Held by the terror group, women and girls as young as 14 who are not sold as wives are subjected to rape and torture. One woman is trying to buy their freedom—but time is running out.
ERBIL, Iraq — Thousands of Iraq’s Yazidis, driven from their homes by ISIS and trapped in the desperate siege of Mt. Sinjar, have captured the world’s attention and received some relief from U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian aid. But hundreds of Yazidi women taken by ISIS and held in a secret prison where they have been raped and sold off like property are facing an equally dire fate.
Survivors who managed to escape from ISIS say the women held in its prison in Mosul face two fates: Those who convert to Islam are sold as brides to Islamist fighters for prices as low as $25, and ranging up to $150. Those who do not convert face daily rape and a slow death.
Accounts of the prison have come from women who managed to hide their cellular phones, calling relatives to describe their plight. Some imprisoned women have been forced by militants to call their families. The mother of one woman still held captive told The Daily Beast about the call she received from her daughter. She was forced to listen as her daughter detailed being raped by dozens of men over the course of a few hours. Still other women testified that multiple children had been born under these conditions, with the newborns ripped away from their mother’s arms to fates unknown.
Women who have run away from ISIS’s prison and the families of those still held captive have come to Pakhshan Zangana for help. As the head of the High Council of Women’s Affairs for The Kurdish Regional Government Zangana is trying to bring attention to the women’s plight and plead for intervention on their behalf but fears that her efforts have stalled. “We have women and families calling in every day, the situation is getting desperate,” said Zangana. Without outside aid, Zangana has turned to asking for private donations to try to buy the captured Yazidi women back from ISIS before they are sold into sexual slavery.
Mosul’s Badush prison, where the women are enslaved, has become a literal house of horrors since the Islamic State seized control of the area. During the ISIS initial assault on Mosul in June, Badush’s gates were opened and 670 Shia inmates executed. This massacre, which was confirmed by 20 survivors and 16 eyewitnesses, according to U.N. Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, marked only the beginning of the horrors that have occurred inside the prison after it fell under ISIS control.
Since ISIS seized Mosul in June it has used the prison to hold captured women as sex slaves, according to multiple reports, before trafficking them to third parties. Some of these women are the Yazidis who were taken during the fall of Sinjar, but they are not alone. While the number of Yazidi women have been estimated in the hundreds, sources in Iraq say that the number is even higher and includes members of other minority groups, like Turkomans and Christians.
“It’s sick,” Zangana said, while choking back tears. “[ISIS] went so far as to force the local beauticians to come in and dress them up, putting makeup on them. Then telling them to instruct the women to be submissive to their new husbands.” One Yazidi woman who escaped from ISIS told The Daily Beast that many of those held were teenagers, some as young as 14.
While the situation seems hopeless, female activists like Zagan are reaching out to as many parties as they can to attempt to rescue the women. “There have been some who have escaped, but we know that most do not have a chance there without immediate action and help,” said Zagan. Because little is known about ISIS’s organizational makeup, it’s been nearly impossible to directly negotiate with them to secure the release of the women.
Time is running out, and the KRG is using non-traditional methods to secure the women’s release. They’ve had to resort to crowd sourcing funds and attempted to mobilize social action from a patchwork of local citizens and business leaders to prevent the women from being sold. They promise to reimburse anyone willing to help. However, the campaign is slow to gain traction, and as it struggles to gather funds more women are being sold off, less likely to ever return to their families.
“This is not just a Kurdish or Iraqi problem, this is an international crisis,” Zangana said. Many of the survivors were adamant that the fighters were made up of foreign nationals from all over the world. One of the women stated that they were able to identify the foreign fighters by the multiple languages they spoke, as well as distinct physical characteristics. “The women calling are telling us that many of these men hail from Chechnya,” a region in the Russian Federation known for Islamist fighters, who are being identified by their open use of the Russian language and red beards. Other women who had been held in the prison supported these claims identified “British and Dutch nationals,” too, Zangana told The Daily Beast.
“It’s complete psychological warfare. These families are already destroyed by the loss of their loved one’s, and now ISIS has them calling to tell them of the atrocities they have suffered!” said Zangana.
The few survivors who have escaped, or fled, are reluctant to come forward. “In a cultural context these women have had everything taken away. Many cannot return home—their home is either gone, or they will be rejected by their families because of what has occurred,” said Zangana. For these women, few options are available.
“You must understand that this is a form of genocide and we don’t have much time,” Zangana said as we parted from our interview in Erbil.