By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Lamiya Aji Bashar, the Yazidi human rights activist, recently spoke at the World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh. Her story, like so many others, is difficult to listen to. She describes how she was kidnapped by Islamic State in 2014 and sold into slavery. “They sold me in Syria. The city of Raqqa was a massive prison. It had thousands of girls just like me,” she said.
I’ve been writing about the genocide of Yazidis since 2015 when I visited Sinjar in northern Iraq. But every time I read new accounts the same feeling washes over me. My neck feels numb, I feel distanced from other people, from this world and what it allowed to happen. It’s similar to reading other accounts from genocide and abuse. The Holocaust comes to mind. Like the Holocaust we become inured to these stories. But every once in a while the human images, something about an account, makes one wake up and feel a new connection to what happened.
I tried to collect all the accounts in major media on twitter under the hashtag “#ISIScrimes” over the years. But there are always more and more. And each has different details that are unfathomable in comprehension. One at The Guardian reads: “The men drove her to a house in Raqqa belonging to an Isis member who kept her as his slave, then sold her on after four months to another Isis fighter. He found her disobedient and sold her on straight away to a fighter of only 18, who lived at a compound for Libyan fighters near Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. Many Yazidi girls were by being held in the same compound of 100 to 200 caravans where the Libyan fighters lived. The women and girls were chained, beaten, raped and passed around like animals between the men. At the edge of the compound, a barbed-wire fence prevented them from escaping. The stories of privation and torture suffered by Yezidi women in this compound are some of the worst in a long catalogue of abuses.”
Even when the mass rape and genocide was happening there were accounts from people being raped. On September 7, 2014 the Telegraph published a report from a woman held in a house. “To hurt us even more, they told us to describe in detail to our parents what they are doing. They laugh at us because they think they are invincible. They consider themselves are supermen. But they are people without a heart. Our torturers do not even spare the women who have small children with them. Nor do they spare the girls – some of our group are not even 13 years old. Some of them will no longer say a word.” The 17-year old told the journalist, via the phone “that the women were raped on the top floor of the building, in three rooms. The girls and women were abused up to three times a day by different groups of men.” The article contains a small mention of another detail: “British extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq have boasted on Twitter and other social media that Yazidi women had been kidnapped and used as ‘slave girls.'”
Many accounts have revealed that women were sold online on Telegram and other apps developed in western countries. Google “telegram yazidi women” and numerous articles appear. Here is a piece at The Independent and another at qz.com notes that the women were paraded on Facebook, Youtube and other social media to “entice men to join.” Women who were married to ISIS fighters also talked about how their husbands would buy and sell girls online. “The woman showed no remorse or sympathy for the treatment of Yazidis as she explained how her husband and his friends would buy and sell them on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. She was cold except for when she giggled while discussing the topic.”
In July 2015 one Yazidi woman told The Telegraph “I’m constantly asking myself and my mum, why is it only us who care? The girls may end up in another country where they may never be found. I feel disgusted honestly that people feel such things are normal or that it’s OK to do that. No one deserves to get pregnant at the age of nine or 12, or be put into sexual slavery or sold. No one deserves that. It’s against humanity.” Indeed, it seems that although the world’s media write about what happened, the international community did almost nothing to help the women, either to free them, to locate them, or to help them after.
The inhumanity, which often seems even more personal and cruel than the depictions of the doer Nazis, shocks when described. One described how wives of ISIS fighters participated in torture, rape and abuse. “On top of helping Abu Qutada rape Seeham, his wife forced her to clean their four-story house from top to bottom every day. Abu Qutada’s wife would invite her female friends to join her in taunting Seeham as she cleaned. ‘She forced me to clean the entrance to the neighbors’ flat and she forced me to clean her and her neighbors’ shoes. They would make fun of me while I cleaned, saying look at my slave, she’s a b**ch, she’s a Yazidi,’ said Seeham.”
It is a duty to keep reading these accounts, to ask how this happened: “The worst thing was the torture in Mosul We were beaten and raped continuously for two weeks, Girls were taken from their families and raped constantly and then they were handed out to emirs,” Nihad (16), a Yazidi girl, Islamic State victim, told interviewers.
