Yazidi families hoping to free relatives from ISIL fighters face grim prospects as the battle for Mosul nears.
QADIYA, Iraqi Kurdistan – Nova and her sister, Bafareen, did not think they’d ever see each other again. The two – along with their entire family – were captured by ISIL fighters when trying to leave their village of Kocho in August 2014.
The two girls, members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, described how the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) separated the men from women and children, and then separated Nova, 24, from Bafareen, 18.
“I can’t believe I survived, after the things I saw,” said Nova, repeatedly.
She was forced to “marry” an ISIL fighter named Mahmoud in Mosul. She was with him for two years before, like Bafareen, she was able to contact dealers in the black market who facilitate the sale of Yazidi girls back to their families.
Bafareen was given to two men: Faisal, who died in fighting, and then Abdullah, who killed himself in a suicide attack.
Both young women describe the men they were forced to be with as “dirty and abusive”, and spoke of constant beatings and mistreatment in prison-like conditions.
“We didn’t think we’d see each other again,” Nova said, sitting next to her sister, who was rescued in March before she was rescued in July.
The family paid $16,000 for Nova and $18,000 for Bafareen. The money was collected from family and friends, with the Kurdish government promising to reimburse them.
Both girls said they are getting psychosocial support from NGOs for their trauma, but some things remain hard to deal with.
“We are human beings. There should not be a price like this to be paid for our lives,” said Bafareen, who said she found the strength to survive only by thinking of her family. Four of her six brothers are still missing.
There are thousands of families like hers still hoping to rescue their loved ones from ISIL’s hold. The UN estimates that roughly 3,200 women and children are being held by the group.
Hussein Alqaidi, Director of the Office of Kidnapped Affairs under the office of Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani, told Al Jazeera that in total, 3,735 are still being held, 1,882 of whom are girls and women.
“It’s become harder for us to rescue them because of the pressure from [the impending operation to retake] Mosul, and ISIS is trying to secure the area,” he said.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Alqaidi. “No country has helped us in this regard. They help with their recovery, but not with their rescue.”
Still, international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) are monitoring the situation closely.
“Some of the women and girls in captivity continue to escape, though this has become harder with ISIS forces taking measures to prevent escapes,” said Rothna Begum, HRW women’s rights researcher for Middle East and North Africa.
“Facilitating and financing the return of some women has also become more dangerous and difficult. Some ISIS members extort families for large amounts of money for the return of their female relatives, even though ISIS rules forbid selling women back like this,” she said.
Begging the world for help
The Qadiya camp, said Baeez Krit Shammo, human rights protection manager at the camp for displaced Iraqis, contains many families with relatives still trapped under ISIL rule.
Among them is the family of one: Sara Khodeida Khalaf, 42, originally from the village of Kocho, east of Sinjar.
Khalaf’s husband and all eight of her children are all being held prisoner by ISIL. She speaks with the assumption that they are all alive – her four daughers, four sons, and husband, Salam.
She managed to escape because she was separated from her family and allowed to stay in an unguarded home in Tel Afar, a city midway between Mosul and Sinjar, with older members of the village and some children.
One night in March 2014, after living under ISIL rule for seven months, she managed to escape with another women and a group of children. They walked for seven days until they reached safety.
“Whenever I see anyone who has been rescued or escaped, I ask them, ‘Have you seen my children?’ I think one of my boys, who is 13, is in Raqqa … my girls might be in Syria [too],” she said.
“People who have seen two of my sons say they want to escape, but don’t know how,” she said.
But until now, she remains alone in the camp, looking at the photos of her children and listing off their names: Khait, Khiat, Riyaad, Saddam, Wafa, Khada, Hannan, and Shada.
Unlike Nova and Bafareen, her family has not been able to reach her through black market traders who broker the sale of Yazidis back to their families. But even if they did, Khalaf has no means of raising enough money to secure their release – even if the Kurdish authorities were to refund her.
“I’ve asked and registered their names [with the authorities], but no one is helping,” she said.
“I’m begging the whole world to help us … I don’t have a man to take care of me, to help me with this,” said Khalaf.
Alive or in mass graves?
In Esyan Camp, 40km away, Hediya, 20, faces a similar dilemma, but has her husband’s family for support.
Her eight siblings and parents are ISIL captives, and the young woman, rescued on September 4, is counting on her husband’s family to help.
“They’re doing everything. I don’t know what to do,” said Hediya, who said she was already married and two months pregnant when captured by ISIL. She could not answer questions about her treatment, nor about the baby girl squirming in her arms.
The issue of the acceptance of children whose fathers might not be Yazidi is a contentious one. Khurto Hajji Ismail, the Yazidi spiritual leader known as Baba Sheikh, told Al Jazeera that mothers could keep the children and raise them as they wish until the council of spiritual elders decided on what was to become of the young ones.
Even her own relatives have not asked her about what she’s been through. They are focused on the future and rescuing the remaining members of the family.
“I’m hopeful that my child will meet her grandparents, aunts and uncles,” said Hediya, who holds out hope that her family is still alive.
Krmanj Othman, senior legal adviser of the Independent Commission of Human Rights in Kurdistan (Iraq’s Kurdish region), told Al Jazeera that it’s really not known how many are still alive.
“In the end, the numbers are not correct because we don’t know how many of them are in their graves,” said Othman, who estimates that there are 1,000 Yazidi women unaccounted for.
“Day by day, we are finding mass graves,” he said, “and we find women’s bodies there.”