“I am not sure if I hope that she’s still alive. If she is, what horrors has she been going through for all these years?” Maisa Saleh’s sister Samar, now 30 years old, was kidnapped by ISIS six year ago. Maisa told me her story in her home in Berlin.
ISIS kidnapped thousands of Syrians, and the number is now estimated at over eight thousand people. The majority are men, but Human Rights Watch has documented the disappearances of several women and children in Syria.
Many of the women and girls who have escaped ISIS captivity, especially those from the Yezidi minority, have given harrowing accounts to the world of the torture and abuse that they suffered. Those brave survivors’ testimonies are now the nightmare scenarios that families of women kidnapped by ISIS fear for their loved ones who are still missing.
“To the men of ISIS, women are an inferior race, to be enjoyed for sex and discarded, or to be sold off as slaves,” Maisa told me.
The impact on families of people kidnapped by ISIS is massive. They have no information about the fate of their loved ones, nor what they went through or are still going through.
Every family with a loved one kidnapped by ISIS is well aware that the leadership of ISIS have a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings. They not only justify violence, but elevate and celebrate sexual assault as spiritually beneficial and even virtuous.
Women and girls kidnapped by ISIS are considered combat rewards and tagged as ‘Sabaya’, sex slaves. The doctorine of ISIS specifies that sabaya should be non-muslim women, but they classify anyone who opposes their extremists views or who belongs to religious minorities as non-muslim.
For families with female loved ones who are missing, sometime the thought that their loved one may have been killed soon after their kidnap gives them more council than knowing they have been raped and sex trafficked for years.
Information gathered from survivors and witnesses of ISIS slavery have confirmed that slave markets (known as ‘souk sabaya’ by ISIS members) were in Al Shaddi, Raqqa, and Tadmur in Syria.
I have interviewed and met a number of Syrian families with female family members who were snatched by ISIS. They have been offered very little support to deal with their trauma.
Culturally, especially for male family members, many families prefer not to discuss the specific risks to women that their loved ones are facing. The silence that followed one conversation I had with a man whose mother and sister were kidnapped by ISIS was one of the hardest I have endured working closely with victims and survivors of human rights violations in Syria. After five years, he still had no news of whether they were alive.
What shocked even me as a Syrian is the realisation that these families face extra stigmatization from their communities just because their loved one who is missing is female.
One man who preferred to stay anonymous, from Aswaida in southern Syria, whose wife was kidnapped by ISIS, told me, “Our communities continue to remind us that our sisters, mothers and daughters are for sure being sexually trafficked, raped and humiliated, as if we are able to forget that harsh reality at any moment.”
“The looks I get from my neighbours when they ask if there is any news about my wife hurt. I get the most angry when someone points out that my wife is attractive to men because of her looks. One time one of her colleagues at school, my wife is a teacher, told me she was gorgeous and they would never let her go.” I answered, “Hanan, the name of my wife, is gorgeous not was.”
Rape and other forms of torture and sexual violence, hostage taking, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and forcing persons to act against their religious beliefs are war crimes. Some of the violations and abuses comitted by ISIS are also crimes against humanity, including torture, rape and sexual slavery.