Yazidi Girls Who Escaped From ISIS Share Their Stories

Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
Update: 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.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
What is Amel like as a person? Why was it so important to share her story?
"If you saw Amel for the first time, you would think that she is just like any other 17-year-old, but in fact she isn't. She is very strong, brave, and optimistic; she is always trying to reach out with the little girl inside her to make up the time she missed being captured by ISIS. Amel is a real inspiration for anyone. She is a true fighter."

Photo caption: Amel, 17, a Yazidi girl from Sinjar who was held hostage by ISIS in August 2014, is reunited with Perez, a women’s activist from Iraqi Kurdistan who has been helping her readjust to life. Amel escaped from ISIS captivity in Fallujah. She was held along with another Yazidi girl, Jwan. Both girls were raped, hit, and forced to convert to Islam. Now she is living in the Khanke camp for displaced Iraqis near the city of Dohuk.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
Amel, 17, a Yazidi girl from Sinjar, was held hostage by ISIS in August 2014. She is reunited with Jwan, 18, who was also kidnapped and held hostage with her. The girls escaped from the ISIS compound, where they were being held in Fallujah, on August 25, 2014. Both girls said they were raped, hit, and forced to convert to Islam. Eventually, the girls used a knife to break down the door while the ISIS emir holding them was out fighting. They fled to Kurdistan with the help of local taxi drivers who took pity on them, Otten wrote.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
How did you come to meet Amel? Was it hard to build trust with her at first?
"Before meeting Amel, I was in in Syria for a month, then I returned to Mount Sinjar for five days, accompanying the forces fighting ISIS. I wandered into the town of Sinjar, which has existed for thousands of years and is part of ancient history. I saw the abandoned houses, empty of people, I saw photos, clothes, and other personal belongings of those who were killed, displaced, and, even worse, those who were raped.

"Then I returned to Erbil and heard about Amel and another young girl through an activist that worked with many Yazidi girls.
We eventually met in Dhouk. I explained to Amel that I feel it’s a must that the whole world hear her voice and the voices of others, especially because the local media, with all due respect, wasn’t so professional and it negatively affected the process of freeing those girls.

"Building trust with the brave Amel was planned carefully. At the beginning, Amel told us about her best friend, who was also kidnapped with her and also escaped ISIS with her, lived in another camp that was about 90 miles from the camp Amel was living in. We all went to the other camp, and the meeting was extremely emotional and full of tears and smiles."

Photo caption: Amel, 17, is reunited with her friend Jwan, 18, who was also kidnapped by ISIS and forced into sexual slavery. They escaped together and eventually made it back. The girls meet in a camp for displaced Yazidis near the northern city of Zakho, as ISIS fighters still control their towns.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
Where did you travel with Amel?
"We decided to do an interview with Amel and then take her to the grand temple of Yazidis, called Lallish, and afterwards I would go with activists to Mount Sinjar to get the last part of the story. But Amel insisted on joining us on the trip to Sinjar, and she was very determined, so we agreed.

"We all went to the temple, where she was received with hugs and kisses by those who were in the temple. Their religious leaders looked so thrilled to have their girl back."

Photo caption: Amel visits the Yazidi holy town of Lallish. She was held hostage by ISIS and forced into sexual slavery after being captured from her home near Mount Sinjar in August 2014.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
What happened at the temple in Lallish?
"She was religious and spiritually cleansed and blessed by the monks. We stayed at the temple for almost two days, and then hit the road heading to Mount Sinjar. It took us half a day to reach the mountain.

"We arrived in the early afternoon. Amel was looking at the road, seeing people and sheep, which reminded her of the same location she was kidnapped from, along with dozens of other Yazidi girls.

"Before that, she and the other girls were forced to see the men who accompanied them being executed by ISIS right before their eyes.

"Amel's face was very sad, she was absentminded and her lips never moved, but her eyes told a thousand stories. For a moment, I thought she was about to scream out of the emotional pain she was going through. But Amel was so brave and tough, she didn’t even shed a tear…so far."

Photo caption: Amel visits the Yazidi holy town of Lallish.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
Amel, 17 visits the Yazidi holy town of Lallish. Amel journeyed to the temple in Lallish and was spiritually cleansed by monks after being held captive by ISIS.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
What is it like to photograph conflict? Is it ever difficult to separate the way you feel from the photographs you are taking?
"Life in Iraq is a conflict that has been going for many decades. As a photojournalist, I am a part of this conflict one way or another…. The security situation, transportation between various locations, political disputes, and occupational hazards all come together, making conflict photography in Iraq similar to a minefield.

"Photojournalists are artists and, above that, they are humans. So separating the way I feel becomes very difficult, given the fact I am part of this community. But professionally speaking, I suppress my feelings for the sake of the causes I am working on. But definitely once the assignment is completed, I will have my time to feel. It’s a method that I use, getting closer to the stories I capture. For instance, with the Yazidi girls, normally such an assignment would take two to three days, but using my method, it took about a week."

Photo caption: Amel meets Yazidi religious leader Baba Sheikh.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
What should the world know about ISIS and what has happened to girls like Amel?
"As the world knows, this is not the first time this has happened, and, unfortunately, it might not be the last time. Amel and the other girls were subjected to things beyond imagination: daily rape, physical and verbal abuse, along with all sorts of torture.

"At one point, Amel was telling me that sometimes ISIS members will trade ‘wives.’ So she would be forced to sleep with many other men besides the one she is being with, and the girls were also forced to look happy and smile during that.

"Horror and agony were very obvious in her eyes, along with rivers of tears that covered her face. And that’s only a glimpse of what happened."

Photo caption: Amel meets with Perez, a women’s activist from Iraqi Kurdistan who has been helping her adjust to life after she escaped from ISIS captivity in Fallujah.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
Nadir Kadir, 49, and Sabri Qassim, 55, are the mother and father of Jwan, a Yazidi girl who was kidnapped with Amel and forced into sexual slavery by ISIS. The Yazidis have faced religious persecution for centuries but became a target for ISIS because they are not Muslim.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
What is it like covering ISIS?
"Since I was a little child, I grew up in a constant state of war in my country. So when ISIS came and did what they did, I felt compelled to document this phase of Iraq’s history in a proper way. But again, because of the conflict and the risk on our lives, we can’t tell all the secrets and uncover all the stories. We are doing our best."

Photo caption: Displaced Yazidi men from Sinjar sit and talk in a camp for displaced Yazidis near the northern city of Zakho, as ISIS still holds their towns and villages further south after they massacred and slaughtered their way through northern Iraq last summer, killing and capturing Yazidi women and girls as sex slaves, Otten wrote.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program.
Do you have any advice for young people who wish to follow in your footsteps, using photography to draw attention to crucial issues around the world?
"Albert Einstein once said, 'Logic will take you from point A to point B, but imagination will take you everywhere.' My advice is to have a feeling for what you do, believe in the cause you are doing, be close to people, and keep learning."

Photo caption: Amel walks with a Yazidi religious leader on her way back to Mount Sinjar, where she was captured by ISIS fighters while the mountain was under siege in August 2014.
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