Yazidi mothers of ISIS children face impossible choices
BAGHDAD - Five years ago, the life of Shereen Saeed and thousands of other Yazidi women turned into a nightmare when Islamic States fighters invaded the Sinjar region in northern Iraq. Men were killed, children abducted and women and girls raped, enslaved and forced to endure other unspeakable atrocities.
Almost two years after the Islamic State (ISIS) lost its territory, Yazidi women who escaped from captivity are still suffering but now at the hands of their own community. They are faced with a tortuous choice: abandon their children born of ISIS fighters while in captivity or be banished, a condition set by the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council for them to reintegrate into the community.
“It was a right decision, which I respected by handing over my son to the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Saeed said. “I managed to escape after my kidnapper was killed in battle and returned to my village in Sinjar.”
Saeed was a teenager when ISIS attacked her village, destroyed her home and abducted her and her younger sister. They were taken to Raqqa in Syria where she was “sold” to a Bahraini fighter, the father of Sayyaf, her 4-year-old son.
“I was enslaved for more than three years. ISIS beat us and separated my sister and me from my father and brothers. They took the men away and we still don’t know what happened to them. I guess they have been killed,” Saeed said.
While appearing to approve of the decision of the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council, the community’s highest religious authority, Saeed was, in reality, forced to abandon her child.
“Her story about abandoning her son willingly is not true,” said a social activist working with Yazidi survivors who asked to be identified as Jihad.
“She was compelled to give up her son in a very harsh way. She was beaten hard by her family for initially refusing to abandon the child who was taken away from her as soon as she arrived in Iraq from al-Hol camp in Syria. She does not know where they took him and lives in constant fear and anxiety,” Jihad said.
Saeed’s story is among dozens of similar cases facing the religious-ethnic minority. It is estimated that 80% of the Yazidi women rescued from ISIS have had children fathered by their captors.
Yazidis are estimated to number more than 500,000, concentrated mainly in northern Iraq. Their religion is monotheistic and can be traced to ancient Mesopotamian religions. Yazidis who marry non-Yazidis are considered to have converted to the religion of their spouse and are not recognised as part of the community.
Only children born to Yazidi parents are recognised and non-Yazidis cannot convert to the Yazidi faith.
In 2014, Yazidi elders declared that women and girls taken by ISIS could be religiously “purified” and welcomed back since they were raped and enslaved against their will. In April that year, the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a statement that suggested it would be willing to accept the children, too.
However, it was retracted the next day following pressure from conservative Yazidis, who argued that accepting children born in captivity would compromise the purity of the Yazidi bloodline.
Consequently, hundreds of babies taken away from their mothers after they were freed are believed to be scattered in orphanages across northern Syria and beyond.
Ali Khedhir Ilyas, a Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council official, said the council’s decision to reject children born of ISIS fathers did not constitute a violation of Yazidi women’s rights but aimed at preserving the community’s traditions and religious customs.
“We have strict traditions that cannot be overruled or reversed, just like Muslims and other religions or sects that live in a conservative oriental society,” Ilyas said.
“It is true that initially we said we welcome back Yazidis and their children after more than two years in captivity and rape by ISIS fighters but we had to issue another statement to clarify that survivors and their children from Yazidi fathers are welcomed only. The community cannot accept children who do not belong to it.”
Asked about the fate of the abandoned children, Ilyas said: “Many European countries, such as France and Germany, are willing to take in ISIS women and children.”
Ilyas denied accusations that survivors were being harshly treated. He said: “They are welcomed to reintegrate their families according to the conditions and rules set by the Yazidi religion, which goes back thousands of years.”
There is no public or official figure of the children born to ISIS fathers. Directorate General of Yazidi Affairs in Kurdistan said 6,417 Yazidis were kidnapped, 3,425 reportedly survived and the rest are unaccounted for.