Ordeal continues for Turkmen women kidnapped by ISIS

Ceylan was abducted by ISIL at the age of 12 and forcibly married to one of the militants. Lizzie Porter for The National

On a hot night at the beginning of July, Ceylan climbed onto the roof of her aunt’s house.

She sat alone, looking at the dark sky and the stars speckled across it, and began to cry.

“I went up at 10pm and came down at 1am, and I was crying all of that time. It was a kind of depression,” she says. “This has happened to me several times. If I don’t cry, I feel suffocated.”

The 17-year-old, who asked that her real name not be used, was one of about 450 Shiite Turkmen women and girls kidnapped from Tal Afar by ISIS militants as they overran northern Iraq five years ago this month.

The few who have returned – just 44 so far, 22 of them young women and girls like Ceylan – tell of being subjected to similar sexual abuse as that which ISIS inflicted on thousands of women from Iraq’s Yazidi community.

But unlike the Yazidis, the Shiite Turkmen survivors have not been officially welcomed back by religious authorities, contributing to the stigma that they face in their community. This, together with their smaller number, has meant their suffering at the hands of ISIS hands has gone largely untold and unreported.

Ceylan never shows her sadness in front of what remains of her family, so she seeks solitude in which to weep.

As she speaks to The National at the offices of an Iraqi NGO for orphans, glitter falls from her long skirt to the floor.

“When I was young, my life was nice. I was the only child in my family and I was pampered,” she says, “Then my life totally changed.”

Ceylan was 12 years old when her family fled Tal Afar in June 2014 as ISIS militants approached. They were captured as they tried to escape into the Sinjar mountains. She saw her father blindfolded and taken away by ISIS members before the militants took her back to Tal Afar, where she was separated from her mother. They then drove her to Mosul with her baby brother.

I didn’t like marriage and I didn’t know anything about it. But they forced me. I was so young.

Ceylan, former ISIS captive

In Mosul, an ISIS member named Younes forced Ceylan to marry him. Her story echoes the testimonies of other Shia Turkmen survivors of sexual violence by ISIS, who have said that they were forced into marriages with the militants. Although the extremists view Shiites as apostates, the women were deemed acceptable as wives. Yazidis, whose faith ISIS consider devil worship, were traded between fighters as sex slaves.

Younes imprisoned Ceylan in his family home, where he lived with another wife as well as his parents and siblings.

“I didn’t like marriage and I didn’t know anything about it. But they forced me. I was so young,” she says. “I stayed with his family and worked as a servant. It was like a prison – I couldn’t go out. His wife hated me. She would always hit me.”

Younes raped Ceylan repeatedly.

“I always refused, but I couldn’t stop him,” she says. “I was young and he was big. He always said that I am his wife and it is halal to sleep with me.”

As the international coalition against ISIS intensified air strikes and the Iraqi army closed in on Mosul, Ceylan was forced to flee with her captors to a village near Tal Afar, before it too was recaptured. She is not sure of the exact date, but the city was retaken in August 2017.

Iraqi troops took Ceylan to the Hamam Al Alil displacement camp south of Mosul. She managed to contact relatives who took her to Karbala in Iraq’s Shiite-majority south, where thousands of Tal Afar’s Turkmen had fled.

Ceylan’s parents and brother are among about 1,300 Shiite Turkmen who remain missing. In some instances, activists say, ISIS took whole families, frustrating efforts to trace them.

“There have been efforts to return the missing … but they are simple and localised,” said Ali Al Bayati, founder of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation, an NGO. “They were able to return some children. Not many.”

From Karbala, Ceylan returned to Tal Afar so she could go to school. She now lives with an aunt, but is hurt by how some family members treat her, gossiping behind her back and limiting her access to messaging apps and social media.

It’s very painful feeling – as if someone is squeezing your heart until it bleeds,” she says. “It makes me feel that I am alone. It makes me miss my mum and dad.”

Unlike the Yazidi community, whose leader publicly ordered in 2015 that survivors be welcomed back into the faith, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, has not specifically addressed the issue. Activists believe a fatwa directly addressing acceptance of rape survivors would help to reduce the stigma they face.

“There are hopes that a fatwa will be issued soon by Al Sistani’s office, to regard the victims as victims of ISIS crimes and not perpetrators, and that society must accept and honour them, rather than considering them shameful,” Mr Al Bayati told The National.

Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric

For some families, the shame associated with former ISIS captives is so great that they keep them in isolation.

“The stigma is imprisoning these survivors in houses where they are expected to do everything related to household labour,” says Guley Bor, a lawyer and researcher at the London School of Economics Conflict Research Programme.

“One humanitarian worker told me that they thought it was another kind of captivity, and that really stuck with me, because this is also what I observed as well.”

That stigma is compounded by a lack of state help to deal with survivors’ physical and mental trauma, says Ms Bor, who researches sexual violence in conflict.

“The state is following suit and ignoring the needs and demands of survivors – even their sheer existence. So as long as there isn’t comprehensive survivor-centric care and support in Tal Afar, it’s impossible to start to alleviate stigma.”

Ceylan feels keenly the way she is viewed by some members of her tribe. She also worries that she will be rejected by any potential husband whom she truly loves, since tradition dictates that she cannot remarry.

“In our society it is impossible, a divorced woman doesn’t marry again. She remains at home,” she says. “I am still young. It is not my fault that an ISIS man was married to me.”

For now, she finds solace in the seclusion of her aunt’s roof, or in her private thoughts and feelings.

“I suffered a lot, and till now I am suffering,” she says. “I feel angry, but what can I do? It happened. I can’t change it.”

Lizzie Porter

The Nationalnews World