Where can we find hope in the news from Iraq and Syria? With 3,000 Yezidi girls still enslaved by Islamic militants, millions displaced from their homes, and daily reports of more Christians being beheaded and crucified, the situation is clearly grim.
Many girls in “Bazi’s” situation have committed suicide. She is one of the few who held on to hope and found a way to escape. Now she is using her voice to help awaken the world to the heinous atrocities being committed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Bazi was barely 19 when the Islamic State surrounded her village. Her life has never been the same since.
Her family huddled together in their home, hoping that America would defeat the terrorists before they could enter her town. She remembers thinking, America defeated Saddam Hussein in a few hours; surely they will come to rescue us. She waited to hear the sound of planes that never came.
For 12 days her Muslim neighbors promised to protect the Yezidis in her village. But as soon as they gave up all of their weapons, their Muslim neighbors turned on them and welcomed the Islamic State militants into Kocho. It was just the beginning of Bazi’s worst nightmare.
Bazi’s family and the rest of the Yezidis in her village were ushered into a school building—like sheep being led to the slaughter. The militants separated the women, children, and elderly from the men. Men as young as 14 years old were taken away; moments later Bazi heard the gunshots. Only one of her brothers survived the massacre. But the nightmare grew worse.
Over the next few months Bazi and the other Yezidi women and children were relocated several times. Local Islamic militants starved them, and when they finally received food, it was rice filled with pieces of glass that cut them as they ate. They were given water that had human feces in it, which made them ill. Whenever a militant wanted to rape one of the girls, he would, and then pass her to someone else. There was no chance to run, because the food and water made them sick and dizzy. Living under such brutality, Bazi often contemplated suicide.
Every day the militants would remind the Yezidis that they deserve to be treated this way because they are “dirty infidels” who worship the devil.
Eventually Bazi was sold for $40 to an Islamic militant who claimed to have been American. The militant told Bazi, “I used to be an infidel like you, until I found the right path.” He shared that he is now “a citizen of the Islamic State” and is known as Emir Abu Abdullah Amriki (for “America”). For 45 days the emir raped Bazi repeatedly before and after his prayers.
Again Bazi contemplated suicide, but she had her 3-year-old nephew with her and could not imagine what they would do to him if she were not there.
Finally, after five attempts, she was able to escape, and found a Yezidi “coordinator” who helped her return to Iraq with her nephew. But Bazi’s village is still held by the Islamic militants, and most of the men are still “missing.” She is one of 2,000 girls who escaped the Islamic militants, but every day she thinks about the 3,000 women and children who remain enslaved under these brutal captors.
It is hard for her and the other Yezidis to imagine returning to their village. Even if they could, life would never be the same, with so many people missing, dead, and traumatized. And how can they ever feel safe again, living alongside people who betrayed and enslaved them?
Bazi is not alone. Throughout Iraq thousands of Christians were also forced to abandon their homes as Islamic militants flooded into their villages. In July 2014, just before the Islamic State overtook Yezidi villages near Mount Sinjar, Christians in northern Iraq were given 24 hours to convert to Islam and pay the jizya (tax) or be killed. Christian homes were marked, their businesses looted, and their bank accounts pillaged. They left with nothing but their lives.
Again, Islamic militants were able to take over villages with the help of local Muslims who welcomed the Islamic State. Overnight the Nineveh plains, once home to a Christian community founded in the first century, was almost completely emptied of its Christian population.
At first most Christians and Yezidis fled to the Kurdish region for safety, but many have since sought refuge in Western countries. With the Islamic State spreading like a cancer throughout Syria and Iraq, Christians and Yezidis, as well as other minority religious communities in the region, have no reason to believe it cannot happen again.
If the same ideology that inspires the Islamic militants also permeates Iraqi society, how can Iraq’s minority religious communities ever feel safe? And in an environment so hostile to religious freedom, where you cannot trust your neighbor, do these religious communities have a future in Iraq? Is there anything to give them hope?
I traveled to northern Iraq just after the Islamic State launched its genocidal attacks on Christians and Yezidis. Ever since my visit, Hardwired, a global movement for religious freedom, has been committed to helping the victims of this tragedy seek justice and pursue religious freedom.
During 2015, Hardwired launched a program to promote religious freedom in Iraq; because we know that without local leaders prepared to defend religious freedom, Iraq’s Christian, Yezidi, and other small religious communities will never be safe from Islamic militants or others who share their contempt for religious freedom.
