The dark legacy of ISIS lives on in Tal Afar

In the northern Iraqi city, women and girls still suffer from the stigma of sexual abuse

At Tal Afar General Hospital in northwestern Iraq, dozens of women squeeze onto waiting room chairs. They all want to see the small team of gynaecologists, who appear stressed and overworked.

Since the other hospital in the area was blown up by ISIS, Tal Afar General Hospital has been overburdened and under-resourced, serving the city as well as towns and villages far and wide.

But even if services were sufficient, one group of the neediest would-be patients would still stay away.

They are the 22 Shia Turkmen women and girls who have returned from being raped, beaten and forced into marriage to ISIS members. Some were just 12 years old when they were kidnapped as they tried to escape the terror group's assault on northern Iraq five years ago.

Since their return, community stigma – mainly from their tribes and nosy neighbours – has prolonged their suffering. Some are forced to stay at home by their relatives, who associate a rape survivor with shame. They prevent the girls from going to school, having any kind of financial independence or repairing their friendships. Instead, their families make them do menial chores at home. Even if healthcare services weren’t overstretched, the girls couldn’t leave the house to get regular check-ups for any physical or mental health effects of ISIS’s abuse. As researchers and humanitarian workers have said, it’s another kind of captivity.

Tal Afar, 60 kilometres west of Mosul in Nineveh governorate, is majority Turkmen – Iraqi citizens of Turkic origin. Some are Sunni, others Shia. They haven’t always lived peacefully side by side: post-2003, the Sunnis were marginalised by newly dominant Shia politicians and were subjected to pernicious harassment and violence. Later, Tal Afar was controlled by Al Qaeda in Iraq and once ISIS took over, many of its commanders based themselves in the city. Retaken by Iraqi security forces in August 2017, it was one of the terror group’s last strongholds.

The Iraqi state needs to provide much more in terms of proper healthcare, both physical and mental, and ways of communicating with the female survivors trapped at home

Since Tal Afar’s liberation, about half of its 200,000-strong overall population, both Sunni and Shia, have returned, including the few who have been released from ISIS captivity. But the stigma facing those survivors is made all the worse by a dearth of government services in the city. Researchers say there needs to be vocational training for those who cannot return to normal schooling. That could help the boys and girls who witnessed unspeakable violence and suffering after ISIS kidnapped them. They might not be able to sit in a normal classroom for a while but they urgently need alternatives to help them learn to be children again.

The sexual violence survivors need special attention. The Iraqi state needs to provide much more in terms of proper healthcare, both physical and mental, and ways of communicating with the female survivors trapped at home. Social services need to explain to tribal leaders that a rape survivor needs love, compassion and help, not social rejection. While he has publicly backed UN-led investigations into ISIS crimes, Iraq's top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, hasn't specifically urged people to welcome back the women and girls who were raped and abused by ISIS. His doing so would likely sway public opinion, as happened in 2015, when the Yazidi leader Baba Sheikh instructed families to welcome back the female Yazidis whom ISIS had traded as sex slaves.

Outsiders dealing with the issue may face accusations of western-centric thinking and attempting to interfere in Iraq’s social structures. But a rape survivor’s rights are universal rights, not exclusively western rights.

Sunni-Shia relations in Tal Afar have improved somewhat since 2017, say residents, but that doesn’t take into account the opinions of those who have chosen not to return, or cannot. More than 31,000 people from Nineveh remain displaced in Karbala and Najaf, Shia-majority areas in southern Iraq, according to figures from the International Organisation for Migration.

Former residents wanted over ISIS links haven't been allowed back, according to a city official. In a country where judicial standards fall well below par, their fates aren't necessarily going to be decided fairly. An element of distrust between communities will inevitably remain, particularly if residents feel forgotten by authorities in Baghdad. Sunnis will likely not be allowed to forget the role of Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries from the Popular Mobilisation Forces, who worked alongside the Iraqi army to retake Tal Afar. They are now among the myriad security forces manning checkpoints and carrying out security operations on the city's periphery.

Another knot is Yazidis' perceptions of Tal Afar. Women and girls were held in the city as ISIS traded them as sex slaves while others were kept there long-term. It is inevitable that their perceptions of the place will remain tainted. Tal Afar elders are involved in reconciliation efforts between Sunni Arab tribes and Yazidis across Nineveh province. The Yazidis want the tribes to hand over names of all their members who joined ISIS. Even if this happens, the name Tal Afar will inevitably remain branded in some people's minds as synonymous with ISIS. "I'd never pass by Tal Afar because its people have destroyed us, taking our women and children," said one Yazidi survivor I spoke to in Nineveh. Of course, many of Tal Afar's residents – both Sunni and Shia – suffered enormously under ISIS too. But perceptions and feelings aren't logical. That is one of the hardest things.