One crisp afternoon more than three years ago, on the cusp of fall turning to winter, a former Iraqi Parliament member representing the Turkmen community, Fawzi Akram, requested a meeting in his small wooden office in Baghdad. He poured tea into tiny, gold-rimmed cups and sat close.
There was something he needed to tell me, he said. Something he needed to tell the world: Hundreds of Turkmen girls and women had been taken by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, and they remained unaccounted for.
“But we aren’t talking about it,” Akram said softly, tiny, dark crescent moons below his eyes and his body stooped as if carrying the world’s weight on his frame. “If our wife or sister was raped, we cannot talk about it.”
For years, I traveled through pockets of Iraq, meeting with minority communities deeply impacted by the onslaught of ISIS. Before 2018, little was known about the number of missing Turkmen, but slowly, the embattled community was painfully piecing the puzzle together. While it remains impossible to ascertain accurate numbers of the missing, as it stands now, officials and aid groups estimate that some 600 Turkmen women were captured and treated as slaves by ISIS, with more than 450 still unaccounted for.
The stories below breathe life into these numbers.
While much of the media’s attention and resources have been directed to the embattled Yazidi community, it has been the top tiers of the Turkmen population themselves who have guarded their plight from being known to the world.
The stigma of having been sexually violated ran too deep. If they did escape and return, Akram feared, the women would face honor killings at the hands of those who had loved them most. He feared the girls themselves would not even try to flee their ISIS captors, accepting a sort of eternal torture inside a legacy of shame.
“I am telling the families that the girls are not guilty, they have suffered, and the families must forgive them and take care of them (in accordance with) human rights,” Akram went on, his voice catching, and his anguished expression appearing frozen in time.
Iraqi Turkmen make up the nation’s third-largest ethnic group behind Arabs and Kurds. Roughly 60% identify as Sunni Muslim, while the remainder are Shiite. They have long endured persecution — whether by militias after the 2003 war or in the past under Saddam Hussein’s pan-Arab project — and their numbers, approximately 600,000 before the war began, since have fast fallen.
I turned to Hasan Turan, an Iraqi Parliament member for the ethnic-nationalist, Iraqi Turkmen Front party.
“Many girls won’t return,” he concurred solemnly. “And I can only hope families accept them if they return. They are the victims.”
In the summer of 2018, two years after ISIS assailed their ancient northern villages — stretching from Tal Afar west of Mosul, through the city, and north into the Kurdish plains — the United Nations acknowledged for the first time that the jihadists had subjected the Turkmen to sexual violence. In February, a small crowd of women protested outside the U.N. Human Rights Office headquarters in Kirkuk. They hoisted signs into the air and, with lacquered eyes, demanded the central government do something — anything — to recover the abducted Turkmen women.
Despite estimates that put the number of missing women at 400, the exact numbers and names remain confined to the Turkmen community, shrouded by a heavy, opaque cloud of reproach.
The breadth of ISIS’s use of rape as a weapon of war also extended to the Shabak minority, a population of anywhere between 200,000 to 500,000 located in northern Iraq. They, too, suffered in silence.
“Daughters are missing,” said Hunien Kaddo, an Iraqi Shabak community representative. “Sadly, there is a lot of shame.”
But he was not afraid to speak in raw, unbridled terms. Kaddo spoke about accounts of his people being forcibly married, raped, and scorched alive in cages. He spoke of the frustrating lack of information and intelligence on what had become of the Shabak women.
Only a small number of Shabak and Turkmen women have made it home. Leaders worry that the survivors are being confined to their homes by their families, who are terrified of public humiliation. It is another form of imprisonment and internal banishment.
Despite all the advances in documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity, sexual violence in conflict zones still goes largely unpunished. Victims are dismissed or their plights are downplayed owing to graver national security concerns, such as prosecuting those guilty of murder or terrorism.
But rapists can claim a life without taking it.
To overcome the effects of an unspoken crime and bring about some kind of change, hundreds of Yazidi girls and women have shattered taboos since their lives were upended and their innocence was robbed from them more than six years ago. Upwards of 6,000 Yazidi women and children were abducted, with 3,000 still missing, and over 200 Shiite Shabak, too, are believed to have become spoils of war throughout the ISIS reign, with the fate of the vast majority still unclear.
“For us, it was very good to talk about it. In the beginning, many were afraid,” Vian Dakhil, a representative for Yazidis in the Iraqi Parliament, told me one morning from the bright white room of her northern Iraq home. “But it was what we had to do.”
ISIS suffocated everything around the Yazidis’ central home near Sinjar Mountain in 2014. Thousands of women and children were “disappeared” and remain so years after the end of Iraq’s military operations against ISIS. In its official propaganda materials, the jihadists justified killing, raping, and enslaving Yazidis by calling them “devil worshippers” and linking them to their mandate to reinstitute slavery. Raping unbelievers had become a core tenant of their theology.
One summer in Iraq, I ventured north to visit a Yazidi camp tucked away in the wedge where Syria, Iraq, and Turkey converge. Against streaks of pink and yellow flushing the early morning sky, I sensed something profoundly exhausting. What struck me most was that — unlike the other camps, where people animatedly voiced their anger and wailed about the lack of water — the Yazidis were so aggrieved, they said little. They did not complain. They all just looked at me with wide eyes and desperate expressions.
