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“The world forgot us”: inside the scheme to rehabilitate Yazidi sex slaves who have escaped Isis

Baden-Württemberg’s federal administration is alone in providing care for Yazidi women and children who have survived war crimes and sexual violence.

Jalia Nawaf held her youngest child against the back window of our minibus with one hand and cried loudly as we pulled out of the northern Iraqi IDP (internally displaced person) camp that had been her home for the past five months. In her other hand she pressed her phone against the glass and filmed her sister who stood sobbing and waving. It was before 8am on a freezing December morning, but despite the early hour a large crowd had assembled to bid agonising farewells. Teenage boys in tears ran after the bus, briefly, recording the final few seconds of the faces pressed against the glass on phones of their own.

As we snaked out of the mess of dilapidated tents that make up Khanke camp, Jalia’s sister disappeared from view, and Jalia buried her face in her scarf to weep, along with the other women on board, for the duration of an excruciating hour-long drive to Dohuk, part of Iraqi Kurdistan. A survivor of the Kocho massacre, one of the bloodiest enacted by Isis death squads during their takeover of northern Iraq in August 2014, 25-year-old Jalia was kidnapped with her children and sisters along with thousands of other Yazidi and Christian women. She endured almost a year in captivity and was sold along with her children between six fighters before making her escape from Raqqa in July last year.

Leaving Khanke camp for good, she hopes, Jalia is among the chosen former Isis captives granted a two-year resident's visa to Germany under a special quota programme that the federal government of Baden-Wuttemberg has been operating secretly since early 2015. Despite spending six months in Isis captivity in Mosul, her older sister did not manage to get on to the programme on time and it is unclear if or when they will see each other again.

“It is very painful for me to be alone, without my family,” she tells me, nursing the child she gave birth to in a hospital in Raqqa during the time she was held hostage, while her older toddler pulls at her hair. A mother of three, she has been living with the remains of her family in the camp since her release. “I didn’t want to go without my sister, but she told me I must go, and make a future for myself and my children in Europe.”

Baden-Württemberg’s federal administration is alone, so far, in responding to a crisis faced by the former captives; Yazidi women and children who have survived a litany of war crimes and unfathomable levels of sexual violence at the hand of Isis. By the time the special quota programme closes at the end of the month, the region will have granted refuge to 1,100 woman and children from camps across Iraqi Kurdistan.

Once in Germany, they are given the specialist medical and psychological assistance necessary to begin to rebuild their lives. The programme has cost just under €90m, but, as more captives have escaped, demand has become overwhelming. Mirza Dinnayi, one of the Iraqi staff working on the programme, reveals that places have been limited to “only for the very worst cases”.

So far, around 2,500 women and children have managed to escape through secretive networks of smugglers, according to Ameena Saeed Hasan, a former Iraqi MP who now works to rescue those still inside.

“There are many Isis escapees now, but we can’t take them all,” Dinnayi says. “We have to tell many women and children who have escaped Isis we cannot take them with us. And this is very painful for me.”

Jalia’s journey to Germany started last summer, inside a makeshift consulate office operating from a private apartment in the centre of Dohuk. After hearing about the programme from other former captives from Kocho who had been on some of the earliest missions in late spring last year, she was accepted immediately, but her trip was delayed as she was trapped in the bureaucratic quagmire of Iraqi law that requires a male relative to register a birth and obtain the correct papers to travel.

“They took all the men away, saying if they could convert they could live. But they lied,” she tells me, adding how she has no living male relatives who could help her. “I know they killed my husband, but my heart still hopes.”

All of the former captives have been interviewed by the programme’s chief psychologist, Dr Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, and will undergo specially-designed trauma counselling once they are sufficiently settled in the shelters across Baden-Württemberg. The sex war crimes the captives have experienced are distinct, Dr Kizilhan says, and a vital component of the “ideology of genocide” enacted by the group.

