Separated as Slaves by ISIS, Reunited as Refugees
Two sisters-in-law were reunited by an emergency asylum program that relocated escaped ISIS slaves to Germany.
The young sisters-in-law never imagined Islamic State militants could penetrate their remote village in the brown plains of northwestern Iraq. Though an extremist’s truck bomb had devastated it years before, soldiers had since guarded their tight-knit community and assured them there was nothing to fear. So neither Hadiya Khalaf Rasho, the doe-eyed baby of her family, then just 17, nor her older brother’s wife, Amsha Ali Alyas, a local beauty two years her senior, panicked when they heard gunfire in the distance one summer night.
It wasn’t until the following morning, Aug. 3, 2014, when their sense of security abruptly shattered. Alyas remembers the hysterical warnings from neighbors that the soldiers had fled and ISIS militants were advancing on their village. Rasho remembers futilely trying to outrun the extremists by foot. Neither can forget the longhaired, bearded men that eventually caught up to the fleeing villagers, encircling them like cattle, before marching the captured men out of sight. Alyas is sure that all of them, including her beloved Khalil, are in one of the many mass graves that have turned up since in the rough fields just beyond their home.
Rasho, now 20, won’t accept that probability. “We don’t know if they were killed,” she insists. “I hope one day they’ll come back.”
Her capacity to hope may be what carried the petite, soft-spoken teenager through the horrors that followed that fateful morning: more than a year of sexual slavery in the home of an IS fighter, marked by brutal beatings and, finally, the devastating discovery of life-threatening bleeding in her brain.
Three months after she emerged from bondage and weeks after a sophisticated operation at one of the top neurosurgery centers in Germany, Rasho reveals no signs of the horrors she’s suffered. The shy but smiley brunette conceals the scar from her surgery beneath a black knit hat and sits through an event the hospital organized in her honor quietly chatting on her bedazzled phone. When visitors ask her how she’s doing, she insists she is fine. “I don’t feel any pain,” she tells them.
But nearly one year later, Rasho admits that dealing with the psychological scars of her abduction and brutal captivity has been a new battle unto itself. “Mentally, we are not so comfortable,” she says.
The assault by the extremists on Iraq’s diverse Sinjar region in the summer of 2014 created not only a political and humanitarian crisis but an unprecedented psychological one as well. Fighters murdered at least 3,000 civilians and kidnapped at least 5,000 more, monitoring groups have said. Ninety-six percent of those who have since escaped have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a trauma expert in Germany who has evaluated hundreds of survivors. “They have nightmares, fear, shame, and depression,” he says.
The majority of those abducted were Yazidis, religious minorities who have called the arid hills and plains of northwestern Iraq home for centuries. ISIS doctrine considers their ancient faith blasphemous and grounds for murder or enslavement.
The United States said the 2014 ISIS attack on the Yazidis was part of an attempted genocide. Since then, the U.S. has been supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their efforts to reclaim Iraqi territory seized by ISIS. The process has been slow-going—too slow for the families of the missing who, in the absence of better options, have been paying people smugglers in IS territory to spirit their loved ones to safety.
By early 2015, these smugglers had rescued hundreds of survivors who emerged from captivity in devastating shape. The most severe cases were victims of sexual slavery, some as young as 8 years old. Tormented by what they had been through, several killed themselves after escaping and many more tried. The horror stories made their way all the way to Germany, where one man made an extraordinary commitment to help.
Winfriend Kretschmann, the prime minister of the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg, decided to offer asylum to 1,100 women and children who had been held captive by ISIS in an unprecedented emergency program. The goal was to get them out of Iraq and stabilize them before treating their psychological wounds. Alyas was among the earlier groups of women and children to qualify. But the program was nearly at capacity by the time Rasho unexpectedly emerged from captivity months later, with her life hanging in the balance.
That either woman managed to escape was a miracle. After being separated from the men in their village, “marriage-aged” women were bussed to a slave market in Mosul. There, a middle-aged IS “emir” or prince named Zaid snatched Alyas and her 20-month-old son. “Zaid said if you don’t do what I like I will take your son away from you,” she recalls. So she didn’t fight when Zaid raped her, undeterred that she was 4 months pregnant with her second child.
