On August 3, last year, Basma’s* home in Iraq’s far northern Sinjar district was suddenly under attack. Her family hid inside the house for two days as members of ISIS rounded up families, killing men and taking women and girls captive.
The group already controlled large swaths of land in Syria and northwestern Iraq, and now was setting its sights on Sinjar.
As the armed men drew closer, Basma fled on foot with her three small children to the barren mountains of Sinjar. She was forced to leave behind her husband who had a broken leg.
Basma and thousands of others trekked up into the mountains for safety, but soon found themselves under siege with ISIS surrounding them below. Some 40,000 people were stranded.
“There was no food, no shelter, no water and no medical care,” Basma recalls. “Children were starving to death. I saw others killed by bullets. My own children began to starve.”
Last summer, ISIS launched a violent campaign in Sinjar against religious minorities including the Yazidi people, one of Iraq’s oldest minorities. Since early 2014, more than 3 million Iraqis have fled ISIS violence and previous waves of conflict — a vicious cycle of war with no end in sight.
Many families fleeing violence have sought refuge in unfinished or abandoned buildings like this one in Duhok, northern Iraq. Photo: Sameer Saran/IRC
Basma and her children managed to find sanctuary in the Duhok governorate in northern Iraq, home to some 75,000 uprooted families. Soon afterward she was reunited with her husband who had managed to escape Sinjar.
Like many displaced people in Iraq, Basma’s family lives in an unfinished building with no front walls to protect children from falling. There is no electricity or running water. Basma, her husband and their children must share the one-room space with four other Yazidi families; 46 adults and children crowd together to cook, eat, sleep, and play.
For Basma, what happened in Sinjar is not in the past — it is a daily reality. Months of trauma and stress took their toll, pushing her to attempt suicide by dousing herself with gasoline.
Basma’s husband was able to stop her from killing herself. He immediately contacted the International Rescue Committee, which referred Basma to a women and girls' community center in Iraq where the IRC provides counseling, therapeutic group activities, legal support and other assistance to uprooted Iraqi and Syrian women and girls.
Suicide has also been common among Yazidi women whose lives were shattered after being kidnapped and sexually abused by ISIS.
Survivors of sexual violence including rape face social stigma, discrimination and even violent retribution from within their own community — especially if they became pregnant while in captivity. Women and girls may hide the brutalization they’ve faced and shun available services for fear of “tainting” their family’s honor and social standing.
Women who escaped ISIS kidnapping
This Yazidi woman, who wished not to be named, arrived at the IRC-run Arbat camp in northern Iraq in early spring after enduring five months of abuse in ISIS captivity with other women. She was one of the lucky ones to be released. “I feel I am in a safe area now with my family and community here in this camp. But I have no hopes for the future,” she said. Photo: Sameer Saran/IRC
The IRC hosts workshops and facilitates group sessions for women and girls who have been affected by the conflict, including Yazidi women who were held by ISIS. These safe spaces offer women an opportunity to share their experiences and discuss ways to cope with the ongoing challenges they face at home and in their communities. Healing from trauma ultimately helps them take a more active role in the community.
“I used to think my life was over,” said one woman who took part in an IRC workshop. “Now I feel like there are things I can do for myself and for other women in my situation, and I will work to prove our rights.”
An Iraqi woman works on a loom at an IRC women’s center. Sewing classes provide job skills and bring together women who have fled violence for mutual support. Photo: Rachel Unkovic/IRC
Two IRC counseling teams based in Duhok travel to remote areas to make sure women who may be prevented from reaching the centers by distance or cultural barriers receive support.
The IRC also provides cash assistance to the most vulnerable women, and offers job skills and budget management training and professional mentoring to help them make ends meet far from home.
After several counseling sessions at the IRC women’s center, Basma no longer feels suicidal. Although uncertain about her future, she hopes for the best.
“I have a good relationship with my husband and children. But I don’t feel safe. Maybe we will leave Iraq so my children can get an education and have a better future.”
*Names were omitted or changed protect the privacy of the women featured in the story