One woman’s journey from ISIS slave to human rights activist
Lamiya Aji Bashar is adjusting to her new life in Europe after escaping IS captors who held her as a sex slave for two years in Iraq.
Today, Bashar dares to feel safe again — happy, even. I feel “very happy” now that I am “liberated,” the 18-year-old told VICE News through an interpreter in Brussels two weeks ago.
She has been jointly nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought — the EU’s annual award for defenders of human rights and freedoms. Since her escape from IS-occupied territory in April, and amid a strenuous recovery program in Germany, where she now lives, Bashar’s been working with fellow Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad — also a former IS captive and now a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Survivors of Human Trafficking. The two are being acknowledged for their work advocating for the plight of the Yazidi community, an Iraqi religious minority persecuted by IS. Previous recipients of the Sakharov Prize include jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who treats people who’ve been raped by Congolese rebel forces. Bashar, though, never wanted any of this. She’d give it all up to return to her former life.
“This prize could be a reason that other nations will think about our mothers and sisters who are still in captivity and still suffering.”
In early August 2014, she was one of about 6,400 Yazidis “disappeared” by marauding IS militants from her home in Kocho, near Sinjar, Iraq, according to the Kurdish Regional Government. Bashar’s ordeal was particularly heinous. Just 15 when she was first trafficked and raped, she said her captors told her their actions were “halal,” meaning permissible under Islamic law.
Until her escape earlier this year, she had been sold five times to IS men of Saudi, Syrian, and Iraqi origin — the last one, a medical doctor from Mosul, she said.
According to the Kurdish Regional Government, 3,543 women in total went missing during IS’ takeover of Sinjar.
Bashar was beaten regularly, put to work as a house slave for her captor’s family in Raqqa, and forced to work in an explosives warehouse, where she made suicide vests using a chemical paste infused with small metal components, or “pieces of iron,” she recalls.
IS continues to terrorize her family to this day. Her older sister Shaha remains captive in Raqqa, and a few weeks ago, an uncle received a call from an IS militant there offering to sell her back for $40,000 — without her four children.
Shaha was taken at the same time as Lamiya, alongside their parents and two brothers. Her four young children — two girls and two boys— were taken with her, but they’ve been kept apart during their years in IS captivity.
“The Daesh fighter spoke with my uncle; we couldn’t pay, and also we couldn’t trust him,” Bashar said, using the Arab term for the terrorist group. “And my sister said she would not come alone without children (sic).”
“I am afraid” for her safety, said Bashar, but “I want that these areas be liberated from Daesh.”
IS fighters have been contacting Yazidi families and NGOs of late, offering to sell back family members, most of whom are women. “I know of five or six cases,” Dr. Mirza Dinnayi, the director of Air Bridge Iraq, a charity assisting trauma victims, told VICE News. He added that there are likely many more.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, the Kurdish minister of foreign affairs, said he had heard of other similar cases. “We will do everything to rescue them alive,” he told VICE News. “It’s not about ransoms; we’ll do whatever is possible to rescue them alive.” The “whatever” includes using satellite imagery and information-sharing to locate and save as many Yazidi women and girls as possible.
After several failed attempts, Bashar finally managed to escape from IS captivity in April. It began when she gained access to a phone, which she used to contact an uncle, who directed her out of Hawija, where she was being held. She was assisted by a smuggler in Mosul whom her uncle had arranged to deliver her to another family in government-controlled territory. They walked all through the night. She traveled for over 24 hours with another young Yazidi woman, before an IED exploded close to the front line, killing her friend and badly injuring Bashar. She was saved by her smuggler.
Today, she lives with permanent facial scarring and the total loss of sight in her right eye.
Soon after her escape, she traveled to Germany to undergo crucial surgery to save the sight in her left eye. She continues to receive laser treatment for the scars on her face, as well as vital psychological support.
In Germany, she joined two of her sisters and stepmother, all of whom suffered similar fates while in IS captivity. They all continue to receive trauma-recovery care. Bashar’s German visa runs out in February, but her family has begun a process that would eventually give them permanent residence. In the meantime, she hopes to start school again.
Bashar may long for a return to the childhood that was stolen from her, but she’s also mindful of the upcoming prize for which she is nominated, and its significance. She hopes the prize will shine a light on her village’s plight and its perseverance. “This prize could be a reason that other nations will think about our mothers and sisters who are still in captivity and still suffering,” she told VICE News. “It is not only for me; it is for all my village and Yazidi women and girls.”
The Sakharov Prize winners will be announced on Oct. 27.