Like exterminations before, it began with separation and sorting. Fawzya Elias Mirdan sat in the dirt with her three children in the village of Solagh in northern Iraq, in the shadow of the great flat-topped Mount Sinjar.
The men, and boys older than 14, had already been taken away and shot, buried in mass graves and drainage ditches. The acetylene heat of the summer beat down on the women; the children cried, they were thirsty, hungry, and scared.
Some of the women thought they recognised the voices of their captors, Sunni neighbours perhaps who had joined the Islamic State (IS) group. They thought they would be next, but they would survive the day, and suffering that would stretch across many years.
It was 13 August 2014 and IS was on an unchecked rampage through Syria and Iraq. Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga fighters had abandoned Sinjar, the home of the Yazidi religious minority, following in the tracks of the Iraqi army, which only a month earlier fled its own border posts as IS approached. The West looked on, and did nothing.
Iraq was at IS’s mercy, and Fawzya’s family was in its grip. The women were told to hand over their gold and their phones. Those who did not would be shot. The jewellery and mobiles were piled high on the ground.
There are crimes that can never be undone, and there are others which are endured and overcome. After the separation and the sorting came years of humiliation and torture.
There were four of them at the beginning of the nightmare: the oldest boy, Nashaat, six; his sister Jolene, four; and their youngest brother Nashwan, two. For five years, Nashaat and Jolene would be slaves of the Islamic State.
In Solagh, not all of the mobile phones had been handed over to IS, and Fawzya learned that her husband, Alaa, was still alive. When IS attacked the family’s convoy of vehicles the day before, her husband and his two brothers had been shot at, but had escaped to the mountain. By text, he urged his family to escape, but there was no opportunity, and Fawzya and the children were too scared to run. Along with the others, they were taken by IS to a prison in Badush, to the north-west of the Islamic State’s newly declared capital of Mosul.
They slept on the floor without mattresses or blankets, as Iraqi aircraft bombed IS positions around them. Women were taken away and raped. Fawzya, who, in the next year would be bought and sold six times by IS group fighters, was spared the worst because she was pregnant.
“We suffered a lot in Badush. There was no space in that hall. There was no place to even sit down. It was so crowded, so full of Yazidis,” she told me. “Every hour a group of Daesh [an Arabic name for IS] would come and they would take young ladies, and kids older than 14 from their mothers.”
The United States began bombing IS positions in early August 2014. But even amid the chaos, Islamic State’s campaign of genocide proceeded. Moved from village to village, Fawzya and her family would be registered, first in Iraq, and then in Tabqah, Syria, where she would be put to work in a hospital, treating injured IS fighters.
She and her children were bought and sold, mostly to foreign IS fighters and their wives. When their owner died in battle, Fawzya and her family would be sold along with his belongings. IS wives treated Yazidis especially badly. “Yousef Abu Naif [a Saudi fighter] bought me – they called him the Amir of Real Estate in Raqqa,” she told me. “He was married and bought me as a slave for his wife. She was so bad, and treated my kids awfully. She beat them and locked them in the bathroom.”
Worse was to come. At gun point, ten months into her captivity, she was separated from her children, Nashaat and Jolene, who were sold to a different IS fighter. She was left alone with her other son, Nashwan, and her newborn baby, Miran.
Her husband, Alaa, had never given up hope. He borrowed money from family members and tried to find and then buy his wife and children back. Fawzya had been able to get occasional messages to her husband and her brother. But it was another network, being run from the Turkish border, that would set them free.
Nashaat and Jolene after escaping from IS
Abu Shuja is a people smuggler from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. He is a slight man, with a wavy beard that lightens to blond in the summer. He lives on the Turkish border and from there runs a clandestine network in Syria that has freed dozens of Yazidis. Over the years I’ve watched him grow rich from the trade. Occasionally he would send me pictures of women and girls he was trying to smuggle out; the women stare at the camera meekly, some hold their names written on scraps of cardboard. He appeared not to be motivated by money alone; Abu Shuja wanted to help. He was horrified by the Islamic State’s treatment of the women: the pictures he sent were evidence of its crimes, regular reminders calling out, “look at what they have done”. He would be the key to Fawzya’s return to Iraq and her family.
When Fawzya had been sold for the sixth time, her captor, a Syrian man close to IS, asked her a question: did she know Abu Shuja? It turned out her captor worked for him. She was shown text messages that instructed him to buy her with the sole intention of setting her free and arranging her transfer back to Iraq. The next week, she’d be moved from Aleppo to Raqqa and then from town to village. She was passed from courier to courier, men on motorcycles, who all introduced themselves with the words, “I’m Abu Shuja.”
Some grainy mobile phone footage from four years ago records her release. At the Rabia crossing into Iraq, she is surrounded by her family and sobs in her husband and her brother’s arms.
But it was a poignant moment: Nashaat and his sister Jolene were still in the grip of Islamic State. Her freedom, and that of her other children, had been bought for $27,000. Her husband said it is a debt that is still outstanding.
The family were given asylum near Stuttgart in Germany, but there was no relief in freedom while Fawzya’s two oldest children remained in Syria. “We visited psychologists,” she said. “Nights did not pass without tears, we couldn’t enjoy delicious meals, or buy nice clothes for the other kids. It was the most difficult five years.”
Abu Shuja’s name would be heard again. In March this year, an overwhelmed Jolene was freed for ransom. Nine years old now, she had spent more than half her life under the influence of Islamic State.
What of the family’s oldest son, Nashaat? His father Alaa talks of when the boy would join him in his garage in Sinjar where he worked as a mechanic. Nashaat, then just six years old, would pass his father tools as his father worked on an old Opel, and watch keenly as he stripped down engine parts.