“With Isis there has been a systematic attempt at genocide, different from the rapes and sexual violence we have seen in Bosnia or Rwanda,” he says. The kind of sexual abuse and violence is systematic, to disrupt the culture – and strategic, as a recruitment tool and weapon of war.”

The location of the makeshift consulate office in Dohuk where the captives are processed was strictly guarded – instead of taking a taxi, I was picked up by an armoured vehicle, and escorted in past several plain clothed security guards. But once inside, the place had the feel of a crèche. Dozens of children, hyper on German chocolate and juice, jumped around between the rooms of the apartment as their mothers explained to staff where and how they were captured, the many methods of torture they experienced while in captivity, and the terrible conditions they have endured on the IDP camps since their release.

“These women and children are the most devastated victims of Isis, and it is our responsibility as a wealthy country to help the weakest,” Dr Michael Blume, who leads the project on behalf of Baden-Württemberg, says, inside the bedroom used as his office.

My visit was the last time the office was operating from Dohuk, and the team was working frantically to ensure it could get as many women on the final trip out of Iraq as possible.

“Those who are reaching Europe at the moment are mainly young men and those with enough money to pay the traffickers, so there is a de facto selection process,” Blume said as he explained why the programme was not accepting men over 18 – the one complaint about the programme many of the women raised to me. “We must help those who need it most first. The strong and healthy are able to attempt the journey, while the weak and the women alone with children are not able to do so – so that it why our mission is vital.”

Visiting the camps where displaced Yazidis are surviving in conditions that range from poor to appalling, I meet mostly very old or very young men. Several thousand Yazidi men remain missing inside the so-called Islamic State, the remains of hundreds of men found in multiple mass graves by Peshmerga forces have yet to be identified, but many have joined the tens of thousands of Iraqi men who have fled by land and sea to Europe over the past year.

In the first nine months of 2015, only 13 per cent of the 66,000 Iraqis who made it to Europe were women. For Jalia, the special quota project is the only option she could consider; taking her chances on the perilous journey over land and sea to Europe with young children is something she could neither afford to pay for nor a risk she could afford to take.

Jalia’s younger sister remains in captivity in Raqqa, among the estimated 3,500 women and children still being held, according to the UN.

“My sister is the most beautiful girl, but it is a curse,” she tells me. “She was taken away with the younger girls for the Emirs, and married many times by many men”. Like many with loved ones still hostage, she has maintained occasional contact with her sister. She shows me pictures of a smiling 15-year-old on her phone, and begs for my help to raise the money to buy her back.

Despite Yazidi activists providing detailed information on the locations of where the captives are being held to Iraqi, Kurdish and UN authorities, there have been no rescue missions launched to free those still held captive. Within this vacuum, Yazidi activists have been running operations themselves.

“No one has done anything about the kidnappings, and there has been no special help for us Yazidis, despite the genocide against us,” Hasan, who has been personally involved in freeing more than 500 women and children, tells me. “The German project for the girls who have escaped is the only one, but everyone is leaving for Europe in one way or another. I don’t know what will happen to us.”

The Tunisian fighter holding Jalia’s little sister is demanding $10,000 from the family for her freedom – money they have very little hope of receiving now that the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have stopped contributing to ransom payments for hostages. Rescues have slowed over recent months, according to Hasan, as Isis believes the YPG and KRG are still helping families pay, but, having inflated the cost of freedom by getting involved in the first place, both groups now refuse to do so.

Inside Erbil airport, Jalia snaps multiple pictures of her eldest boy, seven, enjoying the novelty of the moving escalator, and of her youngest two, dressed up in the new clothes purchased with money from the programme to prepare the family for the German winter.

Before boarding the plane that will take more than 100 women and children to Stuttgart, she tells me she will send the pictures to her sister and relief appears to have overtaken grief, momentarily at least. “I am happy to leave Iraq. There is nothing for us Yazidis in Iraq. The government doesn’t care about us and whole world has forgotten about us, but I am very grateful to leave and grateful to Germany. I only wish my family could leave with me.”

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.