In German Sanctuary, Yezidi Women Begin to Face the Aftermath
September 14, 2016
BERLIN (WOMENSENEWS)—Over the past two years, Dr. Jan Kizilhan has traveled to Iraq 14 times and interviewed close to 1,500 women and girls who were brutalized by the Islamic State.
He hears horrifying stories.
“ISIL has a genocidal ideology,” says Kizilhan, who spoke recently with Women’s eNews by phone. “They do not believe that anyone who is not Muslim is human. Like the Nazis, they are not troubled by anything they do to their victims, because they do not view them as people.”
He says he has talked to 8-year-old girls who were raped hundreds of times. “I have spoken to mothers who watched their children raped and murdered before their own eyes. I heard about the wife of an ISIL fighter who held down a 16-year-old girl so he could rape her.”
Kizilhan, a professor at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University in Villingen-Schwenningen, is the medical and psychological head of the Special Quota Project.
Baden-Württemberg, a state in Germany’s southwest, began in late 2015 sponsoring the project, which brings vulnerable women and children, almost all of them Yezidis, to the country. Now it shelters some 1,100 women and children who are trying to rebuild their lives.
As part of the program, which has $107 million in funding from the state, participants receive housing, cash assistance, free health and psychosocial care, free education, the opportunity to receive German citizenship and, perhaps, hope that they will be able to lead at least a semblance of a happy life in the future.
The greatest challenge for the professionals providing therapy is to create an effective counseling program for these women. A great deal of psychotherapy is based on Western ideas and values, Kizilhan says. It is also based on an individualistic understanding of the person.
These are not starting points that are necessarily useful for the Yezidi women, who come from a more collectivist society, and their concepts of life and self are different.
“Even their body code is different,” Kizilhan says. “They will speak, for example, of ‘burning liver.’ That is not something familiar to Westerners, but to them, it is an expression of a complex emotion.”
Decades to Heal
For most of the women, Kizilhan expects healing will take decades. “They are experiencing multiple levels of trauma. There is the individual trauma, of course. And the collective trauma, because the genocide was directed at their entire community. And now the scientific community has come to realize that there is trans-generational trauma, too.”
Can they ever truly heal? Can their lives ever be happy or “normal”? What does one tell an 8-year-old child who was raped repeatedly by a man older than her own grandfather?
“The trauma will always be part of her life,” Kizilhan says slowly. “But if she is young, she has many years ahead of her, many more years that can be safe and even happy. She will never forget. She will experience flashbacks and panic attacks, but we can teach her to control them, so they will not control her life.”
And what, after hearing and treating so much pain and trauma, does Kizilhan tell himself?
“Psychologically and historically, we know that man kills man, it is in our nature,” he says. “When I work with these women, I must not lose empathy, but I must keep myself from becoming part of a ‘fake movie,’ as if I can really understand what a 16-year-old girl feels when she is raped, I must maintain a clear distance; I can try to understand, but I cannot really ever know.”
And he thinks frequently of the nearly 3,800 women and girls who are still presumed to be in ISIL enslavement. “The Western world has a responsibility to free these women,” he says, “to battle ISIL more effectively, and to help the Yezidi people rebuild their culture and their lives.”
Yezidis Prime Target
When ISIL–also known ISIS and Daesh–began its large-scale offensive in northern Iraq in August 2014, the Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority with a population of several hundred thousand members, living mostly in northern Iraq, were its prime target.
The Yezidis are an ancient people, dating back at least 4,000 years. They are neither Muslims nor Christians, and maintain a strong internal caste system with no possibility of conversion into their people.
In the volatile area of Iraq, across the millennia, they have survived dozens of attempts by many different peoples, including Turks and Iraqis, to annihilate them. Over the centuries, they have come to live alone, mostly in northern Iraq, marrying within their own community.
Within the areas under its control, its so-called caliphates, ISIL has imposed deliberate and systematic mass rape and sexual enslavement of all non-Muslim women, with markets where girls are bought, sold and traded among the fighters as commodities or rewards. An unknown number of men were murdered; boys were taken and trained as child-soldiers, indoctrinated to kill even their own families.
Some 6,000 people, mostly women and children, have been kidnapped and sold into slavery by ISIL since it conquered the areas in August 2014, according to the office of affairs in the Kurdistan region, which was set up to help locate abducted women following the ISIL offensive.
