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Story Publication logo June 9, 2015

Iraq: A Life After Slavery


Media file: amshafamily.jpg

ISIS fighters executed and enslaved thousands of ethnic Yazidis in northern Iraq in the summer of...


DOHUK, Iraq — She comes to the door in the same long, brown skirt she wore when she first escaped from the Islamic State months ago. She wears the same brown headscarf to mourn the death of her husband who was executed in front of her and their first-born on the August day that marks the beginning of what she now simply refers to as "the crisis."

On that day, August 3, ISIS militants swept across the Sinjar region in northern Iraq, laying waste to the home of hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, a long-persecuted religious minority.

Families fled into the mountains in Biblical scenes that, for a while at least, played on the news in a dreamlike loop. ISIS kidnapped or killed many of those left behind, the grim evidence of the group's brutality becoming apparent over the next many months as mass graves were discovered and captives escaped to tell their stories of terror at the hands of the militants.

Amsha Ali Alyas was one of the first to bear witness.

Her face is fuller than it was when she first escaped, and it brightens when she opens the door to let in a couple of friends. The young women were held captive together in Mosul and now share a bond forged during a time of horror only they can understand.

Amsha holds her baby on her hip. One of her friends snatches the smiley, five-month-old boy to attack him with kisses.

She was pregnant when the ISIS "prince" Zaid purchased her and her first-born boy at a slave market in Mosul. She gave birth in freedom. But she named the boy Delbrin - Kurdish for heartbroken.

There is her new baby. But little has changed for Amsha since she first reunited with her family on the outskirts of Dohuk, a city they and tens of thousands of other Yazidis fled to when ISIS rampaged through their area.

She still lives with her two small children in an unfinished concrete structure, without flooring or plumbing or furniture. And she still can't sleep, staring into the night, terrified that ISIS will find her and take her back to Zaid.

"I know ISIS will come here sooner or later," she says, rocking her youngest son.

Outside, the sun is setting. People mill about as young men play volleyball on a makeshift court.

Many Yazidis have come to this place where Amsha has lived since September, transforming the village - and all its houses, tents and half-built structures - into a massive refugee camp for these people in limbo.

Thousands, though, are still missing. And though exact numbers are hard to come by in this war-torn region, activists believe as many as 3,000 Yazidis may still be held in ISIS slavery.

Amsha's own house is also more crowded than before. Relatives dispersed after the ISIS onslaught in August have managed to find each other here again. Amsha's mother-in-law, who was also kidnapped, is among them. The family says she was recently released by ISIS along with other older men and women—people not young enough to indoctrinate, and not useful enough to keep.

Now she sits on the thin cushion by the doorway, side-by-side with Amsha's mother. Two women in identical white headscarves, their lives turned upside down.

If there is any brightness in Amsha's life it is her first-born Muaid. After their escape, he was so traumatized he stopped walking and barely made a peep for three months, lying listlessly in her arms.

"I was so scared," Amsha says. "My husband was gone and now my child was like this."

Eight months later, the boy races through the house, his giggles echoing in the half-empty rooms.

He looked even younger then because, during their escape, Amsha hastily shaved his head. She feared that Zaid's neighbors might have identified him by the boy's long hair as she ran with him through the streets.

Now, his hair has grown out again and he is striking—blond with big brown eyes. He excitedly chases a ball through one of the empty rooms and delights in looking at images of himself taken with a digital camera. "Muaid! Muaid!" he calls out, repeating his name and jumping as he sees his own face.

But the boy is not without scars. He remembers his father and asks Amsha where he is. She tells him not to worry. But, disturbingly, when he hears his father's name, he points his index finger out like a gun and imitates the sound of an execution, "tatatatatata."

No psychologist has seen him or anyone else in Amsha's family. She thinks there are more pressing needs, such as medical care for her children and an escape from their current predicament in the refugee camp.

"This place is really bad: There are bugs and it's dirty," she says. "The boys have been sick a lot."

While doctors are available at the neighboring camp, she is also dealing with her own trauma.

Her family notices when she retreats into silence. "When she's sad, we are sad with her," her sister says.

Amsha's father says the entire community of Yazidi families are suffering together. "We all have girls or boys or parents in ISIS' hands." He is proud of his daughter, though, whose strength saved both her and Muaid and her unborn son. "She walked for hours to save her own life and her sons," he says.

ISIS still terrorizes large swaths of the countryside and is eating up new territory - most recently the militants took Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's largest province.

No one seems spared from the chaos. Muslims, Christians and minorities in the jihadists's path have either been slaughtered or forced from their homes. Villages, towns and cities across the country are now deserted.

The airport in Erbil - the Kurdish bastion of stability in a country shattered by war - buzzes with military planes, Red Cross trucks, a caravan full of nuns.

Activists and NGOs, meanwhile, are scattered throughout the region, attempting to organize the madness of war in handwritten lists and excel spreadsheets. They are checking in on people, going door-to-door.

It was in this way that Amsha was given the only the hope she has. Someone from a German organization appeared at her doorway one day and explained that she may be able to seek refuge in Germany. Amsha doesn't remember many details. But she was inspired by the idea of leaving Iraq, so she answered the woman's questions and agreed to meet her again. She is still not sure if it will all work out. But the possibility of leaving has given her something to dream about.

"I don't want someone to help me here. It wouldn't change anything. But if I could go to Germany first, where we can be safe, then I can get treatment," she says.

She is breastfeeding Delbrin as she talks about her hopes for the future. Behind her, a lizard crawls down the wall behind. Her friend, sitting next to her, jumps aside.

Amsha pulls a slight, embarrassed smile. She didn't always live in such poor conditions, she explains.

Once upon a time in Sinjar, she lived a different life.







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