In August of this year, Israeli aid worker Rachel Weiss (not her real name, for her own protection) traveled to Iraq as a part of an official IsraAID mission to assist Yazidi refugees living in displaced persons camps in Dohuk province, in northern Iraq.
IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian agency, joined an international relief effort to help Yazidi and Christian refugees in Iraq in 2014 and has been sending missions of Israeli humanitarian workers there ever since.
Weiss, an Israeli-American who specializes in helping victims of sexual violence in developing nations, was sent by IsraAID to train local non-governmental organizations working in the region with women who suffered at the hands of the brutal Islamic State group.
Mostly situated in northern Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains, near Mosul, Yazidis have suffered from a systematic campaign of violence. In 2014, the Sinjar massacre saw an estimated 5,000 Yazidi civilians killed and 5,000 to 7,000 abducted and enslaved — mostly women and children — by IS fighters who have continued to target them since. Thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq and Syria are still in danger.
According to the director of Yazidi affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government, there are an estimated 3,770 Yazidis being held captive by IS, over 60 percent of whom are women and girls.
“What I, along with a team of trained mental-health professionals, did there was train NGOs that are already working with the women,” Weiss said. “We facilitated therapeutic sessions with women who had escaped from IS captivity between six months and a year ago.” The women who had just been rescued, she explained, were not yet ready to attend the sessions.
‘Shadows of themselves’
Through therapy sessions, aid workers offer emotional and psychological support, encouraging survivors to conjure up fond memories from their youth to help draw strength in overcoming the trauma. This was a method Weiss had employed in the past, but the brutality suffered by these women at the hands of IS members was so traumatic that rehabilitation proved particularly difficult in Iraq.
“That method worked effectively in other countries, but it took much longer for the women to open up in Iraq,” Weiss said. She asserted that these women have been stripped of their identity and called them “shadows” of themselves.
“Everything has been taken from them, including their identity,” she added, saying that once the women opened up the stories she heard were the most horrific she’d encountered.
“There was one woman I met who was on Mount Sinjar when IS came to slaughter the Yazidis,” she said. “She had five children. She watched her husband slaughtered before her eyes. She had two children who were old enough to be taken as IS slaves; one of them was killed trying to escape, one of them was kidnapped and she doesn’t know where she is. Her other three kids were poisoned. Her entire family was killed except one daughter who is missing, and now she has a child who was the product of rape and who is the baby of an Islamic State militant.”
“Some of these women haven’t slept in two years. We did therapeutic-guided meditation at the end of each session and even getting them to close their eyes was really a struggle for them,” Weiss said.
Life in displaced persons camps
The displaced Yazidis still in Iraq live in 15 different camps for internally displaced people, mostly in the Kurdish-controlled Dohuk province, and the conditions are terrible, especially in the summer, according to Weiss. The electricity goes out every few hours and temperatures can reach over 48°C (118°F). There are food and water shortages and there is inadequate medical care.
“The people who are coming out of Mosul today are by and large Muslim,” she said. “When IS took over two years ago, the Christians and Yazidis who were there were either forced out or killed. Those who survived, remain in the IDP (internally displaced persons’) camps where I worked.”
Christian refugees live in different camps from the Yazidis, and the conditions in the Yazidi camps are “deplorable,” according to Weiss.
The Yazidi IDP camps “pretty much have nothing, they have no food and they aren’t ready for the winter,” Weiss said, explaining that life in the camps is joyless as many of the women fear for their loved ones who are still in captivity.
Medical treatment in the camps is also insufficient — usually there is only one clinic with three rooms for some 12,000 people and one actual doctor. Additionally, none of the women will allow anyone to examine them after they get back because they are traumatized.
“The physical trauma is a huge issue and they aren’t getting treated for it,” Weiss said. “They are a forgotten people, nobody is talking about them. You feel that when you see the camps.”
Weiss sees the future of the Yazidi people as bleak.
“The best thing to do from a global humanitarian perspective is to get them out of camps and to a home, but we don’t have the money for that and they are not safe.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel last month, Yazidi activist Nareen Shammo said that she believes an international military court should be established so that IS militants can be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. She asserted that putting IS militants on trial would be the only way to ensure repatriation for the Yazidis.
One glimmer of hope is that there is considerable documentation of the atrocities committed against Yazidi women so, if a war crimes tribunal were established, prosecutors would not have to search for documented evidence.
Upon being rescued, each survivor is questioned extensively by the Kurdish authority and each story is documented. This can be traumatic for the women as they are not yet ready to discuss the atrocities they have endured, but, on the other hand, it means that countless testimonies of IS brutality have been collected and archived by the Kurdish government.
IsraAID’s global initiative, Imaging Hope, collects video testimonies from refugees around the world, documenting the trauma they have endured, and encourages them to heal by sharing their stories and developing their own narrative for discussing their plight.
The Israeli humanitarian agency has managed to document several testimonies on its missions in Iraq and hopes to collect more.
“They are very similar to us in their genocide and what happened to their people,” Weiss said. “They are forgotten and no one is doing anything. It’s our duty as Jews… to help people who are going through the same thing.”