In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL, took over Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. In less than a year ISIL had expanded into central Iraq. By mid-2015, the Iraqi government, with help from the international community, began taking back some centrally located cities, including Fallujah. Last October, the military operation to take back Mosul began and it is ongoing.
In the meantime, the number of displaced persons in Iraq sits at a staggering 3.3 million, plus approximately 225,000 Syrian refugees. That’s roughly the population of the Greater Toronto Area, or more than the population of all four Atlantic provinces combined, or Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined. The UN has called it “the single most complex humanitarian operation in the world.”
PWRDF responds to emergencies through ACT Alliance, an umbrella organization of church-funded development agencies from around the world. Since 2014, PWRDF has given $100,000 to an ACT Alliance project supporting refugees in northern Iraq. The key members of ACT facilitating the work are Christian Aid, the Lutheran World Federation, Norwegian Church Aid and Hungarian Inter-church Aid. There are several local partners on the ground working with these ACT members.
The overall objective of this $8-million project is to make life bearable for the refugees. They are in desperate need of the basics: food, water, shelter, hygiene, schools, cash and psychosocial supports. One such service is the Women Friendly Spaces run by the Lutheran World Federation in Essyan Camp in the region of Kurdistan. That’s where Zinab (not her real name, upon request) shared her harrowing story with Ilona Gajdikova of Lutheran World Relief Iraq last October.
Zinab is in her late 20s and has four children, age 10, 6, 4 and 2. She has been at the camp since last July when she escaped ISIS. Her 10-year-old is still in captivity and she has not seen her husband since the day she was taken. She and her children share the cramped tent space with her husband’s uncle and his family.
Ilona and Zinab sipped sweet tea outside the tent as her children played around them, the youngest staying close by. “She really wanted to share her story although she was shy in the beginning,” says Ilona. The conversation lasted about two hours and both women were often moved to tears. But there was a bit of laughter too when they were lost in translation. “I asked the questions in English and partly in Arabic, and it was translated to Yazidi Kurdish or to Kurdish and she answered both in Kurdish Arabic,” says Ilona. Here is Zinab’s story as told to Ilona, edited for clarity and brevity:
“I lived in Sinjar region, in the village of Hardan, with my husband’s parents, his three brothers and their wives (one brother was single) and our children. My husband and I ran a small shop selling ceramics and plastic items. We never went to school and could not read or write, but our two older children went to school and my daughter was the best in her classroom.
“The day Daesh came to the village, they came to the square and told us: ‘Don´t try to escape, the situation is safe, so stay. We don´t want civilians, we just want military persons.’ But some people didn´t believe them and were preparing to escape. I was one of them. We approached the Daesh check-point but couldn´t get through, though some people did. We went to an Arab village near us because we knew one family there. They said they would help us. They took the women and children upstairs to the second floor and told the men (with my husband) to stay on the ground floor. But they brought Daesh with them. They took our IDs, phones and everything we had. They took men and women and children to the cars and they said they were going to take us somewhere out of Hardan. Then they took the women and children to Tal Afar school.
“We stayed in Tal Afar for 10 days. Sometimes Daesh came and took the beautiful girls with them. They took a lot of them. There might have been around 500 women and children there. The rice they gave us was full of glass pieces. I couldn’t sleep because I was so afraid that somebody would take my children. Sometimes Daesh men came and looked around for children. It was also extremely dirty.
“Then they took us to Badush prison, which is between Tal Afar and Mosul. They put us on big buses and took only younger females. We stayed in that jail for 15 days. Then we went back to Tal Afar and they took us to another school. They brought back some [Yazidi] men and they asked them to identify their families. My husband wasn’t among them. I have never seen my husband since then. They told us that because our husbands weren’t there, they would sell us to Kurdish Peshmerga.
“Only younger women who could get married went. I only had three of my children with me. My daughter was near my mother-in-law. I told them that I want to take my daughter, too, but they said no. I don’t know what happened to her, if she is still with my mother-in-law. She was nine years old then. Then they took us to Syria with each bus full with almost 30 women.
“We arrived to a farm close to Raqqa. They came and took our names and our children’s names. We stayed 15 days on the farm. After that a car came with 10 Daesh men. Each man took one woman and her children.
“For more than a year I pretended to be crazy and mute. I acted. My daughter helped me to take a shower, change my clothes, to eat… I was sold four times. Two of these men raped me.
“After the fourth time I was sold, they took me to another house where a Daesh widow lived. Her husband had died in the fighting. There was a lot of Yazidis and one man, he was Sorani Kurd, he used to come and teach them Quran.
“After some time they changed my ID, and my sons’ and we became Muslims. But not my daughter. They didn’t change her religion. They taught me how to be a good Muslim. Because I pretended to be mute and I couldn’t read, they used to put a recorded version of the Quran to my ears to listen to it. They used to take boys out to the mosque for Quranic lessons.
“On the first floor there were Daesh, we lived on the second floor and the third floor was empty. I asked my daughter to take me up to the third floor because I didn’t want to live. I prayed to God, but I didn’t want to leave without my daughter. I wanted to jump from the roof with her. So I tried to push my daughter down, but in the end I wasn’t able to do it. I was scared. It was in the evening, sunset, Tuesday.
“Later they took us to the place where widows, divorced women and women without husbands lived. That same Daesh widow lived there and she became my friend and helped me. On the opposite side of the street I saw a Yazidi woman who I knew. This woman was in touch with her son through the telephone. So I gave my daughter the names of some relatives and sent her to the Yazidi woman. Her son found my uncle in Iraq and they prepared my escape from Syria. It took some time to prepare and on the way we stayed in safe houses. We used the network of smugglers. The Yazidi woman and her five children escaped during the same time, too. When they crossed border in Sinjar, family came for them. We were in Syria for 20 months.”
At the end of their conversation, Zinab expressed her frustration to Ilona. “I am very tired. What kind of life is this? I don’t know anything about my husband. We don’t even have a place to sit down and winter is coming.” Yes despite her circumstances, a glimmer of hope: “It is difficult but we still have hope that the whole family will meet and go home.”
PWRDF believes our mission is to give voice and support to women like Zinab. Through organizations like ACT Alliance, we can help people get back on their feet during these very difficult times.