She and other Yazidis were living in an abandoned school when a militant came in one day to ask whether the girls wanted to see their mothers. Martine and others said yes and quickly left with him. It was a trap. “They were lying to us to get us to come without a fight.”
In a hallway, ISIS men had gathered to choose slaves from among the girls, says Martine. A man named Abbas Qahtan Khalil took Martine. She never saw her sister after that.
ISIS already controlled key territory in Syria starting in Raqqa, the capital of its self-declared caliphate, along the Euphrates River to Mosul in Iraq. A government organized into departments with documented rules and regulations guided the jihadists’ mission.
One pamphlet, issued by the Research and Fatwa Department, reads:
It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of. …
It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse. …
It is permissible to beat the female slave as a [form of] darb ta’deeb [disciplinary beating].
Rearing families using slavery was compulsory work for the state. ISIS men received monthly stipends based on how many women they owned, $50 per woman and $35 per child. A special department maintained documents of who owned what slaves. Martine says Khalil’s family traveled with him, but she was the only slave he owned.
“I lived for one year in Mosul with his family,” Martine continues. “They were good at the beginning, then they became mean.” The family treated her harshly and had her clean the house, but prevented her from entering the kitchen, saying she would contaminate the food.
Khalil began beating Martine with pieces of wood, she says. He beat her with a water hose. At night he locked her in a room away from the family and then began to rape her.
Martine speaks through an interpreter, looking at the ceiling or in the distance as she talks. Her father, Khudeda Hajji, sits across the room. She has told portions of her story before, and I wonder what harm I’m inflicting to push her to tell them again. But then she leans forward in conversation, eyes on me, urgent, her small voice rising when the interpreter or her father interrupt before she’s finished. She wants the record to include important details, yet at one point she says, “Let’s stop this, it’s making me too angry.” But then she laughs and continues.
When we return to the subject of physical abuse, she slows and speaks softly, almost a whisper. “It was from the beginning,” she says, pausing for several seconds. “Animals.”
“Martine was the first case we had of a girl that young used as a sex slave,” said Zeno Gamble, chief operating officer at Virginia-based White Mountain Research. His group works alongside the Nazarene Fund, launched by television and radio personality Glenn Beck in 2015 to support persecuted minorities in the Middle East. The two organizations have assisted in 121 rescues of Christian and Yazidi women captured by ISIS. Besides helping Martine return and receive medical care, they cover rent and other expenses for her family.
The Nazarene Fund and White Mountain support a handful of special cases requiring medical and psychological support. One victim, a woman sold to more than a dozen men during captivity, returned with multiple limb fractures and venereal disease.
I met also Layla Taalo, a 29-year-old mother captured by ISIS militants with her then 12-month-old daughter Sarah and 2-year-old son Salah. Repeatedly bought and sold to ISIS men, trafficked from Iraq to Syria, Layla too was locked in a room and raped nightly, while her children listened, crying and screaming from the next room. By day her son was sent to ISIS training sessions, learning to make bombs and behead “infidels” along with other young boys.
“We were held two years, eight months, and six days,” Layla recites.
DESPITE HER AGE, Martine is not considered a special case, and those who’ve worked with her say she’s remarkable because she remains sturdy and ready to discuss her ordeal. But health officials say they’re learning the damage—psychological and physical—may be slow to emerge.
“We have seen and treated girls 9 years, 11 years, 13 years,” said Nezar Ismet Taib, a psychiatrist and director general of health for the Duhok governorate in Iraq, an area that includes most of Iraq’s Yazidi population. “Most of them when they arrived did not have any obvious damage, but you cannot, for example, see pelvic damage when they are so young.”
Taib said nearly all the returning girls need treatment for urinary tract and other infections, and a few have contracted hepatitis. A prevalent complication among those who have passed puberty is pregnancy: Numerous captives return with babies. Or, they’ve been forced to undergo abortions by fighters who did not want their children. For young girls like Martine, though, the biggest problems are psychological, said Taib. “Most of them are completely disassociated. When you talk to them they are not there.”
Taib began seeing young former captives within months of the 2014 ISIS invasion. By May 2015 his office had 500 cases; by August, more than 2,000. Taib persuaded the regional government to treat the situation as a health crisis, setting aside hospital wards for specialized care, including suicide watch units as suicide skyrocketed among returnees. Officials set up survivor camps apart from the displacement camps many Yazidis still are living in. In 2019 the camps serve 720 women and girls with specialized care.
