A Broken Homecoming

Iraq’s Yazidis struggle with the future of the children of rape by Islamic State fighters.

Ashwaq Haji, a Yazidi woman held by the Islamic State as a slave, holds portraits of victims of the jihadis from her village of Kocho, near Sinjar, as she visits a temple in Lalish, northern Iraq, on Aug. 15, 2018.
Ashwaq Haji, a Yazidi woman held by the Islamic State as a slave, holds portraits of victims of the jihadis from her village of Kocho, near Sinjar, as she visits a temple in Lalish, northern Iraq, on Aug. 15, 2018. -/AFP/Getty Images

For Iraq’s Yazidi minority, the defeat of the Islamic State has magnified an existing theological split, with painful real-world consequences. The group’s Spiritual Council, their highest religious authority, announced on Saturday that children born to women and girls who were raped by Islamic State fighters won’t be accepted back by the community, leaving dozens of Yazidi women and their children stranded in eastern Syria. These women must now decide between their faith and their families.

On April 24, the Yazidi Spiritual Council issued a decree that was widely interpreted as a call to welcome back Yazidi women and the children they gave birth to after being kidnapped and raped by members of the Islamic State. Three days later, after an angry backlash from some Yazidis, the council backtracked, stating: “We did not mean the children born as a result of rape at all, but those who were born from Yazidi parents and were kidnapped during the invasion of Sinjar by [the Islamic State] on August 3, 2014.” The question of what to do with the children speaks to an urgent debate in a besieged community: Just who is a Yazidi?

The schism between Yazidi traditionalists and modernizers has quietly bubbled away for some years, mostly driven by members of the diaspora who chafe against restrictions on marrying outside the faith or across the religion’s three castes. They also fear the religion will die out if it doesn’t adapt. Modernizers want to do away with centuries-old edicts that say a Yazidi must have two Yazidi parents. These rules helped to ensure the continuation of the ancient monotheistic faith, which has fewer than a million adherents, despite regular attacks and pressure to convert by the Muslim rulers of the Yazidis’ lands. Women who married or had sex with outsiders—even under coercion—have traditionally been expelled from the community.

Today, the sway of the Supreme Council remains strong, but some families have broken the rules and welcomed their lost daughters and new grandchildren back after they were freed from their Islamic State captors. “We have to continue this struggle for the women and children despite what the council has decided, because those five people on the council cannot decide on the dignity of these women and children,” said Jan Kizilhan, a professor of psychology and the head of the institute of psychotherapy and psychotraumatology at the University of Duhok in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

Islamic State atrocities have made this a painfully concrete issue. More than 50 Yazidi women and children remain in camps in eastern Syria, according to Yazidi activists. Some, but not all, of the children are the result of rape by Islamic State fighters. Those who were are now being forced out of the Yazidi community. Rights organizations are searching for solutions to keep mothers and children together, including finding safe houses for the women or sending them abroad.

In 2014, the Islamic State militant group seized the city of Sinjar and massacred thousands of Yazidi men who refused to convert to Islam. The group kidnapped more than 6,000 Yazidi women and children. The militants sold women and girls on slave markets, systematically raping and torturing them while holding them in animal-like conditions across Iraq and Syria. Young boys were sent to training camps. And while rescue attempts were carried out by black market smugglers, there were no official attempts to bring the women home.

In the late summer of 2014, Yazidi women and girls began escaping the Islamic State in small numbers. It became clear that Yazidi doctrinal changes would be necessary to allow them to reintegrate. Previously, anyone who married or had sex outside the faith would have been excommunicated or worse. Baba Sheikh, a prominent member of the spiritual council, issued a decree at the time that said female survivors should be welcomed back because they were seized against their will. The decree eased the massive challenge of reintegration—but some stigma still clung to returning survivors

Conservative Yazidis think that accepting children born in captivity will dilute the purity of the Yazidi bloodline. They view the children as the physical manifestations of their fathers’ crimes. One Yazidi man wrote on Facebook: “The blood of these children isn’t pure and shouldn’t be mixed with the blood of the Yazidis.” A Yazidi who lost 23 members of his family in the 2014 attack wrote, “We as families of the victims should be able to decide not to welcome these children.”

