By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A new ruling by the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council has sought to help solve one of the more complex and controversial traumas the continue to haunt women who were kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS in 2014. This involved hundreds of cases of children who were the result of rape.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, director of the German NGO Wadi, which promotes self-help programs in the Middle East since 1992, says this ruling is very important for helping mothers and children. In 2015 Wadi began helping hundreds of women and girls who had returned from ISIS captivity. They helped providing psychological help and other assistance. Osten-Sacken says that after ISIS attacked Sinjar and kidnapped thousands of women there was fear about how the community would react to the women who were victims of sexual assault. “In their tradition this is dishonoring and ISIS knew what they were doing by raping and selling [the women] as slaves and abusing them sexually, so it was important that they released this declaration that they welcomed the girls back and reintegrate the girls into the community,” he says. He says that ISIS use of systematic rape was designed to make women pregnant and to use this against the community. He links it with other examples of rape used in war, such as in Darfur and Bangladesh. “It was clear there will be babies and the longer the girls are in captivity, the higher the possibility that they get pregnant.”
Excerpts from the interview are below, as well as a second perspective at the end providing some context of this decision and challenges ahead:
SF: What is the major issue the community faces?
Osten-Sacken: Already in 2014 everyone was very afraid of how the Yazidi community would react that their girls were taken hostage and abused and raped because in their tradition this is dishonoring the tradition and ISIS knew what they were doing by raping and selling them as slaves and abusing them sexually, so it was important that they released this declaration that they welcomed the girls back and reintegrate the girls into the community, but if you have systematic rape then you will have children and it was clear that ISIS was interested in focusing on making these girls pregnant to make problems for the community, because we know that this sex-jihad has problems for the victims in other places like Bangladesh and Darfur, and ISIS was always checking if the girls were pregnant and this was their agenda. It was clear there will be babies and the longer the girls are in captivity, the higher the possibility that they get pregnant.
Can you describe recent developments?
So in 2017 our Yazidi staff contacted us that they have more and more cases of coming back with babies and children, some of them were in captivity for up to four years and this is a big issue and the Yazidi community was taking the kids away and putting them in orphanages or hiding this issue, and according to Islamic and Iraqi law these children are Muslims and not Yazidis. So a mother with a Muslim child should raise the child in a Muslim way.
So we were thinking how to solve this issue in a cultural-sensible way, because the girls and the children shouldn’t pay a price for the genocide that ISIS did, so we understand it was best to give the women the chance to decide, do they want to keep the children or keep them in safe hands, so the concept was to create a safe house and if they want to leave the community and go abroad they could, or they could allow the children to be adopted, for instance by Kurdish families and the fear was that some children would be dumped in orphanages and stigmatized as ISIS children, so we had a lot of conversations with the Yazidi establishment to get support for a solution, for instance if there are girls who refuse to return to Dohuk because they want to stay with their children or even with their rapists. So finally after the case of the Baden-Wurttemburg program in Germany that helped up to 1,000 Yazidis and yesterday the holy council of the Yazidis issued a paper that is leading into the direction that the proper solution could and should be found for these young mothers and their children.
And what comes next?
The next step will be to try to set up a safe place, together in coordination with the Yazidi establishment where these mothers can rest and stay for months, they are in a terrible psychological condition and get assistance and then find long-term solution. I believe that after working a long time, there are two solutions. One is to enable them to go abroad until the issue is settled. So Germany or other countries could take them in as they did. The moment they leave Iraq then the authorities must stamp “Yazidi” in the passports, as President Barham Saleh proposed a new law that the children will be considered Yazidis. Either you change these laws that are destroying the Middle East that religion is written in your passport, or a declaration that ISIS is not Muslim and therefore the children are not Muslim. So for the Iraqi authorities it is easier to stamp it in a passport of someone leaving, than someone staying. We fear that Islamist parties and organizations will insist these children remain Muslims, as long as they are defined as Muslims then the community will not deal with them and that is understandable.
What are some other hurdles facing the women and children?
We must think of the well-breaking of the mothers, some were with children for two years and that gave the women strength to survive captivity and there must be a way for children to be given to good hands, there are cases where Kurdish families adopted the children. Some women don’t want these children, why might they want a child that is a product of rape and terrible abuse, but the children shouldn’t pay the price for the terrible genocide of ISIS.
What about other similar conflicts, or even Nadia Murad, and the Nobel Prize? Hasn't the recognition she received and the work of others like Amal Clooney helped this issue? What about comparative conflicts?