There is a problem with much of the media coverage. It focuses often only on the details of rape and torture, but neglects larger questions. Today as Iraq’s central government has re-asserted its control over areas where Yazidis lived in Sinjar and where the genocide happened, there are few questions about what will become of the 300,000 people who still live in camps mostly in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Why aren’t Yazidis included in the #MeToo outrage?
In the last month there has been a large outpouring of anger over persistent sexual harassment. This began with the Weinstein scandal and has snowballed since then, gathering strength in the “#MeToo” campaign where women, and some men, share stories of sexual harassment and rape. Every day brings more stories. But much of the “me too” campaign seems to only involve western women, and often ignores women of color. When Muslim women came forward against an Oxford academic, who is also Muslim, the University stood by the academic. One academic claimed that accusations are “just another way for Europeans to gang up against a prominent Muslim intellectual.” In one article The Guardian also took the view that ISIS crimes were actually part of a vast plan to encourage Islamophobia in the West. “At the same time, media stories about sex and violence involving non-Muslim women being enslaved by Muslim men feed stereotypes about Muslim men that create divisions that Isis can then exploit.”
The reality was a bit different then some complex plot to make the West be anti-Muslim, which seems as ridiculous as claiming the Holocaust was carried out to feed anti-German stereotypes. The article notes “but, as with other strictures, there is a gap between Isis proclamations and an abusive, often violent reality. Isis used gang rape as punishment for women and girls who tried to escape to further degrade and control them physically and psychologically.”
The reality of what ISIS did is that it can remind us only of the Holocaust, only of scenes from the deportations at the Warsaw Ghetto, the camp selections, from the trains, from the EinsatzGruppen. As one article explains: “The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror. The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.” Anyone who has watched the film Come and See which showed how the Nazis destroyed a village in Belarus, can attest to the similar feeling. At this link is a scene from the film.
So where is the outcry? We read articles and move on. Where is the #MeToo campaign for Yazidi women? Why aren’t their stories part of the ‘Me Too’ discussion? Why is the Yazidi genocide kept in a kind of bubble of articles that look on it specifically without discussing how it is part of our society and connected to our unwillingness to do anything about it? Why don’t we discuss how social media and companies didn’t shut down networks and users that were trading women. Why don’t we discuss how 6,000 ISIS fighters from Europe left the continent and travelled to Syria and Iraq to rape and murder? How many men born in France, Germany, the UK and elsewhere went to commit genocide. How many of them have come back without being prosecuted? Why didn’t anyone say anything in 2014 as these men in the West used social media to encourage rape and murder of the “kuffar”? Why weren’t their accounts suspended in August 2014?
We don’t invite Yazidi women to women’s organizations discussing “Me Too” because we want too often see sexual harassment as a phenomenon that only affects women in the West and is primarily only done by western men. It is a western “whites only” club. 6,000 Yazidi women and children were taken by ISIS, they were systematically sold and raped. Many were sold up to seven times or more. We don’t even know the stories of thousands of them who have not been found or were killed.
Yazidi women tell of being “photographed and numbered” by ISIS. Just like the Nazis gave numbers to Jews. Like under Nazism, people pretended they didn’t know what their neighbors were doing. “They had been reluctant to believe the rumours of mass captivity and women taken as sex slaves that had filtered through the internet and local gossip, after Isis captured the Yazidi centre of Sinjar…Yazidis are branded devil-worshippers by Isis, which treats them even more harshly than other religious minorities. ‘After they said Sinjar was taken and the Yazidi women were brought to Raqqa, we didn’t believe it. Then Isis women were saying ‘we have Yazidi women at home’ and we still didn’t believe it,’ said Noor, a university student who had been idling at home after Isis shut down her classes.”
How quickly society in Mosul and Raqqa decided that owning slaves and mass rape and genocide was normal. Stories of people helping Yazidis are rare: “The family posed as would-be slave owners in order to buy Arezu, then pretended to despise her while they nursed her back towards normal life and hunted desperately for her surviving relatives hundreds of miles away.”
How can we relate to these stories like this one in Time. “Every morning in Mosul, the women would be required to wash. Then, Nadia says, they would be taken to the Shari‘a court, where they would be photographed. The photographs would be posted on a wall in the court, along with the phone number of whichever militant or commander currently owned each woman, so that fighters could swap women among themselves.”
How do we care for the survivors, as The New York Times describes it: “The 16-year-old lies on her side on a mattress on the floor, unable to hold up her head. Her uncle props her up to drink water, but she can barely swallow. Her voice is so weak, he places his ear directly over her mouth to hear her. The girl, Souhayla, walked out of the most destroyed section of Mosul this month, freed after three years of captivity and serial rape when her Islamic State captor was killed in an airstrike.” How can we talk about this? “For the first two years of her captivity, Souhayla made her way through the Islamic State’s system of sexual slavery, raped by a total of seven men, she and her uncle said.”
How does a “theology of rape,” become suddenly normal in 2014? How did so many men engage in mass rape and selling slaves without questioning it? Another New York Times piece notes: “In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted. He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her. When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.”
Willing executioners, willing rapists, indoctrination and genocide
We understand that most Nazis also did not object to what they did. Most did not have sympathy. But did most of them rape 12 year olds? ISIS in many ways was worse than the Nazis, even though the overall numbers murdered was much smaller. The attempt to exterminate was the same, as were many methods. But the added to the Nazi ideology, an ideology of rape, a lust for rape and abuse of women and girls, an attempt to dehumanize and eradicate people through gang rape.
Media has done a service through its documentation. It has tried to tell the stories of individual women. One piece at National Geographic provides numerous profiles of survivors. But it doesn’t answer the question, why did so many adult men in Iraq and Syria agree to rape and beat women? Why did 6,000 men come from Europe to help? Jihan told the Geographic “They put me and 14 other girls on a truck, and they took us to Mosul. We were all young and pretty. We didn’t stay in Mosul long; they took us to a small village where we stayed for 15 days. The conditions there were terrible. They put us in a filthy room, and we all got sick. Then we were taken to Raqqa in Syria. They told us that we would be sold, some as slaves, some as brides for the fighters. It was hot, unbearably hot, and there were 150 of us in a house without windows, without air. One afternoon about 20 men entered the house and started beating us. They shouted that we were their slaves, and we should obey them and do whatever we were told to do. They told us that they would punish us but never kill us because they preferred to torture us.”
27-year old Delvin told the Geographic: ““I was pregnant and I had other children with me. They were very cruel to us. Even though I was pregnant they would beat me and try to have sex with me. If I didn’t accept to have sex with the men of the family, they would force me anyway. They raped me over and over again. I was sold again, this time to a family from Saudi Arabia. They took one of the boys who was with me to be trained as a jihadi. I never saw him again. I stayed there for a month and a half. I moved again to another city, where my baby was born. I was raped there too, despite the fact that I just had given birth.”
What kind of people are these that do this? Where did they come from? How did society produce so many willing rapists. It’s not the same as the Nazis “willing executioners,” because they didn’t just line people up and shoot them. They raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and raped. They gloried in abuse of children. They raped pregnant women. They tortured and abused.
And not one member of ISIS has shown any remorse.
Whole families in Iraq and Syria helped to rape these women.
Here and there people have given Yazidi women prizes and recognition. But in general our society has not wanted to take stock of this, to see it face to face. We prefer to be inured and have academic “discussions” about it that make it banal and supposedly explainable. So we get this: “Implicit in the goal of eliminating the Yazidi community is the idea that society would be better without them, which is common to all genocides, said former UN investigator Sareta Ashraph. The enslavement, for Isis, is meant to eventually bring the women to Islam, and is part of their ideology of conquest. ‘[It is] among the greatest forms of the honour of Islam and its sharia [Islamic law], as it is a clear affirmation showing the supremacy of the people of sharia, and the greatness of their affairs, and the dominance of their state, and the power of their might,’ according to an Isis pamphlet on slavery. Isis describes its own use of enslavement through a mix of clumsy metaphors about sex, war and power. Dividing up the captive women and children among the Isis mujahideen [holy warriors] and ‘sanctioning their genitals’ is described as a sign of ‘realisation and dominance by the sword.'”
I don’t buy this sanitized “religious” explanation. People can study as many texts as they want, but the act of rape and genocide and murder are something else. Are all people capable of shifting from what appears to be a normal society to one in which slaves are sold and families hold down 12-year old girls to be raped? Is that really what every society is capable of? Perhaps a society comes to this after years of propaganda and incitement. They prepare the way for this by calling people “kuffar” since age 3. When someone is told from age 3 that “those people” are not human, are animals and deserve to be killed, they are being prepared for that moment when suddenly one set of laws disappear and the one they have been inculcated with is realized.
