Women and Children for Sale

A new U.N. report paints a terrifying picture of life under the Islamic State.

Photo by Bulent Kilic / AFP
Photo by Bulent Kilic / AFP

In early August, fighters from the Islamic State swept into the small Yazidi village of Maturat in Iraq’s Sinjar district and took women to the Badush prison in Mosul. Hundreds more women and girls were herded into an ancient citadel in the town of Tal Afar in the northern province of Nineveh. From Tal Afar, a group of 150 unmarried girls and women, mostly from Christian or Yazidi families, were selected and reportedly sent to Syria "either to be given to ISIL fighters as a reward or to be sold as sex slaves," according to a report released on Thursday, Oct. 2, by the United Nations’ human rights office in Iraq.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, captured the world’s attention last June by declaring the creation of a caliphate in parts of both Syria and Iraq and embarking on a ruthless military campaign marked by mass executions, beheadings, and ethnic cleansing of ancient Christian, Shiite, and Yazidi communities. The 26-page report — which documents rights abuses from July 6 through Sept. 10 — constitutes the most detailed U.N. account of crimes committed by the Islamic State and sheds further light on its mass enslavement of women and girls. Evidence was compiled by a team of U.N. human rights investigators inside Iraq. Most of the interviews with eyewitnesses were conducted in Erbil and Dohuk, where thousands fled the Islamic State’s military offensive.

By the end of August, the U.N. documented the abduction of up to 2,500 civilians, mostly women and children, from the northern Iraqi towns and regions of Sinjar, Tal Afar, the Nineveh Plains, and Shirkhan. Once they were in captivity, fighters from the Islamic State sexually assaulted the teenage boys and girls, witnesses told the United Nations. Those who refused to convert to the groups ran the risk of execution. "[W]omen and children who refused to convert were being allotted to ISIL fighters or were being trafficked … in markets in Mosul and to Raqqa in Syria," according to the report. "Married women who converted were told by ISIL that their previous marriages were not recognised in Islamic law and that they, as well as unmarried women who converted, would be given to ISIL fighters as wives."

A market for the sale of abducted women was set up in the al-Quds neighborhood of Mosul. "Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale," according to the report. "The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yezidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks."

"The array of violations and abuses perpetrated by ISIL and associated armed groups is staggering, and many of their acts may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity," the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. Zeid urged the Iraqi government to consider joining the International Criminal Court in order to provide the tribunal’s prosecutor with the authority to investigate and prosecute crimes in Iraq by perpetrators on either side of the conflict.

The trafficking in sex slaves is only one facet of the Islamic State’s violent campaign to transform huge stretches of Iraq and Syria into an Islamic caliphate. Forces loyal to the movement’s self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have committed multiple mass murders of ethnic and religious minorities like the Yazidi, Iraqi Shiites, and even fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to "repent" and declare their belief in the Islamic State’s harsh view of Islam. On Wednesday, the movement beheaded 10 people in Syria, including three women fighting on behalf of Kurdish forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The U.N. report states: "ISIL has directly and systematically targeted Iraq’s various diverse ethnic and religious communities, subjecting them to a range of gross human rights abuses, including murder, physical and sexual assault, robbery, wanton destruction of property, destruction of places of religious or cultural significance, forced conversions, denial of access to basic humanitarian services … and [a] systematic policy that aims to suppress, permanently cleanse or expel, or in some instances, destroy those communities within areas of its control."

All told, nearly 8,500 civilians have been killed and more than 15,700 injured in Iraq during the past year, more than 11,000 of those casualties occurred between June and Aug. 31, a period that coincides with the Islamic State’s military campaign. As of August, more than 1.8 million Iraqis had been displaced.

The U.N. human rights office in Iraq enumerated a long list of offenses by the Islamic State, including "executions and other targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms."

The Islamic State’s campaign bore many of the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing campaigns. On July 17, the group’s fighters began marking the homes of Christians in two Mosul neighborhoods with nun, or "n," the first letter of the Arabic word "Nasara," for Nazarenes or Christians, and as property of the Islamic State. The homes of Shiite Muslims were marked with raa, or "r," the first letter of the word "Rafidha," the name many Sunni extremists use to refer to Shiites. A day earlier, according to the report, ISIL distributed leaflets ordering Christians "either to convert or to pay jizyah (toleration/protection tax), to leave or face death."

The Islamic State has also targeted Iraqi government forces. In what is likely the bloodiest act of the conflict, Islamic State fighters are believed to have executed as many as 1,500 soldiers and security forces based at a former U.S. Army base, Camp Speicher, in the northern province of Salahuddin. Mass executions have been reported in several other Iraqi provinces, including Nineveh, Diyala, and Kirkuk. For instance, "Corroborated reports indicate that on 16 July, 42 soldiers captured after clashes between ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and armed groups were executed in Awenat, south Tikrit in Salah al-Din," according to the U.N. report. "According to reports, the officers were executed after being forced to ‘repent’ by ISIL."

The report has few good guys. It also cites a pattern of "gross violations or abuses of international human rights law" by Iraq’s armed forces and allied militias. Numerous airstrikes carried out by the Iraqi security forces have "resulted in … significant civilian deaths and injuries and destruction of civilian infrastructure," prompting new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to order a freeze on such strikes in civilian areas on Sept. 13.

Government airstrikes around Kirkuk resulted in the deaths of some 17 people, including two women and seven children. On the evening of Aug. 14, two airstrikes in the town of Hawija killed 15 civilians, including four women and eight children.

In the province of Diyala, an Iranian-funded pro-government Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or AAH, has tortured and murdered suspected Islamic State fighters and loyalists, destroyed homes, and blown up mosques in Sunni neighborhoods.

On July 31, militants from the group allegedly rounded up 15 men suspected of being members of the Islamic State, executed them, and hung them from lampposts in the city of Baquba. Iraqi forces or allied militias were also suspected of vandalizing the tomb of Iraq’s former ruler, Saddam Hussein, and his two sons in the al-Oja village in Salahuddin.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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