“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.

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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.”