A 600-strong Yazidi militia force has been fighting back against ISIL at Iraq’s Mount Sinjar.
Dohuk, Iraq – Nasreen Seedo, a 28-year-old Yazidi woman, fled the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar with her family on August 3, 2014, as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group approached.
The family stayed awake all night, speaking with neighbours, monitoring the advance of ISIL fighters into Sinjar.
As dawn approached and ISIL fighters came closer, Seedo’s mother began to make a traditional Kurdish breakfast of eggs, yogurt, cheese, and tea.
“But we didn’t have time to eat,” recalled Seedo. “Our neighbour came to the door to say that ISIL [fighters were] on the street.”
The Seedo family escaped on foot to Khanke near Dohuk in northern Iraq which has been home to the Yazidi community since the 9th century.
The journey took seven days. Nasreen’s sister did not have time to dress and was still wearing her pyjamas when they left their home.
Her father, a doctor in Sinjar, arranged for the family to stay in a partially constructed house near a UN-run refugee camp in Khanke, where more than 18,000 displaced Yazidis live.
The Seedo family is among the more than two million displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees who have sought refuge in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region since the emergence of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
“If we had left one minute later, it would have been too late,” Seedo said. “Our neighbours were caught. They were Shia. ISIL killed all of them. Only one woman from the family escaped.”
In August, Yazidis who were left alive by the advance of ISIL – usually women and children under the age of 14 – were kidnapped by the group.
Though the precise number of those in ISIL captivity is still unknown, a recent ONHCR report estimates that 3,000 are still in captivity, while Human Rights Watch puts the number at over 5,000.
Almost one year later, Seedo said she is often reminded of her family’s escape since she began working with Yazidi girls who had been captured by ISIL last August, but who managed to escape.
Seedo now works for Wadi, an Iraqi-German NGO. Founded in 1992, Wadi is based in both Germany and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, but the group’s local centre in Dohuk is where the core efforts to support Yazidi escapees take place.
As a Yazidi, she is an integral part of the organisation’s mobile teams, which travel across Iraq’s Kurdish region helping Yazidi girls who escaped captivity reintegrate back into life with their families and in their communities.
So far, the mobile teams set up in the wake of the Yazidi tragedy in August have reached more than 300 girls who were sexually abused while in ISIL captivity.
“You can either bring people somewhere, or you can go to the people,” said Thomas Osten-Sacken, the director of Wadi. “And we found that the most efficient option is to go to the people. The mobile units become your eyes and ears on the ground. After some time, you’re inside the community.”
Each mobile team has three members: A male driver, one Yazidi woman, and one Kurdish woman.
Seedo and Roujda Yunis, a 24-year-old Kurd from Dohuk, paired up on their first day with Wadi, and have been travelling together to camps and private homes to meet ISIL escapees for the past 10 months.
Because each team includes at least one Yazidi, they have been able to gain the trust of the community, which Seedo and Wadi’s local staff describe as conservative and closed.
“The Yazidi community isn’t open to other communities,” explained Seedo, “so when they see me, a Yazidi girl, they open up, they usually feel more comfortable talking. And because Roujda is with me, they feel comfortable with her, too”.
Seedo and Yunis hold hands with their fingers interlaced as they reflect on the months they have spent listening to the testimonies of ISIL’s victims.
“At first, it was really hard to say that this is our job, this is what we’re going to do for you guys. We were nervous and scared at the same time, especially the first day. But it became easier.”
On their first day with Wadi, the pair visited a 13-year-old Yazidi who had recently escaped captivity when her family paid a smuggler $50,000.
The girl was sexually abused and drugged by ISIL members during captivity, which led her to attempt to take her own life.
“We got into the car afterwards and we just cried,” recounted Seedo. “We couldn’t understand how anyone could have done this.”
Seedo said many girls are reluctant to describe their captivity to their families, but confide in the women working for Wadi’s mobile units.
“The girls tell us things they would never tell their families. Most of the girls who were sexually abused only tell us; they don’t tell the families. And if they get the hymen surgery [to reconstruct their hymens], they won’t tell friends or family.”
Yara, whose name has been changed to minimise the risk of retaliation against family members who live in
ISIL-controlled territory, was 14 years old when she was captured by ISIL fighters in Sinjar and sold to an ISIL “prince” in Raqqa, Syria.
She escaped her brutal five-month captivity one afternoon, slipping out of the house while the family that was holding her captive was asleep.
With the help of an uncle she contacted using the messaging app WhatsApp, she was driven to the Turkish border by a Syrian taxi driver, who asked for $25,000 in return. She was eventually reunited with her family in Dohuk.
Yara told Al Jazeera that Wadi helped her come to terms with her experience in ISIL captivity.
“There are a lot of girls that went through what I did,” Yara explained slowly, “and I think it’s important that someone is helping. I don’t think about what happened to me as much any more. If Wadi hadn’t helped me, I would have gotten worse”
The support Wadi units offer depends on the girls’ needs. Often, girls and their families lack basic necessities including clothing, kitchen supplies, and toiletries.
“Almost everyone was raped,” said Seedo, “some were pregnant when they escaped and they want to get rid of the baby”.
Now, I'm constantly thinking about our cases and how we can help them.
The teams spend at least four days each week visiting cases, new and old, for as many as 16 hours a day.
All the women on the mobile teams are like Seedo and Yunis, young, relatively inexperienced, and are supporting Yazidi girls who experienced severe humanitarian and psychological traumas.
Like Seedo, some of the Yazidi women on the teams are overcoming their own traumatic experiences of displacement.
Before her family fled Sinjar, Seedo worked at a monotonous government job at a voter registry office.
“At my old work, I wouldn’t think about anything. I was sleeping well, getting up well. But now, I’m constantly thinking about our cases and how we can help them. I go to sleep uncomfortable, and I wake up uncomfortable,” Seedo said.
Despite the emotional toll of their work, the increasing caseload and their fear that the girls may never recover, Seedo and Yunis remain committed to supporting the girls who escaped ISIL.
“I don’t think they’re going to forget how they were raped,” worried Seedo, “how ISIL traded and sold them, how they were put into rooms without food and drinks. I don’t think they’ll ever forget that.”