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Adrift after enslavement, Yazidi teen says she can’t go home

BARZAN, Syria (AP) — Roza Barakat’s tormentors have been defeated, but the horrors she endured still hold her captive.

She was 11 years old when she was captured and enslaved by the Islamic State group, along with thousands of other Yazidi women and girls taken when the militants overran northern Iraq in their brutal 2014 campaign.

Torn from her family in the town of Sinjar, the enclave of the ancient religious Yazidi minority, she was taken to Syria, sold multiple times and repeatedly raped. She bore a child, a boy she has since lost. Now, at 18, she speaks little of her native Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji.

With the defeat of IS in 2019, Barakat slipped into the shadows, opting to hide in the turmoil that followed the worst of the battles. As IS fighters were arrested, their wives and children were packed into detention camps. Barakat was free, but she couldn’t go home.

“I don’t know how I’ll face my community,” she told The Associated Press, speaking in Arabic, as she nervously played with the ends of her long dark braid, the red polish on her dainty fingers fading.

For years, her IS captors told her she would never be accepted if she returned. “I believed them,” she said.

Barakat’s tale, corroborated by Yazidi and Syrian Kurdish officials, is a window into the complicated realities faced by many Yazidi women who came of age under the brutal rule of IS. Traumatized and lost, many struggle to come to terms with the past, while the Yazidi community is at odds over how to accept them.

“What do you expect from a child who was raped at 12, gave birth at 13?” said Faruk Tuzu, co-chair of Yazidi House, an umbrella of Yazidi organizations in northeastern Syria. “After so much shock and abuse they don’t believe in anything anymore, they don’t belong anywhere.”

The AP does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission.

Barakat spoke to the AP from a safe house run by Tuzu’s group just a few days after the leader of the Islamic State group, believed to have played a key role in the enslavement of Yazidi women, was killed in a U.S. raid in northwestern Syria.

She shrugged off the news, saying it doesn’t make a difference.

IS first sold Barakat to an Iraqi from Tal Afar, a man older than her father. She shudders as she recounts how he “made me call his wife ‘mother.’” After a few months she was sold to another man.

Eventually, her IS captors gave her a choice: Convert to Islam and marry an IS fighter, or be sold again. She converted, she says, to avoid being sold. She married a Lebanese they chose for her, a man who ferried food and equipment for IS fighters.

“He was better than most,” she said. At 13, she gave birth to a son, Hoodh. At the peak of the militants’ self-proclaimed “caliphate,” they lived in the city of Raqqa, the IS capital.

Once, she begged her husband to find out what happened to her older sisters who had been taken just like her. She had lost hope that her parents were still alive.

Some weeks later, he told her he found one of her sisters, holding up a photo of a woman in Raqqa’s slave market where Yazidi girls were sold.

“How different she looks,” Barakat remembers thinking.

By early 2019 as IS rule was crumbling, Barakat fled with her husband first to the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, and then to the town of Baghouz, which became IS’s last stand. As U.S.-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces surrounded Baghouz, a safe passage was offered to women and children.

At this point, Barakat could have stepped forward and identified herself as a Yazidi and sought safety. But instead, she clutched Hoodh in her arms and walked out of the town with other IS wives.

Today, over 2,800 Yazidi women and children are still missing, said Tuzu. Some have cut ties and are building new lives outside the community, believing that if they return, they’d be killed. Others fear being separated from their children, fathered by IS members.

Iraq’s Yazidi community has forced women returning to Sinjar to give up their children as a condition to return. Many were told their children would be adopted by Syrian Kurdish families but dozens have ended up in an orphanage in northeastern Syria.

The fate of the children has been at the center of an ongoing debate within the Yazidi community. In 2019, the Yazidi Spiritual Council, the highest authority among Yazidis, called on members to accept all Yazidi survivors of IS atrocities. Days later, the council clarified the decision excluded children born of IS rape.

“This is our mistake, and we recognize that — we didn’t allow the children to stay with their mothers,” said Tuzu.

He confirmed that some Yazidi women are still at al-Hol camp, which holds tens of thousands of women and children, mostly wives, widows and children of IS members.

Many of the missing Yazidis scattered across Syria and Turkey, others live clandestine lives in the Syrian city of Aleppo and in Deir El-Zour. Tuzu expects the majority may have gone to the rebel province of Idlib, where al-Qaida is dominant but where IS also maintains a presence.

After walking out of Baghouz with other IS women in March 2019, Barakat slipped away to a nearby village rather than end up in a camp. With the help of IS sympathizers, she took a smuggling route and ended up in Idlib, in northwesten Syria, in a home for IS widows. Her husband was killed in Baghouz.

Here, Barakat’s story diverges from what she told officials. Initially, she told them she had left her son behind in Idlib to find work elsewhere. She told the AP that Hoodh died after an airstrike in Idlib.

When pressed to clarify, she said: “It’s hard. I don’t want to talk about it.”

With the help of a smuggler, she made her way to Deir el-Zour and eventually found work at a clothing market, saving up for a new life in Turkey.

She still dreamed of making it to Turkey when Kurdish internal security forces caught her last month, waiting in a house in the town of al-Tweinah to be taken by smugglers across the Syria-Turkey border.

She was held and interrogated for days.

“I did everything to hide that I was Yazidi,” she said. She told the investigators she was from Deir el-Zour, and was hoping to get medical treatment in Turkey, but they didn’t buy it.

One held up an old photo found on her mobile phone — a young Yazidi woman in an IS slave market — and asked her to explain.

“The words just came out: ‘That is my sister,’” Barakat said.

Once the truth was out, Barakat was taken to a safe house in the village of Barzan, in Syria’s Hassakeh province, where the Yazidi community welcomed her.

“I was in shock to hear their kind words, and to be welcomed the way I was,” she said.

She isn’t ready to go back to Sinjar just yet. Her entire family was either killed or is still unaccounted for.

What is there to go back to, she wonders. “I need time, for myself.”

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