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Ghazala's Story: Whether We Live Or Die, The Important Thing Is To Escape

A file photo of a Yazidi woman who escaped Islamic State captivity earlier this year.
A file photo of a Yazidi woman who escaped Islamic State captivity earlier this year.

"We stayed on our feet while they looked for the ones who were pretty, those with a nice body, or pretty eyes, or pretty hair, or a pretty face. They would take them, rape them, and pass them on to others."

This is one of the terrifying memories that 28-year-old Ghazala, a Yazidi woman from Sinjar in Iraq's Kurdistan region, has of her ordeal in Islamic State captivity.

Ghazala and her younger sister Narin (their names have been changed for security reasons) were held prisoner in the extremist group's de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, for nine months.

Sold as slaves, the sisters were forced to work in servitude there for an IS gunman.

After their dramatic rescue by a Yazidi activist and businessman who helped Ghazala and Narin reach relative safety in a refugee camp in the Kurdistan city of Duhok, Ghazala spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq about her experiences.

The Abductions

August 3, 2014 is a date that the Yazidi people will never forget.

That was the day IS gunmen attacked and overran the predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar, slaughtering thousands of men, capturing thousands of women and children, and forcing almost 200,000 more Yazidis to flee for their lives.

Ghazala and her four younger siblings -- she has two sisters and two brothers -- joined the panicked exodus to Mt. Sinjar. Orphans whose parents died years ago, the five siblings decided to join their other relatives in their uncle's house, next to the mountain.

But IS caught up with them.

"There were 100 of us ... our relatives," Ghazala recalls. "They attacked and took all of us -- men, children, girls, all of us, even the older women."

The Prison

In those first days after the abduction, IS militants took Ghazala and her relatives to various places in the vicinity of Sinjar. Ghazala remembers spending one night in Tal Afar, some 52 kilometers east of Sinjar.

After that, she and her relatives were driven to the notorious Badush prison in the IS-held Iraqi city of Mosul.

"There were many women and children there in that prison. They held all of us there for five days," Ghazala says.

It was in Badush that the gunmen began to systematically separate and sort their Yazidi captives.

"First they took away the boys who were seven years old. Then they took the older women," Ghazala says, adding that it was unknown where they were taken. "Then they brought big buses to take the girls. They took us back to a school in Tel Afar."

The Rapes

The IS gunmen in Badush took Ghazala, her sister and the rest of the younger Yazidi women to Raqqa in Syria.

It was there, in IS's de facto capital, that their captors began selling the Yazidi women and girls as sex slaves to other militants, including foreign fighters.

Ghazala recalls how her fellow captives were sold as chattel to IS militants who showed up in groups to haggle over the human goods.

"Every hour some IS men came -- two, three, four, five, six, seven of them," Ghazala says. "They opened the door carrying big sticks. They told us to stand up. They beat any of us who didn't stand up."

When a militant chose a girl he was interested in, he would drag her to the bathroom to "examine" her before handing over cash to pay for her.

"They would strip her and if they liked her they bought her," she remembers.

As with all goods offered for sale, some of the Yazidi girls and women were considered more valuable than others.

The gunmen were particularly interested in the youngest and prettiest girls, whom they raped and then passed them on to other gunmen, Ghazala says.

The Gift

Then it was Ghazala's turn.

"First they took the young good-looking girls. Then one of the guards, a Saudi man, took down my and my sister's names and that of my cousin -- she's 13," Ghazala says.

The two sisters and their teenage cousin were sent -- "not sold, but given as a gift," Ghazala notes -- to the Wali, or IS leader, of the Syrian city of Homs.

The Wali, it seems, travelled to Raqqa to collect "his" women -- but not before the gunmen of Raqqa added a fourth Yazidi girl to the group as largesse.

The four girls were informed by the Wali and his retinue that their job was to "serve him."

"We told them that we would serve and do anything asked of us," Ghazala recalls. "But don't marry us. We don't want marriage."

Ghazala describes how the Wali came that night and took her and her sister to a small, dark building.

But they stayed only one night there. At six o'clock the next morning, the Wali and his guards took Ghazala and Narin to Homs.

"I don't know where the girls who were with us are now," Ghazala says. "They took us to the home of Arab Bedouins who had fled."

The Moroccan

When they got to Homs, Ghazala and Narin expected to be forced to become the Wali's personal slaves.

But they soon found themselves confronted by a different abuser.

"A 60-year-old IS Moroccan man came and asked us about our parents' whereabouts," Ghazala says. "I told him they have been dead for a long time, and that I had raised my siblings."

Ghazala begged the Moroccan to let her go. She told him that she and her sister had not done anything wrong.

At first, the Moroccan played along.

"He said that we were safe with them and that I was like a daughter to him and that he would be as a father to me," Ghazala remembers.

But 15 minutes later, the Moroccan gunman told Ghazala that she had to "go to him." Frightened, she refused.

The Moroccan did not give up.

He asked another gunman to help him grab hold of Ghazala's sister, Narin.

But Ghazala didn't give up, either. The Yazidi woman fought back to save her sister.

"They took my sister but I came at them from behind and put [their] gun to my sister's head. The Moroccan said he wanted to marry me," Ghazala says. "Then I hit him, and he hit me, and I pulled his long beard. He then tied up my hands and I fell to the floor. I prayed to God for help."

