As countries struggle to find ways to counter Islamic State militants, two teenage girls managed a rare, personal victory over the militants.
Samira, 17, and Samia, 14, along with other members of Iraq’s non-Muslim Yazidi minority, were forced from their homes in Tal Azar, in northern Iraq, last month as Islamic State militants swept through the region.
Seeking shelter farther into the mountains, the fleeing group stopped at a well to get water. It was a fateful decision. Within moments, they were surrounded by IS fighters.
The men were separated from the group, and Samia and Samira were put in trucks with other woman and children. Their convoy passed through several towns, finally reaching Mosul, where again they were shuttled from place to place.
“Every time they moved us from one building to another, some of us were gone,” Samira says. First the boys, ranging in age from seven to 11, disappeared. Samira says their captors told them they were going to be taught the way of Islam.
Then all the girls were separated from the women.
“One of their sheikhs came and told us that we would be sold on the market, married to their men and be converted to Islam,” Samira says. “He said those who don’t convert will be killed.”
Each time the sheikh came to the room, Samira says, he brought a different group of men. And each time, the men would take several of the girls away.
Samira and Samia spent more than two weeks in Mosul, until one day the pair were “given” to two men, and taken south to Fallujah.
Amnesty International accuses the Islamic State group of a “brutal campaign to obliterate all trace of non-Arabs and non-Sunni Muslims,” calling it “ethnic cleansing on a historic scale.”
Estimates of IS victims range in the thousands, with the group posting videos and photographs of mass executions, beheadings and crucifixions. Reports from those who escaped the militants who captured Samira and Samia say the men and older boys caught by the Sunni Muslim extremists were summarily shot.
While men are often slated for outright murder, many women and girls appear a specific target of the militant group’s campaign.
Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Heath and Gender Equity in Washington says the group uses rape as a tool to punish women and subdue communities. Forced marriage, she says, is just one form of rape.
Rape remains a sensitive subject in many cultures, and its perpetrators know the shame that can be attached to it often keeps its victims from coming forward.
“For too long there has been an acceptance that rape as a weapon is inevitable in conflicts, with a scant attention when it happens, but it does not have to be that way,” Sippel argues.
“Attention needs to start now to the current crisis facing women and girls.”
Sippel praises efforts made at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held in London in June, but says that’s just the beginning. Sippel calls on the United States, for example, not only to speak against rape in conflict, but also provide access to post-assault care, including psychological help and voluntary abortion if needed.
'Anything that happens, happens to both of us'
For one week, Samia and Samira were held in an abandoned house in Fallujah, watched over by men who called themselves Abu Hassan and Abu Ja’afar and, when the men were off fighting, by their servant Abu Waddah.
Samia and Samira say that although they were beaten during their ordeal, they were able to fend off their captors’ attempts at sexual assault.
Samia say the men gave them a phone and told them to bring their fathers and brothers to rescue them. Sensing a trap, the girls called for help from Yazidi friends in Baghdad.
They also made a pledge: “Anything that happens, happens to both of us.”
The media war of ideas
While 10 Sunni Arab nations have pledged to support efforts to counter the Islamic State militant group, much of it is framed in terms of national security and counter-terrorism, not the abuses carried out in the name of Islam.
But Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest and oldest Muslim American organization, said it is the duty of Muslims around the world to speak out.
“We should be very angry when we see such a group of terrorists using Islam to justify heinous beheadings of human beings and atrocities committed against minorities and women,” Magid says.
Some argue the task has become even more urgent, as the Islamic State group uses its brand of religion in a social media juggernaut aimed at winning sympathizers. Last week, a teenage girl from the U.S. state of Colorado pleaded guilty to trying to join up with an Islamic State fighter she met online while exploring the tenets of Islam.
Adel Iskandar, assistant professor of global communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, says that more attention has to be given to counter the IS media campaign and expose the group’s true nature.
“It is a battle of minds; the terrorist group has developed one of the most sophisticated video sharing platforms with a content that entails a significant level of atrocities to instill fear in the hearts of their adversaries, while trying to abuse Islamic teachings to attract more young volunteers,” Iskandar said.
Rebranding the terrorist group in the Arab and international media is another challenge. Imam Magid warned that for the news media to "shorthand the name of a terrorist group as the Islamic State makes the general public actually believe it is really an Islamic State."
“They should name it as it deserves to be called a cult of terror; this is not an Islamic state of spirituality, religiosity, and tolerance. So the media should not glorify the terrorists by giving them the name they hijacked,” Magid said.
The journey home
During their week in Fallujah, Samira and Samia plotted their escape. They found disguises in traditional veils and cloaks left behind in the house and, crucially, a knife in the kitchen. One night when they were left alone, they chiseled away at the locked door, broke it and fled.
Friends of friends gave them shelter in Fallujah, then arranged a driver and fake identification to get them through the checkpoints to Baghdad. There, members of the Yazidi community took them in and soon put them on a flight back home.
Yet while Samira and Samia are now safe, they don’t know how many other young girls and women the militants still hold.