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Yazidis Tell Their Stories About Life Under ISIS


People who survived life under ISIS are offering details of an attempted genocide. When ISIS controlled much of Syria and Iraq, it targeted a religious minority known as Yazidis. Those who were not simply killed are now recounting what they endured. Children were trained as ISIS fighters, and women were held as sex slaves for years. They shared their stories with NPR's Jane Arraf.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Mazen, Mazen, Mazen.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Mazen arrived home from captivity last week to crowds chanting his name. He's only 13 and part of the small Yazidi community ISIS tried to wipe out. The video was circulated on Facebook. Each person rescued is a treasure. Three days later, I meet him in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in a camp for Yazidis displaced from their home region of Sinjar. Mazen sits in a tent, dressed in a gray hoodie. He has huge eyes and a face still gaunt from not getting enough to eat. He's survived gunfire and airstrikes. Mazen was kidnapped when he was 8. And he's forgotten a lot of the Yazidi language.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

MAZEN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Instead, he speaks to me in Arabic, the language of his captors. We're using only the first names of the freed Yazidis.

MAZEN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: I ask Mazen how he feels. And he says, he doesn't know.

MAZEN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: But he knows what ISIS taught him.

MAZEN: (Through interpreter) They taught me weapons and the Quran, belief and things like that.

ARRAF: What kind of weapons?

MAZEN: Kalashnikov or PKC.

ARRAF: Light weapons, he says. They were supposed to use them to kill Yazidis.

MAZEN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Mazen is a boy, but he speaks like he's used to being listened to. ISIS taught him how to drive. And he's demanding a car so he can take his mother and brother back to their village. But their home is destroyed, and they have no money. He's learned a few words of English from one of the foreign ISIS fighters.

MAZEN: Thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you.


ARRAF: Mazen's father is still missing. The family is desperately poor. But Mazen's uncle Hussein says they'll try to help him be a normal boy again.

HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) You can't change someone who has been captive in just three days. Our goal is we will take him on picnics. We will take him to weddings. We will make him forget the Arabic language.

ESSA SHWARDI: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: While we talk, a Yazidi man comes in to show him photos of other children still missing. Mazen has already told relatives of two other children he was held with that they were killed in U.S.-led airstrikes recently in the town of Baghuz.

MAZEN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He flips through the photos impatiently. He says he hasn't seen them. In a cafe a few miles away, I talk to the man with the photos. He's Essa Shawrdi from the village of Kujo, the site of one of the worst massacres under ISIS. Men were rounded up and shot, the younger women kidnapped as sex slaves. Almost 3,000 Yazidis are still missing. Shawrdi's photos are faded. They're five years old, and it would be hard to recognize the children now. He tells me their names.

SHWARDI: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: They include his nephews and nieces and cousins. Some they know are dead, but he's holding out hope for the three youngest.

SHWARDI: (Through interpreter) There were many children who were so young when they took them, they don't know who they are anymore. We are sure there are many of our people in the camps in Syria. We ask the government to help us find them.

ARRAF: But the government hasn't been helping to find them. That's been left mostly to smugglers, Yazidis and others who have rescued women and children or paid ransom to buy them back. One of Shawrdi's photos is of a 25-year-old woman held with her children in Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Relatives were close to buying their freedom for $30,000 before U.S.-backed forces targeted ISIS there.

SHWARDI: (Through interpreter) Then they attacked Deir ez-Zor, and now they're missing. No one knows where they are. There were many airstrikes and many people died.

ALI HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: In the nearby city of Dohuk, I meet Ali Hussein, a Yazidi who has negotiated with ISIS to buy back about 40 women and children. Hussein is a schoolteacher who was once held by ISIS and maintained contact with ISIS fighters. He plays me messages he received about an 11-year-old girl about a year ago.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: His ISIS contact tells him the little girl was sold to an emir of an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria - Jabhat al-Nusra - that she's no longer a virgin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) I told you $45,000 from the beginning. I know what they pay in Raqqa. I told you, in Turkey, they would pay $60,000 or $70,000 and take out the girl's organs. But I don't want to do that.

ARRAF: The ISIS contact continues as if she's a used car for sale.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Dear Mr. Ali, think about this matter. And let me know by evening if you don't want her.

ARRAF: Hussein and the girl's family weren't able to raise that much money. She disappeared. With others, he's been more successful.


JOLENE: (Foreign language spoken).

A HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

JOLENE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: That's Jolene, who's 10, telling him a few days ago that she had been freed and would come back from Syria when the border was open. She's with a 14-year-old friend who had been sold among Iraqi, Syrian, Saudi and Tunisian fighters since she was 10. Hussein says ISIS, as it was reduced to its last shred of territory, stopped selling Yazidis to keep them as hostages. He believes only a few hundred of the thousands still missing will be found in Syria.

A HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) Many have been taken to Turkey. Many have been killed in airstrikes in Raqqa and Mosul. And many are still hidden with ISIS families in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

BERFE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: We go to one of the shrines on Sinjar Mountain, where Yazidis took refuge five years ago. Berfe, who's 26, escaped and came back from Syria just a day ago with her two small children. Berfe's husband was executed, and she was sold as a slave five times.

BERFE: (Through interpreter) Some girls would be sold 30 times or 50 times. Some would be sold for only one hour.

ARRAF: The Yazidi women were raped by the men and often beaten by the Arab and foreign wives of ISIS fighters.

BERFE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: After five years of horror, Berfe says she thought she would never see Sinjar again. She says, "I feel like a newborn baby." Jane Arraf, NPR News in Sinjar in northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.