This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
DUHOK, Iraqi Kurdistan—In no-man’s land between the Iraqi and Syrian borders, there’s a meeting point for Iraqi families freed from the so-called Islamic State. Smugglers bring their human contraband to meet relieved family members who paid tens of thousands of dollars to get them home.
One husband and father of Iraq’s embattled Yazidi minority proudly showed off the video of his reunion with his wife and children at such a crossing. In the video, this man I’ll call Hazin gleefully wraps his youngest son in a bear hug, and bowls him over, rolling on the dirt of the desert road, loudly sobbing in joy.
In the video, Hazin hugs his wife too, but their reunion was more complicated. His wife returned from captivity with an extra child in tow, the offspring of her ISIS captor. Her Yazidi husband said she decided to leave it in an orphanage in Mosul, because she knew he wouldn’t welcome a child born of ISIS.
Hazin said she later changed her mind, and abandoned him and his children to return to her “ISIS child.”
Her women friends in the Yazidi community told me the rest of the story, as they’d heard it from her. They said that shortly after being freed from ISIS captivity, the Yazidi woman discovered she was pregnant with a second ISIS child. She feared her Yazidi husband wouldn’t let her keep it. So she borrowed money and took a taxi from her northern village to Mosul to rejoin her ISIS husband and her other child. That’s where he’d returned, hiding among the Iraqi population like tens of thousands of other former ISIS fighters.
One of her friends said she’d kept in touch by phone for a while, but now she doesn’t answer.
The women say her Yazidi husband, Hazin, told everyone in their tightly knit religious community that if she ever dares to return, he’ll kill her. Hazin insisted to me that he just wants her to come home to help raise their children. But he also said he would not raise any other child she had.
The scandal is the talk of the Yazidi community here in this regional capital, and kept coming up in conversations without my prompting.
“She left her kids for those two ISIS kids,” said another Yazidi man who’d heard the story, shaking his head, and lamenting that she left her children for the man who enslaved them for years, making her Yazidi children victims twice over.
Nearly 7,000 Yazidis were killed or kidnapped by ISIS, in what the Yazidis call “the 73rd genocide” against their community. More than 3,000 are still missing, despite the fall of the ISIS territorial Caliphate, and the Kurdish government has set up a $10 million fund to pay ransoms to get them back.
Of the roughly 3,400 Yazidis who have been rescued, around 1,200 are women, according to the Kurdish government’s Office of Hostage Rescue in Duhok.
No one is keeping track of how many are returning with young children.
The Yazidi women are welcomed home, embraced and forgiven by their religious leaders for whatever was done to them, thanks to a 2014 religious decree that pronounced all men, women and children absolved of responsibility however ISIS abused them, or whatever the terrorist group forced them to do.
There is no such decree forgiving the offspring of ISIS.
That leaves what may turn out to be hundreds of women with a horrible choice: give up their children to one of Iraq’s crowded orphanages and come home, or stay with them and lose their Yazidi family and their faith forever.
There’s a small effort by the Baghdad government to take some of the children into custody while their mothers wait for asylum abroad, so they can be reunited in Canada, or Germany or Australia, one human rights researcher told me. But Iraqi officials would not confirm if such a system exists.
Some children are taken from their mothers by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces before they are even allowed to return to Iraq, some of the Yazidi women survivors told me. An SDF adviser said they were trying to care for such children, who she said were abandoned by the women because “the camps in Iraqi Kurdistan would be unsafe for the children.” She could not say how many or where they were being housed.
But most of the children simply get left behind, according to Yazidi obstetrician and gynecologist Nagham Nawzat Hasan, who has personally treated thousands of women who’ve survived ISIS. “They believe the children are not Yazidi and will destroy their future. They believe they will not be accepted in their community.”
A Yazidi can only be born, not made through conversion, and the religion passes through the father, explained turbaned Yazidi spokesman Luqman Sulaiman Mahmood at the Yazidi holy site of Lalish, a stone redoubt tucked in a mountain valley north of Duhok. He spoke to me sitting just outside the small stone building that holds the baptismal pool where Yazidis must visit at least once in their life. That pool now serves to re-baptize those in their faith, to wash away whatever sins ISIS did to them, or made them do.
Mahmood explained that Yazidis are divided into three castes: a priest class; a princely class and ordinary worshippers. The castes can’t intermarry. He said there’s no hope for a dispensation for children with non-Yazidi fathers.
The Iraqi constitution doesn’t help. Its article 26 says that a child born to a Muslim father, or an unknown father, must be registered as Muslim—and that act of registration automatically also changes the mother’s faith to Islam.
“If the girl or woman has been raped and has a baby, the baby will get the religion of the father, not the mother,” says Ayman Mostafa, the judge who leads the Kurdish High Commission on Recognition of Genocide that is charged with gathering evidence against ISIS for the prosecution of war crimes.
“It’s a further genocide by constitution,” said Saad Saloom, an Iraqi scholar who founded NGO Masarat, focused on Iraq’s minorities.
