Two sisters who were forced to marry Islamic State militants in Syria when the terror group ruled over their town are now part of a brigade of female fighters known as Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), battling IS in parts of Syria.
Vian, 26, and Zhyan, 18, were married to two IS militants before U.S.-backed local forces liberated the town of al-Shaddadi and expelled IS militants from the area.
Vian and Zhyan are aliases. The sisters took on the names to honor two of their female comrades who lost their lives fighting IS.
“They forced women to marry, whether women accepted or not. I married this IS guy, stayed with him for one month, and then I escaped,” Zhyan told VOA.
Zhyan was married to an IS fighter from Saudi when she was a teenager. Vian was married to a local IS fighter.
The sisters told VOA that to them, the fight against IS is personal.
Vian said she joined the fight because she wanted to be part of the force that gives women a voice and does not force them to act against their will. Zhyan said she joined the fight because she wanted to face her husband.
“If he remained alive, I would take revenge with my own hands,” Zhyan said.
Located in al-Hasakah governorate, al-Shaddadi is about 38 kilometers (24 miles) from the border with Iraq. The town came under IS control in May 2014.
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In 2016, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed of Kurdish and Arab fighters, launched the Wrath Khabur campaign that successfully freed the town of IS.
Women in the caliphate
The sisters said they were treated by their husbands as objects with disregard for their human dignity.
They said they could not have opinions about anything and were obliged to unconditionally follow their husbands’ instructions.
“The torment he made me go through and made others go through is beyond description,” Zhyan told VOA.
Vian moved with her husband to different locations in the area, located in the self-proclaimed caliphate of the militant group. She moved with him to al-Mayadeen and Raqqa in Syria, and to Mosul in Iraq.
Zhyan escaped from her husband one month after their marriage.
“One day, he tried to lash me. He said this is halal (permissible). I told him this is not acceptable. That day, I escaped,” Zhyan told VOA.
Zhyan said her husband was trying to buy a Yazidi woman he saw in the town. He wanted to purchase her as an investment so he can resell the girl and buy a car with the extra money.
Zhyan said she wanted to secretly help the Yazidi girl escape the town but failed to do so.
Thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped by IS and used as sex slaves after the terror group attacked Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014 and massacred religious minorities in the area.
The London-based Oxford Research Group said in a report published in 2017 that IS used brutal tactics against women, including murder, sexual abuse, torture and imprisonment.
Zhyan confirmed those accounts and said in some cases, the abuse was worse.
“IS militants treat women in a bad way. They either divorce them after a while or leave them behind and head to another place to fight,” Zhyan said. “Many of them tell their friends to marry their wives in case they get killed. They even sell their wives to others.”
Vian and Zhyan are currently part of an operation to liberate the last enclaves held by IS in Deir el-Zour, in eastern Syria.
Vian said that she and her sister fight in two different battlefields to avoid potentially witnessing injury of the other.
Zhyan thinks their bond as sisters is similar to the bond they feel with the rest of the women fighting IS in the region.
VOA's Zana Omar contributed to this report from al-Shaddadi, Syria.