Saja Sharzad Sami
“Fear no longer has a place inside me. Everything that is bad or horrifying has already happened. Now all I have inside me is a deep sorrow.”
These are the words of Hazna, a 19-year-old Iraqi-Yazidi woman, who was abducted by the extremist group known as the Islamic State as her family came out of hiding on Mount Sinjar in August 2014. She was treated badly by the extremists but now, she says, her own family have truly broken her heart. Like many other Yazidi women who were captured and enslaved by the extremists, Hazna had children with an extremist fighter. But, like many other Yazidi women, her Yazidi family have not allowed her to keep custody of her own children from that union.
Along with hundreds of other Yazidi women, Hazna was taken captive by the extremists. She was forced to work as a servant in a house near her home and beaten almost daily. Her name was changed to Heba.
Eventually she was taken to the Syrian city of Shadadiya, where one of the extremist group’s members chose her to be his servant. She then travelled with him to the city of Deir Ezzor, also in Syria, and there the fighter – who she knew as Qassoura – asked her to give up her religion and convert to Islam, then marry him. Islamic State fighters could not marry a woman unless she converted to Islam.
“For two days I told him I did not want to convert but then on the third day he tied me up and raped me,” Hazna recounts her trials. After this, she says, she began to perform Islamic rituals and memorize the Koran, even if it was against her will. In 2015, she discovered she was pregnant to Qassoura.
After giving birth, Hazna says she was conflicted. “I didn’t know if I should be happy because I was now a mother. Or if I should be sad because I had become a mother as a result of sexual assault and forced marriage, and I was away from my own family,” she explains. “But I was forced to accept my reality and I learned to live with it.”
In April 2017, she gave birth to a second child, this time a daughter.
But because she was so young, Hazna says she didn’t feel like a mother. Her babies became her only friends and the small family ate, slept, played and prayed together.
During this time, she also became closer to Qassoura and the couple came to love their children. As fighting intensified in Iraq, he asked Hazna to go to Idlib in Syria, saying he himself would join the family later; he had plans to leave the Islamic State group himself. Hazna took the two children and went – there she lived with another family and spent the next four months waiting for Qassoura to join them.
“Unfortunately, as Qassoura was on his way to meet us in Idlib, he was arrested by the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Hazna explains – these are the Syrian Kurds who, until recently, controlled much of northern Syria during the Syrian civil war. The Syrian Kurds spent a lot of time fighting the Islamic State group and considered the extremists their enemies.
Hazna says she then received videos on her phone , showing Qassoura pleading with her to return so she could set him free from the Kurdish troops.
Travelling with the two children, Hazna decided to return, to try and save the husband she had grown close to. Unfortunately she was not successful and she does not know what happened to him: she never saw him again.
And eventually, after various obstacles – for example, another Syrian military group also jailed her and the children for three days – she made it to another Syrian town run by Syrian Kurdish troops, Qamishli, where she remained for two months.
Finally Hazna was able to reach her family in Iraq. She told them she was fine but that she wanted to return home. “They came to get me,” she says. “But they arrived with the Kurdish military and separated me from my children. They then gave the children into the custody of the soldiers and forced me to leave without them.”
Yazidi families like Hazna’s have often forced their kidnapped daughters to give up the children they had while they were enslaved. This is for several reasons. Firstly, they fear that the Muslim relatives of the extremist father may turn up and cause problems for them. The Yazidis know that the extremists wouldn’t let the children be brought up in a non-Muslim household. Yazidis practice a secretive religion and the Islamic State extremists consider it unholy.
Additionally there is also the matter of the crimes inflicted upon the Yazidi minority of Iraq by the extremist group, says Eido Baba Sheikh, a Yazidi human rights activist and author. The families simply couldn’t accept the idea that the child of a group that did so much evil to their people could live under the same roof, he said. “It is psychologically difficult to accept such a child as a member of the family,” he explained.
“We have actually asked civil society organizations to prioritise the immigration of these Yazidi survivors, along with their children, to Europe,” Sheikh continued. “There they can take custody of their own children and live normal lives.”
“We cannot go against Iraqi laws or the Iraqi constitution,” says Hussein Hassan Narmo, a Yazidi MP in the Iraqi parliament. “According to Iraqi law, if a child’s father is not known, the child is automatically registered as a Muslim child. This is the basic problem that contradicts with the Yazidi religious outlook.”
Hazna doesn’t care about all that. She can only keep replaying in her head, the awful scene when she was forced apart from her children.
“I can still hear my son crying for help. I was screaming and he was screaming, ‘don’t leave me, mama’,” she recalls, tearfully. “My daughter, only a few months old, was fast asleep and was just carried away. Then they pulled his hand out of mine. I have returned to my family a body without a soul,” Hazna says. “I will never forget those who have taken my children away and I will never forgive them. That includes my own family,” says the young woman, who continues to this day to seek out any news of her two babies.
This story was written as part of an InterNews project to train journalists on writing and producing journalistic stories on gender-sensitive issues in Iraq.