LALISH, Iraq — One year ago, ISIS militants turned their savagery on the Yazidis, a religious minority that has lived and worshiped in the mountains of northern Iraq since at least the 12th century.
The radicals, on a rampage through the region, stormed Yazidi villages executing and abducting thousands, in what was described as an attempted genocide.
Before the world fully grasped what was happening, the bodies of local men were dumped in mass graves while their wives and daughters were sold into sexual slavery.
Many of the estimated 5,000 Yazidis captured last August have since managed harrowing escapes. But the world they are returning to is unrecognizable.
Few of the estimated 300,000 Yazidis who lived in the foothills of the stark Sinjar Mountains have returned home since their exodus, and are instead living in dusty camps or as indefinite guests in crowded homes.
"I don’t have an identity anymore," said one young mother who escaped ISIS captivity only to find that her entire family was displaced. "I left my whole life behind in Sinjar."
One year after the radicals swept into their villages, sparking an international outcry and escalating U.S. involvement in the war against ISIS, Iraq’s Yazidi community is still in crisis and many who can are choosing to leave the county.
Among them are Kazhal, 18, and Maya, 20, who asked that her real name not be used since she still has family in ISIS custody. Both were among the Yazidis abducted by ISIS last summer. Friends from Sinjar, they found each other in a slave market in Mosul and stuck together throughout their captivity and escape.
For three months they were moved from house to house with other captives, enduring beatings, starvation and other torture. They were unsure of why they were being held until another Yazidi woman, battered beneath a black abaya, warned them of what lay ahead: they would eventually be sold off and raped.
Terrified, Kazhal, Maya and several other women who had been locked together in a small room for days, leapt from a window and sprinted through the dark, gunshots echoing behind them. They ran from about 8 p.m. until midnight, when the group arrived at Mt. Sinjar. Yazidis had been camped out there since the ISIS onslaught last summer and they hosted the girls for two weeks until military arrived and helped them travel to their families, who had relocated to the city of Duhok.
But their reunions didn’t bring them complete relief. They both had friends and family members who are still missing, and a sense of fear that wouldn’t go away.
The radicals are still a threat in the region, occupying cities and towns just an hour’s drive from many of the camps housing Yazidi survivors. The bulk settled around the picturesque city of Duhok, which is about 100 miles northeast of their now-blighted villages in Sinjar. Located in the Kurdish region of Iraq, which has seen more stability than the rest of the country, Duhok has been a magnet for displaced people and even refugees from neighboring Syria.
Crushed by the needs of so many, the city and surrounding area has been unable to provide all the services women and children like these survivors need—from financial to psychological help—to piece back together their lives.
The Yazidis are but one group of Iraqis uprooted, targeted and tortured since ISIS stormed the country last year. The governorate of Duhok is supporting more than 800,000 internally displaced people and Syrian refugees on top of its own population. There is now just one doctor for every 2,500 people there, according to the Kurdish Regional Government’s health ministry. Qualified mental healthcare workers are even harder to come by.
Kazhal and Maya say that a doctor and mental health therapist visited them about one week after they arrived in Duhok. But they were both unsatisfied with the treatment and continued to be haunted by flashbacks—of suicides and stabbings they witnessed, and beatings they endured.
Unsure of what their options were, they spent their days at a large and air-conditioned religious center for Yazidis, taking support from volunteers there and offering their own friendship and guidance to other Yazidis who managed to escape from ISIS.
Then one day earlier this year, a representative from a humanitarian organization found them and offered them a way out. The group was searching for women and children who had escaped ISIS — the most severely traumatized — in order to offer them a plane ticket to Germany where they could receive medical and psychological treatment, all expenses paid. With little hesitation, they agreed.
Air Bridge Iraq is a German humanitarian organization that is sending 1,000 of the estimated 5,000 Yazidis who were held captive and tortured by ISIS to Germany for treatment. In a deal worked out between the group’s director, Dr. Mirza Dinnayi—a Yazidi himself—and representatives from Germany and the Kurdish Regional Government, the women and children will be able to stay in Germany for two years, or permanently if they’d like. Some 250 have gone so far.
Some critics argue that sending trauma victims to a strange new country can burden them with additional challenges they may not be equipped to face. There are other government and non-government treatment programs and facilities in northern Iraq, in various stages of preparedness.
The Jiyan Foundation, for example, is opening what it describes as the first in-patient psychological treatment center in northern Iraq this fall with capacity for 60 women, who can stay with their children at the clinic for up to six months. A government-run 'Survivor Support Center,' meanwhile, has treated more than 500 Yazidis who have returned from ISIS.
But Kazhal and Maya saw treatment in Germany as the best option they had.
On a bright and blazing afternoon in late May, they joined about six dozen other women and children at the Sanctuary of Sheikh Adi in Lalish — the most holy place in the Yazidi faith, about 100 miles from their homes in Sinjar — for a final blessing before leaving Iraq.
With bare feet, they walked through ancient rooms, praying and performing rituals they hoped would heal their wounds and guard them against anymore evil.
"We have mixed feelings," Kazhal said, squinting into the sun after exiting the dark sanctuary. "On one hand we finally feel like we can escape the fear and be comfortable again. On the other hand, we are sad to be leaving our families."
Before the group made their way to the buses waiting to whisk them away, the Yazidi’s top spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, addressed them. "Don’t feel you are alone in Germany," he said.
"We will pray for you."
He made a plea for other governments to help his people as well, noting that conditions for Yazidis in Iraq remain dire.
As the buses pulled away, down a winding valley road, the women held their phones out the windows, snapping pictures of the land of their ancestors, maybe for the last time.