When the Dutch journalist Judit Neurink and her friends heard of the takeover of northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from her base in Irbil (or Erbil), the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, they were surprised. Neurink, a Middle East specialist and editor of one of the leading Dutch daily papers, Trouw in Amsterdam, moved to Irbil in 2008. During the time she spent there, apart from reporting, she set up a media centre to train journalists and teach politicians and the police how to work with the media. She wrote her sixth book, The Women of the Caliphate, which described life inside ISIS territory, published in 2016. Yet, she had been as shocked as anyone when ISIS occupied Mosul, just 50 miles from Irbil and only 250 miles from Baghdad, on June 10, 2014.
Within two days, and with only an estimated 1,500 fighters, ISIS had overrun Iraq’s second-largest city, with a population of about one-and-a-half million people. The Iraqi troops simply melted away. It was hardly a fight.
On August 3, 2014, reports emerged of a massacre of the Yazidi people, and ISIS atrocities against one of Iraq’s most vulnerable minorities hit the front pages. Men, women and children began to flee from their ancient homeland of Sinjar in northern Iraq. ISIS abducted thousands of girls and women and documented everything via social media. ISIS killed men and boys, kidnapped women and children, and created 500,000 refugees; they trafficked, crucified, beheaded and buried people alive.
The world woke up to the beginning of a genocide, as defined by the 1948 UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. ISIS had begun its systematic plan to annihilate the Yazidis.
When the stories came out about beheadings in the streets of Sinjar, Neurink “couldn’t believe it”. Their crimes were so brutal that nobody could imagine “a group was abusing Islam in this way,” she says. They tried to justify the genocide, based on selective quotation of passages from the Quran.
“Holding slaves? We couldn’t imagine that; nobody could imagine it. Even me, I mean, having lived in Iraq. We were like, who made this up? Why are they making it up? And then, of course, we found that it was true, and we found it mainly because of the women who were able to escape.”
These were women who had been taken by the truckload and sold as slaves. There were true stories of burning women in cages who refused to marry ISIS or foreign fighters. The militants drowned people and buried women and children alive. The world began to really understand what kind of group ISIS was. “Up till that moment, we were all guessing,” says Neurink.
By November 2015, ISIS had been defeated, and Sinjar was free. Neurink was then able to start interviewing the women and girls who had survived. But as she heard the stories, she couldn’t make sense of them. They were an “absolute jumble” in her head. She would talk to three or four women and children a day, and it was terrible. “It was too much for me. I would get home, and the day after, I would want to stay in my bed. I didn’t want to do anything. I was really completely exhausted. I couldn’t concentrate because the stories were just too bad.”
The women and girls told her of being forced to marry. Still, it took her two interviews to realise they were not talking about a ceremony with an imam or even a sales contract. In a society where extramarital sex is taboo, it was the only way the women could express the fact that they had been raped. This is also a society where women are held responsible for being raped and then ostracised by the community for bringing shame on the family’s honour. “Once I realised what they were saying, it made it much easier to interview them. The cat was out of the bag.”
One of the many stories that Neurink documented was that of a 13-year old girl she nicknamed Smile because of her constant grin. She had been “married” many times. She was taken to her captor’s house in Mosul where she repeatedly tried to run away but each time had been caught. The result was she was put in a “prison”, she told Neurink, but the prison wasn’t really a prison. It was a factory compound where ISIS installed the captured girls, and it functioned as a brothel. Smile was locked in one of those portacabins, and every evening ISIS fighters would come to rape her and the other women.
One day, the light went on in Neurink’s head when she was talking to Smile. Until then, she couldn’t interpret that permanent rictus-like grin on the teenager’s face, then Neurink realised that the Smile wasn’t real. The Smile that was pasted on her face was her way of dealing with the trauma. “She was trying to ward off this scary world by smiling at everybody. That was definitely one of the worst stories.”
ISIS had no compunction when it came to violating girls, as they believed that from the age of nine, girls were fit for sex. The ones Neurink talked with had escaped, but later the tactics changed, and families could buy back their sisters, wives and mothers — for a lot of money.
