The fifty-something woman with the freckled face is oblivious to our presence. She is in a distant dream. The window shutters slam shut and a glass falls to the floor, but she remains still, in a pool of sunlight with a thousand dancing specks. "I see them always," she utters as if talking to a ghost, "You don't see them, my dear."
That was my first meeting with Jamila, an Iraqi woman delivered from the suffering of the "daughters of Adam," as she calls them. “They are still there, in the black hole," she says.
For thirty-three years, Jamila worked at the Civil Registry Office in Mosul. “I did not have good fortune and never married,” she confides. When ISIS seized the city in June 2014, she fled with a Yazidi colleague to the village of Kocho (some 25 km south of the town of Sinjar) and stayed there with its residents for around two months. “A cruel and harrowing fate awaited all of us.”
ISIS fighters laid siege to Kocho (also known as Kuju) for ten days and demanded that the residents convert to Islam as a condition of release. During this time, the village’s men and its Mukhtar gathered to discuss and negotiate the militants’ ultimatum. In the end, most of them refused conversion, suggesting instead to leave their homes and possessions behind in exchange for safe passage out. The residents grew agitated and at noon on the 13th of August, 2014 a group of fourteen families - mainly women and children - decided to flee.
Jamila remembers how on that day mothers had added sleeping medicine to their children’s milk. “We left with nothing but two cell phones that girls hid between their breasts, the clothes on our back, and the water that the men carried.”
Nine young men accompanied the families to guide their way. They walked in the oppressive heat and humidity and entered a dried-up qanat (irrigation canal) overgrown with reeds and papyrus plants. The mothers’ hands were resting on their children’s lips, terrified that they would wake up and begin to scream. The men, women and children had been walking for half an hour before they were suddenly surrounded on all sides by ISIS militants. The captors forced them out of the qanat and separated the men from the women. They used their portable radios to signal to other fighters who immediately arrived in pickup trucks. Then they loaded the women and girls onto the trucks and returned the men to the qanat after they had checked adolescent boys for armpit hair. The boys were ordered to take off their shirts and raise their arms and those with underarm hair were deemed old enough to join the men in the qanat.
“They took five small boys because they had started to grow hair,” she says. “As the trucks started to move and take us away we heard the sound of heavy gunfire rising from the heart of the qanat.”
The trucks drove for half an hour, stopping in an area crowded with other abducted women and children. There, the captives were counted and “allotted” to different commanders and then packed onto big white busses with the word Hajj painted in blue on its sides. “We were registered under the name Abu al-Qa’qa’ al-Hadrami,” Jamila recounts. There were sixty-one women and children in her group who were later joined by six other women from al-Hatimiyah village.
Her words come with difficulty. “They refused to give us water...the busses had no curtains or air-conditioning.”
They arrived to Tal Afar Airport (in northern Iraq) before sunset where each commander was waiting for his prisoners and where another savage separation took place. Boys over the age of eight were severed from their mothers. The anguished wails were only silenced by bullets. “God Almighty, by bullets,” she cries out. “‘Warda,’ a mother, was murdered while she was holding her son as they tried to tear him away.” After they had also separated the older women (age sixty and above) from the group, thirty-six females, including young girls, and seven boys under eight years remained. They spent the night at the airport only to awaken to another bus arriving in the morning.
“They ordered us to stand up and they searched us. They seized all our money and gold and the two cell phones, and then they photographed us individually and gave us numbers. It was here, here, that I first heard the word ‘sabaya’ (war booty slaves). It was around ten a.m. on August 14, 2014,” Jamila says.
The bus travelled in a small convoy along a desolate road, flanked by a pickup truck in the front and a vehicle carrying a machine gun from the back. “We did not know our direction or where they were taking us,” she continues. “We stopped twice on the road to relieve ourselves. They insisted that the place had no cover and forced us to pee in front of them. We were forced to devise a way to conceal ourselves.” She explains how they stood in threes and fours to shelter the women and girls who needed it especially the ones wearing pants.
