By Atika Shubert
October 16 2015
I brought them a German dictionary and some gummy bears. But what do you bring to meet three Yazidi women who were captured and sold into slavery by the Islamic State (IS) movement.
When we met, the first thing that struck me was how absolutely ordinary they seemed. They gossiped about their friends, now living in different refugee camps across Duhuk in northern Iraq.
They laughed at the words in the dictionary, a language they will need to learn once they move to their new homes in Germany.
It was only when they placed their shawls over their heads and began to speak about life under IS that things changed. They spoke in quiet voices and chose fictional names to hide their identities: Noor, Busra and Munira.
Noor told me she was raped by 11 men. Busra told me she witnessed two doctors abort the unborn child of her friend, three months pregnant. Munira, the youngest, said little but on her arm I saw a tattoo.
Her father’s name, she told me, inked with a sewing needle and a ballpoint pen while waiting for her fate in an IS slave market.
None of them cried. In fact, they rarely expressed how they felt, only to say that they remember being scared or simply tired.
The people that wept were instead the ones listening to their stories, like Ameena Hasan, a former Iraqi lawmaker.
She introduced us to these women, just three of around 100 she and her husband have rescued from IS using a secret network to smuggle them to safety.
At her home, we chatted over sweet cups of tea when she received a call from a captive Yazidi woman who had managed to steal a phone. “When will the rescue happen?” She wanted to know. Ameena was patient and reassuring. “It will happen soon, we heard her promise.”
But as difficult as these stories are to hear, there were also stories of resilience and hope.
Hasan tries to help as many as she can, but for so many the wait is just too long. She knows of several that have committed suicide in captivity and she suspects there are many more.
“I am only a person,” she told us, fighting back tears. “I’m not a government or anything, I’m just a person.”
I cried too.
But as difficult as these stories are to hear, there were also stories of resilience and hope. The women of the Sun Brigade, for example, a Kurdish forces unit composed entirely of Yazidi women.
None of them have seen the front line yet, but just wearing the Kurdish uniform seemed to fill these women with a purpose.
Then there was the sanctuary of Lalesh, a temple to the indigenous religion of the Yazidi people, carved out of the desert stone. Everywhere you could hear the trickling sound of its holy spring.
But my favorite was the UNICEF photography project for young Yazidi women and girls. With their cameras, they captured beautiful images: A proud Yazidi woman in traditional dress. The deep blue eyes of a refugee child. The lined face of a regal great-grandmother now living in a refugee tent.
Before we left, I stopped by Busra’s tent at the camp. I wanted to thank her for talking to us, but also because I remembered that, of the three women, Busra would not be moving to Germany.
She wanted to stay with her mother, who was unable to cope with several members of their family still missing, presumed dead.
When I entered the tent, she was sitting on a stack of thin mattresses, as if on a throne, and she graciously offered me tea. I thanked her for giving up her daughter for a few hours to talk to me. She held both my hands and smiled. Please tell our story, she said to me. And so I did.
The writer is a senior international correspondent for CNN. The article is part of the CNN Freedom Project on modern day slavery.