Mosul is full of trapped, terrified civilians — but as Iraqi forces and their allies move to wrest the northern city from the militants of
Scores, perhaps even hundreds, of Yazidi women and girls enslaved by Islamic State more than two years ago are thought to remain captive in Iraq's second-largest city as the U.S.-backed offensive gets underway in earnest. Activists fear for the lives of these women and their children, even amid hopes that the extremist group's grip on the city may be broken at last.
"After the horrors they have already endured, it's hard to believe they may suffer even more," said Khaleel Aldakhi, an Iraqi lawyer and activist who works to help spirit captured Yazidis to safety.
Thousands of Yazidi women and children were seized — and men and boys killed — when their traditional heartland near Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq was overrun by Islamic State in August 2014. By a U.N. estimate earlier this year, 3,200 women and children are still caught in the maw of a vast slave-holding network extending across the group's self-declared but now-shrinking caliphate, encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq.
No one can say with certainty how many of these captives are in Mosul, Islamic State's principal stronghold in Iraq. The city initially was a distribution hub for the enslaved women and girls, who are members of an ancient and arcane religious sect whose ethnic Kurdish adherents are despised by Islamic State as heretics and devil-worshippers.
Most of the Yazidi captives were sold as slaves or given as gifts to fighters in Islamic State-held areas of Syria, human rights groups and activists say. But some either have spent the duration of their captivity in Mosul or found themselves back in the city after forced journeys between other Islamic State bastions, passed hand to hand like chattel as their "husbands" were killed in battle or traded them away or offered them as presents to relatives and fellow fighters.
Those who have escaped or been ransomed have described conditions in Mosul as grimly similar to other areas where Islamic State holds sway: cruel medieval torments as a feature of daily life, coupled with harrowing sexual and domestic servitude in the households of fighters. Enslaved women are routinely punished by having their children abused or taken from them, with their young boys conscripted as fighters or suicide bombers.
As an urban battle looms, Yazidi women and children living under the same roof as fighters face threats of a magnitude even greater than those confronted by other city residents, activists say. They could be maimed or killed in bombardment, caught up in house-to-house battles, abandoned to their fate as fighters flee or even become the target of reprisal killings.
"They're in even more danger than regular civilians, these women and children, because the fighters are all around them, watching them, living with them," said Haider Elias, president of the U.S.-based advocacy group Yazda.
Some survivors have told of being forced to accompany their Islamic State captors when the fighters fled other Iraqi and Syrian cities under assault, surmising that they were intended to serve as human shields against airstrikes, said a Yazidi aid worker named Hazem, who assists freed captives in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. He did not want his full name published for security reasons.
Yazda said that more than 1,000 Yazidi women and children were held at some point in Mosul and its environs, including the town of Tal Afar to the west, and that 100 women and girls and roughly the same number of children likely remained in the city. Lawyer Aldakhi puts the suspected total considerably higher, but some major rights groups, such as Amnesty International, believe the number of captive Yazidis in the city may have dwindled to the dozens.
"Really, no one knows," said Amnesty senior investigator Donatella Rovera. "There isn't very much contact with those in Mosul."
For those who survive and return to what remains of their scattered community, captivity's effects linger on, in the form of stigma and lack of treatment for the trauma they have suffered. The families of many freed sex slaves are dead or missing, leaving them with scant emotional and financial resources with which to rebuild their lives.
Some captives face suspicion of collusion with their captors, said researcher Rothna Begum of New York-based
A German organization has brought some of the freed Yazidis to Germany for psychological treatment, but that program already is closed to new arrivals. Many of those freed face years in Spartan displacement camps in northern Iraq, with no access to jobs or education.
In and around Mosul, the few escape routes that existed before the offensive began were largely sealed off amid preparations for what is likely to be a long fight to retake the city, Aldakhi said.
He described a nerve-racking rescue earlier this year in Mosul of a Yazidi woman, her sister and their two children. The group was sneaked into a waiting car during a brief window when their Islamic State captors attended noon prayers and then made part of the journey on foot to skirt a checkpoint where fighters who knew their captors might recognize the children, if not the women in their face-concealing veils.
Such outcomes have grown rarer, he and others said.
"Not as many can escape as one would hope," said Begum, the Human Rights Watch researcher. "And even when they are safe, the level of trauma is so very high — it is very, very difficult to make a new life."
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