WASHINGTON - An Iraqi Yazidi woman who was kidnapped by the Islamic State terror group, taken to Syria and forced to marry an IS fighter as a teenager is finally ready to rejoin her loved ones after six years of separation.
But authorities have told her she has to wait in Syria until the coronavirus pandemic ends to return to northern Iraq, where her family of 10 lives.
Laila Murad Eido, 17, was found by the Yazidi House organization in early April in al-Hol refugee camp in eastern Syria’s al-Hasakah governorate, where thousands of IS families are being held. Kurdish security forces have since moved her out of the overcrowded camp but told her she must stay in Syria due to the closure of the Iraq-Syria border due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She was confused when we rescued her,” Mahmoud Rasho, a spokesman for the Yazidi House, told VOA. “She was thinking that IS is still in control and was afraid to reveal her identity. She was relieved after realizing that she was safe and was going to see her family again.”
In August 2014, the IS terror group swept across the Sinjar Mountains, massacring thousands of men and taking thousands of women and girls as sex slaves.
When the militant group entered Dahola village near the Yazidi town of Sinjar or Shingal, Laila, then 11, was abducted along her 13-year-old sister, Nohad, while the other eight members of the Eido family narrowly escaped to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Duhok province.
While free in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria, Laila was unable to speak to VOA due to the trauma she suffered under IS. Her older sister, Nohad, however, said she vividly remembers the scorching summer day that changed their lives.
“They separated men from women and took my father with four other men and took them to an unknown place. My father had a car, and IS put four other Yazidi men in the car and made my father drive in between an IS convoy. My father saw another side road and escaped from the convoy while IS was firing shots on his car, but he fled to a place called Chalmira,” Nohad told VOA, retelling the escape story of her father, Murad.
Laila, along with Nohad, her mother, grandmother, and five younger siblings, was later transferred from Dahola village to Tal Afar town in northwestern Iraq. Laila and Nohad were immediately separated to later be used as sex slaves. As for the rest of the family, “my grandmother knew the roads at night, and she helped the family escape during the night through a nearby valley,” Nohad told VOA.
While under the grip of IS, the two sisters were moved separately to several places under IS control across Iraq and Syria. A year later, in 2015, Laila was forced to marry an Iraqi IS fighter.
When IS began to lose territory in 2019, Laila and Nohad were moved to the extremist group’s last Syria stronghold of Baghouz, in eastern Deir el-Zour.
Nohad was rescued during the Baghouz battle and sent back to her family in Iraqi Kurdistan. Laila, however, was then taken, along with thousands of other IS families, to al-Hol camp, where she spent a year before being identified earlier this month.
"We hope someone would help us bring her home. We haven’t seen her for six years. We want her back,” Nohad said, adding that a more prolonged separation from Laila due to the coronavirus pandemic has put a heavy psychological strain on the Eido family.
For weeks, Syria and Iraq have imposed a lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19. Officials from both countries predict a cross-border travel ban could be extended for weeks to come in order to limit the spread of the virus.
Rasho, of the Yazidi House, said the Sinjar local council in Iraq is in contact with the central government in Baghdad to accelerate Laila’s reunion with her family. Until then, the Yazidi survivor is staying with Rasho’s family in Kamr village, in Syria’s northern al-Hasakeh.
Following the defeat of IS physical caliphate in 2019, the Yazidi community hoped to find those kidnapped during the 2014 Sinjar massacre. Rights organizations such as the Yazidi House have since rescued dozens of Yazidis, including some victims as young as 10. However, they say about 3,000 Yazidis are still missing.
The Yazidi House said many missing Yazidis like Laila could be held inside refugee camps across northern and eastern Syria. Finding them has remained difficult, particularly in al-Hol camp, because they fear retaliation if they expose their religious background.
Al-Hol is a makeshift encampment set up for those who were displaced during the war against IS in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour. The camp’s population skyrocketed, from about 10,000 refugees in December 2018 to more than 70,000 by April 2019, after a U.S.-led operation captured IS’s last stronghold, Baghouz.
“In al-Hol camp, IS sympathizers tell Yazidis still held inside the camp not to announce their identity or they will be killed, especially when they rebuild their so-called caliphate. Many of the Yazidi survivors were taken when they were as young as 4-5 years old, and they went through IS brainwashing over the past six years,” Rasho told VOA.
Yazidis are a religious minority of about 550,000 people and are considered “devil worshipers” by IS. As such, when the radical Islamist group controlled the Yazid capital city of Sinjar in August, the group gave the Yazidis the option to convert to Islam or die.
Sinjar during the pandemic
Yazidi organizations estimate about 160,000 Yazidis have returned to war-hit Sinjar since its recapture by Kurdish peshmerga in November 2015. They say, however, the vast destruction of infrastructure by Islamic State is preventing some Yazidis from returning to the surrounding villages.
Although no confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported in Sinjar, activists warn that displacement and poor health facilities mean the pandemic could be uncontrollable if it hits the Yazidi areas.
“There are no isolation units in Sinjar, and any suspected case (would be) transferred to Mosul. There are two small hospitals in Sinjar, they have only one ventilator, no ICU, and there is a scarcity in masks and disinfecting materials,” Saad Babir, a spokesman for Yazda Organization, told VOA.