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The Women Who Escaped Slavery at the Hands of ISIS

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Portraits of Yazidi women who were held as slaves by ISIS

In mid-November Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, managed to expel ISIS fighters from the Iraqi city of Sinjar. The militant group had overrun the town in August 2014—killing and enslaving vast numbers of the Yazidi religious minority in what came to be known as the Sinjar Massacre.

Thousands of Yazidi fled to Mount Sinjar, where they faced desperate conditions while waiting for rescue. In the village, men, children, and older women were killed, while thousands of younger women were kidnapped, raped, and sold into slavery.

Closely following this story was Kurdish photojournalist Seivan Salim, who was born in Iraq but forced to flee as a child. In a refugee camp, months after the massacre, she met some of the women who had escaped from slavery and was so haunted by their stories that she knew she had to do something—anything—to bring injustice to light.

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Syhan, 30 From: Kojo, Sinjar area
 Date of Capture: 08/15/2014 Length of captivity: Ten months Syhan fell pregnant during her captivity and escaped when she was in her eighth month. She stayed in Turkey for two months until the baby was born. She came back to northern Iraq but wasn’t able to bring the baby with her from Turkey. She doesn’t know where he is.

Photographer’s note: Identifying details of the girls’ accounts have been omitted, their names changed, and identifying physical features and designs (such as tattoos) deleted in order to ensure their safety.

Salim’s photos, as well as intimate stories told by the women, are presented in “Escaped,” a deep and moving project that’s part of “Map of Displacement,” a larger online storytelling project built by the Metrography photo agency and writers from all over the world.

“Each of their stories was tragic. Their suffering was so great,” says Salim. “I felt it was my duty to show it, as a Kurdish woman and a photojournalist who can connect with them in their own language. The world must know what is happening to the girls still in captivity.”

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Jihan, 20 From: Sinon, Sinjar area Date of capture: 08/04/2014 Length of captivity: Ten months “They put me and 14 other girls on a truck, and they took us to Mosul. We were all young and pretty. We didn’t stay in Mosul long; they took us to a small village where we stayed for 15 days. The conditions there were terrible. They put us in a filthy room, and we all got sick. Then we were taken to Raqqa in Syria. They told us that we would be sold, some as slaves, some as brides for the fighters. It was hot, unbearably hot, and there were 150 of us in a house without windows, without air. One afternoon about 20 men entered the house and started beating us. They shouted that we were their slaves, and we should obey them and do whatever we were told to do. They told us that they would punish us but never kill us because they preferred to torture us.”

Before taking the women’s photos, Salim listened to their stories. Many were too traumatized to talk about what had happened to them. Some had been sold multiple times. Some had gotten pregnant by their captors. Most had family members killed.

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Delvin, 27 From: Kojo, Sinjar area Date of capture: 08/15/2014 Length of captivity: Four months “They separated the women from the others and brought us to a school, where we stayed for two months. Then they moved us to several different places. I don’t know exactly where. At last we arrived to Raqqa, in Syria. After 12 days they sent me to a Syrian family. “I was pregnant and I had other children with me. They were very cruel to us. Even though I was pregnant they would beat me and try to have sex with me. If I didn’t accept to have sex with the men of the family, they would force me anyway. They raped me over and over again. I was sold again, this time to a family from Saudi Arabia. They took one of the boys who was with me to be trained as a jihadi. I never saw him again. I stayed there for a month and a half. I moved again to another city, where my baby was born. I was raped there too, despite the fact that I just had given birth.”

She promised anonymity to those who agreed to be photographed and asked permission to depict them in the traditional white Yazidi wedding dress.

“Traditionally and religiously, the right to have sex is only after marriage. This right was stolen by ISIS,” says Salim. “I wanted to say that they are still chaste and pure in heart.”

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Muna, 18 From: Kojo, Sinjar area Date of capture: 08/15/2014 Length of captivity: Four months “ISIS forced me to go with them when I was in Tal Afar. They said, ‘If you don’t come with us we will behead your two young brothers.’ So I went with a man to Mosul. I worked for his family as a slave. They forced me to convert to Islam. Even though he had a wife and a family, he raped me continuously. ISIS still has five members of my family, and I don’t know where they are or if they’re still alive.”

Even when she came up with the concept, acquiring a white dress to use was a challenge—most people had lost everything while fleeing from ISIS. But she finally tracked down a dress through a family that had been able to return home and salvage some possessions. Because she only had one dress, for each portrait Salim changed the scarf, belt, and style to make it unique to each woman.

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Dlo, 20 From: Kojo, Sinjar area Date of captivity: 08/15/2014 Length of captivity: Eight months “It was 11 in the morning when ISIS came to our village; we were making lunch. They came into our house, grabbed us, and brought us to the school. They separated the men, women, and girls. We didn’t know what was going to happen to the men. We didn’t know that they would kill them all. “We were taken to Tal Afar along with other girls. ISIS militants would come to the house to select girls for their pleasure and take them away with them.”

“Working on this subject has become my passion, and I’ll work on it as much as I can,” she says.

“Their suffering must never be forgiven and must never be forgotten. I can’t understand why some people must suffer in this century for their style of worship. I hope people know more what ISIS truly is from these testimonies.”

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Qaliya, 21 From: Talqasab, Sinjar area Date of Capture: 08/03/2014 Length of captivity: Ten months   “When I was in Mosul I tried to flee by running to Sinjar mountain. I found a small empty house, where I sat and waited, but they came looking for me and they found me. A man asked, ‘Why did you flee? Are you afraid that we will kill you?’ I replied that I preferred to die. They took me back to my captor’s house, where he pushed me inside a room, closed the door and started to whip me. After that he hit me with a cable and then fastened my legs and hung me by the legs to the fan on the ceiling and then started to hit me again. He took me down and told me that my punishment would continue for three days and I would have nothing to eat nor drink. He also told me that if I ran away again he would tie me to two cars and then split me in two. Three days later he let me out of the room.”

Seivan Salim fled Iraq with her family when she was a baby. She grew up in northern Iran and returned to Iraq in 2012. She worked for local Kurdish media in 2013 and is now a freelance photographer—shooting for the AP and collaborating with the Metrography photo agency.

More of these images and stories can be seen on the photo site Map of Displacement.

To learn more about how to help Yazidi women who have been affected by ISIS, visit www.yazda.org


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