Yazidi elders disown former slaves of Islamic State, forcing them to choose between their children and their community
A Yazidi woman who decided in defiance of her community to reunite with the daughter she had during her enslavement by an ISIS fighter. Photo: Achilleas Zavallis/The Guardian
Bundled up in oversized scarves and coats, and squirming over lounge chairs, the 12 young children seemed startled as nine strange women with outstretched arms hurried towards them.
Some of the women sobbed as they embraced the bemused toddlers, who stared at them blankly not recognising their mothers, or understanding what the fuss was about. One mother stood motionless with her head in her hands, while another stared intently into her tiny daughter’s eyes.
The nine mothers, all members of the Yazidi community, and their children, all born to the terrorists who enslaved them, had been reunited for the first time since the collapse of Islamic State in early 2019. And after two years of preparing for such a moment, the women were about to make the most momentous decisions of their lives.
The extraordinary scenes at the Iraq-Syria border crossing last Thursday were the culmination of months of lobbying by officials, including from the Biden administration, protracted debates among the Yazidi community and the determination of young mothers cruelly stripped of the children born to them to reclaim what was theirs, no matter the price.
A Yazidi woman who decided to reunite with her daughter in defiance of her community shows a necklace she bought the previous day as a gift for her. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis/The Guardian
Each of the women had used an excuse to slip away from their family. The last time most of them had been at Samalka, they had been rescued from the giant al-Hol refugee camp in eastern Syria where the remnants of Isis’s collapsed so-called caliphate were collected.
The Yazidi were allowed to return to Iraq, but their children were seized from them before the border and taken to an orphanage. Yazidi elders had since refused to allow the children to join their mothers. To the community, the children were outcasts who ccould never be assimilated into Yazidi society. The unwritten reckoning was that if the mothers chose their children, they would need to forgo their community.
Until last week, it appeared unlikely that the women, all aged between 19 and 26, would ever be able to make such a decision. The children had been banned from entering Iraq and only a few mothers had been able to enter Syria on day passes to visit the orphanage. Then came a convergence of people and circumstances, which made the seemingly impossible suddenly doable.
Nemam Ghafouri, an organiser of the Yazidi mothers and the founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan, an NGO, received a phone call from the former US diplomat and long-term contact of Kurds on both sides of the border, Peter Galbraith. The Syrian Kurds were prepared to do a deal, he told her, and he was flying to Erbil to make it happen.
Galbraith had worked on the Senate foreign relations committee for 14 years and has been a friend of Joe Biden since 1980. Like him, the new US president had taken an interest in Kurdish issues. The calculation on both sides of the border was that doing business on an issue such as this might pave the way for more extensive reengagement after the turmoil of the Trump years.
“I asked Nechirvan Barzani [the president of the Kurdish regional government] to talk to Mazloum Abdi [the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces] and he agreed,” he said.
After fraught discussions throughout Wednesday during which Galbraith called the White House to secure the transfer, Syrian Kurdish officials bundled the 12 children – who could all be definitively linked to the nine mothers waiting for them – into a minibus, and headed for the border.
Ghafouri, who had been waiting with the mothers in a hotel, brought them to the border, and waited.
In the following hours, officials in Kurdish Iraq demanded to know the provenance of the children, before clearing the mothers to reclaim them.
The women had been enslaved in their early teens from the community of Sinjar, which bore the brunt of the Isis genocide, and had stayed with the group throughout its rise and fall. Some of the mothers did not know who the fathers of their children were.
“People need to realise why some of these women have such bonds with their babies,” said Ghafouri. “When they got pregnant, it meant the end of selling and raping by new men. This child brought an end to part of their suffering. Once being pregnant and giving birth, it was the end of it. The mother stayed with one man until he was killed.”
By midnight last Thursday, the mothers were on their way to a prearranged safe house.
One of the children who was reunited with her mother. Photograph: Family Handout But news of the reunions has been met with anger by leaders of the Yazidi community. “We don’t accept this. This should be a Yazidi nation decision,” said Prince Herman, a representative of the senior Yazidi leader Prince Hazem. “The mothers are always welcome to come back home, but the children are not accepted. They can give their children to whomever they want, but they cannot live with us. “Those people who brought back those children without asking Yazidis, or Yazidi leaders, will pay the price for what they did. There is no difference between those missionary NGOs and Isis, because they are playing with our girls and taking them from us.
The Yazidi spiritual leader, Sheikh Ali Ilyas, otherwise known as Bab Sheikh, said the women were now exiled. “Neither me or the Yazidi community will accept those children,” he said. “They are free to go wherever they want, except our community. They are no longer our issue and are free to make their own decisions.”
In the safehouse, raucous sounds of children playing echo over two floors. Eight mothers have moved into the house, with one returning to her family in a refugee camp. Those who stayed have crossed the Rubicon, and are now looking for relocation to Europe or Australia.
“I wasn’t sure what I’d do until I saw my daughter again,” said one of the mothers. “I love my mother a lot and know what this means for me. But I love my daughter too. I want a new start.”
A second mother said she was overwhelmed by the support she had felt over the past week and now realised she needed to cut ties with her society. “I have family living abroad, and even they won’t accept me. This has to change, and we’re going to make it happen. When I told my parents, they said ‘you are no longer a member of our family’.
“I am very happy that I am with her. At first she didn’t recognise me, but it’s getting better day by day. When I came back after being separated, and I realised the community wasn’t accepting us, I decided to make my life my daughter. Children are innocent. They haven’t made any mistakes.”
Yazidis have been granted resettlement in Europe and elsewhere, but the issue of children born to Isis remains vexed for governments.
“They have no safe place not only in Iraq but in the entire Middle East,” said Ghafouri. “The only thing they want is to be resettled as a group in a third country. This has been an infected wound for the Yazidi community. The only healing is reuniting those mothers who want their children and resettle them.
“We need to find solutions now. I don’t necessarily blame Yazidi communities or Kurdish communities in either Iraq or Syria, but I do blame the UN and the international community. They are victims again being victimised by those people saying they are supporting them, but not doing anything.”
Additional reporting by Barzan Salam
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