The plight of Yazidi women under control of ISIS

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 19th of March, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

There is simply no preparation, emotionally, for what you’re about to hear. But it may be too difficult for young ears. So before we get into it, a word of warning: The story we’re about to tell involves a young girl, 12 years old.

For the past four years, she’s been a slave to a fighter with the Islamic State, ISIS, before she escaped.

You’re going to hear her voice and that of a translator.

Before we talk about what she suffered, you may need to press pause.

As you do, if you do, maybe take the opportunity to thank God that you can do so and protect young ears.

Martine had no such protection. ISIS kidnapped her at age 8. She is not a Muslim. She is a Yazidi, an infidel, in ISIS theological terms, not even a human being.

WORLD Senior Editor Mindy Belz met Martine in Iraq and heard her story. We do have some audio.

MARTINE: [Martine in native language] OK, she stayed with her mother and one sister. The older sister was taken to another place. The brother was taken to another place. [Martine] Then to Tal Afar. [Martine] Uh-huh, so they met, ehh, her brother and other cousins that were kidnapped in Tal Afar. [Martine] They stayed for a long time there and then they were separated again. [Martine] OK, they took the mother from her.

Mindy Belz was recently in Iraq and Syria, and reported this story. She’s here now to talk about it. Mindy, first, good and courageous work. The story you wrote for the magazine, I think, is must-reading. We will place a link to your piece online at But good morning.

MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Thanks for that, Nick. And good morning.

EICHER: Tell me more about Martine and what led to her capture.

BELZ: Martine’s story is horrific but sadly it’s not that unusual. In 2014, when ISIS invaded Iraq, it took over these Yazidi villages and captured more than 6,700 women and children. Eventually she was taken to Syria. She was held in a basement in Mosul. She was held in houses. It’s a horrific story. But, again, it’s a story that is repeated, sadly, thousands of times.

This isn’t over yet. Because about 3,000 Yazidis remain in ISIS captivity, despite all of the talk that we are hearing about ISIS’ defeat in Syria.

Now, ISIS really targeted young women, and girls like Martine when it invaded Iraq in 2014. They were “sold” multiple times. They generally beaten. And they were, on a regular basis, raped.

I think what we’ve failed to understand is that this was systematic, the rape culture of ISIS. It was actually regulated. One ISIS rule made it “permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, …” The same rule specified that it was permissible to have intercourse with women who had not reached puberty, and to beat them as a form of discipline.

EICHER: I have to say, if these acts you have described here, Mindy, are not war crimes, it’s difficult to imagine that the term would have any meaning at all. But what’s being done about this?

BELZ: I think that’s really the issue that faces all of us right now. What’s happened to the Yazidis constitutes not only war crimes, but crimes against humanity and genocide. These are very specific legal terms. These are not abstract terms we throw around.

And yet—and I would say largely because Western pressure was absent during the Obama years—the UN Security Council didn’t pass a resolution to even investigate these crimes until 2017. And it didn’t actually form a team until last year in 2018. And so we have this situation that just this week, while ISIS is allegedly being defeated in Syria, in Iraq you have the UN team arriving this past weekend, 2-3 days ago, and beginning its work in Iraq, which will involve excavating the first of an estimated 200 mass graves—containing perhaps 12,000 Yazidi bodies or more.

EICHER: But now with what we describe as a military defeat of ISIS and the release—or, in some cases, escapes—of some of these women, can it not be said that we’re turning a corner?

BELZ: Yes, and no. The women and girls like Martine who have escaped have done so with the help of others. And we’ve seen as thousands of these “ISIS families” have fled the battlefield in Syria. And, in many cases, as I’ve talked to women like Martine, you realize that there were ISIS wives actually facilitating this culture of rape and beating and mistreatment. And so the fighters and the women who joined ISIS cannot be let off as though they did not participate in these war crimes. It’s a really difficult issue that we face and the difficult issue of how to care for legitimate victims of ISIS moving forward is the other challenge.

EICHER: Now, before I let you go, please tell me some good news in all of this…

BELZ: There actually is some. And as hard as it was to interview someone like Martine, it actually was amazing to see her sturdiness and some of the other women that I interviewed as well. And we’re learning so much from this little-known ethnic and religious group, the Yazidis. It’s a tight-knit community. Families are very important. And the family structure that is woven into these women explains a lot about how they can appear so resilient after all that they’ve been through. 

One of the health officials that I spoke to in Iraq said, the Yazidis “have more coping mechanisms than we can imagine” and that we really need to study their courage, and for what they’ve modeled as a community to us through this whole ordeal.

EICHER: Mindy, you realize we’ve been working together almost 30 years now and this one is a tough story. This is a really tough story. You’ve covered war zones, and I wonder, though—how does this story stack up against many of the others that you’ve done?

BELZ: I think if I’d gone into a room, Nick, with a hundred ISIS victims, I might have stayed detached—or maybe just overwhelmed—about what’s happened to them. But I went into a safe house, into one living room, and sat down with one girl and her family brought us tea as we talked. And that girl was 12 years old. It’s hard to get past that. 

I don’t think that we have come to grips with the incredible atrocities this group has committed. And seeing just one girl has been a really powerful story for me.

EICHER: Mindy Belz is senior editor for WORLD. That’s WORLD Magazine, WORLD Digital, WORLD Radio. Mindy, very difficult work, but it’s important that we hear stories like this. So thank you for the courage and the perseverance. Thank you for the work that you do.

BELZ: You’re welcome, Nick.

(Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images) Civilians evacuated from the Islamic State’s embattled holdout of Baghouz wait at a screening area held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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