I was beckoned into a tent where a young woman had burrowed herself into the corner, weeping soundlessly into her black scarf, shoulders trembling. She was a survivor of forced marriage, passed at one of ISIS’s human auctions from man to man.
The young Yazidi was alive, but she was hardly living. More girls and women tiptoed into the tent behind me. There, inside that stifling space, the women held each other up, their embraces reassuring one another that they were now safe.
Through the gap in the door flap, I noticed that scores of men and boys had lined up outside, maintaining a respectful distance from the distraught women but with curiosity etched into their sun-kissed faces. They wanted to be involved somehow, to be part of the healing process, to remind us that men were not the enemy — twisted men were the enemy. These were the fathers and brothers and sons, the nephews and neighbors.
Just as the ladies in their lives were wounded, they, too, were hurting over what had happened.
But inside the tent, the women told stories like parables without anger, continuing until the sun dipped below the mountain. Over time, religious Yazidi leaders sought to reconcile what had happened by insisting that this was not the women’s fault and became more and more vocal about the importance of welcoming their abductees home.
The survivors were speaking out not because they wanted sympathy but because they wanted to help others — to do whatever possible to prevent what had happened to them from happening again.
On another blazing summer afternoon, I traveled a couple of hours north to the Office of Kidnapped Affairs in Duhok. It was a place that the tormented visited day in and day out, tearing their hair out and pacing the garden outside, as they waited for news about their missing loved ones with the kind of agony that made me think they would shatter at the slightest touch.
The worst news was no news because that meant the anguish would endure. Yet despite the desperation that clung to the walls, the building was a place of resilience.
“One morning,” Zana, who was 32 years old and had spent more than a year as an ISIS sex slave, said, “our neighbors came for us.”
She narrated in fractured paraphrases. Zana had lied to her captors, telling them that she was married, hoping, somehow, it might spare her from their evil intentions — that, somehow, it would save her from being robbed of the one thing she could never get back. Her captors, however, were undeterred. She and dozens of others were taken to a heavily guarded building in the ISIS-controlled Iraqi city of Tal Afar.
Yazidi girls under the age of 14 were whisked away and sold at auctions. The remaining women were handed off to ISIS fighters and told they were henceforth their chattel. When a fighter grabbed Zana and carted her off into a dust storm and transported her to Mosul, fear paralyzed her from head to toe. Only it would take weeks of not knowing when the moment would come.
“He took me to his place; they were flats. Small tourist flats. It was a tourist community,” Zana whispered, her eyes cast down. “Then he raped me.”
For the next five months, she remained inside Iraq’s second-largest city and was handed off to another militant, who locked her in a small room. The more she spoke, the more emotions watered her dry face. Zana had gone from blunt disconnectedness to melancholy, wistfulness, anger, and revitalization. In the ensuing months, she was passed along by a string of ISIS fighters from various Arab countries and shuffled from city to city, including the ISIS capital of Raqqah, Syria.
Both of Zana’s parents had died at the hands of the terrorist outfit. Her sisters had been taken, still missing. But she believed that by telling her story — somehow, somewhere — someone might do something to stop it from happening to someone else again.
Yet, as the ISIS war sputtered and stretched on, those stories have become jarring statistics, filed away in press reports and parliamentarians’ and aides’ files. Where is the accountability? Where are the courts?
The atrocities’ scale is so widespread that for every person who tells their heartbreaking story, there are many, many more who dare not say a word.
I will never forget one tiny Yazidi woman, perilously thin and bedecked in a light purple scarf, who floated into a makeshift displacement camp slapped onto what felt like the edges of the earth, and sat beside me. I will never forget the way she drew her legs to her chest and flopped onto the floor like a baby in the womb.
The woman listened intensely, crawled close to me, and just like that — wafted out once again.
“I am sorry,” her mourning father, Murad, said. “Her mind has gone somewhere else.”
She had been held as a sex slave and had been rescued just weeks before. The young woman, whose name I never knew, felt ashamed for what she had gone through, Murad said — ashamed even though she was the victim.
It was the sort of internal injury that exists only on the precipice of life and death. I was afraid to write about it. I could never properly paint with words what it was to physically survive.
Rape as a war crime is certainly not unique to ISIS. Its use spans the testament of ancient and modern times. It is a tool in the terrorizing arsenal of government forces from Syria to North Korea to Myanmar and beyond. Nor are such violations limited to women. I could fill pages and pages of painstaking testimony of boys raped by Taliban chieftains as blackmail and sodomized with broomsticks and rods in Syrian dungeons.
While the least-documented war crime of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, sexual violence is steadily creeping out from the shadows and into widely circulated stories, declarations, and resolutions. We can no longer say with straight faces that we did not know.
But how and when will all the brave efforts be propelled into some form of practical action and prosecution? For those who have made it through these dark days, the sheer lack of legal accountability only exacerbates the loop of their nightmares.
I sometimes replay the inflections of Zana’s sapped voice like a broken record in my mind. I remember the way the harsh sunlight drained all the color from her face as she stared out through a cracked window into nothingness.
“Do you think it will make a difference?” Zana asked me. “Telling this story?”
“Yes,” I responded carefully. “Something will change.”
Only perhaps I told a lie.