After attempted genocide by Isis, Yazidis look to Germany
Mission impossible? Germany acts to help Yazidi families escape Islamic State in Iraq
Displaced Yazidi children flee violence from forces loyal to Islamic State in Sinjar town on August 11th, 2014. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters
Displaced women from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, make bread at a refugee camp in Duhok province on January 2nd. Photograph: Ari Jalal/Reuters
In a residential apartment block in a fashionable new estate in Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the German foreign office has set up a makeshift consulate to issue visas for women and children who have escaped captivity by Islamic State.
The terrorist group, also known as Isis, “believes these women and children are their property, so we must run our mission in a secretive way”, Dr Michael Blume explains as he ushers me past plain-clothed security.
Dr Blume, who works for the state ministry of Baden-Württemberg, has been leading the visa programme since it began quietly in the spring of 2015.
“Our mission is for the most vulnerable victims of Isis – those who have lost everything and could not make it to Europe otherwise.”
The women and children who stream in and out of the apartment have travelled from camps all over Iraqi Kurdistan to hear whether or not they have been accepted for the programme. Demand for places is overwhelming, and processing visas for a group with little documentation has been one of the major challenges the project has faced.
Blume’s tiny team, working with the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, has so far moved more than 900 women and children from camps in the region and resettled them in shelters across one of Germany’s wealthiest states.
When Islamic State annexed northern Iraq in August 2014 it kidnapped more than 5,000 people, activists say, mainly members of Iraq’s indigenous Yazidi population. It launched murderous dawn raids on towns around Mount Sinjar, rounding up men and boys for execution, and women and children for enslavement.
Those who managed to flee were then trapped on the mountain, where many hundreds of the weakest – mostly children and the elderly – died before relief efforts took effect. The United Nations said last March that Islamic State may have committed genocide in trying to wipe out the Yazidi minority.
Complicated escapeAmena Saeed HasanDaesh
“Many of the women after they escape from Daesh’s hands are in a completely desperate situation,” Hasan said. “They have no home, their men have been killed, and even they have no tent to live in. So a lot of my work is helping those who have escaped when they are free as well, and really there is no one helping us Yazidis but the Germans.”
Noor Khudida, a 30-year-old woman from a town near Sinjar, and her four young children are among those who have escaped captivity by Islamic State and have been accepted for the German visa programme.
Pregnant when she was captured, Khudida says she endured captivity by several “owners” before being held by a Saudi Arabian fighter in a house that had previously belonged to a Christian family in Mosul.
She escaped after the fighter left to go to the frontline for an extended period and sold her along with her children to a local Sunni man living under Islamic Rule rule in the city.
This man was working undercover on behalf of the smuggling networks Yazidi activists have operated in order to rescue their loved ones. His services, and that of the taxi driver who then ferried the group to the frontline border of Islamic State territory, did not come cheap. Khudida’s freedom cost her family several thousand euro.
Her younger sister is in Raqqa, Syria, she says, where the terrorist group has established the capital of its “caliphate”, and the sporadic contact the two managed to maintain stopped suddenly in October, much to her despair.
Since May last year Khudida has been living among the 600,000 internally displaced persons from Iraq and 90,000 Syrian refugees around Duhok, in conditions she described as “worse than Isis”.
She initially sheltered in a half-built building with no running water or electricity before moving to the Khanke refugee camp, outside Duhok. A maze of tents in the mud, Khanke is home to approximately 18,000 people.
The Kurdish authorities, UN bodies and NGOs operating the camp for more than a year have managed to install just five water tanks, and more than 300 people share each of the 55 water access points.
“I have nothing to live for but I am glad to go to Germany to find a better future for my children”, she says. Her eldest boy, a sullen 10-year-old, was forced to attend indoctrination and weapons training during their nine-month incarceration.
“Isis promised me if I escape they will kill my children, so leaving like this is the best thing for me and my family.”
Many former hostages echoed this fear of recapture, and security is tight at every stage of the journey from Duhok to Stuttgart. Khudida has already undergone psychological evaluation by the German programme’s chief psychologist Dr Jan Ihan Kizilhan, and will begin a specially designed counselling programme once she arrives in Germany.
“This feeling that they can be taken hostage again is a rational response to the trauma, and may continue for quite some time,” says Kizilhan.
Once they arrive in Stuttgart, the women and children live in allocated safe houses around the region, where security is akin to a witness protection programme. They are provided with gynaecological and other medical treatments for the physical symptoms of their torture, German lessons, education and orientation classes and a small stipend for food and clothing.
Despite his experience doing similar work previously in Rwanda and Serbia, he has been alarmed by what he calls the “systematic viciousness” of Islamic State.
“They have no humanity towards their victims whatsoever,” he says. “They want to create a totalitarian terrorist state – with no minorities. They believe Yazidis are not human and they have the right to be killed and tortured.”
Trauma counselling for the children begins immediately, and focuses on “restoring their sense of humanity and reawakening their hopes for the future”, DrKizilhan says.
Khudida will travel on a specially chartered aircraft on the last trip planned by the programme at the end of this month, having managed to obtain the one of the final visas of the 1100 issued by Baden-Württemberg.
She will have to leave the family network that purchased her freedom, and an infant nephew she has been caring for since her release will not be able to travel with her.
“I am grateful to leave Iraq, it is our home but there is nothing left for us Yazidis here now,” she says , after scribbling a signature on her visa. “I have five brothers killed and a sister still in Daesh’s hands. My only hope for my future is that they find out who is in the mass graves. And to get enough money to get my sister back – if she is not already in the graves.”