Those who managed to flee were trapped on mountain tops, where hundreds of them – mostly children and the elderly–died before relief efforts reached them.
In Germany, the survivors who are in the quota program are housed in carefully selected apartments and, at least for the foreseeable future, their location is kept a secret.
“We do this to provide them with the safe, secure place that they need to heal; and also to keep them safe from possible negative responses by anti-immigration extremists,” Kizilhan says. “Overall, the response of the general community has been overwhelmingly positive, but we must be careful.”
“I’ve been living with 16 other Yezidis in Baden-Wurttemberg for a few months,” writes “Shirin,” the penname of a 19-year-old Yezidi woman who is now in Germany and tells her experiences in “I Remain a Daughter of the Light,” published in German on July 1. “At first…we were afraid we’d immediately be attacked or abducted and that people would have a go at us…At first, our fear overrode everything else.”
The younger children are sent to local schools, where, Kizilhan says, they learn German quickly and integrate well. Their mothers and the other young women and girls are provided with structured programs, where they must slowly resume activities of daily living – shopping, cooking, taking care of their families – in a foreign environment.
Background in Rwanda, Bosnia
Kizilhan, who has extensive experience working with victims of gender-based trauma in war, including in Rwanda and Bosnia, was recruited into the project. A Kurd who immigrated to Germany from Turkey, Kizilhan also speaks the Yezidi language.
He has been given the almost inhuman task of selecting the women who will come with him back to Germany, to the quiet, affluent region of Baden- Württemberg.
“I have had to establish clear criteria,” Kizilhan says. “Younger women and girls who have been in captivity, and who, in my professional assessment, will benefit from the help that German hospitals can provide them.”
If the women have young children, they, too, are brought over, so as to keep families as intact as possible and not cause further trauma and sorrow.
“For the mothers, the hope for their children is often the only hope they have in life,” Kizilhan says.
The project was set up after the stories and footage from the 2014 ISIL offensive were shown in Germany, where an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Yezidis have lived since the 1960s.
“As the stories came out, there was so much talk of death,” recalls Dr. Michael Blume, head of the project, who spoke by phone. “Some in the community felt the need to do something positive, as did we, lawmakers and citizens. We realized that the legal framework to bring women to Germany and provide them with the aid they so desperately need was already in place, so we were able to implement it.”
Kizilhan says the acts of violence are particularly directed at women and children because the Yezidi culture is patriarchal, and women are the bearers of traditional and religious values. “ISIL perpetrates the most horrible forms of rape and humiliation as a way to destroy the Yezidi culture,” he says. “This gender-based violence is nothing less than a genocide against the Yezidi community.”
Kizilhan tells the story of a woman who was forced to watch as the terrorists punished her by putting her 2-year-old daughter, Lozin, in a metal crate. “The little girl was locked inside it for seven days at temperatures of 50-60 degrees. In the evenings she was allowed to eat, but only brought the food up again….After seven days, the ISIL emir took Lozin out of the metal box, dunked her in ice-cold water and then beat her so badly that he broke her spine. Two days later, she died. With the mother, brother, and sister all watching, he lifted the little body in the air and let it drop to the ground again. ‘That’s how all infidels will die!’ he shouted.”
Some have survived months of sexual enslavement and cruelty at the hands of ISIL.
Kizilhan traveled to the mass refugee camps near the city of Dohuk in northern Iraq, where the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, had set up mass refugee camps. Some 2,000 women who had escaped or been ransomed from ISIL enslavement by their relatives were also sheltering there. Unknown numbers of these women have committed suicide, unable to bear the shame and the pain.
The people, Kizilhan recalls, were severely traumatized, and the conditions abominable. “We realized that these women would simply not survive the horrible things they experienced if they didn’t receive proper treatment,” he says.
He has also had to work with the religious leaders of the Yezidi community in the region. “Because Yezidi society is patriarchal, the women who have been raped and abused have brought shame to their people. But this tragedy of the community has been so great, the religious leaders have been willing to reconsider and change their attitudes,” he says.
Today, before leaving for Germany, each woman and girl is blessed by the highest spiritual authorities, who promise them they will continue to be considered equal members of their community, Kizilhan says. “This gives them the strength to get on the plane.”