Escaping ISIS

The Yazidi Women
Who Escaped ISIS

Photographs and  interviews

They are the survivors, these young women. Their fathers and brothers have been killed, and in many cases the older women in their families were taken away. The zealots of the so-called Islamic State do not recognize their Yazidi religion, and took the girls to be slaves. … Think on that a moment: “slaves.” It’s not a figurative term, it is literal bondage: humans as chattel to be bought and sold, forced to work, and raped at will. Most of them were taken from in and around the town of Sinjar, Iraq, which fell to ISIS in August 2014. Often beaten, often starved, and utterly defenseless, many refused to bathe, hoping  that would keep men away from them. Others pretended to be mothers. But many were raped no matter what ruses they employed, or how much they pleaded. Eventually they were taken to Raqqa, the de facto capital in Syria of the putative caliphate, to a makeshift slave market. And, usually when they managed to get a hold of a cell phone, these few were able, one by one, to arrange to escape. With them they brought these accounts of brutality and duplicity that paint a never-before-published account of slavery under ISIS.




DATE OF CAPTURE: 08/04/2014


My brother and my cousins were Peshmerga, members of the Iraqi Kurdish military. They informed us that they couldn't fight anymore and that we should run away fast, that we should try and save ourselves from ISIS. We were terrified and we ran to the mountains. The next night, a Muslim friend called us: he convinced us to go back to the village, saying that nobody would hurt us, and that he would protect us, as he knew some of the fighters. He lied to us.


We were arrested as soon as we entered the village. They put me and 14 other girls on a truck, and they took us to Mosul. We were all young and pretty. We did not stay in Mosul long, as they preferred moving us to a small village where we stayed for 15 days. The conditions there were terrible: we stayed in a very dirty place, stinky and filthy, and we all got sick.


Then we were taken into Syria, to Raqqa. They told us that we would be sold, some as slaves, some as brides for the fighters. It was hot, unbearably hot and it was 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 only obey them, and do whatever we are told to do. They told us that they would punish us, but never kill us, as they preferred to torture us.


That night they brought us to Sham, a small city not far from Raqqa. There was a car for each of us waiting there. We were sold, some alone, some together with others. I was sold, along with two other girls, to a man from Kazakhstan and we became his personal slaves. We mainly had to clean the house, but he was terrible to us and in the first three days only fed us a biscuit or two. We also did not have permission to wash, which I thought was ok, as I was scared that otherwise he would want to sleep with me. I preferred to stay dirty.


I did not obey him, and did not do what he wanted. I told him I did not like him, and that I would not do anything there. I did not care.


He sold me again, to get rid of me. And I was lucky then. My new “owner” was more gentle with me. He was also from Kazakhstan. He had three wives and seven children. He swore not to bother me if I followed Islam. He told me he was not interested in marrying me, and if I behaved he would not sell me again. He allowed me to spend time with other Yazidi women. He even gave me a phone one day, after seven months that I was there. With that phone, I later called my brother and started planning my escape. A smuggler was paid for helping with my release.



DATE OF CAPTURE 08/15/2014


When ISIS arrived many people ran away to the mountain but ISIS captured them. They brought us to the local school. They took all money, gold and guns. Then they brought all men outside and they shot them—they killed them. …  They took us to Syria by bus, I was together with around 400 other girls. The man who chose me was very angry, he beat me more and threatened to kill me with his gun. We were taken to a farm, where for eight days we hardly ate anything. They registered our name. They took four or five girls each time and sold them and then came back again to us to take more. They brought me alone by car to be sold. I cried and asked them to let my sister be with me but they didn't care. One person bought me and brought me to a prison in Raqqa. One day they called me to be sold again. There were five men, one of which was from France. He asked me if I knew how to cook and if I spoke Arabic. I told him I didn’t: he replied that I would learn and took me with him. But he only took me to sell me again, this time to an old man from Saudi Arabia. He was along with another man from Jordan. I stayed at his house. They brought me a black abaya. They told me to shower but I didn’t. They brought me some food, but I did not eat. At night I tried to escape from the main door but it did not open. The side door did though. I wore the black abay and run away. I found some taxis and got into one asking the driver to take me to see my uncle at the border with Turkey. An ISIS car stopped the taxi and questioned the man and myself. They asked me what I was doing alone, without children outside the house. Then the taxi driver told the men that my uncle had an accident and he was helping me to get to him. They let us go, and the man drove me to Tel Abyad at the border with Turkey, where I was rescued.