Laws hold men back sometimes from their desire to own slaves and rape. The condition that allows rape to be a part of society, a kind of rape culture, is produced through incitement and indoctrination. People didn’t want to run Stalin’s Gulags immediately. It didn’t seem normal to have Auschwitz probably. How did people decide to murder kulaks in the USSR or Jews in Nazi Germany? They used terms like “sub-human” and “saboteurs.” Every genocide is the same, every system of mass murder. What happened to Armenians, what happened in Cambodia, or Rwanda or Sudan is all the same systematic dehumanization of people until society feels totally normal playing the role of willing executioners.
What we saw in 2014 and the legacy we live with today was a massive explosion of rape culture. Not only in Mosul or Raqqa, but in the West as well. We want to hide from the fact that westerners raised in a supposedly enlightened and progressive education system, ostensibly normal people, ran to join ISIS. They express no remorse today and they never even thought twice then either. They ran to join. When they hear “you can kill kuffar,” they ran immediately. This was their fantasy come true. When they heard “slaves” they wanted to own them. When they heard that they could rape girls, 12-year olds, it made them want to join more. There was not one protest against ISIS. No one resisted in the cities it conquered. No religious figures. No one in the West resisted either. No one attempted to stop the users on social media in August 2014 boasting about murder. No one did anything. 6,000 men ran, imbued with rape culture, with genocide culture, to murder innocent people, the weakest, most innocent people.
Ask how that is possible. These were 6,000 men who had grown up under some brutal regime and they were responding to it. These weren’t 6,000 men who had been indoctrinated their whole life. These were men who grew up in Europe and what they got from Europe was a feeling that this was ok and normal.
If it was normal for them, then we have to ask about our societies that produced them. Not just the Iraq and Syrian society that produced this, but our societies, because our societies produced it also.
And we have to look in the mirror and realize that there is something wrong. People say “me too,” and they describe sexual harassment, patriarchy, rape culture, chauvinism. Maybe our society is not so different than the one that produced ISIS. How far away is it? Nazism thrived not so long ago. We know how most of Europe accepted Nazism and didn’t do anything against it. There is a myth of resistance, but most countries did not resist.
When I think about what ISIS did, initially it seems impossible to understand. It inures me to its horror. But then I think of the Shoah. I think how that happened. As many as 10,000 Yazidis were kidnapped and murdered by ISIS, of whom around 6,700 were women and girls. 6 million Jews were murdered. 6 million were murdered in the heart of what we call “European civilization,” what we call the era after the “enlightenment.” Even after the “progressive” era. An era that knew about “human rights” and “natural rights.” After John Locke and all that. It wasn’t difficult for the Nazis to carry out their crimes. The Nazis faced difficulty only after attacking the Soviet Union. They faced no opposition in their own country to what they did. It took years for the Polish underground and Home Army to rebel. There was almost no resistance to their crimes in France. There was almost no resistance to their rule in the Netherlands, in Belgium, in Hungary. In other places there were numerous people who ran to collaborate, just like people ran to join ISIS. Besides Serbia and Belarus, did they face much resistance in Rumania, Croatia, Albania, Greece, Norway, Italy? These are places where we hear about “values” and “democracy” and all this, and most of them went along with Nazism. It is only in retrospect the myth of resistance is created. Yes, in Serbia people resisted. In Bulgaria they refused to hand over their Jewish community. In Denmark as well. But in an entire continent resistance for years of Nazi domination was almost non-existent. So to claim they opposed the Nazis would be a misnomer. They didn’t really oppose. They accepted, like the people in Mosul accepted. Some of them initially welcomed and celebrated. Then they sat at home and waited. Mass killings, death camps, forced marches. It came and went and they watched. “It’s not us, so just don’t say anything.” And many zealously joined. Probably in most European countries more people ran to collaborate than ran to resist. In Iraq and Syria we know resisted. It was communities targeted by ISIS, Shia and Kurds in Iraq and Kurds in Syria. A few bedouin Sunni tribes also resisted, often because they were victims of ISIS brutality. And eventually as the tide turned, others joined them. Now as ISIS is gone everyone who lived under them claims to have been against them. Even those who joined them claim “I was only a cook.” Like the Germans who lived near concentration camps and pretended they had no knowledge.