She did fight for Rasho, though, inventing reasons her terrified sister-in-law, still awaiting sale in the slave market on the first floor of Zaid’s home, shouldn’t be sold. “I said nobody can take Hadiya, I am sick and I need her to take care of me.”
Eventually Rasho was brought to Alyas for a visit, but only to say goodbye before being sent to the home of a married 25-year-old Iraqi fighter named Shahab.
The night after Rasho left, Alyas and her son Muaid were left unsupervised in Zaid’s bedroom for the first time. It didn’t immediately strike Alyas as an opportunity to flee. But when she bashed the door open to search for water, she noticed everyone in the house was asleep.
Alyas’ father would later marvel at the strength and courage she must have mustered to dash out the door with her child into IS territory in the middle of the night. Melting into the darkness in a black abaya, the head-to-toe garment Zaid forced her to wear, she walked for hours, undetected, until she encountered a man on a bridge.
Recounting the story on the dusty concrete floor of her parents’ house outside the Iraqi city of Duhok two weeks later, she almost whispers the details of their encounter. “I thought he would kill me,” she says, still protectively cradling her son.
Instead, the man saved her life, hiding Alyas and Muaid in his home until he managed to arrange for them to be smuggled out of IS territory. Her father describes her appearance at his door one month after her abduction as something of an apparition. “It was like she rose from the dead.”
But as Alyas reconnected with her own family—who unlike her husband’s family escaped the extremists’ rampage—Rasho’s nightmare was only beginning.
Initially, there were too many eyes on her in Shahab’s house for her to consider running away. His mother, siblings, and children acted as his enforcers and chaperoned Rasho wherever she went. They also berated her when she resisted their efforts to convert her to Islam.
Finding that resistance only made things worse, she developed another strategy instead. “I became like his wife and I did my best so they’d believe I was part of the family and would trust me later on,” she says. Her efforts paid off and Shahab began to let her visit the market alone. “I went and I came back, I went and I came back, so they trusted me,” she says.
Good behavior earned her privileges, including the right to call family members like Alyas, whose own escape instilled in her the confidence to try. But when she eventually did, Shahab caught her and beat her with anything he could get his hands on, from plastic cables to a wooden stick. He also revoked her phone privileges causing Alyas to assume the worst.
The last time they had spoken, Alyas vividly remembers Rasho begging for help as airstrikes rocked her neighborhood. So when her calls stopped coming, Alyas became convinced she’d been killed, as did Rasho’s surviving relatives, who began to make plans for their own futures.
For Alyas this meant leaving Iraq, the site of too many tragedies for her to bear. Through a man named Mirza Dinnayi, a Yazidi representative from the German asylum program, she learned she might qualify and signed up. “There was no way we could stay there,” she explains. “We were lucky we had somewhere to run.”
So on Sept. 21, 2015, she boarded a plane with Rasho’s mother Khunaf, her son Muaid, and her healthy new boy named Delbrin—“heartbreak” in Kurdish—to begin a new life in Germany.
Back in Iraq, meanwhile, Rasho’s health was deteriorating. Painful headaches she started having in captivity soon gave way to frightening seizures. Rasho is convinced the symptoms were the result of Shahab’s beatings, but surgeons who later operated on her in Germany would rule that out. The abnormal cluster of blood vessels bleeding in the right side of her brain could not have been caused by physical trauma, they’d say. That her symptoms emerged when they did was just the result of terrible luck.
If there was any silver lining to her deteriorating health it was that she got a one-month break from Shahab’s house in an IS-run hospital where doctors first diagnosed her condition, but were ultimately unable to treat it.
Her poor health may have also been what convinced Shahab to loosen his grip on Rasho and restore her phone access once again. Perhaps he thought she was too weak to attempt an escape, though Rasho’s health only made her more determined to flee. Staying was submitting to death—if not at Shahab’s hands, then by the mysterious health problems afflicting her.