DATE OF CAPTURE: 08/15/2014


They brought us to Raqqa, Syria. One night nine girls tried to flee. They tied their clothes together and made a rope with them and fled from the window but then ISIS fighters found them and brought them back. They hit all of us because we did not say anything to them about their escape. I was asleep when they came in and punished all of us, whipping us with a big scourge. There were about 70 of us. They put us all in a big room, locked the door and did not give us any water until the next day. Then one day they brought us to another building. On the front it was written something like “selling place”, and there I was sold to a 40-year-old man from Saudi Arabia. He asked me to marry him, and when I refused he said that he would punish me with the objects I saw on the table: a knife, a gun, a rope. But If I married him I would be treated with more respect, as far as I would sleep with him. I refused over and over again. I was sold again. They told me that I better commit suicide. They beat me. They beat my niece, who is only 3 years old. I was then sold again, to a man, a single man, who wanted to marry me and who wanted to sleep with me: I refused with all my energies, and again I was beaten, and so was my little niece. He tried to rape me, and when he couldn’t he sold me again. In the new house I did all the work: cleaning, cooking, washing. The man who bought me said that he had to sleep with me to make me a real Muslim: I told him that if he slept with me, I would become his wife, and then I would not be a slave anymore, he should treat me like his wife. His wife told him that if he slept with me she would run away, back to her father’s house. She then got mad at my niece for she could not speak Arabic: she put pepper in her mouth, and locked her in a room without water, she beat her so much, you can still see the wounds today. They did not let me change her diapers for a week. We were only allowed to eat small portions of food: after all we were slaves and we should not expect to have more food. My niece cried her eyes out for she was starving to death. I was there for five months and they forced me to learn Arabic.

One day I got hold of a phone, and called my uncle, for neither my brother nor my father picked up the phone. My uncle organized my escape, which happened at night when everybody was asleep.





DATE OF CAPTURE: 08/03/2014


We heard heavy shooting coming from outside at around three in the morning and we immediately ran away, towards the mountains of Sinjar. It was almost noon when we were stopped by ISIS: we had almost reached the mountains, we were almost safe.


They took all of us, 14 members of the family. The worst thing I saw was the killings in Sinjar. I saw so many corpses on the road: it was terrible. I remember one of the saddest moments there, during those terrible months, was this little girl, twelve years old. They raped her with no mercy.


They separated women from men, and brought me with 17 other girls to Tal Afar. They kept moving us around. In a house one day I found a phone, which was probably left by one of the fighters. I took it and called my father, who worked in Erbil. My father paid a smuggler $4,000 to get me out of Tal Afar and into safety to the Peshmerga.



DATE OF CAPTURE: 08/03/2014

We were farmers, we had a big property that we all looked after. In the village half of us were Muslim, the other half Yazidi. I was in love with a boy from the village, and we wanted to get married. I don’t know what happened to him after ISIS arrived.


The sounds of firearms and airplanes flying started at 3:00 am. In the morning we realized that every Yazidi family was gone. Only Muslim families were left. We ran to our neighbor and borrowed his truck to leave the village. We set off toward the mountains, but we were stopped by ISIS on the way. The fighters were from other countries, not only from Iraq. They had big new cars. They were from Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. They told us to get off the truck.


The road was full of corpses: they killed many people. They separated the girls from the others, and brought us to Baadj with their jeeps. My mum tried to come with us, but they hit her with the back of the gun, she fell and could not come. We did not eat for three days, we only cried. They told us not to be afraid, that they would not hurt us. They had a problem with the government they said, not with the people. Then they brought us to Badush prison: it was dark, and packed with people. They took the young girls, and brought us to Mosul.