“They gave each of us one meal. A sandwich and a water bottle that was scorching hot from the sun.”
That evening, they entered a big city of bright lights and wide streets planted with palm trees down the middle. The children jumped from window to window in excitement as the bus continued until it reached a building with iron fencing and a large courtyard. The bus stopped and a band of masked men encircled the women and children and herded them into the building. They took them down to a basement, its rooms on the left side, and into a large chamber with metal bars for its front wall and a heap of mattresses and blankets piled in one of its corners. They closed the metal door which faced an outstretched corridor and left. The women took to exploring the hall and discovered a door at its end which led to a small kitchen and three toilets - in those moments a great treasure!
“Everyone collapsed to sleep out of exhaustion. ‘Golsha,’ my Yazidi friend and I were careful to take turns; we would cover one woman and wake up another because her child was crying. Masked men came a few times to gape at us through the bars as though we were animals in a cage. They would mutter amongst themselves and then leave. I don’t know how I fell asleep… I awoke to the voice of one of the masked men calling out ‘Sabaya! Sabaya!’ and the loud banging of his rifle against the bars. He had brought us some soap, shampoo, and sanitary pads as well as diapers,” she tells us.
The man ordered everyone to shower within two hours and shut the door behind him. “Some of the women bathed while others refused,” Jamila continues. “We helped the mothers wash their children and then we were brought food that was clearly half-eaten.” The younger girls recoiled from the meal, and Jamila and the older women tried to pacify the complaints about the food and managed to tempt the children to eat.
They heard the call to prayer although they could not make out which of the daily summons it was when suddenly three cloaked women armed with rifles and accompanied by five guards barged in on them. One of women carried a camera while the the other two held notebooks and papers. They asked the guards to close the door at the end of the long corridor and not to allow anyone in other than Abu Abdullah al-Amni. They also asked them to bring a table and five chairs. As soon as the chairs were brought and the door shut, the women removed their ‘abayas’. “We saw they were women just like us!” Jamila exclaims, adding that one of them was wearing a suicide vest. “We were overcome with relief, for they were women and most likely had children and families.”
The leader looked at the captives whose gazes were fixed on her, and the moment she allowed them to speak they all clamoured to tell their story, approaching the three women with both excitement and fear. Without warning, one of them fired a shot in the air causing the women to stumble backwards over each other and their children. The leader then ordered them to their knees and started to speak in broken classical Arabic, revealing that she was not Arab.
“She asked us if we spoke Arabic so I stepped forward and said that the majority did not, so she asked ‘which language do you speak, infidels?’ and I responded ‘Kurdish, but I can translate for them and I also speak English.’ She then talked to me in English and at her request I explained to her our story from start to finish,” Jamila relates the conversation.
Afterwards, the leader demanded that each woman and her family stand in line from oldest to youngest, and they were all photographed and registered in this manner. “Because I had no family I stood alone,” she explains. The leader, ‘Um Layth,’ was surprised to discover that Jamila was a Muslim Sunni and questioned her heavily in a mix of Arabic and English. Who had brought her here? Was she the wife of one of the Sahawat fighters? And so on. “I answered her in clear English and she listened intently. Her verdict was that I was a sabiya like the other sabaya,” she goes on adding that the leader made this decision with the help of Abu Abdullah al-Amni who had recently joined them. “He said ‘he who helps the infidel even to sharpen a pencil is one of them.’ But despite that they used me as a translator.”
The female captives were divided by age group (ages 12 to 18, ages 19 to 25, ages 26 to 30, ages 31 to 40, ages 41 to 50, and ages 51 and over), were assigned numbers and photographed again, one by one. Then they separated little girls under age 12 into one group and little boys from ages 3 to 8 into another group.
“Go ahead, try to imagine what happened as they tore the children away from their mothers’ embrace,” she tells me. “You can’t. It’s hard for anyone to imagine that there are people this cruel. Their hearts did not soften when the mothers wept and the children screamed - they (the children) who are innocent in all that was happening.”