Ahmed Burjus, the deputy executive director of the Yazidi rights organization Yazda, told Foreign Policy that some Yazidi parents cannot reconcile their grief for their slain loved ones and their destroyed homes and land with an acceptance of the children of the Islamic State.

“They just don’t have the capacity to accept the son of someone who has done this to them,” he said. The families wonder: “How can I see this child in front of me every day and know that his father killed my sons and killed my mom and kidnapped my daughters?”

Yet Yazidi survivors and activists living in camps in northern Iraq said the choice to bring the children home should be up to the women alone and that this is a human right that everyone should respect. Those who expressed this belief didn’t want to be named because of the ferociousness of the debate within a divided community.

“This is their personal right [to bring the children home], and no one in the Yazidi community or outside it should have the right to decide on their behalf,” Burjus said.

But not all the kidnapping survivors agree. A 38-year-old former Islamic State captive, who was sold twice while in captivity and is still separated from two of her teenage children, said in a phone conversation, “Why would we accept children from those who abducted us and hurt us? They abducted Yazidi women and girls, so we shouldn’t accept them.”

Iraqi law also presents challenges for reincorporating the children into the community. Under 2015’s National Identity Card Law, roundly opposed by the country’s Christians and other minority groups, a child is considered to be a Muslim if one parent is a Muslim. There are no exceptions for children born of rape.

Yazidis commenting online expressed fears that the children of Islamic State fathers, as Muslims under Iraqi law, may try to convert other Yazidis to Islam when they grow up. What might seem from the outside like paranoia is grounded in centuries of forced conversion, political marginalization by the state, and the diktat handed down by Islamic State fighters in 2014: convert or die.

The few dozen children known so far are just the tip of the iceberg. Exact figures are hard to come by, but the number of cases has been steadily growing as more and more women emerge after five years of captivity. Not all kidnapped women gave birth: Some were given birth control by the Islamic State or had abortions after their escape. Some left their children with families in Islamic State territory or gave them to orphanages.

More than 1,000 Yazidi children, those born to two Yazidi parents, also remain missing following the defeat of the Islamic State. Some of them were seized from their parents, forcibly adopted by Islamic State families, sent to training camps, sold, or may have been given new identities and forgotten their birth families and names.

Of the 2,992 Yazidis still unaccounted for after the 2014 attacks, some are likely dead, while others are scattered across Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and other countries. A lack of education means Yazidi women and girls may still be trapped with escaping Islamic State families and are unable to use phones or the internet to make contact with relatives and arrange travel to return home.

“The way to find them is to put pressure on the ISIS leaders captured by security forces in Syria and ask them where these Yazidis are,” Burjus said. “The Yazidis were sold and enslaved in a systematic way, and this plan or system is in the hardware of computers somewhere within [former] ISIS territory or somewhere with ISIS members. Those leaders know where the Yazidi women and children are.”

Nongovernmental organization staff and medical experts like Kizilhan and those at Yazda believe that the safest place for surviving women and their children may be outside the country, at least in the short term. Yazidi survivors returning to Iraq also face the ongoing nightmare of displacement and the lack of post-conflict justice for Islamic State crimes or reconciliation with neighboring Sunni Muslim communities.

Sinjar remains rubble: its holy sites destroyed by the Islamic State, its mass graves filled with unclaimed Yazidi bodies, and many of its buildings pummeled by coalition airstrikes. Rival militias stalk the town. Resentments and desires for revenge have been left to fester. According to Yazda, over 100,000 Yazidis have fled Iraq since 2014, joining another 250,000 that fled since 2003 and leaving the Yazidi community at just over half its previous size.

The Yazidi survivor and Nobel laureate Nadia Murad said in a video posted on Facebook on April 28: “This is a very difficult issue. What happened to them was against their will, just like their capture wasn’t up to them. … In my opinion, this decision should be determined by the mothers and the families of those children, rather than by some of us saying they should be brought [home] while others say they shouldn’t.”

Cathy Otten is an award-winning British journalist and author formerly based in Iraq. Her book With Ash On Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State was published in the US by OR books in 2017.

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