The nine young women ran into the simple office of a border post in Syria, looking for the sons and daughters who had been taken away two years ago and whom they thought they would never see again.
The frightened children, dressed in new padded puffer jackets from the orphanage they came from, were, for the most part, too small to remember their mother. They started to cry when the women, sobbing, grabbed and kissed them, away from the orphanage workers who were the only caregivers they knew.
“I was so happy, but it was a shock for both of us,” said one of the mothers, who had dreamed of being reunited with her daughter for almost two years. “She’s still not used to me.”
The girl is 2 and a half years old.
The covert delivery, at the Syrian-Iraqi border last week, has so far been the only reunion of Iraqi Yazidi women with the children they had had during their slavery by members of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
The saga of these women, who survived almost unimaginable horrors in five years in captivity, is one of many tragic and little-known details in the story of ISIS’s conquest of large areas of Iraq and Syria. in 2014.
For them, the story is far from over and the way to go is still uncertain.
For the traumatized Yazidi community, a small religious minority in northern Iraq, children are a direct link to ISIS fighters who murdered thousands of Yazidis and captured 6,000 more. Elderly Yazidis have said they will not accept children into the community, and one said the children are at risk of being killed if their mother brings them home.
When the girls were released, when the last part of ISIS territory in Syria fell two years ago, they were faced with a heartbreaking choice: If they wanted to return to their families in Iraq, they should. leave their babies behind. Many have been told, wrongly, that they can visit children.
Now they have been forced to choose again. Women who entered Syria last week had to sever ties with their parents, brothers and indigenous villages if they wanted to reunite with their children.
“No one can really understand the huge step these women have taken, the risks they are taking, how incredibly brave they are,” the Iraqi doctor told Nemam Ghafouri.
About 30 other children, whose mothers were afraid to ask for their return or have decided not to stay with them, remain at the orphanage in northeastern Syria.
It was a distressing decision for the women, many of whom were children when they were kidnapped by ISIS fighters. None of them could tell his family that he was leaving and maybe they might not see them again for fear of jeopardizing the operation.
“I have been crying for three days,” said one of the young women who abandoned her elderly mother to find her 5-year-old daughter. “I think it was going to kill my mother. She’s a mother too. She would die for me like I would for my daughter. It’s a very difficult situation for me.”
For now, the 9 women and 12 children are hiding in a safe and undisclosed location in Iraq. With a promise of refuge in a Western country by the organizers of the operation, they are in desperate need of acceptance. About 20 other mothers are waiting with their children at the Syrian orphanage to see what is going on.
The New York Times agreed to postpone publication of the report until the women and children are safe, and does not identify them for their protection.
A former US diplomat, Peter Galbraith, organized the meeting across borders and party lines, enlisting help from previously indifferent governments. Galbraith, who has close ties to Kurdish officials in Iraq and Syria, said he spent more than a year trying to get approval from some of the women to collect their children and take them to Iraq. , a mission that was delayed by the pandemic.
The orphanage is in an area of semi-autonomous northeastern Syria controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish officials. The province of Sinjar, where the Yazidis come from, is across the Iraqi border.
Galbraith said an unidentified White House official helped clear the final hurdles by calling in a Syro-Kurdish general who is an ally of the United States. The US National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.
For women, the nightmare began when ISIS forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014, declaring the territory an Islamic Caliphate. The terrorist group considers the Yazidis to be pagans. When ISIS fighters occupied Yazidi territory in August of that year, they separated the older men and boys and slaughtered around 10,000, which the UN and US Congress said. genocide.
About 6,000 women and children were captured and many were sold to ISIS fighters. They were treated like disposable goods, raped repeatedly, sold at will. Around 3,000 Yazidis are still missing.
When ISIS was kicked out of southeastern Syria in early 2019, most Yazidi women were freed and taken with their children to shelters midway. The Yazidi elders told them that they could go home, but that they would have to leave their children. Many children were taken to an orphanage run by Kurds.
Some women who were not identified as Yazidis, including some who hid their ethnicity to guard their children, were taken to Al Hol, a poorly maintained detention camp in northeastern Syria. Despite the situation in the countryside, the woman with her 2-year-old daughter was posing as an Arab so that she could stay there with the girl.
In the final days of the Caliphate, when US airstrikes punished Baghuz, Syria, the mother was injured by shrapnel and struggled to keep the daughter alive. He fed him flour mixed with water so as not to starve, and made baby clothes out of fabric cut out of his own clothes.
She was determined to take care of the child she had fought so hard for.
But after six months, she was forced to admit that she was Yazidi. Then she was taken to the intermediate shelter, but she refused to do without the girl.
Her family begged her to come back.
“My family would call and say, ‘Come home, then you can come back and see her,’” the woman said.
After three months, she agreed and returned to Sinjar. But, like other mothers, they never let her see her daughter again.
“I am her mother. I need to take care of her,” said the woman. The father and relatives of the child were killed in Syria, said the young woman. “She only has me. Who cares about her father?”
Yazidi elders and religious leaders cared about their parents.
Taking the children of ISIS terrorists to Sinjar “would destroy the Yazidi community,” senior Yazidi cleric Baba Sheikh Ali Elyas told the New York Times in an interview this week. “It is very painful for us. The parents of these children killed the parents of these survivors. How can we accept them?”
In addition, Iraqi law specifies that the son of a Muslim father is a Muslim, so children cannot be considered Yazidis. The Yazidi faith is a closed religion that does not accept converts, even though Iraqi law allows conversions from Islam.
Angered by what he sees as an international focus on some Yazidi women, while thousands of them are missing and more than 140,000 molds in IDP camps, the Sheikh said: “The Yazidis are all orphans. No one takes care of us. “
In fact, six years after ISIS’s expulsion from the Sinjar region in northern Iraq, Yazidi territory is still full of mass graves and damaged and destroyed homes.
Children should be taken care of by humanitarian organizations in other countries, Elyas said. If mothers want to go to other countries with their children, no one will stop them, he said.
Another Yazidi leader, Prince Hazem Tahsin Bek, said the children would be in danger if they returned with their mother.
“Families can tolerate women, but they will not support children,” he explained. When asked if children could be killed, he replied that it was a possibility.
When one of the women called her family this week to tell them she was with her daughter and expected the family to accept them, one of her brothers threatened them both. “I hope the government will find a safe place for us,” she said.
Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor, lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said women should be able to decide whether they want to reunite with their children.
“They had no choice when they were taken captive,” she told The New York Times. “They had no choice in all of this, and they have to get help and decide what they want.”
Before the women embarked on the journey to pick up their children, Galbraith told them other countries would accept them, a prospect that is far from guaranteed.
In the hiding place a few days later, the big house echoed with the cries and laughter of children, all under the age of 6. Some mothers looked at them worriedly, fearing what might happen to them. Several mothers said they hoped to take refuge in another country with their sons and daughters.