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Surviving ISIS and the unbearable lightness of being

Survivors of ISIS's brutality are living with trauma and searching for justice.

Analysis | Middle East

In August 2014, ISIS took control of Sinjar, Tel Afar and the Nineveh plain in Iraq. These areas were once the most ethnically and religiously diverse in Iraq but, as ISIS began a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the area’s minorities, those demographics soon changed. 

The so-called Caliphate considered the region’s diversity to be a threat to its vision of the Middle East and of Islam. As such, anyone and anything affiliated with the region’s minority communities, like Christians, Shia, and Yezidi, had to be erased. The invaders tactics were brutal. Men were killed. Women and girls were enslaved and repeatedly raped. Male children were taken as “Cubs of the Caliphate and were trained as fighters and suicide bombers. 

During the course of the next five years, as ISIS was eventually routed, the survivors’ stories were gathered and used by politicians, media outlets, and non-governmental organizations across the world. While much of this attention was benevolent, some of it wasn’t. Scenes showing slave markets or mass executions started to be used in political ads. As the case of the Yezidi women gathered more attention, rape survivors were forced to relive trauma. Perhaps as a consequence, some of these women committed suicide.

In many of these interviews, the survivors begged for help fighting ISIS, finding their families, obtaining justice, or just surviving another day. 

In the early days, some help did come. The German state of Baden-Württemberg, for example, began a program to take and rehabilitate women that survived sex slavery. The U.S. Congress voted to aid Iraqi minorities with theJustice for Yazidis Act.But as the years wore on and as ISIS lost territory, the survivors’ stories seemed less sensational and their problems more mundane so funding slowed. The funding that did arrive viathe Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, for example, focusses on war crimes committed by ISIS and is simply not enough to address the continuing humanitarian dilemma.

Of the 500,000 Yezidi, for example, that had fled from Sinjar by March 2015, a vast majority remained refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of those displaced now reside within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Nor does it seem likely that they will be able to change their status in the near future. In February 2019, the UNHCR, Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) Cluster and REACH Initiative found that 74 percent of Sinjari IDPs were unable or unwilling to return due to safety concerns as the area remains seeded with mines. The needed security forces are lacking and discrimination continues to be an issue. This is to say nothing of the cost of rebuilding homes that have been damaged or destroyed or the psychological toll that may accompany return. 

Adding to the problem, few IDPs have the means to better their situation. Hoshang Muhammad, Director-General of the Kurdish Regional Government’s Ministry of Interior’s Joint Crisis Coordination Centre,  that “few IDPs and refugees earn incomes. Sixty-five percent of IDPs and refugees depend on assistance from KRG, U.N. agencies, and NGOs.”

And, while unemployment is widespread across all ethno-religious groups, whether IDPs or returnees, some have estimated that the rate of unemployment for Yezidi IDPs, some of whom paid up to $6,000 to free family members that had been kidnapped, is as high as 49 percent. This means that even though somepsycho-social help is available for Yezidi women who escaped from ISIS, actual access can be dependent on financial resources with transportation being a real issue. One woman recalled that her transportation cost alone came to $50 which made accessing psychological care more difficult. 

Lack of resources also affect living conditions and school attendance. Many Yezidi IDPs live outside of camps and may have not have adequate shelter while facing harsh weather conditions. But most IDPs, within and without camps, still face challenges related to limited electricity, water and sanitation and non-food items. Some families need their children to work to address these issues rather than attend school. But even if parents or guardians do not need their child to work to help support their family, they might not be able to afford school fees or they can afford the schools fees but cannot overcome transportation difficulties. 

These challenges exacerbate a sense of hopelessness among a population that has suffered extreme violence and captivity. Is it any wonder that suicide and self-destructive behavior has been recorded among a population that has seen their loved ones raped or murdered, their pain broadcast across the world only to be left in what must certainly seem like a never-ending circle of deprivation? 

Someone surely benefited from the survivors’ stories but it was not the survivors themselves. Certainly not the father who said, “I think now it would have been better if we all died on that mountain than to see my children like this and know I can’t do anything for them.”

Yazidi refugees in Kanke camp in Kurdistan, August 2014 Photo credit: answer5 / Shutterstock.com
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