Four years into a crisis, Taib said resources for such prolonged care are scarce, and the United Nations recently pulled funding from a project just beginning to show success. “We still have much to learn,” he said.
Many battered women come home after years away to discover that loved ones have disappeared or been killed, that homes are destroyed and towns are empty. It’s another devastation.
For the youngest victims, attachment to captors, no matter how brutal, is an issue, said Taib. “You’ve had sex with someone and he is becoming like your husband. This bond happened and now this guy is killed or she escapes, but she still has to deal with the experience, the separation, and for some the loss. Even if the men were so bad to them, they still have some attachment. A child in her emotional development phase, stopped by trauma like this that delays normal development, this is very bad.”
Boys, too, need psychiatric help upon return. Layla and her children made a harrowing escape during fighting in Raqqa after her family paid smugglers to secure her return. Upon arrival in Sharya and seeing thousands of displaced people at the camp, her son Salah asked, “Who are all these people?” Told they were Yazidis, he said, “They are infidels, and we should burn them all.”
MARTINE ALSO MOVED FROM Mosul to Raqqa with owner Khalil and his family. The family moved often according to each battle, three months in one town, four months in another, mostly paralleling the Euphrates to Deir Ezzor, an area that came under heavy fighting starting in 2017. Just south of Deir Ezzor, the final ISIS stronghold at Baghuz appeared by March near collapse. As fighting intensified last year, Khalil often was away. His 18-year-old son died during that time, detonated using a suicide vest.
Khalil sent Martine to live with a neighbor, also Muslim, in Dashisha—where the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battled ISIS with support from French warplanes. She stayed there for seven months, while the neighbor’s wife “watched after me as a daughter and treated me well,” Martine said.
With war closing in, relatives of the neighbor’s wife contacted a female soldier with Kurdish defense units fighting ISIS. She offered to contact Martine’s family. Martine at first was suspicious of another trap, but eventually with the woman’s help reached her father by phone, traded photos and messages, and finally arranged to go home. A Kurdish unit escorted her across the border back to Iraq, where she met her father and cousin Maha, who cares for Martine in her mother’s absence.
Gamble told me no one paid ransom or a smuggler’s fee for Martine, which is unusual. Yazidi families over the years have constructed elaborate networks, using social media and word-of-mouth, to locate enslaved family members and hire go-betweens to negotiate and arrange their release, sometimes paying thousands of dollars. Layla’s family paid $7,500 to rescue her and her children.
Martine has returned to school, and her father has applied for the family to emigrate to Australia. None of her childhood friends or other family members have returned. “I have only my cousin and a few new friends and studies,” she says.
When I ask her about her mother and sister, her father interjects, “We have information about her sister, but nothing about her mother yet.”
Do you think she is alive? I ask.
Hajji responds, “We hear different things. There are a lot of Yazidi women in Syria so we are hoping.”
Beside me Martine also answers, so softly I almost miss it: “She is not coming back.”
EARLY THIS YEAR a UN investigative team arrived in northern Iraq to begin collecting evidence of war crimes and atrocities—two years after the UN Security Council passed a resolution forming it, and a year after Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Karim Asad Ahmad Khan to head it.
Khan is a Scottish-born lawyer of Pakistani descent, an expert in Islamic law who participated in international tribunals on war crimes in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Liberia.
His mandate is long-delayed, and daunting: Besides examining atrocities against Yazidi survivors, his team must analyze the remains of more than 12,000 bodies buried in more than 200 mass graves across Iraq.
Khan’s team completed the first mass grave study on March 21, exhuming the remains of up to 30 individuals in Kojo. He told a local gathering, “You have already waited a long time. And I’m sorry to say you will have to wait longer. Because the road to real justice is a long one.”
The Nazarene Fund and other organizations I contacted say the UN team has not approached them, but they are collecting evidence just the same. Yazidi groups long have archived accounts like Martine’s to add to the data, even as more Yazidis are freed.
Layla Taalo was on hand in Sinjar Feb. 28 to receive 21 Yazidis—18 children and three women—rescued from Baghuz. As Yazidis continued to return through March, she said she wanted to make them feel welcome to begin re-entry to a much-changed homeland. The Nazarene Fund said it planned to support the returnees, including those wounded in the Baghuz battle.