Both men said only the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad could change that, as Iraq’s judiciary system allows judges to enact but not to change or amend laws.
Senior Yazidi leaders are pressing the Iraqi parliament to act, to allow the women survivors to register the children under their name and religion, according to Hadi Babashekhi, the son of the Yazidi “pope,” the Baba Sheikh.
That is, if they want to keep them. But many do not.
“It’s very hard for us when there is a family where 20 or 30 members have been killed by ISIS, and one of their girls has given birth to an ISIS child,” he said, recalling one conversation with a woman who’d been held captive. Babashekhi was trying to convince her to turn her child over to him to raise.
“The father of this child shot my father in front of me, and my baby is not mine,” she told him. “It is an ISIS militant’s baby. It should be put in the meat grinder.”
The fury and pain of that statement is matched in the other extreme by women who will risk losing their faith and their tribe to protect their ISIS progeny.
“We’ve seen women who could escape choose not to because they could not take their children,” said Sherri Talabani, of the Kurdish NGO SEED. While ISIS may have lost its official “Caliphate” in Syria, ISIS families still live in both Syria and Iraq, and some women choose to stay with their captors.
Sometimes the women or girls who have fled ISIS are not allowed to keep their children, like a 15-year-old girl who gave birth after she’d returned from captivity.
“Her baby was taken away from her by her family,” Talabani said of the girl she’d tried to help. “The 15-year-old is their ticket to Canada.” Women ISIS survivors are often more readily accepted as asylum seekers, and her family thought Canada wouldn’t accept the girl and her family if she was bringing an ISIS baby.
While Yazidi officials like Babashekhi said there are only a dozen or so cases of Yazidi ISIS children, Talabani put it in the hundreds.
There are similar cases of ISIS children among the Shiite Muslim and Turkmen communities, according to Iraqi scholar Saloom. But those communities issued no such Yazidi-style decree forgiving them for the crimes done to them, so he said the women have no path to rejoining their communities, and many have chosen to stay with ISIS families after they were captured and put in camps.
When they do come home, they are ostracized or worse, according to Himan Ramze, a Turkmen woman activist who founded the Tulay NGO for Turkmen Affaires. She works with women survivors of ISIS in her community, if she can reach them.
“Girls who were held by ISIS are treated like criminals,” she said, describing how families lock the women in solitary confinement for the shame they have brought on their family and community by being enslaved by ISIS. Turkmens can be Muslim or another faith, but the treatment is universal, she said. “They were abused by ISIS and now abused by their families. They are in prison.”
No Iraqi official I contacted wanted to talk publicly about this painful rift in multiple Iraqi communities. Some opined anonymously that in the Yazidi case, there’s no way Iraq’s mostly Muslim parliament would change its governing document to suit a non-Muslim minority.
In the meantime, other women I spoke to have woven creative stories to tell their community, in order to keep their children. One I’ll call Anqa told me a fantastical tale about how she was kidnapped by ISIS, but was able to reunite with her husband who joined ISIS in order to be with her. Now 21, Anqa said she became pregnant by him, and then he was killed in battle, and afterwards she was raped by multiple ISIS fighters over months but survived and gave birth to a healthy baby, who is now 3.
The dates almost add up. She was kidnapped by ISIS on Aug. 3, 2014. She said her husband went missing, presumably killed, in the spring of 2015, and she escaped a few months later. If the baby had been conceived in June 2015, the math works, but only just.
Her mother-in-law didn’t buy it, and asked to test the baby’s DNA. Anqa refused. Despite that, the mother-in-law did agree to the face-saving measure of testifying in court that Anqa was married to her son, and the baby was his. That meant Anqa was able to register her child as Yazidi. It also helped that Anqa’s lawyer paid the right bribe to get them in front of a judge who wouldn’t ask too many questions.
Anqa’s community wasn’t so forgiving. When she’d returned from ISIS captivity in 2015, heavily pregnant with the child, she went to the holy site Lalish for the ritual cleansing baptism. But other women in line jeered at her, saying she was carrying an ISIS baby.
Her father swooped in, taking his sobbing daughter to see Baba Cawesh, the Yazidi religious leader who presides over Lalish. He told them she was forgiven, and cleared the way for her to be baptized.
But the community has still rejected them, so the father has chosen his daughter over his clan, and moved them to a drafty unfinished house in a small settlement of one-storey concrete houses outside Duhok. She now waits for asylum outside Iraq because she doesn’t trust her mother-in-law, or anyone in her community around her daughter.
“I don’t know what they would do to her,” she said. “I would die to protect her.”
Her daughter will likely grow up without her faith, unlikely to return. She is one of thousands of Yazidis seeking asylum outside Iraq, some because they are not accepted back, but most because they fear ISIS will return and they don’t trust the government to protect them.
Yazidi spokesman Mahmood said this exodus could end his people: “We will disappear.” And ISIS will have won.