They took the children away and left. “The silence and the pain remained. And so much weeping and suffering. Do you know of suffering?” she asks me. I nod but she takes no notice and continues. “We lost four girls older than 5, younger than 12 and six boys older than 3, younger than 8. We had four boys left who were under 3 years of age and four girls under 5 years.”
The captured women only knew the time from the call to prayer. That one signalled the morning, that one the afternoon and so on. Jamila’s calculations were based on the long interval that follows the evening call to prayer. If accurate, it would mean that the women had already spent eight days there. They had no visitors except those who came to bring food or to peer at them in their monkey cage.
After the noon call to prayer on the eighth day, Um Layth reappeared with three more female captives and left them with the women. They were Syrians from the town of Deir al-Zour.
“Two days later they took me alone to a big office and told me to tell the women that they are in al-Raqqa, that they are sabaya and will be distributed and sold to emirs and fighters in the organization - those who were favoured by God to conquer Sinjar and purge it of infidels and polytheists. They (the men) will convert them to Islam and save them from the fires of hell if they prove to be dutiful,” she says.
The next morning, Um Layth and Abu Abdullah al-Amni arrived with five other women and they separated virgins from married women. Jamila noticed that Um Layth and her female companions did not wear their Abayas in Abu Abdullah’s presence. “Um Layth was not ashamed when she asked us intimate questions under that glaring light that was attached to the table. Those who refused to respond were flogged by her companions,” continues Jamila.
“Are you a virgin?”
“Have you ever had sex?”
“When is the date of your menstrual cycle?”
“Do you suffer from any sexually transmitted diseases?”
“Your name will be changed. (Here is a list with female Islamic names) Which name do you choose?”
These were some of the questions that the virgin women were asked. The married ones were similarly questioned.
“When was the date of your last menstrual cycle?”
“How many times have you given birth?”
“How many times a week did you have intercourse with your husband?”
"What are some of your skills?”
“Your name will be changed. Which one do you choose?”
“Do you suffer from any sexually transmitted diseases?”
The women whose names were “strange” to Um Layth and Abu Abdullah were given new ones and told to memorize them. Their pleas about their abducted children went unanswered.
After the noon prayer, Um Layth and her companions returned and ordered the women to stand in line again. Shortly after, a band of masked men came down and the virgin girls were ushered outside to the long corridor where the men proceeded to “inspect the goods.” The six young girls were instructed to remove their headscarves as Um Layth marketed them.
“It was clear from Um Layth and Abu Abdullah’s behavior that there was an important man in the group,” Jamila says and cries out “I shall never forget, I swear, the faces of those young girls who were looking towards us as they were dragged off. One of them was thirteen years old. Imagine! Thirteen! It wasn’t enough for them to kill kidnap displace...they hounded their flesh. Do you know of suffering? Suffering is over there and only there.”
My colleague whose tears are racing Jamila’s explodes in expletives, cursing everyone and everything.
Another evening prayer passed, followed by a morning one, then came the noon prayer and a similar scene ensued. They took out the three married and childless women, but this time the buyers were fewer in number and less enthused, and Um Layth did not put on a show. Again, beseeching eyes were met with silence.
Nine more calls to prayer and no visitors except those who came to bring food or stare at the monkey cage.
“Other than the separation, the children’s requests were the most painful part. They had turned the corner of mattresses into a play area and the word “bav” (that they would utter), which means daddy, cut to our core … do you know of suffering?” she asks again.
At some point during the night or day, two guards and one of Um Layth’s companions came again for Jamila and led her to the same office as before. “I realized it was the afternoon,” she says. Jamila was told to inform the women that they will soon be moved to another location. “They made me sit with them. Yes with them, I swear! I was physically closer to one of them more than any other time” she exclaims. The men were discussing the new site and the facilities it will need including housing for the sabaya, new quarters for the fighters who buy them, showrooms, and minibuses to transport them. They also talked about the new price list that was recently circulated.
