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After IS: Yazidi woman sold as slave by Islamic State struggled to protect her children

Laila Twalo Khidher, center, sits with her son Salar, left, and daughter Sara, in a town in the Duhok governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan, on Aug. 23, 2018. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

DUHOK GOVERNORATE, Iraq -- In a town in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan here, there lies an open field crowded with makeshift homes made of concrete blocks and plastic sheets, the area littered with garbage.

"There is no future for us living here," said 31-year-old Laila Twalo Khidher, a member of the Kurdish Yazidi religious minority who gave the Mainichi Shimbun permission to use her real name in this article. Like others belonging to the group, she ended up in the town after being driven from her home by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group. She lives with her son Salar, 6, and her daughter Sara, 5.

Laila is from Sinjar, an area home to a large Yazidi community close to the Syrian border. On Aug. 3, 2014, IS fighters launched a series of surprise attacks on the local villages, and Laila tried to escape by car with her children. However, they were stopped by bearded men with guns and taken prisoner.

For the next nine months or so, the family was moved from one school or prison in IS-held territory to another. Laila had been separated from her husband Marwan, then 30, but was allowed to see him again after agreeing to convert to Islam. Then one day, all the Yazidi men were rounded up and taken away -- Marwan included.

Laila and her children were then taken to the IS "capital" of Raqqa, Syria, where she was put on sale at a slave market. She says that virgins fetched especially high prices. She made sure not to wash and smeared mud on her children, hoping to make all of them unappealing.

"I tried to make it look like we were a smelly, dirty family, and pretended to be a sick woman," she tells the Mainichi Shimbun. She was determined not to be separated from her children.

In the end, she and her son and daughter were all bought almost right away by an Iraqi man. Over the next three days, he beat her repeatedly and then gave her to another man. She was passed on again after that, to a plastic surgeon calling himself Abdullah. He was terribly cruel. In the roughly eight months Laila lived with Abdullah, he separated her from her children and whipped them whenever he was displeased.

"My children were always frightened of him. I decided I had to use my own body to protect them," Laila recalled. She added that she did every debasing act he demanded of her, thereby keeping her children out of his sight. But this was not the end of her struggles. She was bought again by IS fighters from Lebanon and other countries, eventually becoming the "property" of a total of seven men. She also became pregnant by Abdullah and another man, and was forced to have abortions.

In April 2017, Laila made contact with a human smuggler, and after her relatives paid some 30,000 dollars to her seventh "owner" and the smuggler, she was finally free.

While Laila was enslaved, her son Salar had been attending an IS school. Even after the family was freed, he recited passages from the Quran and would blurt out, "Yazidis are heretics so they should be killed!" Laila said that Salar is still restless and cannot control his anger. Her daughter Sara's hair has grown down to her waist, but she says she will not cut it "until father comes home."

Laila, however, does not plan to stay for very much longer in Duhok, where she has no income. She hopes to travel with her children to Australia, claim refugee status and begin a new life.

"I will tell my story so that my children will never have to endure such sufferings again," Laila said. She had faced the interviewer all throughout telling her story, but now her gaze faltered and she looked away.

"I want news of my husband," she said. "Only my body is still alive. My heart is already dead."

(Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, Osaka City News Department)

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