Freed from ISIS, Yazidi Women Remain Trapped by Trauma
Some of those working with Yazidi former slaves say they have never before seen such severe psychological trauma. As part of our “Women and Jihad” series, experts tell us there are not enough resources to provide long-term care to all of the survivors, who could take a lifetime to recover.
by Alexandra Bradford, News Deeply, March 14, 2017
Clothing that had been worn by a Yazidi girl who was enslaved by ISIS militants. Healthcare professionals who speak with former captives of the jihadist group say the trauma those women and girls suffer is “on a different level” from other trauma cases. AP/Maya Alleruzzo
Last January, Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, arrived at the Dohuk camp for displaced people near the Kurdish region of
Iraq. Wheeler was there to interview Yazidi women and girls who had been kidnapped from their homes in Sinjar and held as sex slaves by the terror group known as the Islamic State (ISIS).
Wheeler, who interviewed 22 Yazidi women and girls, has spent her career documenting war crimes against women. Yet she says the accounts of sexual violence she heard from the Yazidi survivors continue to haunt her.
“It is some of the most distressing work I have ever done, and my colleagues who have also interviewed the survivors say that same thing,” she says.
Wheeler says the abuse inflicted on Yazidi women and girls “is on a different level” from other cases she has documented. The women she met had been kidnapped and sold in slave markets to ISIS soldiers who then raped them, often multiple times a day. In some cases, the women would be resold to another fighter who would continue the sexual abuse. Wheeler spoke with four women who were sold at least four times before they managed to escape.
“It’s just horrible, [ISIS] treat people like animals,” she says. “All the women we spoke to were exhibiting some type of symptoms from the trauma they suffered.”
Those symptoms include severe depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, insomnia and, when they finally do sleep, nightmares in which they relive their sexual abuse.
In February 2015, the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg offered to help by agreeing to take in 1,100 refugees, including hundreds of the most traumatized Yazidi
women and girls. The program, which runs for three years and will cost the German government a total of $107 million, provides Yazidi survivors with specialized
psychological care and German residency for two years.
But the program is now at full capacity, which means hundreds of Yazidi women and girls who didn’t make it into the program and those who have only recently escaped
from ISIS remain in the internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, where treatment for mental health is severely lacking.
We have seen many women who feel that they can’t live with the aftermath of what happened to them, they think the only way to escape is through killing themselves.
Psychotherapist Salah Ahmad has been working with trauma victims in Iraq since 2005, when he established the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights to provide mental health care to Iraqis who were tortured by the Ba’athist party. Ahmad has spent much of the last two years traveling between IDP camps in Dohuk Kurdistan to help treat Yazidi women and girls.
Ahmad says they display some of the worst cases of post-traumatic stress disorder he has ever seen. “To be sold, to be enslaved, to be raped many times … they can’t accept all this violence,” he says.
Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon.
“We have seen many women who feel that they can’t live with the aftermath of what happened to them; they think the only way to escape is through killing themselves,” says Ahmad.
In November 2015, Ahmad established the Jiyan Clinic, a psychosomatic trauma clinic solely for Yazidi women and children in Iraqi Kurdistan. He found many trauma survivors were hesitant to recount their abuse to other men, especially Muslim men, so he employs an all-female staff.
The patients spend at least three months living in the clinic, where they undergo daily treatment, which includes individual and group therapy, and EMDR – or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy – a technique designed to alter the way the brain stores and recollects traumatic memories. The women can also take part in therapeutic activities like yoga and gardening.
Since its opening, the clinic has treated 80 female Yazidi survivors of ISIS, but Ahmad says he doesn’t have the resources to provide treatment for all the Yazidi women who need help.
Ali Muthanna, regional director in Iraq for the AMAR Foundation, is also struggling to provide support to all the women who need it. He spends the majority of his time at Khanke Camp, an IDP camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he treats the 18,500 Yazidis who have been living there since the ISIS attack in 2014 forced an estimated
half a million Yazidis to flee their homes. Among Muthanna’s patients are also around 500 Yazidi women who escaped ISIS.
Lamiya Aji Bashar, an 18-year-old Yazidi girl who escaped her ISIS captors, talks to the press in northern Iraq in May 2016. Healthcare experts and human rights advocates say there are not nearly enough resources to help all the Yazidi women and girls who have been enslaved, tortured and raped by ISIS fighters. (AP/Balint Szlanko)
Through its Escaping Darkness project, AMAR is working to establish a network of 10 mental health facilities to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder Yazidi women grapple with. The foundation is also working with psychiatrists to train local GPs in psychological care, showing them how to spot and manage psychiatric issues.
But AMAR faces huge challenges, not least the fact that Iraq’s medical infrastructure has been decimated by years of conflict.
“There is a severe shortage of financial resources, the drop in oil prices has created a situation where the government is unable to provide medical requirements to cover the needs of IDPs,” Muthanna says.
And the longer women go without medication and treatment, the worse their condition can become.
“Those suffering from psychological disorders need long-term treatment,” Muthanna says, adding that drugs for treating symptoms of stress, depression and trauma need to be taken continuously to work.
“The magnitude of the problem is beyond the capacity of the U.N. agencies and Iraqi and Kurdistan governments to respond to.”
Yazidi doctor brings former ISIS captives’ souls back to life
Having treated more than a thousand Yazidi women who escaped captivity, gynaecologist dedicates herself to helping them rebuild their shattered lives.
