Umm Diya *crosses her hands as we sit down, her body confused from discussing something so painful – and is telling her story to men again.
Old sofas and thin mattresses fill the room in this northern Iraq shelter. It is currently home to a small number of women who, between 2014 and 2017, were kidnapped, tortured and raped by members of ISIL (ISIS) while the group took control of the area.
These women call themselves invisible victims of ISIL – both because their families and communities have rejected them and because they are not included in the Law of the Survivors of Yazidipassed by the Iraqi Parliament in March 2021.
The law recognizes acts of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by ISIL against the Yazidi, Christian, Turkmen and Shabak minorities, and provides for restitution for women and children girls experiencing sexual violence.
But the women in this home are not a minority. They are Shia and Sunni Muslim Arabs and the law does not apply to them.
Although Umm Diya has been kidnapped, abused and sexually assaulted by members of ISIL and is currently struggling to care for her three children aged 13, 10 and 7, she is not eligible for support. – includes a monthly salary, a piece of land or a house. units and access to psychosocial and other health services – as set forth in the law.
She explained: “ISIL has kept us in a house with my children, there are other women. “Our torture started from there.”
Umm Diya says she begged them not to touch her baby. But she couldn’t stop them from witnessing the abuse she and other women endured.
“They started undressing us and beating us. We had our feet tied to ceiling fans, they beat us with sticks and spanked us, calling us with the harshest words, calling us prostitutes.”
She said many men were involved in the abuse, moving from woman to woman as they beat and raped them.
“We shouted Allah Akbar, but in spite of it they [continued],” she speaks.
Now, she explains, the trauma of what she witnessed has left her 13-year-old daughter unable to speak. “My daughter listens to you but never speaks,” she said.
Umm Diya believes her daughter needs treatment but she can’t afford it.
‘My husband spat on me’
Like the other women at this shelter in a dilapidated compound, Umm Diya survived ISIL but subsequently faced continued abuse at the hands of her family and tribe.
“They believe that if you are raped you are an ISIL woman,” explained one female aid worker I asked to sit with Umm Diya as she shared her story, thinking that someone a woman present can make her feel more comfortable.
When I asked Umm Diya if she received support from the women of her tribe, she looked puzzled. She explained that when her tribe leader declared that she was “an object of shame”, her aunt, other relatives and even childhood friends abandoned her.
“My husband spat at me and started hitting me with my brother. I was beaten so badly, they had to take me to the doctor,” she said.
“My husband left me. [He said] “You shame me, I don’t want you anymore, you gave your body to ISIL fighters,” He left us alone. “
That’s why Umm Diya and her children ended up in the shelter, which has supported 14 women since it opened last year. Some of the women left the shelters after receiving written assurances from their tribal leaders that they would not be harmed. Others have returned to their family home – where their husbands have remarried – to work as domestic servants so they can be close to their children.
Yanar Mohammed, President of Women’s Freedom, an NGO that runs the camps, said: “Ironically, honor is used as an excuse by society and the wider tribes. when they abuse their sisters, wives and even their daughters in a disgusting way.” this one, for the Yazidi and the survivors of the crimes of ISIL.
‘Live in the dark’
Much of the support Yanar and her team of volunteers and staff give to the women has to be done in secret because of the threats these survivors face from their own families and communities. their copper. All the women they work with, she says, face social challenges. But while the crimes committed by ISIL against Yazidi women are widely recognized inside and outside of Iraq, she said the non-Yazidi victims have been largely ignored and abandoned.
Yanar explained: “Muslim Arab women enslaved by ISIL have found nowhere to go, they are still living in the dark of society without anyone recognizing them, respecting them.
Most don’t reveal what they’ve suffered to anyone, she said, adding: “She lives with her pain or she dies with her pain. Many of them turned into corpses that were only buried in the backyards of ISIL fighters.”
She estimates that no less than 10,000 women have been victims of ISIL but says this has not been “recognized by the international community or treated in a way that preserves dignity, respect or [provides] compensation to most victims”.
More than 6,000 Yazidi women and children are believed to have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIL, but the number of non-Yazidi women and children is unknown – in part because of the stigma associated with it.
Throw it in the well
Every woman and girl at the shelter has a tragic story of violence and abandonment. Hazeen * 16 years old. She was a child when ISIL took her and her mother away.
“My life was destroyed,” she said.
“One day they came to us and told us they killed my father.”
She said that the men holding them tried to marry her to an ISIL fighter but her mother refused.
She recounts how her mother told them, “Do whatever you want to do with me but leave my daughter alone.”
She then said, “They raped my mother in front of me and then they raped me in front of her.”
Her mother, who was sitting next to her, broke down.
“The other women captured by ISIL where I was being held were all Sunni Muslims,” Hazeen’s mother explained. “Perhaps hundreds of people have been physically abused. Those who resist were killed and thrown into the well. The worst thing I’ve seen is a child, in diapers, killed and thrown into a well,” she added, wiping her tears with a tissue as the other women in the room tried to comfort her.
Yanar said she and her team have recorded hundreds of testimonies from Yazidi and non-Yazidi women about the abuse they endured, but that social challenges and government indifference have led to they do not act.
“Our main challenge is the Yazidi Survivors Law, which regulates how government compensation and also victim compensation, excluding. Those who are enslaved and persecuted are of equal status. We don’t know what is the reason for this? Is it because the community does not reclaim the dignity of these women? Or is it because the government is under some kind of sectarian pressure and they don’t want to admit that these women have been enslaved by ISIL,” she asked.
“The international community still has a lot of work to do so the government considers all these survivors prisoners of war,” added Yanar.
I asked Umm Diya if she found it difficult to corroborate her story and some said it was hard to determine for sure who helped ISIL and who were the group’s victims, she was disgusted.
In fact, she accused the government of sheltering some of the women who were part of ISIL, simply because they had the approval of their tribal leaders.
Al Jazeera was unable to corroborate her account of what happened to Umm Diya, but she filed a lawsuit in court, which included eyewitness accounts.
“I told them I was raped by ISIL fighters, it was back in 2017 and so far, I have received nothing. No return, nothing,” she said, looking down as she tried to hold back her tears. There was a long, heavy silence in the room.
As we got up to leave, the women thanked us for listening to them. I assure them that we will tell the world about their ordeal.
Umm Diya smiled sadly: “No one cares.”
* Names changed to protect their identities