“They didn’t offer me the coffee in the cup they were passing around, but gave me coffee in a plastic cup instead. Oh how I would have liked a cigarette! Our prices ranged between one banknote and twenty, a banknote being the equivalent of $100, and rated according to age and attractiveness,” she explains.
There were nine new captured women by the time Jamila had returned to the chamber, eight Yazidis and a Christian. Um Layth and her companions came to register and photograph the new captives and left. Three evening prayer calls later, on the seventh of September (according to the women’s estimate), the door opened and they were all ordered to stand in line. A big yellow bus was waiting outside the main door to the building. “We saw the stars… although it was only for a short moment between the door and the bus. We saw the stars!” she repeats.
The bus crossed a large bridge and after a short drive through two parallel rows of trees, they disembarked. “There was air and stars and croaking frogs,” she says. The women were led into a building that had a big hall and taken down to the basement. Its heavy door opened into a single large chamber and newly built kitchen and bathrooms. There were small rectangular windows (no bigger than 30 x 50cm) along the top of the wall just under the ceiling.
“We tried to listen for the prayer calls to keep count of the days, but there was no sound but the croaking of the frogs. So we invented a new way of telling time, for frogs croak at night and not during the day,” she says.
The croaking stopped. The first visitors, Um Layth and her flogging squad, entered with four other men and laid a body at the door, wrapped in a black ‘abaya’ as in a shroud. They took two of the three Syrian captives and left. As soon as the door shut the women opened the black shroud and stared in horror.
“It was Hivin, the girl who was so merry! Her hair was completely shaved off like a soldier and eyes bulged out with terror. She was half-naked. Do you know of suffering?” Jamila repeats.
Hivin’s body was covered with burns from melted nylon, a mass of bruises and cuts. She had a circular gash, the work of a knife, around her genitals. The women helped her into the bathroom but she pushed them out screaming, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone.” An hour later, the women entered the bathroom to find her lying in a pool of blood, the poker from the bathroom’s diesel heating stove plunged into her heart.
“This is suffering,” Jamila says and she rolls a cigarette with tobacco from a black plastic bag. She is silent for a long time as she blows out her cigarette smoke.
“You know...they even treated their own women as sabaya! More than one of the ‘Muhajireen’ fighters would lock up his wife with us for days and threaten to sell her as a slave to punish her,” she finally says.
The days went by with the croaking of the frogs and the taking of women. Only some were returned. “I feel shame in my humanity,” she says. “You ask what happened to the girls. I’ll tell you of ‘Amsha’ whose lot was ‘Abu Jarir.’ This is her story.”
Amsha was hauled off in a white pickup after the fighter Abu Jarir paid ten banknotes for her and quarreled with the man who sits behind the desk over the number of sex slaves he was allowed to buy. According to the regulations, Abu Jarir was permitted no more than three slaves but he insisted that the Muhajireen fighters were entitled to more. He then signed a paper and dragged Amsha to his car.
The pickup drove through streets where all the women walking in the souks were enveloped in black and looked the same. Abu Jarir took Amsha to a yellow building on a wide street and up three flights of stairs into an apartment. When the door closed Amsha begged him to let her go, pleading that she had a family and a life back home but Abu Jarir ignored her as he went from room to room. He turned on the air conditioning and moved some light stands to another room. He then took out a bag from a closet and threw it in Amsha’s face. He pointed his finger and the first thing he said was “the bathroom is over there” before he dragged her there by her hair. In the bathroom, he tore away her clothes. It was the first time that a man had seen her naked.