Gynaecologist Nagham Nawzat Hasan visits Yazidi women at a settlement in Duhok Governorate in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
© UNHCR/Claire Thomas
By Charlie Dunmore and Dalal Mawad in Duhok, Kurdistan region of northern Iraq | 16 January 2019 | Español | Français | عربي
Nestled at the end of her sofa in the soft light of a standard lamp, a lined notebook balanced on her knees, Nagham Nawzat Hasan often takes time at the end of the day to record the harrowing accounts she has heard from escaped Yazidi women who were abducted from their homes in northern Iraq and held captive by ISIS.
Since devoting her working life four years ago to helping these women recover from their ordeal, the 40-year-old gynaecologist has helped more than a thousand survivors, transcribing countless pages of horrors as part of a personal ritual that has become part testimony, part therapy.
“I have more than 200 stories written down. I feel like I have to record this for history,” Hasan explained. “I would get home and cry, thinking about all that I had heard. It affected me psychologically. I am also a Yazidi, and a woman. Writing their stories down helps me to relieve some of that trauma.”
The Yazidi community from Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, whose ancient religion has its roots in Sufism and Zoroastrianism, were targeted by the militant group in August 2014. Armed fighters separated men and boys older than 12 years from their families and killed those who refused to adopt their beliefs.
“I would get home and cry, thinking about all that I had heard. It affected me psychologically.”
It is estimated that more than 6,000 Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold as slaves, and held in captivity for months or even years. Many were subjected to imprisonment, torture and systematic rape, as part of a campaign of persecution that the UN has deemed a genocide and a crime against humanity. To this day, the fate of more than 1,400 Yazidi women remains unknown.
Hasan was working at a hospital in Baashiqa – a town 14 kilometres northeast of Mosul – when the area fell to the militants. As she and her family fled to Duhok, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, they began to hear the reports of Yazidi men being massacred and women and children being abducted.
See also: Yazidi women welcomed back to the faith
A few months later, Hasan became aware of two Yazidi women that had arrived in Duhok after fleeing their captors. In seeking them out, she unknowingly changed the course of her own life.
“When Yazidi women began escaping to Duhok, that’s when my work started,” Hasan said. “I saw immediately that they were destroyed. They had lost all trust in people, so I set out to rebuild that trust.”
“I approached women and encouraged them to seek help and treatment. I gave them my phone number and slowly built up trust. Before long, newly escaped women began calling me themselves.”
Gynaecologist Nagham Nawzat Hasan visits a Yazidi woman who survived ISIS violence, at a settlement in Duhok Governorate in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Her work was secretive at first as people struggled to come to terms with what had happened. As the scale of the atrocities committed against the captives became clear, religious and social leaders issued calls for the abducted women to be welcomed back into the community.
“The Yazidi community played a huge role. They were the first ones to receive these women back,” Hasan explained. “Acceptance by their families and support from the community was an important step, but they needed more.”
Her experience as a gynaecologist proved essential, but it soon became clear that the needs of the survivors went far beyond their physical treatment. “Medically, most of them suffered from pain. Many had sexually transmitted infections as a result of numerous rapes. But psychologically, the state of survivors was extremely bad.”
“I did not have a magical treatment, but being a woman and a Yazidi, I saw most survivors trusted me.”
“I did not have a magical treatment, but being a woman and a Yazidi, I saw that most survivors trusted me.”
Building on the relationships she was able to forge, Hasan began to devote more and more of her time to visiting survivors in their homes, where they felt safest. Two years ago, she set up her own NGO called Hope Makers for Women, which provides medical and psychological support to female survivors living in camps set up to house displaced Yazidis.
On a dazzling early winter’s morning at a tented camp near Mosul Dam Lake, Hasan arrives on one of her regular visits and is greeted like family by a group of half a dozen smiling Yazidi women, who smother her in hugs and kisses. Later she visits one of her regular patients, a young woman who was held captive for nearly three years along with her three daughters.
“Life was very bad after we first escaped from ISIS, and in the beginning I couldn’t even go outside my tent,” the young mother explained. “She made herself fully available to us. She treated us and looked after us. The doctor helped me find a strength I didn’t know I had.”
See also: Freed Yazidi boy joins his mother in Canada
Hasan points to the living conditions still endured by many survivors, which she says make it harder for them to recover from their ordeal. “To have escaped ISIS and then have to spend two or three years living in a tent in a camp, with no work – how can they truly recover in that situation?”
As well as providing ongoing humanitarian assistance to displaced Yazidis, UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – has worked with partner organizations to establish uniform standards for counselling, to ensure that Yazidi women and girls all receive satisfactory care.
Hasan says international support for the Yazidi people must be maintained if they are to ever truly recover from the crimes committed against them. “International support for the Yazidis has decreased since the liberation of Mosul. Some, like UNHCR and UNFPA, are still offering assistance, but support overall is going down. I’m concerned that in future this support will disappear entirely.”
“Each one of us fought ISIS as much as she could, but you fought them with the most powerful weapon the day you decided to treat us. This brought our souls back to life.”
She is calling on the international community to offer more resettlement places to Yazidi survivors who choose to make a fresh start elsewhere. Those that opt to stay in Iraq, meanwhile, require financial assistance to help re-establish their lives outside the camps, as well as training and job creation schemes to boost their economic prospects, she added.
For Hasan herself, the work of helping Yazidi survivors and others who have lived through similar experiences will continue. “This is now what I want to do with my life. I became a doctor to care for people and help those in need. I am still a doctor, but I’ve gone from working in a hospital to working as a humanitarian.”
Next to her notebooks filled with tales of suffering and pain lies another book that serves as a reminder to Hasan of the purpose behind the life she has chosen. One of the first survivors she worked with was the author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, who six months ago sent Hasan a copy of her memoir.
A handwritten dedication inside reads: “To dearest Dr. Nagham. Each one of us fought ISIS as much as she could, but you fought them with the most powerful weapon the day you decided to treat us. This brought our souls back to life.”