Many foreign female recruits were excited by the prospect of living in an Islamic State. While there was nothing new about women being involved in violent and extremist groups, a very high proportion of women joined. About 20 per cent of the foreign fighters came from Europe. About 1000 women from North Africa, North America, Central and Southeast Asia brought their children.
ISIS had made promises to women, which led to an unprecedented number of foreign women joining the ranks. Neurink found that some women had already converted but were looking for the knight in shining armour. Some wanted to live the religion, which is why they were attracted to going to Syria. They bought into the ISIS propaganda that the battle in Syria needed Muslims to fight and establish their own Islamic state. That was one important reason to go. Many women thought they were going to be part of something that would make history.
The women also helped the men when raping women, believing it was their Islamic duty — or in some cases, sadistic pleasure — to prepare the girls. Neurink writes in her book of a woman who held down a survivor who had put up a fight because “it was what God wanted”. The women of ISIS were not innocent bystanders, they enforced the morality laws, and there was little solidarity between women. In the beginning, Neurink thinks some didn’t “really realise what they were signing up for, but after 2014, no one could claim ignorance”.
Finding out the exact role the women played is difficult. Still, Neurink believes women at the very least made it possible for their husbands to go to work every day, and they raised children for the caliphate. Which made them accomplices to ISIS’ crimes.
When Laura Hansen moved to ISIS-controlled Syria, she was four years older than the then 15-year old East London schoolgirl Shamima Begum. A convert to Islam, she and her partner took their two children from the Netherlands in 2015. A year later, she escaped from Mosul, Iraq with her children and returned to Holland. She was tried, found guilty of terrorist crimes and given a 24-month sentence (13 months of which was suspended). Her perspective was clear: “They deserve it”, she WhatsApp’d her father.
Since then, “Laura H” has been the subject of a book that has been awarded a literary prize. She is the subject of a play and a podcast, all in Dutch, making it easier for perpetrators like her to tell their stories. It’s an advantage the survivors don’t have, as they haven’t mastered the language of their new home. Her story is told from her perspective, leaving members of the Yazidi community feeling voiceless. To them, the curiosity of the media about the perpetrators is akin to giving genocide denial a platform.
In a Christmas special on Dutch national TV, Laura H told her story, without even mentioning the Yazidi genocide. She moved to Syria after ISIS attacked the Yazidi community. She was not asked about her or her husband’s participation in the war. When the audience critiqued the programme, the programme makers felt the “human interest” angle justified its production and that people should take “forgiveness” under consideration.
Let’s also not forget that terrorist organisations and their members know how the media works. They know how to use it to silence their victims. One of ISIS’s current techniques is to portray themselves as victims. It assists ISIS in minimising or erasing what has happened under the so-called caliphate’s rule. Dutch I.S. members, like Laura H, continue to minimise the scale and severity of their time in Syria and Iraq. They claim they didn’t know of the crimes that ISIS committed while they were there, though they were often participants.
“All this takes away the attention from the victims,” concludes Neurink. “These ladies are not going to tell us anything about the victims. They’re too clever for that.”
Denying survivors a voice assists ISIS in minimising or erasing what has happened under the so-called caliphate’s rule. Genocide scholar Robert G Hovisian says that the last step of genocide is silencing victims’ voices. He believes “complete annihilation of a people requires the banishment of recollection and suffocation of remembrance. Falsification, deception and half-truths reduce what was to what might have been or perhaps what was not at all.”
The ideology didn’t die when Isis faded away the first time, which is true now. There are probably 30,000 ISIS members roaming around Iraq and Syria, where they are still active. The situation in both countries is unstable. Young Iraqis are protesting against their corrupt government in a country with no services, no jobs, and a small group with all the money. The Shias, who are in power, have not looked after all their people, and there is extensive poverty in an oil-rich country. What future does almost sixty per cent of the population who are under 25 have? “ISIS is active, and leaders have promised that the caliphate will return,” warns Neurink.