Traded like cattle

Amsha is a young Yazidi woman and mother who was abducted by IS and sold to an armed fighter from the city of Mosul. She told the horrific story of her 25-day captivity at the hands of IS and her successful escape. By Karim El-Gawhary in Dohuk

By Karim El-Gawhary

"I wish I was dead. Over the past few weeks, I've often thought of taking my own life," says Amsha, her voice monotonous, her gaze fixed on the ground. Her fingers, the nails bitten down to the quick, tug nervously on a thread that hangs down from her sleeve.

The young Yazidi woman, abducted by Islamic State jihadists and sold on like an animal in the city of Mosul for around €12, intermittently strokes the cheek of the baby on her lap. "The child, and the fact that I have another in my womb, are the only reason why I haven't yet hung myself, because they couldn't survive without me."

Amsha's account is delivered with complete indifference, as though she is not talking about herself, but about someone else far away from here. Sometimes, things happen that are too much for human comprehension and too heavy for a human heart to bear. Then, that person shuts down their emotions in dealings with others and relates what happened like a machine, in a complete monotone. Those that hear the story cannot even begin to imagine what that person has been through.

The fact that she is now able to sit here, on a mattress in an impoverished Yazidi village close to the Kurdish city of Dohuk, and even tell anyone this story at all, is thanks to her miraculous escape after a 25-day nightmare.

Captured by IS while trying to flee

When IS jihadists began firing mortars at her village and advancing on the area, Amsha escaped on foot with a larger group of villagers on the night of 3 August. Four kilometres outside the village, they saw two vehicles with armed men. "We thought they were Kurdish peshmerga and that we were saved, so we ran towards them. It was dark. By the time we saw the black IS flags it was too late," she recalls. After that, things happened very quickly. "They separated the men who were older than 14 from the rest and shot them in the head, one after the other, in front of us, including my husband, my brother, our father and uncle," she says. "I don't remember how many there were, but I remember the sight of them all lying on the ground in a pool of their own blood."

The women and children were then taken to a neighbouring Sunni Arab village, among them Amsha, her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law. As far as the IS jihadists are concerned, the Yazidis are right at the bottom of their warped religious scale, and Yazidi women are viewed as legitimate spoils in the fight against the "infidels".

Yazidi women and girls who were abducted by IS jihadi fighters in October 2014 (photo: Martin Durm)
Yazidi women and girls who were abducted by IS jihadi fighters in October 2014. Proclaiming a caliphate straddling parts of Iraq and Syria, Islamic State militants have swept across northern Iraq, pushing back Kurdish regional forces, driving tens of thousands of Christians and members of the Yazidi religious minority from their homes, and often abducting Yazidi women in the process

A few days later, the women and children were taken to the city of Mosul, which is close by and under the control of IS fighters. They were herded together in a hall and offered for sale like livestock in a cattle mart. The women were sold for the equivalent of around €6–12, depending on their age and attractiveness. Armed IS combatants walked around the room examining the goods. "They touched us all over and tore the scarves from our heads; they took the children away from some of the women.

"They struck many of the women and pulled them outside by their hair if they refused to go with them," Amsha reports. Her sister-in-law was "married" first. Amsha does actually use the word "married", because the word "sold" is too unbearable for her to say. She has since lost all contact with her sister-in-law. Then it was Amsha's turn. An armed fighter from Mosul bought her, pinned her arms to her back and pulled her and her child out of the room to his house in the city.

Mental torture, mental anguish

Amsha and her baby spent a total of 25 days in captivity. Now, with the family of her sister, who sits in the room during the conversation, she does not give any details about what happened during this time. Just that she was continually beaten, she says. The threat was repeatedly made to sell her on to a Syrian or Saudi national if she wasn't obedient. Her child was repeatedly taken away from her. Amsha was also forced to watch as her captors put a gun into the hands of her son, as they told her they would teach him the true religion.

