For seven years, their families waited and hoped for news. In July, they finally received it. Two young women, abducted by the Islamic State as a teenager, were found alive in Syria.
Salma *, now 25 years old, was settled in the province of Deir el-Zour, in the east of the country. She had “suffered all kinds of injustice,” said Yazidi House in the Al-Jazeera region, an organization that helped rescue the two women.
Dareen *, kidnapped from Sinjar – the homeland of the Yazidis in northern Iraq – when she was just 14, was rescued a week later, according to Yazidi House.
Women join their community because it marks the seventh anniversary of the genocide inflicted on it. In August 2014, Isis attacked Sinjar, killing thousands of people and kidnapping and enslaving more than 6,000 women and children.
The Women’s Liberation gives credence to reports that although many have died in combat or in captivity, a number of the 2,768 Yazidis reported missing may still be alive.
In May, a social media campaign in Iraq called on the Iraqi government to do more to locate missing Yazidi women.
Maison Yazidie said Salma was displaced in Syria before ending up in Deir el-Zour. This matches reports that as Isis fell in 2019, while some women and children were able to escape, others were trafficked further into Syria and Turkey.
Some may also live with families affiliated with Isis in Iraq. Another Yazidi woman was found in Baghdad in July, according to Háwar.help, a charity working with the community.
“A real national program to find women and children is unfortunately still lacking,” said Yazidi activist Mirza Dinnayi, director of the humanitarian organization Air Bridge Iraq. There are still “only private initiatives that try to help, mainly on the part of families and some people who can help them”.
Abdullah Shrem, 46, is one such person. In 2014, the former honey merchant, whose story is told in Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar, relied on his business contacts to build a network of informants in Syria to rescue the kidnapped Yazidis. His first case was his niece, one of 56 family members Isis took away, and he has since helped rescue hundreds of people.
Shrem says that since Isis lost his territory, the missing people are more and more dispersed, so it is more difficult to find them. He knows women detained in Idlib and in northern Syria’s Aleppo province, he says. However, coordinating rescue operations across borders without logistical support from the authorities is problematic. “A person without official support is powerless,” he says.
“What makes it even more complicated is when these areas where missing persons are located get out of government control, like in parts of Syria,” says Alexander Hug, who heads the International Commission on Missing Persons. (ICMP) in Iraq, working with authorities to anchor a rule of law approach.
According to Pari Ibrahim, founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation, missing Yazidis have been reported in al-Hawl detention camp in Syria, which houses more than 60,000 people, mostly women, some of whom remain supporters of Isis. , and children. She recognizes the difficulty of searching across the territories of Turkey, Syria and Iraq, but thinks efforts should “at least start with this camp”.
Access to the camp and identification of people are difficult, while some women do not wish to return to their community, as this would mean abandoning their children. Yazidi religious leaders have decreed that children fathered by Muslim fighters from Isis are not welcome.
Ibrahim says it is important for these women to know that “there are organizations that will leave their doors open to help you.” “Yazidi women and children are afraid,” she said.
She wants more international assistance to find the missing. “Where is the outcry for those who have no voice?” Ibrahim asks.
“People like to talk about this stuff in a formal setting,” she says, “but get into the real world: who’s going to help identify where these women are? How are we going to help them come back, because they are still going through hell after seven years?
Dinnayi hopes more efforts will be made following Iraq’s recent passage of the Yazidi Survivors Act – providing for the creation of a directorate that, along with the distribution of reparations, would cover the search for the missing – but more than details are yet to be released.
After years of conflict and human rights abuses, large numbers of people are missing across Iraq, with official estimates ranging between 250,000 and one million.
However, efforts to locate the missing are conducted in an uncoordinated and ad hoc manner, according to a March report from ICMP.
“If governments centralized the missing persons file, including the data, it would increase the efficiency of the identification of missing persons,” said Hug.
He stresses the importance of DNA testing. With people scattered across administrative borders and borders – as Yazidis often are, many of whom still live in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and others have left Iraq entirely – it becomes more difficult to obtain DNA samples from families to identify the missing.
The ICMP, along with other international organizations, including Unitad (the United Nations team to investigate the crimes of Isis), also supports the Iraqi government in the excavation of mass graves, some in Sinjar. . Earlier this year 104 men from Kocho, the site of some of Isis’s worst atrocities, were laid to rest in their village after DNA identification.
Yesim Arikut-Treece, clinical psychologist with the Free Yezidi Foundation, says that the fact that families now have a grave to visit and “that they have done all the rituals necessary for their soul” makes a real difference.
Dozens of mass graves in Sinjar have yet to be unearthed, and the fate of thousands of people is still unknown to their families. “Until they’re sure, they can’t begin the grieving process,” Arikut-Treece says. “It’s like a worsening wound.”
She remembers a woman she worked with and whose brother and sister were still missing six years after the genocide. “She had children, her husband… a lot of precious things in her life, but she was unable to live her life because of the guilt. You know I’m here, where are my siblings? What happened to them? “
She still wore her mourning scarf, long after the customary period and would not attend weddings or festivities. Arikut-Treece says his grief was “endless”.
For Shrem, 42 of his relatives have returned but 14 are still missing. This is why he will not return to his village of Sinjar. “I don’t have the courage to live there with all the sad memories of my brother and sisters.”
For the two women found in July and their families, there is now some relief. Salma has reunited with her relatives in Sinjar, ending a seven-year absence. Dareen awaits his return.
“There is always a void in the hearts of our people,” Ibrahim says. “And there is no way to make up for it.” But she also has hope. “I hear stories of Yazidi women who survive and women we treat survive. I want to stay optimistic. Because through optimism we create a voice that never dies, even if the missing are unable to speak.
*Names have been changed