Her first call was to an older sister who gave her the phone number of a smuggler. Rasho still remembers what time it was when she called him: 11 a.m. on Nov. 5, 2015, her 459th day in captivity. An hour later, the time they agreed to meet, the man pulled onto Shahab’s block in the car he told her he’d be driving. The sun was shining when she dove in and he hit the gas, speeding her away from her prison.
By the time she emerged from IS territory several days later, word had spread of her escape and the lingering threat to her health. Amid a blur of emotional reunions, she checked into a hospital where doctors recommended urgent surgery at a better-equipped facility to remove the cavernoma, or abnormal cluster of blood vessels, from her brain.
Dinnayi, the Yazidi man working with the German asylum program, jumped on Rasho’s case, taking a copy of her MRI to Germany, where he hoped to find a hospital to perform the surgery. Serendipitously, when he landed in Hanover, he received a phone call from a friend, who happened to be dining with a wealthy donor, who happened to know a brain surgeon. “I had the MRI in my suitcase and he told me to bring it immediately to the restaurant,” Dinnayi recalls.
The group hatched a plan to save Rasho’s life over dinner at the Piazza Italiana, a popular Italian restaurant in Hanover in late November 2015. Less than a month later, Rasho arrived in Germany for her surgery, but was first taken to see her mother and sister-in-law. Alyas describes the sight of Rasho the same way her own father described her appearance in his doorway the year before. “It was like a dead person coming back to life,” she says. They were so inseparable the week before Rasho’s surgery they even shared a bed.
Rasho’s operation at the International Neurosurgery Institute in Hanover last January was a success. She returned to the hospital on a gray and rainy morning three weeks later in her knit hat, black puffy jacket, and jeans for a small celebration in her honor. The surgeons who saved her, the donor who funded her operation, and Dinnayi were all there to wish her well. Rasho smiled graciously at everyone’s blessings, but mostly she stared at her phone, unable to comprehend the conversations around her.
With the surgery behind her, Rasho was just beginning to confront the new reality of her life in Germany. She was relocated from her sister-in-law’s apartment to a similar building for refugees in a city 150 miles from Alyas and her mother, for bureaucratic reasons she didn’t understand. She didn’t speak any German and was still adapting to the strangeness of her new country. But she was unequivocal in her determination to move forward. “I want to learn German and integrate myself here,” she said.
Nearly a year later, she is more open about setbacks. She talks about an inability to feel fully happy with her brothers and father still gone. About her mental health, all she will say is that she is still not “comfortable,” and that she occasionally has flashbacks from her time in captivity so powerful they cause her to faint.
Kizilhan says the fainting is her body’s way of persevering when the panic triggered by her flashbacks becomes too much to bear. But Rasho says the fainting spells are happening less frequently and she is feeling a little bit better as time goes by.
Resilient as ever, she and Alyas have each found new reasons to determinedly forge ahead.
Alyas, who carried her frightened toddler for four hours through the streets of Mosul to save his life is now finding that he and his brother are saving hers. Ensuring a secure future for them has become the driving motivation in her life. Her schedule revolves around their doctor’s visits and nursery school, which she carts them to and from in a double stroller, her brown ponytail no longer concealed beneath the dark headscarf she used to wear to mourn the loss of their father. “My children are my future. They are like a spouse for me,” she says.
Rasho, meanwhile, has a new light in her life—an unexpected new love.
Ahmed, a 21-year-old Yazidi man who also fled the IS genocide, escaping with his family to Germany, specifically sought out a fellow survivor with whom he could build a new future abroad. A mutual friend asked Rasho if she would be willing to meet him. “At first I refused, but later I thought about it and decided I might need [the support],” she says.
They communicated only by phone at first, texting and chatting for months before Rasho finally agreed to meet. The relationship developed quickly from there and the two married at a small ceremony last June. Instead of wearing a traditional white gown, Rasho chose a handmade red, white, and yellow dress made to resemble a Yazidi flag—a symbol of pride and power to mark the new beginning in her life.
Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This is the second in a three-part series on a rescue program for ISIS slaves.