Lalish, Iraqi Kurdistan -  Ayshan Feli, 52, and her husband lay down on a white mattress on the floor of a building inside the complex of the Yazidis' holiest temple site, Lalish. Their faces were at times expressionless, and at other times gripped with sorrow.

When the couple was released on Saturday night along with nearly 200 followers of the ancient Mesopotamian faith, the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took away their one-year-old granddaughter.

"They asked me to give them my granddaughter. I refused," recalled Feli, who was wearing the typical Yazidi black dress and white scarf. "They pulled her out of my arms and said if you protest, we will kill you."   

Hama Faris Khudeda, 58, Feli's husband, who lay covered in a blanket with only part of his face visible, added: "I said, 'Why are you taking away our granddaughter? She is ours.' One of them said, 'Shut up or I will shoot you. If you talk more, we will take your wife too.'"


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The family was abducted from the Nisiri village, south of Mount Sinjar, by a group of ISIL fighters in early August. The villagers were allowed to stay at their homes for a few days if they converted to Islam to save themselves from ISIL's wrath.

"We converted so they wouldn't harm us," said Khudeda, a disabled man sporting a thick white moustache.

ISIL frees nearly 200 Yazidis

But one day, ISIL fighters ordered Khudeda and other villagers into trucks and stripped them of all valuable belongings such as money and jewelery, and took their cars.

They were kept for three months in the nearby village of Kucho, the site of a reported massacre where hundreds of male Yazidis were slaughtered by ISIL in August.

Then, along with scores of other Yazidis, the couple was moved to Talafar, a town northwest of Mosul, which has witnessed its share of ISIL brutality as many Shia Turkmen residents were killed and the rest had to flee.

Later, the family was moved to Mosul, the largest urban centre under ISIL control with a population of nearly two million.  

While younger Yazidi women were taken as wives or sex slaves by ISIL fighters, many men were killed. Younger boys have been put through ideological training by the group in the hopes of detaching them from their roots and turning them into future fighters.

The group that was released on Sunday was a mix of elderly, ill and mentally or physically disabled individuals. 

The area of Sinjar, in the western part of Iraq's Nineveh province, had the largest concentration of Yazidis in Iraq and the world until last August, when the area was attacked by ISIL fighters. The group has been subjected to extensive brutality by ISIL, which deems them "infidels".

Maltreatment was the norm for the freed Yazidis, who were held in a wedding hall in Mosul for the last month of their captivity.

Those Al Jazeera spoke to unanimously said they were given "dirty", low-quality food, often improperly cooked. They were scarcely allowed to take a shower. One woman said she did not get a chance to shower for 28 days, and even when they were allowed to do so, there was no warm water.


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As a result, some of the detained Yazidis developed skin diseases. Some of the children and elderly could be seen with skin ulcers. As aid workers roamed around to distribute food and water, some of them covered their faces with masks for fear of contagious diseases among the released Yazidis.

Mayan Faris Qassim, 45, and her two sons were among the group released by ISIL while her husband, three sons and two daughters, one aged nine, remain in ISIL detention.

Qassim and her two sons have all developed skin ulcers. Her four-year-old son is in serious condition as his cheeks, forehead and nose are covered with severe ulcers. Now free, the priority for Qassim is to get her sons and herself treated.

For a community whose identity has been shaped for millennia around their religion first and foremost, being forced to change that religion has been psychologically and emotionally devastating.

For a community whose identity has been shaped for millennia around their religion first and foremost, being forced to change that religion has been psychologically and emotionally devastating.   

Qassim says her nine-year-old son even went to the mosque to pray, but she did not. "We never converted deep in our hearts. We are Yazidi," she said.

The members of the group were notified on the night of their release that they would be set free "because Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [ISIL's leader] had issued a pardon".

Many did not believe the fighters and as they were forced into buses, they feared something ominous was awaiting them. But relief took hold when the Yazidis were ordered off near a position of Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk province, a key battleground between ISIL and the Peshmerga.

The trauma they endured and the painful memories of loved ones still in captivity has left the Yazidis here overwhelmed with sorrow, despite being free at last.  

As she sips from a small water bottle, Feli sums up the mood here.

"Our life is no more," she says, overwhelmed by emotions. "We cry so much. We grieve so much."