After she promised not to make any noise, the Moroccan gunman finally untied Ghazala.

But five days later, he came back.

He repeated his offer of marriage to Ghazala, but the Yazidi woman turned down his proposals.

"I said that I wouldn't marry him and that if he came near me I would kill myself," Ghazala told Radio Free Iraq. "I told him that he would be delivering us from our suffering if they were to kill us."

The Sale

The Moroccan told Ghazala that he would spare her life.

But he vowed that she would never escape from IS captivity.

"He said that he would not kill us but would keep me and my sister imprisoned until we died," Ghazala says. "He asked if we knew where we were and I told him that we were in Syria. He said that Syria would be our grave."

The Moroccan was wrong about that. But neither he nor Ghazala knew that, yet.

With Ghazala determined not to marry him, the Moroccan ordered his men to sell her and her sister on to other militants.

The money raised from the sale of the two women would be sent to his family in Morocco, the militant said.

Thinking fast, Ghazala came up with a plan to try to reach the outside world.

"The pretty [girls] were expensive. I, for example, would fetch a lower price. So I said that if they allowed me to contact my family, they would send more money than our selling price," Ghazala said.

But the Moroccan didn't agree. Instead, he asked an IS Shari'a judge in Raqqa who ruled that Ghazala and her sister Narin must be sold.

"Then a man came and bought me and my sister and took us to Raqqa," says Ghazala.

The Suicides

For four long months, Ghazala and Narin were forced to work as slaves for an IS militant whose nom de guerre, Abu Mohammad al-Shami, suggests that he was a Syrian.

During that time, Ghazala saw other captives attempt suicide -- the only way they could escape IS brutality.

Ghazala contemplated taking her own life on three occasions, she says.

"I could not tolerate the suffering at IS's hands," Ghazala says. "But I didn't kill myself, for [my sister's] sake. If she had not been with me I would have committed suicide.

The Escape

Ghazala and her sister were rescued from IS captivity by Abu Shujaa, a Yazidi activist and businessman who helps Yazidi women escape IS captivity.

But most Yazidi girls have no chance of escape, Ghazala says.

"None of the girls ever said that they wouldn't try to escape if there were a way to do so, but there isn't. There is no contact, and many of the Yazidi girls don't know a word of Arabic," she says. "There is nothing there but the desert. It is much better in Raqqa, where the Internet is available. No phones, but the Internet is available."

The Rescuer

Ghazala describes Yazidi activist Abu Shujaa as "the one who saved us."

"We had nobody but God and Abu Shujaa," she says.

Yazidi activists involved in helping women escape IS usually will not give details of how they operate, for fear of compromising their operations.

But Abu Shujaa told Radio Free Iraq recently that he has men in IS-controlled areas who gather intelligence about the locations of the captive Yazidi women.

"We then draw up a plan for the operation, and then carry it out at the appropriate time," Abu Shajaa says, adding that the rescue operations are particularly difficult in and around Raqqa.

Those involved in the rescue risk their lives to get the women out.

One of IS's network of informers could easily betray them to the militants.

Abu Shajaa is frank about what happens to those who are caught.

"The punishment is a public hanging in the town center," Abu Shajaa explains. "No one is allowed near [the victim] for three days, after which the body is handed over to his family."

Women who are rescued in Syria are taken to Kurdish-controlled areas in that country and then on to Iraq's Kurdistan region.

But, like Ghazala, Abu Shajaa makes it clear that captive Yazidi women have very little chance of escaping IS without help.

"A few have tried to escape, but their chances of success are very, very small," Abu Shujaa says, adding that his rescue network has not received any assistance from armed Syrian groups fighting IS.

Hussain Qaidi from the Office of Abductee Affairs in Duhok, which works to locate captive Yazidis and free them, told Radio Free Iraq that an estimated 3,000 Yazidis are still in IS captivity, mostly in Raqqa in Syria, and Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq.

Qaidi told Radio Free Iraq in June that the Iraqi central government has not helped with the efforts to rescue Yazidi captives, though the Kurdistan Regional Government has assisted.

The Aftermath

Although Ghazala and Narin are now free of IS, their traumatic and violent experiences have left them with psychological scars.

Narin is in a particularly fragile condition and has been suffering from a mental illness after her ordeal.

"Yesterday she had a seizure, she was biting herself," Ghazala admits. "She is in a very poor state."

Ghazala does not know the fate of two of her three brothers who were also captured by IS.

"I don't know if they've been killed or imprisoned," she says. "The middle brother is with us but the oldest and youngest are not."

Despite their extreme trauma, Ghazala and Narin are the lucky ones.

The situation for those Yazidi women who remain in IS captivity is "going from bad to worse," according to Abu Shujaa, the man who rescued the sisters.

"[The women] face their tragic situation every day with all its psychological and physical suffering at the hands of the IS men," Abu Shujaa says.

The Plea

As she tries to come to terms with her experience, Ghazala wants to send a message to the international community from her home for the foreseeable future -- the Duhok refugee camp.

"I want the whole world, all the countries in the world, to rescue these girls and boys, men and women, from the grasp of IS," Ghazala says.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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