“He treated me like an animal”: surviving life as a sex slave of Islamic State

We speak to two young Yazidi women who were taken as sex slaves by Isis, and are now in a refugee camp.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Munira explains to me matter-of-factly that the younger girls are more expensive or saved for the Emirs.

“They took me and my 13-year-old sister together to a big room in the Al-Baaj district. I was in a room with another 50 girls. We arrived at night, and then the next day, we were selected by the fighters,” says the 16-year-old Yazidi girl.

She was fleeing with her older brother, 22, and younger brothers, eight and ten, when they were captured. She was taken in a separate truck with her younger sister. Their mother had fled to Sinjar Mountain with her younger siblings. She has not seen her brothers since.

She remained a slave to the “caliphate” for two months and 20 days. I met her along with two other girls who had escaped captivity when they were visiting the UK with a former Iraqi MP.

Munira’s story reveals high levels of planning involved in the largest mass kidnap of people by a terror group recorded in modern times. Though savagely beaten in the initial stages of captivity, she was not raped immediately – as several other former captives I have spoken to describe.

She spent three weeks in Badosh prison, northwest of Mosul, one of several Isis had secured in the run up to their takeover, along with another 100 women, and then taken into Mosul to the Isis “headquarters”, where she was kept with more than 700 girls. It was from here she was sold to a senior fighter called Abu Mohammed, along with her sister and her friend Sana, also aged 15 at the time.

“He raped me and forced me to marry him. He forced my sister – she was only 13 – to do the same. I could hear her scream but I could not do anything, so I just screamed too when she did.”

Abu Mohammed, she says, was not a foreign fighter like the ones she had met in al-Baaj, but an old man in his 60s. He took her to a home in Mosul, where she stayed for about a month and was abused by other “old men”.

She is at pains to describe how hard she fought them off, until they eventually kept her tied up during the rapes. After her sister was sold, Munira and her friend Sana promised each other to flee as soon as they could.

Left alone by the fighters one prayer time, they jumped off the balcony of the second floor apartment and ran toward the Tigris river. Sana had seen the water from a room she was held in at one point, and their plan was to drown themselves but they became overwhelmed when they reached the banks.

“My friend could not do it and I could not leave her,” she explains, but they were found and returned to an underground building holding 16 other girls and women in another area of Mosul.

The younger fighters holding them this time beat them viciously in front of the captives, as a warning. Her voice dips as she tells me: “They beat me all over. I couldn’t breathe – I started to cough up blood. They told me I would die.”

Beaten unconscious, she says she does not remember blacking out but woke up in a hospital where she stayed for two days. She was put on a drip, drugged and sent back to the underground building before being taken between Raqqa and Mosul for several days, as, by this stage, it seemed that the markets were moving deeper into Syria.

She was sold along with Sana back to another man in Mosul, who she believes was around 35 years old. The girls are best friends and refused to be apart throughout their incarceration – when not together, they both screamed as loudly as possible, “making a lot of noise”, Munira explained, raising probably the only smile of our time together.

Ameena Saeed Hasan, a former MP chaperoning the girls, helped organise Munira’s escape last November and has been involved in the rescue of more than 100 girls.

In London, where she is lobbying for political support for the thousands in captivity and the hundreds who have escaped, she explains how the price of freedom has increased since the escape last November.

The YPG (the Syrian Kurdish forces) have been paying ransoms to rescue the girls, which Isis, and the families of those holding them, have been quick to exploit.

Escaping the so-called Islamic State relies on the bravery and sacrifice of a large network of smugglers and families, working at huge risk for a mixture of love and money – depending on what end of the chain you start from.

Taxi drivers are at the heart of the operation – and their ranks are thinning as Isis attempts to stem the trickle of girls leaving.

Ahmed Khudida, a Yazidi activist living in the UK, explains that, as the war drags on and conditions become tougher, many families holding the captives sell them back when the fighter is away: “It has been almost a year now, and the fighters are moving around a lot. It is not easy within the Isis state to get money, so many families are selling our daughters back to us.”

The taxi driver involved in rescuing Munira has since been killed, Saeed Hasan explains, and the checkpoints and administration checks imposed are causing huge problems – Yazidi girls are not counted in any Isis census and do not have ID cards. Gruesome punishments for those drivers who are caught – such as having their hands chopped off – are making the price of rescues rocket.

“Munira and her friend cost us about $3,000 but it is getting more expensive,” reveals Saeed Hasan. “The taxi drivers want more money now. Just like the families who are holding the girls – they know they can get it.”

Khudida explained that Noor, a slight 21-year-old released just a few months ago, and her family still owe some of the inflated cost of her release. Noor is nonplussed: she has no money and the majority of her family are dead so the taxi drivers chasing them can continue to do so all they want.

Dressed entirely in black, pale and rake thin, Noor is one of the survivors of Kojo where one of the bloodiest massacres carried out by Isis took place.

Beginning on 3 August last year, it was to last 11 long days, and by Noor’s count claimed the lives of 800 people; significantly more than initial estimates. Isis fighters decided whether a boy was a man by inspecting his armpits, she says, and describes how she watched along with her sisters as their father and six of her brothers – aged between 13 and 24 – were executed after refusing to convert to Islam.

Noor was taken, like Munira, to the “Isis headquarters” in Mosul, which appears to be the campus of the city university (according to Noor’s evidence and other reports). By the time Noor reached it, she had already been brutalised by one of the guards on the double-decker buses Isis procured to ferry those looted.

She describes the scenes of hysteria after the massacres on the buses: “A fighter pulled at me trying to take my clothes off in front of everyone on the bus, so I shouted at him, and all the other girls shouted and screamed and then the bus stopped. He came and put a gun to my head and said, ‘if you shout one more time I will rape you right here’. So I stayed quiet. And then after a while he came back and assaulted me anyway. He forced me to do something to him, in front of everyone.”

Noor also describes what Isis fighters on social media boasted as “market day”: “About 120 fighters came through the door, and we were lined up against the wall. Each chose one of the girls and forced them to go with them. Everyone was shouting, and we were screaming and biting and calling them names.”

A “fat man with a big beard” attempted to buy her, but she refused and instead begged a fighter with a “bad leg” to take her.  This man, Salman, appears to have been a cell commander, as he bought three girls and kept them in a large house that housed him and six junior fighters.

“He took off all my clothes and tied me up at my wrists and ankles. I was kept alone in a room – another girl was in another room. I was shivering with the cold – he kept the air conditioning on. He warned me that if I tried to escape he would let his men at me. He said: ‘You know your fate’.”

Salman would not give her food, she says, and, leaving her hungry all day, would put honey on his toes and force her to suck it off. She spits his name as she talks about him, repeating it over and over again. “I wished I had went with the fat man. Salman was cruel, racist and horrible. He treated me like an animal.”

During the night she was not tied up, and tried to kill herself by jumping from the window of where she was held, but was found by one of his guards after landing on the ground still inside the compound. Salman delivered on his threat and she was gang-raped by his men. Though four months old, the scars she showed me from cigarette burns sustained during the 11-hour attack remain.

“After that I stayed in the room for two days, not caring enough about myself to try and wear my clothes. I was bleeding a lot. Salman stopped coming to see me.”

After the gang rape, she was sold down the ranks of the network; ferried on buses across the porous borer of Syria and Iraq at night, she endured another 15 sales – her price decreasing each time.

The most terrifying, she says, was being sent to an outpost near the frontline of fighting in Al-Hamdaniya, to be abused by lower-ranking fighters. She was eventually sold back to the driver of the bus who took her from Kojo. He left her alone in the bus as he went to buy her an abiya, and she ran towards the river. As she hid in a courtyard near the river she was found by a man who agreed to help her.

“I stayed with this family for two weeks, and I got my energy back. The family were very kind – I lay in their bed, and they dressed me in their daughter’s clothes.”

The family had a lot of daughters and lived in a busy apartment block. She kept very quiet because, “the whole place was surrounded by Isis fighters”.

They gave her an ID from one of their daughters and they travelled at night to the desert on the outskirts of Mosul, where she was transferred, under a barrage of airstrikes, she says, to another car that took her to the outskirts of Kirkuk. Her older brother – and the only member of her immediate family she believes is alive – met her there.

Noor and Munira now live in overcrowded refugee camps in Duhok, with some of the millions of Iraqis displaced by the Isis violence, and the hundreds of thousands fleeing Syria.

As known victims of sexual assault they remain vulnerable and their ordeal is not over; despite hundreds of girls now managing to escape, there is no specialist agency working specifically with them as survivors of sexual torture.

Noor snorts when I ask her about counselling, and her life after escaping: “There is no life. I have not had counselling, but I need food more. The camps feel no better in this way than with Isis. I don’t know when my next meal will come. I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel comfortable. I can’t see how I will ever feel those things again.”

Petition Theresa May and the UK government to help the Yazidi women and girls kidnapped by Isis here. The translator and Yazidi activist who helped with this piece is from the Yazda organisation.