Some staff were in Bosnia for training and exchange. Bangladesh was in 1971 and that was a long time ago. The problem in Bangladesh is that you have 170,000 children of rape and that was hidden under the carpet and exploded later when the children began to ask questions. We have to be aware that these children will grow up, they will ask “why did you do this to us,” and that has long-term impact on the Yazidi community. We learned from Darfur and Bangladesh that rape has a long-term affect on the destruction of communities, so we must try to avoid this negative impact as fast as possible. So fifteen years they could be confronted with that and they have suffered.
And the Yazidis are still in limbo and they can’t return?
I don’t see return and Sinjar being rebuilt, and if it is rebuilt it needs a serious protection for. The majority prefer the terrible camps in Dohuk.
Have non-Yazidis received better treatment by the government?
There are a lot of people from Ramadi and Fallujah and they are also staying in Kurdistan. And also Mosul situation is difficult. Even the Sunni Arabs are paying a high price. I don’t see that the Sunni triangle will be properly rebuilt.
What’s important is that this was a brave step by the Yazidi establishment and it is important that the international community acknowledge this step and help find a solution and we are talking about a couple hundred cases, and taking them in to Europe or Canada would take the burden off the Yazidi establishment.
There are still Yazidis in Syria?
There are some kind of houses in Amude and Qamidhli run by the PYD or Syrian Kurds and recently a delegation from Iraqi Yazidi community went to Syria, and there were 23 cases of people who could be repatriated to Iraq, but due to this issue the Iraqis were taking the women away from the women, so women who want to keep their children are reluctant.
Who takes the kids?
The Iraqi border forces and they are dumped in some orphanages. Until now the children are considered children of Muslim fathers and the idea is that they should go to the family of the father which is ridiculous because the father could be from Chechnya or Germany or Libya and some girls were raped by dozens of ISIS fighters and people want to hide this fact and take the kids and there are orphanages for ISIS children. We are dealing with thousands of ISIS widow’s children and the parents might have been killed or run away and the kids grew up in radical families and they were radicalized and some don’t know who their parents are and you have thousands of ISIS children in orphanages and the Yazidi women children just add to that, and no one likes these ISIS kids and they are treated in a terrible way and there is no proper psychological assistance and you have these young kids speaking like extremists.
One of my friends visited a camp with women and ISIS kids in Syria and these kids are now more than a year in camps in the Syrian desert.
Of the 79 Coalition members none invest in this? Germany has no relations with the YPG and they say they can’t do anything. In Iraq it is different. As far as I know only the department of social affairs in Mosul has 12,000 kids. In Germany or another country each kid needs a psychologist. It’s a time bomb.
Nemam Ghafouri who has volunteered for many years with Yazidis provided an important response that is worth quoting at length about issues relating to the declaration. She volunteers for the charity organization Joint Help For Kurdistan.
She writes: "It is amazing how many articles have been published in the past 24 hours, about what men have said about the women, but none of them has asked a single mother what she thinks about this vague statement and or if anyone of them will think this will bring back her child/children."
After Baghouz, a struggle to survive:
Ghafouri: Mothers who had done anything in their power to protect their children from bombs and from hunger. Mothers who in their past couple of months in Baghoz did not had anything to eat, and were given three pieces of dates per day and they were giving them to their children....Mothers that got new strength to fight to survive after giving birth to new lives and made them closer to their own mothers and families after becoming mothers themselves..The Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council has decided that Yazidi survivors who have given birth in captivity can keep the children and raise them.
It is up to each and every one and their family to decide if the children are allowed to remain with the mother or not.
These children will not be considered as Yazidis.
According to the Iraqi constitution when they are born of Muslims then they considered as Muslims only.
In other words, not much has been changed for these poor mothers, not much for them to rejoice, as the fight has been moved to their home and between them and their family. The only real help would be if the Iraqi government changes the constitution and after that the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council could take a clear position and stands on the survivors side clearly without leaving any doubts, with no grey zone for different interpretations. As the separation’s pain torturing these mothers, and pushing them to the edge..., as always a swarm of journalists throwing out articles about how great are the men who again on behalf of the women’s suffering make themselves as heroes.
If they were honest with this women, before saying much they could demand for Iraqi constitutional change and then urge the Yazidi community to welcome these children to stay with their mothers, then encouraging the families once these children are blessed in Lalish. The genocide survivor women are left alone to find a way to live in pain and endless sorrow. They have nobody to find their loved ones who are still kept as slaves and sold, and or to help them to raise their children in their arms with much love as mothers. The women who are so desperate who put ISIS dress by free choice and walk among them again in order to find their loved ones, are revealing much about how much help is out there for them.