Fawzya and Alaa knew that the boy had been made to convert to Islam, and had even seen him in Islamic State propaganda videos. “I knew him straight away, even though I could see only his eyes,” Alaa
They’d heard Nashaat was working as a servant, but he remained out of reach, even for Abu Shuja’s network of men.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s caliphate was meeting its doom. In March this year, in the small town of Baghouz in Deir Ezzor, its fighters made their last stand, surrounding themselves with women, children and hostages, in an effort to delay defeat from Kurdish forces. At night, Baghouz became an inferno under coalition aircraft and artillery bombardment. IS pick-up trucks, full of weapons, would explode and light up the desert sky. Those people that remained hid in shallow pits among the burning vehicles.
Nashaat was among them.
For a boy who has survived on his wits for so long, it is perhaps unsurprising that he walked out of that camp alive. He met a passing Kurdish fighter and told him: “I am Yazidi”. I met Nashaat in April, in a Syrian safe house, where he ran among the chickens, and jumped from swing to rooftop, as if trying to reclaim the five years of childhood taken from him. He still had not seen his family, but would spend hours speaking to them via video chat.
The horrors of Baghouz were fresh in his mind, he said, speaking Arabic through a translator. “Bombing, there was only one day without bombing. A vehicle full of arms exploded, and other vehicles full of weapons exploded, at least two hundred. The cars were full of weapons – that night, everywhere was red. In the morning, everything was burned: houses and tents melted, iron and glass too.”
He could barely remember Kurdish and spoke only Arabic. He was 11 years old andwas trying to make sense of his years of captivity and servitude. “They would buy us children, no matter what age, and make us servants, and buy women any age, and make them wives. They treated their own children nicely, like a piece of gold, but they kicked us out at night to sleep in the garden or the sheepfold. I don’t know why they would buy us if they didn’t want to look after us.”
Nashaat would repair the generators and sweep floors to keep his captors happy. Now his priority was returning to his father.
“Wherever he goes, I go,” he told me.
One month later in Iraq, in May, I was present to see Nashaat and Jolene reunited with their mother. Because his father’s asylum in Germany was uncertain, he was
unable to travel to Iraq for the reunion.
By the beginning of June, they were in Sinjar, awaiting passports: the family hoped to be reunited in Germany. Fawzya told me that some of her children have nightmares and wet the bed, and that she still feels the pain for the Yazidi families who will never be reunited.
Family affair: (l-r) Nashwan, seven; Fawzya; Alaa; Mehvan, two; and Miran, four, in Stuttgart, Germany
More than 1,000 Yazidis were murdered by Islamic State, and an estimated 6,000 were enslaved. In Iraq the mass graves are being excavated. They weren’t difficult to find: I stood by one near a school outside Sinjar and the bones and clothes of the dead were poking through the soil.
There is a vacuum of justice surrounding the crimes of the Islamic State, and Yazidi survivors deserve redress the most.
Slavery was organised and widespread. Auctions were held throughout the caliphate or conducted over phone messaging apps. Captured British IS members I spoke to blamed Gulf Arabs as the worst offenders. One British IS fighter, Shabazz Suleman, who has since escaped Syria, told me, from prison, that he wanted to buy a Yazidi woman, but only to set her free.
Yago Riedijk, the Dutch husband of Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green girl who fled with two friends to Islamic State, said she and her husband did not keep slaves, but knew another Dutch fighter who did. Shamima Begum at first denied she knew of the practice, but then she said: “In Iraq, the Shia… enslaved a lot of sisters and to this day, they are still being passed around in the slave trade.” This is a false claim propagated by IS supporters.
When I asked Fawzya what should happen to IS fighters and women who want to return to their homes in Europe and elsewhere, she gave a warning. “Those who joined Daesh and live with them, if they want to go to any country, they would destroy that country. This is about ideology and it is hard to forget.”
In Iraq, the United Nations has begun exhuming Yazidi mass graves. Its team has worked on 12 so far – four remain – and is using DNA sampling to identify the dead. But they have encountered a problem – a lack of survivors to match to victims, such was the thoroughness of the Islamic State massacre. Iraqi courts are trying captured fighters and, in many cases, sentencing them to death, foreign nationals included. The trials are short, but no Yazidi victims have been called as witnesses. The crimes against them risk being forgotten.
The Islamic State casts a long shadow. Dozens of children born to Yazidi mothers from IS fighters cannot return home. They are viewed by many in the Yazidi community as Muslims, and as a risk. “We do not want those kids to grow up and then declare their state and do the same thing to us again,” Fawzya told me. There may be hundreds more of these children in Syrian internment camps.
I’ve spoken to Kurds and Arabs, Sunni, Shia, and Yazidis who lived peacefully in Sinjar before the conflict. Now they distrust their former neighbours and blame some of them for their suffering; few have returned. As Shiraz Maher has written in this magazine, the IS strategy is to create a binary world, where there is “a stark division between devout Muslims and everyone else”. In Sinjar it has, for now, succeeded.
Fawzya’s family do not want to go back to Sinjar. They no longer feel safe in Iraq. “Not without international protection,” Alaa told me. It was the plight of the Yazidis, desperate and trapped on Mount Sinjar, that nudged the West into attacking IS in Iraq. And when we learned what IS did to the Yazidis, we could guess what they would have done to Shia, Christians and others if it had been left unchecked in Iraq and Syria.
The war against Islamic State is far from over; but it should be finished for the Yazidis. Fawzya’s family’s survival is a victory against the group, but for thousands of other Yazidi families there will be no happy reunion. For the most part, the men and women who are responsible for the campaign of terror against them have still to answer for their crimes.
Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent