On August 15, 2014, forces from so-called Islamic State (ISIS) entered Kocho, a Yazidi village in Iraqi Kurdistan. They took everybody to the local school and separated them into groups: men, pregnant women, older women and unmarried adolescents. Among the latter was Lamia Aji Bashar, then aged 16, with her three sisters. “That’s when it all began,” she said last week in Madrid at the diplomatic delegation from the government of Iraqi Kurdistan.
For the next 20 months Lamia was held captive and repeatedly raped by ISIS soldiers. In December, along with Nadia Murad – who was also held captive and raped by ISIS – the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
“The older men and women were killed and buried in a mass grave. We were transferred by bus to Mosul and then to the area around Aleppo under the control of ISIS. In Aleppo, there were many men from different countries,” she explained. Soon after her arrival, the head of the group, a Saudi, told her and her sisters they must convert to Islam. “I said no. He grabbed me by the neck and lifted me off the ground. My sister begged him to release me and kissed his feet until he did it. Then he shouted, ‘So you do not want to convert!’ and he raped us both.”
They were animals in the bodies of human beings: each worse than the last Lamia Aji Bashar
There were around 250 other young women and girls held captive in Aleppo, some of them as young as eight. “Members of ISIS would arrive and select us: ‘I want this one,’ ‘I want that one.’ In the Sharia court, there was a paper with my picture on it, and beneath it, my price. I was purchased five times, and another time, I was given to a fighter as a gift,” she said.
At no time did her captors show any compassion: “They were animals in the bodies of human beings: each worse than the last. I was trying to speak with them, but they were animals.”
Aji Bashar remembers when one of her “owners” forced her to help him make vests for suicide bombers and to set up car bombs.
ISIS’s violent interpretation of Islam has led to the wholesale slaughter of men and the rape of women considered infidels. The Yazidi, an ethno-religious Kurdish group of half-a-million people who ascribe to one of the earliest monotheistic religions, have been targeted.
Members of ISIS would arrive and select us: ‘I want this one,’ ‘I want that one’ Lamia Aji Bashar
Aji Bashar tried to escape on four occasions. After each failed attempt, she was punished. Finally, in April 2016 she succeeded, thanks to smugglers paid by her family. Two others accompanied her: Almas, an eight-year-old, and Katherine, aged 20. Both died while crossing a minefield and Aji Bashar was injured in the explosion, suffering scarring and partial loss of sight.
“I felt happy to be alive, although in my head, I felt dreadful thinking about the suffering of the other women and children,” she explained. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 Yazidis – the majority of them women and children – remain in the hands of ISIS. The figure has been reduced by about half since 2014 as captives escape, are purchased back by their families, or are released by ISIS.
Her village was liberated in May. “It made me very happy to hear the news, but now it is just a pile of rubble, tombs, mass graves,” said Aji Bashar, who now lives in Germany.
She tells her story to raise awareness of the tragedies that have befallen thousands of women, and she considers herself simply a “messenger” with three desires: that ISIS be tried at The Hague, that the victims receive psychological treatment after their liberation, and that the world helps those seeking refuge. Many former captives suffer from post-traumatic stress and some have attempted suicide, according to the NGO Amnesty International.
Although ISIS is currently in retreat in Syria and Iraq, Aji Bashar says she wants to remain in Germany and to become a schoolteacher. Would she return one day to Kurdistan? “Of course,” she says, “but there is no international protection for us. And as Yazidis, we are afraid of returning and suffering genocide like this.”
English version by Henry Hahn.