A sheik came to us. He had a stick in one hand, a book in the other. He came to convert us to Islam: we said the words he asked us to say and according to the man we were then Muslim, and had to go with them. One morning at 5:00 they picked us up, forced us to wear a black abaya, chained our hands, blindfolded us and forced us on a bus. They drove for 12 hours, and then we were in Syria. We stayed in a prison for two days. On the third day they brought us into a mosque and put us under the sun like animals: it was like when there are sheep in a bazaar and people go to select them. They did the same with us.


The sheik called the men to come and see us, and choose what they liked between the Yazidi and the Christian girls. The men did not want the Christians though, they all wanted us, the Yazidi girls. One man chose me, and put me in a car. I was in his house for three months. At first he wanted to “purify” me from being Yazidi, and forced me to give up my rings, my clothes and all those things that recalled my religion, my identity. I was taken to live with other Yazidi girls who were forced to marry men from Saudi Arabia to learn how to behave. They told me that I will be forced to marry them, even if I did not want to. Then my owner came back to me and I started working in his house. The TV was always on religious channels, reciting the Quran all the time. I did not eat their food, only bread and water. One time, when I refused to wash, he hit me with his gun and told me that he would beat me to death if I did not wash myself. But I did not want to wash, because I knew that if I washed he would sleep with me. I did not wash for three months.


I tried to escape once, but the soldiers found me in the streets, and brought me back. The man beat me hard, and lashed me with an electrical cable. He told me that if I did not want to stay there and marry him he would sell me to somebody worse. He gave me three days to think about it. The next day, when he was not there, his wife came to me, and told me that she could help me escape to a Kurdish family living in the neighborhood. She took me there when her husband was out and I asked the Kurdish family to help me, I begged them. I stayed with them for five months. Then one day we could finally arrange with my father to meet at the border with Turkey. The Kurdish man gave me his daughter’s ID and drove me to the border, where I was finally rescued.



DATE OF CAPTURE 08/15/2014


ISIS brought us to a school. They separated men from women, and we were left inside. We heard the shooting. We thought they were shooting at animals and didn’t think they were killing our men.


They took us to Solakh village where they separated the children from the old, and on one side the young and the beautiful: we were taken to Mosul, and I don’t know what happened to the older ones. I don’t know what happened to my mother.


Sheiks and emirs came and looked at us. They were buying us. A man bought me and took me to Tal Afar: when we arrived I was forced into marriage. That night he tied my hands and legs and he blindfolded me. Then he raped me. He hit me with a whip. He washed me and forced me to marry him. He was around 28 or30 years old and had four children. He wanted me to give him a baby.


The man moved around a lot, and everywhere he went he would deal with explosives. I saw them setting mines under the ground in several different cities. When they heard an airplane they would send me out: they thought that if they saw me they would not bomb them. I hoped they did.


I never stayed long in one place: Mosul, Bashika, Baaj, Kojo, Sinjar. And he always brought me with him. I tried to run away twice, but he caught me and hit me for three days in a row. Sometimes I would go a whole week with no food, even 10 days. I was always locked inside a room, as if I was in prison.


I was in Mosul when I decided that it was enough. I was scared, but I wore a black abaya and went in the streets. I got on a taxi, told the taxi driver I was escaping from slavery and begged him to help me. I was lucky, for he did help me. He called my brother and asked to arrange a smuggler. My brother knew a driver in Mosul whom he trusted, and asked him to bring me to Badush where he would collect me. I was taken to the Peshmerga and I was free. But my two sisters and two brothers are still there.



DATE OF CAPTURE: 08/15/2014


They forced me to go with them when I was in Tal Afar. They said “if you don't come with us we will behead your 2 young brothers”, and I had to go with a man to Mosul. I worked in his family as a slave. They forced me to become a Muslim. Although he had a wife and a family he always slept with me. When we were besieged in Sinjar the fighters of ISIS threatened us by showing on a mobile how they beheaded some Peshmarga fighters. Five members of my family are still held by them, and I don’t know where they are, or if they are still alive.



On the third of August, they came. It was night, 4:00 am. They surrounded the city, and we could not leave. After 12 days, they came to the village one morning in 200 cars. They brought us to a school, ask for our money, our mobile phones. ISIS handcuffed the head of the village and took him away. We were all crying when they separated the women from the men. Then they took all the men away, we did not know where. Later a 13-year-old boy came back, crying and full of dust. He could not stop crying, and then he told us that the men have all been killed, but we could not believe him.


They kept moving us for weeks, and we ended up in Tal Afar again. One day one ISIS fighter came and took a picture of me with his phone. I had spread dirt over my face, so that they would not find me attractive and they would leave me in peace. But the man came back for me and took me for him. He was a Muslim man from Sinjar. He told me he would protect me and my child. He took me to the third floor of a building, where I fainted from fear. When I opened my eyes I saw other girls, some of which were my friends. Every day ISIS men would come and would bring women away. At the end it was only eight of us left, all from Kojo.


Then they brought us to Raqqa in Syria where there were more women. In Raqqa we were underground: it was so dark that I could not tell the day from the night. They wrote our names on papers around our necks, and sold us. Ten of us were sent to Aleppo, and I ended up with another woman and my nephew in a large villa. There was an American man there, who did not speak Arabic. He told us that we were his servants. He told me that we must marry him to become Muslim. When he asked me to bathe and marry him I told him that I was pregnant and could not have sex, so he brought me to a doctor and when he found out that I lied he beat me, he tied my hands with a cable and raped me. …I knew there were people in Aleppo who were just trying to survive, and I knew that I just needed to get lucky and find one. We tried and tried, until somebody helped us. We escaped, but still we don’t know anything about my uncles, my cousins and my brothers.






DATE OF CAPTURE: 08/15/2014

They separated us as women from the others and brought us to a school. Then they started moving us, to several places. At last we arrived to Raqqa, in Syria. After 12 days they sent me to a Syrian family.


I was pregnant and I had some other children with me both of mine and other families. They were very cruel with us: in spite of the fact that I was pregnant they hit me and raped me over again. If I didn't accept to have sex with the men of the family, they would force me. I was sold again, this time to a family from Saudi Arabia. They took one of the boys who were with me to be trained as a Jihadi. I did not see him again. I stayed there for one 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.



In Raqqa first we were in prison for 15 days. They behaved like animals, they traded us like you do with cars: it was for them like buying or selling a car. A man from Saudi Arabia bought me and I was brought in a house where two other men also lived. I begged him to let me be with my sister. He hit me with his pistol on my head until I was bleeding. They did not bring me to the hospital, instead they brought me back to the prison while I was still unconscious. My sister was sold three days later, and I was heart broken, but we were reunited, when I was sold later on to the same people, along with seven other girls.


We were held in a house during the day, then different men would come and pick us up for the night. We stayed like that for 5 months. There was not enough food, and we could not wash. I was sold again, for two months I was the slave of a man from Tajikistan. My captor was killed in a fight, so I was sold again, and then again, but this time I was given as a present. I was raped, so many times, even six times per night. They always fastened my legs and arms when they raped me. One time I tried to run away but they caught me again: they didn't feed me for six days and they hit me three times a day and each time with a cable 12 lashes.

I don't know anything about mom and dad and my brothers, I just know that my sisters were captured, too.




DATE OF CAPTURE 08/15/2014

Photographer Seivan M. Saliam covers the north of Iraq for the Associated Press and collaborates with Metrography, Iraq’s first and only independent photo agency. Saliam fled Iraq with her family as a child, and grew up in northern Iran. She returned to work in Iraq in late 2012.


This series is part of Metrography's first collective project,
Map of Displacement




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