Nine Days in the Caliphate A Yazidi Woman's Ordeal as an Islamic State Captive

When Islamic State fighters conquered the border region between Iraq and Syria, the Yazidi village of Kocho also fell into their hands. Twenty-year-old Nadia was among dozens of young women who were abducted and abused. This is the story of her ordeal.
Von Ralf Hoppe

During the ninth night of her captivity, Nadia seized an unexpected opportunity to flee.

Back on the first day, the men who kidnapped Nadia and the other young women as hostages and sex slaves had away taken their shoes. Escaping barefoot was out of the question. As the women could see from the windows, the surrounding terrain was rough and rocky, and they would end up with bleeding cuts and gashes all over their feet.

The house in which they were held captive had many rooms and the young women were frequently moved from one to another. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for the frequent moves; they were apparently dependent on the whims of their captors. But in one room stood a wardrobe, inside of which Nadia found a pair of pink tennis shoes under some rags. Though they were a few sizes too small for her, they might just do.

Six men -- her captors, rapists and tormentors -- stood guard from day one. But on the ninth night, Nadia noticed that four of the men were apparently absent, perhaps sleeping elsewhere. Whatever the case, only two of the Islamic State fighters were sitting in the kitchen that night -- and they were distracted. It looked as though they were arguing.

The men had shut up Nadia alone that night and she didn't know where the other young women were. The lock on her door was defective and she was able to open it. She pulled out the tennis shoes that she had kept hidden, crammed her feet into them, slipped out of the room and was able to push open a terrace door. She scurried out of the house and rushed through the garden, filled with rustling dry bushes and trees. She was afraid that a dog would start barking, but she was lucky.

She came to a wall, a high wall, so it seemed -- reaching beyond her outstretched arms. "Now I had to climb over the wall," she says, "and I didn't have much time."

Waking Up in Tears

Nadia Murad-Pesse, 20, was born and raised in the Kurdish region of Syria by her mother Shama and father Murad. Her hometown of Kocho, which once boasted a population of 1,700, lies near the Sinjar Mountains not far from the border between Iraq and Syria.

Some households in the village, including hers, had a TV and Nadia's favorite broadcasts were music shows and horror movies, as long as the good guys won in the end. She even saw a World Cup soccer match, Germany versus Brazil, but ultimately felt sorry for the Brazilians and couldn't understand why her brothers made fun of the losing team.

Nadia has shoulder-length, dark brown hair with a touch of henna. Her shoulders are narrow, her voice is hoarse. She has scars on her forearm. She wrings her hands as she speaks and the words sometimes come haltingly, then pour out almost as a scream. It has been one and a half months since she escaped, but she still wakes up in tears at night, according to the relatives who have taken her in. Their home is located not far from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, on the safe side of the front.

During the interview, in which Nadia talks about her nine-day ordeal, she is repeatedly shaken by crying fits, but she no longer wishes to remain silent. She is determined to tell her story, a detailed eyewitness account of how she was held hostage.

This past summer, Kurdish fighters in the border region of northern Syria and northern Iraq retreated before the rapid advance of IS troops. The fighters of the "caliphate," superbly armed and well-organized, seized control of large areas. More than 1.8 million people have fled the region, according to a United Nations report. From January to the end of September 17,386 civilians were wounded and 9,347 killed. In addition, Kurdish military officials estimate that thousands of young women were abducted.

Amid all this turmoil, Nadia's town was suddenly left unprotected.

On the night she snuck out of the house of her captors, Nadia found a protrusion along the garden wall and managed to clamber to the top. She was lucky in other ways, too: there was no barbed wire and no embedded shards of glass. It was pitch black on the other side of the wall. Far in the distance, she recalls, she could make out the dim, yellowish lights of a city. She was afraid to jump.

But she did so anyway.

Nadia landed safely and started running, quietly, but as quickly as she could. "Don't even think of running away!" the men had warned her. They claimed she would be recaptured within an hour, saying they had announced a reward for $5,000 (€3,950) for fugitives. The punishment for attempted escape, the men added, was death.

Nadia had a happy childhood growing up in her small town. Her father died 11 years ago, but he left the family a spacious rambler, with four large bedrooms, in which the children grew up: Nadia, her 12 brothers and two sisters. Nine of her brothers, both her sisters, and her mother are listed as missing. Nadia shows a picture of her mother on her mobile.

Nadia liked school and she was a model student, as she somewhat bashfully admits, finishing among the top two of her graduating class. History was her favorite subject. She dreamed of going to college someday, perhaps even becoming a teacher and buying an apartment of her own, with shelves filled with books.

Her family was not rich, but they were able to make ends meet. They had around 50 sheep, two dozen chickens and a few goats. Nadia's older brothers worked as day laborers while her mother sold milk, yogurt, eggs and cheese. Sometimes even Muslims from the neighboring towns came to make purchases. They got along fine with the Christians, but her mother always warned her about the Muslims: "Never trust them!"

Fair Game

Nadia has had three tattoos since childhood, each consisting of just one dot. She has one violet pinprick on the back of each hand and a dab of violet on the tip of the chin. They function as a kind of protection to ward off evil at key places on the body: on the hands, which are used to touch things, and near the mouth, so it can tell no lies.

Nadia and her family are Yezidis, a monotheistic religion that most likely dates back to the Middle Ages and is steeped in mysticism. An estimated 400,000 Yezidis, making up approximately 5 percent of the Kurdish population, live in northern Iraq and Syria. Islamic State fighters see the Yezidis as idol and devil worshipers -- in other words, as scum, as they never tire of telling their prisoners. And, as far as they are concerned, Yezidi women are fair game.

Islamic State fighters came to Nadia's town several times, always at intervals of one or two days. They were at pains to demonstrate their military strength, roaring into town and announcing that they were the new lords of the land. The men wore mirrored sunglasses, kept their faces masked with black scarves, and carried pistols and daggers in their belts, recalls Nadia. At first, they led the townspeople to believe that they were safe, as long as they handed over their weapons, mostly old hunting rifles and kitchen knives. They told the men of Kocho that disarmament was the price to pay they had to pay to avoid being killed by Islamic State fighters.

After the weapons were collected and piled up on the back of a pickup truck, the jihadists herded the residents into the school. They separated the men from the women and took away the men in small groups. The women heard shots all afternoon and were paralyzed with fear, says Nadia. Then the older women were separated from the younger ones. At the last moment, her mother slipped a gold ring from her finger and gave it to Nadia: "In case you need it," she whispered. This is Nadia's last memory of her mother.

Islamic State fighters used SUVs and minibuses to drive a total of 64 young women, including Nadia, to Mosul, the city that IS had captured in mid-June. During the nine days in which Nadia was a prisoner of the "caliphate," they stayed in five different places, and with every move they took the young women along with them.

'We Remained Steadfast'

The first house, Nadia recalls, belonged to a judge named Ghasi Hussein, who had fled the area, one of their captors told the young women. But in the future, as the man said, it will belong to them, in honor of Allah. Photos of the judge and his wife still hung on the walls, and he had had teacups printed with their likeness. The men and their prisoners stayed there for three days before they moved to a second, a third, a fourth and a fifth house.

Nine days can be longer than an entire lifetime, says Nadia, but she can remember every second of those nine days.

Sometimes they were given nothing to eat, other times just a putrid egg for six young women. For two long days, they received no water. It was extremely hot and their captors had given them a single glass of tea. They passed around the glass -- two tiny sips for each woman. If you convert to Islam, the men said, you'll be given as much fresh water as you want.

"We remained steadfast," says Nadia.

On another occasion, they were deprived of drinking water once again, only this time their captors put down a bucket of used bathwater. It tasted like soap and reeked of urine, but they had nothing else.

Their captors beat them, sometimes several times in a single day, for no apparent reason. There was a man with a beard who used an electric cable, while two others preferred wooden switches. Sometimes they were also punched and kicked, and they were repeatedly sexually abused.

Nadia doesn't give a literal account of these rapes. It is virtually impossible for her to talk about them, and it contravenes the conventions of her culture. She merely says: "We were taken individually to another room, to one of the men." Then she lowers her head, in silence, awash with shame.

"What else could we do?" she says after a while, now speaking very quietly. She says the men were merciless. Some women threw themselves at their tormentors' feet, kissed their knees and hands, and -- eyes filled with tears -- pleaded for mercy. It was no use. The men remained unmoved. It only entertained them.

Access to Money and Women

They also debated whether they could attack one of the men and kill him, she says. "But they always came in groups of three or four. And they were always armed. At one point we broke a window pane, and each of us women hid a shard of glass up our sleeves, so we could kill ourselves if we couldn't take it anymore."

There was a constant coming and going, with new men arriving all the time, carrying weapons and clad in black or khaki fantasy uniforms, and then the fighters would withdraw for long discussions. There is speculation that Islamic State members take drugs and fight under their influence, but Nadia observed nothing of the sort. Sometimes one of the men would smell like cigarette smoke, she says.

One of them tore her mother's gold ring from her finger and slipped it onto his own hand. Nadia swore: I will find this man one day, and I will cut off his finger, and I will take back my ring.

This man was probably a local, says Nadia, who notes that he spoke no Arabic, but rather the Kurdish dialect that is commonly used in her region. She says that there were two groups of IS fighters: men who appeared to be highly devout, who were leaders of a sort, and who spoke Arabic -- and men who spoke a mixture of Arabic and Kurdish, whose devotion seemed rather feigned, and whose accent divulged that they came from the border region. These were apparently fighters who had joined the presumed victors to gain access to money and women.

After she jumped over the wall, Nadia ran toward the lights and managed to reach downtown Mosul, once a burgeoning metropolis of almost 2 million people, and the second largest city in Iraq after Baghdad. But as she walked through the streets, Mosul seemed empty and deserted.

From time to time, she ducked into building entrances and behind bushes, to keep an eye out for possible pursuers. Although she knew she was in Mosul, she was unfamiliar with the city. Finally she came to a residential area and, suffering from severe exhaustion, picked a door at random.

After she knocked persistently, a sleepy-eyed man opened the door and shined his mobile phone light in her face. Nadia cried as she told him who she was and what had happened to her. The man pulled Nadia into the house and fetched his wife. The two of them hid Nadia behind a pile of odds and ends in a room, gave her a mattress, a blanket and water. Nadia took off her shoes and discovered that her toes were bleeding.

Nadia may one day write a testimony of what she has endured. She has heard of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. An uncle has told her that the judges there seek the truth, even after decades, and could eventually find the guilty parties and punish them. When the time comes, she intends to testify, even if it takes years. She won't forget anything.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen