Stolen Yazidi children in miracle return after ISIS genocide

End of the decade: UK charity the AMAR Foundation brings Yazidi music to camps to help bring back hope

Five years after they were taken by ISIS, Yazidi youngsters Rahima and Dawood managed to escape from their captors and returned home a few months ago.
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As the new decade was dawning, Iraq’s Yazidi community was targeted as never before. Bombing campaigns focused on the northern town of Sinjar left hundreds of Yazidis dead and thousands more injured.

At the time four-year-old Rahima and her five-year-old brother Dawood were living with their parents on a smallholding by the edge of town tending to the family’s chickens and goats.

Their father, Salim, made extra money working as a labourer as they attended the local school.

Although the area was in the shadow of constant fear, their parents strived to give them a loving home. But there was worse to come in 2014 when ISIS terrorists invaded Sinjar to ravage, kill and kidnap thousands of Yazidis from their homeland.

Of the 6,800 abducted, a third were Yazidi children under 14 – including Rahima and Dawood, then nine and 10. Many of those taken were forced to be sex slaves and today 3,400 people remain unaccounted for.

Salim was working elsewhere but returned to find his home destroyed and his family taken.

For years he waited, fearing the worst. Then, a few months ago, as ISIS strongholds collapsed, Rahima and Dawood managed to escape.

Rahima was sold to an ISIS fighter for $500 (Dh1,836) and taken to his home, where she was forced to work as a maid for the man and his four wives.

Her brother has never spoken about his ordeal. Their mother has not been heard of since. Now they are living in a shack by Khanke camp near Dohuk.

When asked what she wishes for most, Rahima said:

“I hope that one day I will see my mother again.”

Yazidi children show posters of the Amar project.

With the help of a British charity called the Amar Foundation, this family is one of many whose lives are gradually being rebuilt in a number of makeshift camps in northern Iraq.

Sadly, their story is a common one across the displacement camps. Amar is spending thousands of pounds a month on bringing medical aid and providing counselling and schooling for the victims.

Rahima and Dawood “were regularly beaten and fed little”, said Robert Cole, global head of communications at Amar. “As the end of ISIS came, they eventually managed to escape and were reunited with their father. Both are now having regular sessions with specially trained psychologists in our clinic, and are already responding to treatment.

“There are huge challenges to the rehabilitation of these children, though. Their devastating experiences have happened at the most vulnerable age.”

A Yazidi man and woman play the tambour. AMAR

Amar relies on donations to keep the clinics running. It costs $15,000 a month, to provide medical care and disease control through vital vaccinations. It’s a cost that works out at just $1 per patient a month.

As an increasing number of harrowing stories emerge of youngsters being tortured and used as ISIS sex slaves, the need for counselling is growing.

In a new initiative, the charity is helping the young camp survivors to come to terms with their ordeals through music.

The genocide carried out by ISIS almost destroyed their heritage but through funding Amar is reviving Yazidi traditions and teaching the next generation about its ancient culture.

One camp choir formed of many sexual abuse survivors is bringing its work to the UK to perform in Westminster Abbey next year to thank the British Council for its support.

Smiling in the ranks of the singers it is hard to believe that just two years ago Rainas Elias, now 19, was living in fear of her life, enduring daily bombing raids and being used as an ISIS slave.

Aged 14, she fled her village in Sinjar with her family when ISIS militants arrived in 2014.

The day after she was abducted, Rainas was taken to Syria and over the next three years was sold three times to different men until her family were eventually able to pay a smuggler to bring her home.

“I still have very bad dreams of those days, but I remember that nothing can be as bad, ever again,” she said.

A Yazidi girl. AMAR 

Her story is similar to those of many of her fellow choir members.

Asia Elias, 15, was kidnapped when she was 11 and forced into ISIS slavery.

For three and a half years she was moved around by the terrorists and was forced by her rapists to marry five times.

Her escape was only made possible by her parents who paid a ransom for her release.

She now lives in the Khanke camp with them but her sister and brothers are still among the missing.

The choir has also helped in her recovery.

Mr Cole said: “Bringing music to the camps has been an amazing therapy for them. To see the smiles on their faces again makes it all worthwhile.

“Hundreds of women and girls have needed psychological support. We go into the camps run by the regional Kurdistan authority and the UN ... We have seen girls as young as nine who have been abused by ISIS. Amar provides medical help and psychological support in the camps and is now bringing music back to the community. It has boosted morale immensely.”

The music initiative started in May and is now helping 800 people.

Yazidi youngsters have formed a choir with the help of the AMAR Foundation to help preserve their traditional music.

The project is being funded by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund to record, protect and teach the endangered music for future generations of Yazidis.

Mr Cole said: “The genocidal campaign by ISIS against the Yazidis has had a significant impact on their musical heritage. Among the thousands of Yazidis the group murdered were musicians, and it also made a point of destroying traditional Yazidi instruments in an effort to eliminate not just the Yazidis but their culture too.

“Compounding these issues, Yazidism is an oral religion and culture, and its music and songs have historically not been written down.

“During the project, Amar has recorded religious music at Lalish, the home of the Yazidi faith, and folk music in and around the camps of northern Iraq, where thousands of Yazidis continue to live. It has made more than 100 recordings, interviewed musicians, and filmed and photographed performances.

“This material will be archived at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Dohuk University, and the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, ensuring that the music is protected for future generations of Yazidis, as well as people interested in learning more about their culture.”

The project has been led by a British classical violinist called Michael Bochmann, who has visited the region five times in the last few months to record most of music himself.

British classical violinist Michael Bochmann MBE has visited the camps to help teach and record the Yazidi music.

Mr Bochmann, who is based at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, said: “Yazidis have their own unique religion and the music goes back over 5,000 years. It is immensely important to preserve it in the first instance for the Yazidi people themselves, but also for posterity.

“Music is a great healing, therapeutic force. Hundreds of young Yazidis are being taught by teachers of the older generation to play the traditional tambour and daf and also to sing. As a professional musician I feel very moved as I can see that the real essence of music is being enacted – bringing people together, interacting and giving them confidence.

“We are slightly moving away from tradition in one way – whereas nearly all Yazidi traditional musicians are male, almost half of the new pupils are female.”

The project in Iraq has received funding from the British Council’s £30 million (Dh142.6m) Cultural Protection Fund, in partnership with the UK government’s

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The fund was established to protect cultural heritage that at risk due to conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region.