U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared
on Thursday that the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidi, and Shia people in Iraq and Syria. The last time U.S. officials stated that a group was committing genocide was in Darfur in 2004, CNN reports
"Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions, in what it says, what it believes, and what it does," Kerry said in a briefing at the State Department. Labeling the group's actions as genocidal is significant because it puts increased pressure on the Obama administration to act aggressively against ISIS. This story was originally published on October 15, 2015 at 2:45 p.m.
As fighters from the Islamic State group swept through northern Iraq in August 2014, they captured entire towns and took people as prisoners. Tens of thousands of people fled
after fighters seized Mount Sinjar, near the Syrian border, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were fighting to make the region part of their "caliphate," or religious state.
Mount Sinjar is the historic home of the Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority. It's also believed by some people to be the place where Noah's Ark settled after the floods described in the Bible.
But as ISIS swept in, fighters massacred Yazidi men and kidnapped Yazidi women and girls. Tens of thousands more were stranded on Mount Sinjar as the soldiers defending them fled, according to the UNHCR.
"I have not seen a happy or smiling child," one UNHCR worker reported
at the time as refugees fled Sinjar and crossed the border into Syria, which is experiencing its own violent civil war. "None of the kids were playing or trying to hold your hand, give you a smile like other kids normally do. They were all walking aimlessly, either barefoot or just wearing sad faces…it was heartbreaking."
Many of the women and girls captured by ISIS near Mount Sinjar were then forced into sexual slavery. New York Times
reporter Rukmini Callimachi exposed the way
in which women and children were systematically bought, sold, and used as sex slaves by ISIS fighters. The practice is even one of ISIS' recruiting tools, Callimachi reported.
One year later, some of those towns are still controlled by ISIS, and many women and girls remain prisoners of ISIS. But some of them have managed to escape and return home, bringing with them horrifying stories of abuse at the hands of ISIS commanders.
Iraqi photographer Ali Arkady and journalist Cathy Otten
journeyed to speak with one of those girls, Amel, who uses an alias to protect herself. Amel, 17, and her friend Jwan, 18, were captured during the siege on Mount Sinjar last year. Amel said she was then taken to the Iraqi city of Fallujah and forced to be a sex slave for an ISIS leader. The girls were raped, beaten, and forced to convert to Islam, Amel told Arkady and Otten. The two managed to escape after using a knife to pry open a locked door and made their way back to their families.
"Amel's story is personally important to me," Arkady told Refinery29. "I am the father of a little girl, so only parents can feel my feeling, but...imagine 5,000 families who can't live normally, who can't even smile, because their daughters are being raped daily and brutally. If the story of Amel and the other girls won’t be shared, which story must be shared then?"
Arkady has committed himself to telling the stories of his country, even when his assignments are violent and dangerous.
"It’s an ongoing challenge and a great risk, but there are many and many stories taking place every single day everywhere in Iraq waiting to be documented," Arkady said.
Arkady shares his photographs and perspectives with Refinery29 here from his home in Iraq.
Photo caption: Amel, 17, a Yazidi girl, was kidnapped by ISIS from her home near Mount Sinjar in August 2014. She was forced to be a sex slave for an ISIS commander, held along with her friend Jwan. The girls escaped from ISIS and are now living in the Khanke camp for displaced Iraqis near the city of Dohuk.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.