As Iraqi and Kurdish forces continue their military campaign in Mosul, the Yazidi people — an ethnically Kurdish religious minority — face genocide at the hands of the radical jihadist Islamic State group.
Mostly situated in northern Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains, near Mosul, Yazidis have suffered from a systematic campaign against them. 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.
Nareen Shammo was a successful Yazidi television producer and investigative journalist in Iraq where she lived and worked (further identifying details will be avoided for her protection). She had been saving up to pursue a master’s degree, but the dire situation of Yazidi women after the genocide in 2014 inspired her to become an activist. She quit her job and spent nearly all her savings to build a network to track kidnapped women and help deliver them to safety.
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.
Shammo believes there is hope for her people and she is committed to pressuring Western governments to recognize the Islamic State persecution of Yazidis as genocide. She’s spoken at the UN four times and travels around the world working with NGOs, raising awareness and requesting humanitarian aid.
In an exclusive interview with The Times of Israel, over the phone, Shammo tells of her efforts to rescue Yazidi women from a life of torture, rape and brutality.
Sex slavery, rape and torture
Shammo helps women who have been kidnapped, sold as sex slaves and repeatedly raped and tortured. Yazidis are not Muslim so IS fighters will often violently force them to convert to Islam.
She has developed a network of people, mostly victims’ families and other Arabs who wish to help Yazidis, who aid her in locating kidnapped women. Her primary channel of communication with the women is through hidden cellphones that some manage to conceal from their captors.
When women make contact with her, it can sometimes prove very dangerous. In one chilling scene in the 2015 BBC documentary “Slaves of the Caliphate,” Shammo calls a woman she is trying to rescue. An IS militant, the woman’s captor, answers the phone instead.
Recalling the incident, she said, “I tried to control myself and talk very normal. I just asked about the Yazidi girls. I know it’s dangerous for them [to answer the phone] but most of the girls were ready to kill themselves so I had no choice.”
In another case, Shammo said, a Yazidi woman was sold to a Syrian member of Islamic State. “This man took the Yazidi woman with her three children to his house and he was married. His [other] wife beat her all the time and then, one day, the wife put poison in the food and killed the three children of this Yazidi woman.”
Many of the women commit suicide before they can be located. Shammo related that she was once on the phone with one woman while two others, in the same house, had just killed themselves because they were so afraid.
“I begged her not to throw away her mobile,” she said, and tried to convince the woman that she wouldn’t be killed because she was worth more to her captors alive than dead. But the girl destroyed her phone and Shammo hasn’t heard from her since.
Shammo has been repeatedly threatened by IS as well as Asayish, the Kurdish security forces, and, as the facts on the ground change, her job becomes increasingly difficult. Her success rate isn’t high and she couldn’t share a lot of the details for fear of endangering the very lives she is trying to save. But she estimates that, in the past two months, she and her team may have helped more than 40 women and children.
Occasionally, rescued women are reunited with their families, but these families are displaced and living in refugee camps in terrible conditions. The women, suffering from trauma, find there are no resources to help them. Many take their own lives even after being rescued from sex slavery.
The stolen generation: Enslaved children
There are over 2,500 Yazidi children who were orphaned by IS, Shammo estimates, and more than 220 children who escaped but whose parents are still in captivity. She said that children under the age of 2 are often kidnapped and given to IS fighters as gifts. Young boys, usually around the ages of 8 and 9, are trained to be the next generation of jihadists.
“I have information that this year, IS took about 300 Yazidi children as child soldiers,” she said. “Some of them could be brainwashed and some of them are really scared, and they have to do whatever IS makes them do.”
Many of them, she said, will be used as human shields during clashes between IS and Iraqi forces — when IS militants suspect they will be attacked, they sometimes relocate their captives, making it harder for Yazidi activists to locate them.
“We have information that IS moved hundreds of girls by military plane to an unknown location,” she said.
The military campaign to retake Mosul is a double-edged sword, Shammo said. On the one hand, many Yazidis have been freed, but, on the other, she is “worried that IS will kill a lot of them.”
Changing policy: The road map to redemption
Shammo calls for an international military court to be established so IS militants can be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. She insists that Yazidis cannot be treated solely as refugees.
“We need to look at it as a genocide. They are not looking for a better job or better life; they are looking to escape death.”
The displaced Yazidis still in Iraq live in 15 different camps, mostly in the Kurdish-controlled Dohuk province, and the conditions are terrible, especially in the summer. The electricity goes out every four hours and temperatures can reach over 48°C (118°F). There are food and water shortages and there is inadequate medical care.
Yazidis who have left Iraq cannot return, Shammo said.
“The Yazidis still have a deep mistrust for their government and even Iraqi forces — Kurdish forces — who were working to defeat IS didn’t help Yazidi civilians and sometimes aided in their kidnapping,” she said. “Yazidis need to believe in their government and neighbors. In Sinjar, neighbors turned against us and killed Yazidis and kidnapped women, and peshmerga [Kurdish fighter] forces didn’t protect us, and the Iraqi military didn’t protect us either.”
Still, Shammo believes, the situation is changing slowly.
“Before, I felt like we were really alone. I was feeling that we would not be alive in about 100 years, because August  was the 74th genocide for Yazidis,” Shammo said.
But now she has hope.
“Now I can see that people care about Yazidis, and they are trying to know more about the situation, and I’m trying to inform the world.”