In each city throughout the Kurdish region Hardwired brings together a select group of community leaders, including teachers, religious leaders, journalists, and civil society advocates, for an intensive training program in religious freedom.
Most participants arrive at the training expecting four days of lectures, but what they experience is something very different.
At first the atmosphere is tense. For the first time in their life, participants are asked to share their personal experiences of discrimination for their religious identity in Iraq. For most it is the first time they have heard that others have been mistreated because of their faith and religious identity by anyone other than the Islamic State. “These discussions never happen outside these walls,” said Mariam, a Christian woman who attended.
For many of the participants, like Mariam, religious discrimination is a daily reality. These issues are not just hypothetical discussions. Many of their relatives, neighbors, and friends have been displaced or attacked by Islamic militants, and they potentially face the threat of “convert or be killed.”
But this was the first time members of both the majority religious group and religious minorities came together to hear one another at a time when they all now face a common enemy in the Islamic State and have a new understanding of religious persecution.
As we began the training program, one of the participants, a prominent member of the local Muslim Brotherhood who had aided displaced minorities, believed regardless that others should accept Sunni dominance—with shari’a rule and a jizya in place. His views were a reminder of the reason people like Bazi and Mariam and their communities are still afraid to live in Iraq. But as other Muslims challenged his views, and as Christians and Yezidis shared their experience under the Islamic State, which had imposed similar laws on them, he began to change his views.
Coming together under the shadow of the Islamic State, community leaders became very aware of the importance of coming to each other’s aid—it is often a matter of life and death—but they had never been able to discuss openly the intolerant ideologies that exist in Iraq and how those dangerous views might be overcome.
While local leaders learned for the first time about the true meaning of religious freedom, they also discovered the importance of working together to enshrine this right for all Iraqis, not just their own religious group. Rather than believing it is the responsibility of others to secure freedom for them, they understood that they must take action to ensure the religious freedom of all Iraqis. “I have attended many trainings about such things, but nothing like this, where I benefited,” one participant said. “We learned how to ask for our rights.”
By the end of the training, the participant from the Muslim Brotherhood was actively defending other religions, noting: “Diversity is born with us and it is something from God, so we have to accept each other and learn more about dealing with other religions.”
Mariam expressed Hardwired’s purpose well when, on the final day, she commented, “The journey of one thousand miles begins with one step.” After spending four days discussing religious freedom with other participants in an open and honest way, she was encouraged and felt that this training represented that first step. For once she had hope that there was a future for her and other Christians in Iraq. During another training a Muslim leader was so inspired by the program that he organized a group of women and replicated the training program with them so they would be able to stand up for their rights as well.
As we train more local leaders to counter the religious oppression of Islamic militants and others who support their intolerant ideology, minority religious communities also need immediate help to bring freedom to those still enslaved by Islamic militants.
This is why, in late September 2015, Hardwired brought Bazi and our Iraqi-based partner, Khidher Domle, to the United States to spur our leaders to action. Professor Domle is an active member of the Yezidi community who has coordinated the rescue of dozens of Yezidi women and girls like Bazi from the Islamic State. His eyes were opened to the rights of his people when Hardwired came to Iraq and provided training on the values of religious freedom.
During their visit to Washington, D.C., Bazi testified in Congress and the United Nations about their need for help. In response, Congressman Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) introduced House Resolution 447 , calling upon the president to introduce a resolution in the United Nations Security Council to condemn the ongoing sexual violence against women and children of religious communities in Iraq, and prosecute those complicit in these crimes.
It is our hope that through this legislation and potential United Nations action, the international community can isolate foreign fighters, like Bazi’s captor, and deter others from joining them. Action by the Security Council could also ensure that governments can take specific nonmilitary steps to restrict travel, freeze assets, impose other relevant sanctions to cut off supplies to the Islamic State, and arrest those actively involved in or complicit with them in the sexual enslavement of Yezidi women and children.
Bazi returned to her refugee camp, where she lives with thousands of others who have nowhere to go. She hoped that by sharing her story, the world would be awakened to the cancer of religious oppression her community is living under in Iraq and Syria, and do something to rescue the girls who remain enslaved. Now, because of Hardwired’s work, she is returning to a country where there are more local leaders equipped and willing to stand in defense of her religious freedom.
Author: Tina Ramirez
Tina Ramirez is of president of Hardwired, Inc.