets in Mosul and to Raqqa in Syria,” the report said. “Married women who converted were told that their previous marriages were not recognized in Islamic law and that they, as well as unmarried women who converted, would be given to (jihadists) as wives.”
Those selected to be sold off like cattle are reportedly priced at between $25 and $1,000. But some have been executed and others have committed suicide. The UN report said that captured teenage boys as well as girls were also routinely sexually assaulted by jihadists.
As the estimated number of enslaved Yazidi women and girls has escalated to 7,000, efforts to rescue them have also stepped up, with groups inside and outside of Iraq struggling to find ways to pluck them from the clutches of their tormentors.
“We sleep only about two hours a night,” says Murad Ismael of the U.S.-based Sinjar Crisis Management Team. “We have taken time away from our jobs. We have been able to help some get free, but thousands are in (Islamic State’s) hands. Their lives are heartbreaking.”
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Yazidis and their supporters are working on rescue strategies for the women and girls, whose futures appear grim as the Islamic State continues its advances.
Some rescuers were desperate enough to hire a gang of gunmen to break into an Islamic State compound and carry the kidnapped girls to safety. They had been used by the jihadis as domestic servants and told they would live as their wives.
Barber said that one, who was only 15, “was tortured for resisting the demands of her captor for sex. Another suffered such severe psychological trauma due to the kidnapping, subsequent rape and being shipped across Iraq that she is now very ill.”
Amina Hasan, a former Iraqi parliamentarian and Yazidi rights advocate, has met some of the few who have returned.
“If they manage to get out they have been through terrible experiences,” she said in a phone interview from Kurdistan. “Most say they were assaulted by one man then passed on to another and another. Some tried to commit suicide.”
The Islamic State militants are proud to admit that their vicious treatment of the Yazidis is not mere casual brutality.
It is deliberately targeted against the small Yazidi religious sect, who have been mistakenly condemned as “devil worshipers.” They number up to 1 million worldwide, the majority in Kurdish-speaking northern Iraq.
Earlier this month the Islamic State’s English website, Dabiq, boasted of reviving what they called historically sanctioned practices toward non-Muslim women: “enslavement of families of the (infidels) and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet.”
But Barber, who was in Kurdistan this summer during the assault on the Yazidis, and extensively researched the Islamic State kidnappings, believes the jihadists are not just ideologically driven killers but calculating sexual predators.
“They wanted to obtain sex slaves,” he said. “They didn’t just attack the area and find women there that they decided to seize. They planned it carefully. They had trucks ready to carry them off. They met fleeing cars and separated men from women and hauled them off. It’s an enslavement project that takes women as sexual objects.”
The militants justify their actions through an extreme and archaic version of Islam, one that is rejected by Islamic scholars who say it was abolished by universal consensus. The UN and human rights advocates say the jihadis’ abuse of women may amount to war crimes.
A young Yazidi mother who eluded her captors told Hasan that her husband and father were dragged away from her and shot after the family was seized. The killer, still splattered with their blood, drove her to the militant centre of Mosul and gave her to an elderly man of 80.
“She was able to escape because he was sleeping one night when she woke up to hear her little son crying,” said Hasan. “She took the child outside and kept on going until she reached a house where people helped her. Now she is safe with her family, but they have nothing.”
At least 100 women have escaped or been rescued since the attacks on the Yazidis began, Hasan said. But even after their return they are living in deplorable conditions in Kurdish towns overflowing with refugees. She hopes that Canada and other countries will reach out to the kidnapped women and their shattered families.
“Today it’s raining, and the temperature is getting colder because we’re in the mountains,” she said. “Many of their tents fell down. Even if they have dry food and bedding everything gets wet. They are in bad shape but they don’t have medical or psychological attention.”
Worse still are the lives of those in captivity.
“They are being held in schools, community halls, prisons and houses,” Hasan said. “Some have been taken to Syria for the leaders and emirs. Some of the women were sold and all of the girls who were taken disappear.”