Lisa LaFlamme in northern Iraq: The Survivor's Camp
Published Wednesday, April 27, 2016 10:00PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 27, 2016 10:18PM EDT
QADIYA, Iraq -- When I sat down across from Hanif in the storage container she now lives in with her husband and two little boys, I had no idea of the horror story she was about to recount, of her four beautiful daughters at the hands of ISIS.
Hanif was a gracious host. She kissed my cheeks when we first met, offered me tea and a spot on the cushion beside her on the floor. She even smiled through pained and exhausted eyes.
She started at the end of her story, the day she escaped ISIS after nearly two years of sexual slavery.
I will start at the beginning. In August of 2014, ISIS stormed her Yazidi village not far from Mosul. Her husband was away from home that day and it saved his life. Every man in Kocho was slaughtered. Hanif watched it happen. She says the women with children were put to one side and the teenage girls to the other. As she stood with her two sons, she watched her four daughters get dragged away.
Almost immediately she was ordered to convert to Islam or die. Her daughters, she would eventually find out, were forced into marriage with ISIS fighters -- even the 12-year-old. She thinks one of them is in Mosul but really, she has no idea.
At one point in our conversation she reached for a cellphone on the floor and clicked open two photos of her two eldest girls, aged 17 and 19. I imagined that a cellphone had never been more valuable. Those digital images, taken the last time she saw them, still in captivity, are all she has left. The sisters peer into the camera, heads covered but eyes wide open. They look lost and afraid.
Hanif and her boys were taken to Raqqa, Syria. She was sold to 14 different men. Here is a direct translation of what she told me:
“I didn’t know the real names of the ISIS fighters; they all have nicknames starting with Abu. Some are Saudi, Kuwaiti, Iraqi. These fighters were selling us between themselves. I was sold 14 times. I was bought by Saudi and Libyan and Kuwaiti men.“
During that time she was also cooking and cleaning for these men, a slave on every level. When her boys were forced into ISIS child-training camps, she started plotting her escape.
“I was very afraid because I saw ISIS take other children for training, and they used to come to my kids and show them the weapons and how they can use an AK-47, and told them, ‘You will be our future fighters,’ and they were taking them to the mosque and teaching the Qur’an.”
She caught wind of an underground network and over time built trust with her captors. Even in the broken Peshmerga translation, her story chilled me to the bone:
“I told the house owner that I was going to the outside kitchen to begin cooking. I took my two boys and I left the house, and left to another house, and I told them that ‘I need your help and I want to run away from ISIS.’ I learned about this house from a friend who managed to escape before me, and called a number for a safe house which I also got from my friend. We were told to go in a taxi to another place. My two boys were crying and saying that ‘ISIS will catch us and kill us for escaping,’ but I had already made up my mind and I was not going to go back.
“My boys continued to cry in the taxi before reaching the safe house. We reached the area and I met up with the person that I called earlier. She greeted me and I greeted her, she took me to her house and we had dinner there. She told me not to be afraid, she already had a plan to get us out. I spent the night. A man came to pick us up at 5 a.m. He took us on a motorcycle and we drove until 2 a.m. the next day, until we reached an area controlled by the Syrian Kurdish resistance.”
The image of Hanif on a motorcycle with those two frightened boys is so vivid. During our conversation the only time she really smiled was when I asked her about living in Raqqa -- Syria’s headquarters for ISIS and probably the most bombed city on the planet. She openly smiled when she said:
“ISIS fighters were always afraid from the airstrikes. They used to run when they heard the jets in the sky.”
It wasn’t the airstrikes that frightened her; it was seeing her own children being programmed by ISIS.
I asked her nine-year-old son Murat if he wanted to tell me about his experience. His tiny body language changed immediately. I understood the word “no.”
Now he is in a school with about 5,000 other kids -- refugees in their own country. He was a brooding boy, definitely troubled and certainly confused. His five-year-old brother smiled and laughed and exhibited all the normal reactions of a child his age. Hopefully he’s too young to harbour the last two years of his life.
For Hanif, at 43, there is no forgetting. She told me her story almost without flinching. Once, she wiped her eyes and there were several heavy sighs but no tears. As she recounted the darkest parts of her time in captivity, the relentless rapes, she would lift her eyes toward her husband on a cushion on the other side of their storage container home. I’m not sure what those eyes were asking from him, but what she got was love and protection. Finally.
Their torture will not end until they find and free their four girls.
Are they strong like their mother?
“Yes, my girls had strong personalities and they were educated.”
She looked back at her cellphone pictures.
“I feel sad when I see this photo. I remembered the things that they did to us against our will. They assaulted us against our will in front of the men. They were very hard days and this is why I ask for help from everyone. Release the Yazidis from ISIS hands, they tortured us a lot and they raped us.”
Throughout our entire conversation I couldn’t help but think that their home village, where life was once so calm and ordinary before ISIS, was only about 45 minutes up the road -- still in enemy hands, along with her four beautiful daughters.
It’s fair to assume that anyone living in a refugee camp is a survivor. They’ve come out of some catastrophe -- war or a natural disaster -- and ended up on a piece of turf considered safe. For Hanif and her family, the word “survivor” just doesn’t cut it.