She kicked and thrashed with arms and legs and even tried to bite him but he was too strong. He carried her and threw her in the tub which was lined with bottles and packages. There were light stands and two cameras, one directed at the tub and the other at the large mirror on the wall facing it. He mixed so many kinds of shampoo that the foam spilled over the edge of the tub and covered the floor. She tried to drown herself when he left for a moment, but he returned with a whip and and beat her all over her body and then wrapped her in a towel and carried her to a big bed in another room. There were cameras fixed to the ceiling and directly over the bed and two others strapped to either of its sides. He laid her in the middle of the bed and dressed her in undergarments that looked like dancewear which he took out of the bag. He shut the door and curtains and chained her to the bed and then knelt to pray. After he finished, he adjusted the cameras while he mumbled a rap song and danced his way from camera to light stand. He took off his clothing piece by piece. It was also the first time that Amsha had seen a naked man.
When he unchained her, she struck him in the eye and kicked him hard between the legs, but he was unfazed and continued humming and swaying. He went on to tie her hands and legs to the bed and mounted her. She fainted and would come to sometimes only to feel his breath and teeth raping her more strongly than when he raped her between her legs. Amsha did not know how much time had passed when she woke up. She saw her captor brushing his hair in front of the mirror, naked and water dripping off him and her blood covering her legs and the bedsheets. He carried her again like a rag and laid her in the tub. For the next three days, he prayed, flogged, filmed and raped her. On the fourth day, he gave her a glass of water and watched her drugged body lose consciousness. She only heard the sound of the front door closing.
“You will not understand what suffering means. This is how her life with him dragged on while the croaking of the frogs came and went more than seventy times. He returned her broken in body and spirit, addicted to drugs and pregnant,” Jamila .
The dinner that Jamila has served turns cold but none of us touch it. She carries the plates away and arranges them in a small fridge in the corner of her tiny room.
“Are you weary?” I ask her and she responds “No, my dear, weariness is over there!”
Several days later, they came to take Amsha again. “I volunteered myself instead and so did another woman. I swear we volunteered ourselves but they refused. They said they were going to take her to a doctor because of the pregnancy, but they never returned her,” she says.
Jamila discovered that there were several other locations where sabaya were being held captive. She found this out while donating blood, a task she was forced to do more than once. One of those times, she sensed a kindness from one of the nurses and something of remorse. The nurse took several tries to insert the needle in Jamila’s vein and turning her back to the guards she told her that she too had had been a victim with another girl at a site called ‘Al Primo Bank.’ When Jamila asked her about the site, the nurse said there were five others like it.
One morning, Jamila was summoned to the office upstairs. There were three men and two women there and she was told to take a seat. “Is there anyone in your family you could contact to buy you?” they asked her. “I took courage and said ‘But I am a Sunni Muslim and it is not permissible by Islamic law to sell me as a slave,’ but they mocked me for speaking about Islamic law and I had to swallow their insults and humor them by smiling,” she says.
There was a knock on the door and ‘Ghazala,’ the only Christian captive among their group, was ushered in. One of them handed Jamila a piece of paper to give to Ghazala since he was not permitted to give it to her directly according to a man with a fat belly. Jamila was also told to translate to Ghazala a text that was marked in black from a magazine in English. She still remembers the words and tells me to search for the magazine to verify it.
“The ‘People of the Book,’ like the Christians and the Jews have two choices: either to pay the jizya tax or to convert to Islam; however, this does not apply to Yazidis.” (This statement can be found in Arabic in the ISIS’s ‘Dabiq’ magazine, the October issue in 2014). Ghazala’s family had paid the jizya tax and they were going to return her to them that day.
“They also gave me two hundred dollar bills and a certificate of emancipation,” Jamila says. They told her to choose her destination and when she heard that Ghazala will be taken to Tal Abyad and from there would cross to Turkey where her family was waiting, she told them “like her.”
“They really did take us to Tal Abyad, and we crossed the borders. And here I am,” Jamila says at the end of her story. “But I will go back. Here no one needs me. Over there they need me, and my conscience tortures me because I felt happy about my freedom and was selfish. I thought only of myself.”
I tell her that I am going to publish her story and that they will know that she is planning on returning.
“Let them know! Let the world know!” she cries out and refuses to say another word.
“We will be in touch, sir,” she says it firmly and offers her hand in goodbye.