Then one day, when she heard them talking in the next room behind a closed door and saying that they were indeed planning to sell her on to a Syrian, who wanted to take her to the Syrian town of Raqqa, the unofficial capital of the IS jihadists, she decided to escape. One of the men came into the room and gave her a pill, telling her she should swallow it. "I was afraid it was some kind of drug to make me compliant. I put it in my mouth and drank the glass of water. But I had the pill under my tongue all the time. Then when they'd gone I spat it out," she recalls. When night fell, she waited until her baby had fallen asleep to ensure it would not cry out. She found an iron bar in the cupboard and quietly forced the door open. "Three of the armed men were asleep out in the yard. Once I was sure they were sleeping deeply, I carefully put my baby on my back and escaped."

She wandered through the streets of Mosul for four hours, continually hiding herself for fear of being discovered. Eventually, she was approached by an old man who asked her what she was doing out on the streets at night alone, a woman with a baby. In broken Arabic (she only spoke Kurdish at home), Amsha told him her story. The old man who, as it later turns out was a leading figure in the town's Sunni-Arab community, took the young Yazidi woman back to his house, where he hid her among his daughters for four days. "What IS is doing has nothing to do with our Islam," her host told her, by way of an apology.

A Yazidi woman, who fled violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, makes bread at Bajed Kadal refugee camp in Dohuk province, 22 August 2014 (photo: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal)
Yazidis who fled violence in Sinjar at Bajed Kadal refugee camp in Dohuk province. "I always told myself I must make sure that my child doesn't fall into the hands of these criminals and become a criminal himself, and that my son will know later who his father was and who his mother is," Amsha told Karim El-Gawhary

Crossing the front line to safety

Eventually, the elderly Sunni hatched a plan. First, he called Amsha's sister in the Kurdish town of Dohuk and explained that Amsha was safe. Then he dressed the Yazidi woman in Islamic clothing with a niqab covering everything but her eyes, and gave her the identity card belonging to his married daughter, who also had a baby. Together, the three of them took their lives into their hands and headed to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, an area controlled by Kurdish peshmerga, but which protrudes into IS-controlled territory like a peninsula. It was the only place where they could at least try to cross the frontline between IS and the peshmerga.

Guards at the last IS checkpoint didn't want to let them through, arguing that just a few hundred meters further on they would be shot at by Kurdish peshmerga fighters. The old Arab begged the guard, concocting a story that his "grandson" (Amsha's son) had cancer and urgently needing medication that could only be obtained in Kirkuk. After four hours, the IS guard eventually let them pass.

The Arab accompanying her had previously tried to reach some of his contacts by telephone, to co-ordinate this crossing to Kirkuk with the peshmerga fighters. But now came the most dangerous moment of the escape: generally speaking, anything that moves in the no man's land between the two sides is shot at. "We set off very slowly. The old man went first, repeatedly reciting the Islamic creed," says Amsha.

Fortunately, no shots were fired. But when the group appeared at the Kurdish checkpoint, the guard there demanded that the old man undress. This is because in recent weeks, peshmerga checkpoints have been frequent targets of suicide bombers wearing explosive belts. Speaking from a safe distance, the man explained that he was with a young Yazidi woman whom he wanted to bring to her family in Kirkuk, and that he had tried co-ordinate the handover with the peshmerga. The guard had evidently been informed of this, and a relative who had already been waiting in Kirkuk was summoned. Amsha was instructed to remove her veil to allow the relative to identify her. After more than three weeks in IS captivity and a nerve-wracking escape, the young Yazidi woman was free again, but also completely traumatised by her experience.

"While I was being held captive I often thought of killing myself, even in the room where they married us," she repeats. At that moment, tears began rolling down the cheeks of the hard-nosed Kurdish translator, a journalist who had frequently filed reports from the frontline. He is barely able to repeat her words. "I always told myself I must make sure that my child doesn't fall into the hands of these criminals and become a criminal himself, and that my son will know later who his father was and who his mother is," says Amsha. "I had no other choice, I simply had to bear it all," she murmurs.

Then she stands up, picks up her baby and goes into the room that her relatives say – shaking their heads in concern – she only leaves for very short periods, and today for a little longer to give this interview. It was important to her, they say, to tell her story to the outside world at least once.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon