Aug 24, 2016
After escaping the clutches of Islamic State, Yasmin, a 17-year-old Yazidi girl, was so traumatized by her captivity that she poured gasoline on herself and set it alight _ hoping to render herself no longer desirable
VILLINGEN-SCHWENNINGEN, Germany — The Yazidi girl had been in the safety of a refugee camp in Iraq for two weeks when she imagined she heard the voices of Islamic State fighters outside her tent.
Petrified by the thought of again facing rape and abuse at their hands, 17-year-old Yasmin vowed to make herself undesirable. So she doused herself in gasoline and lit a match. The flames burned her hair and face, peeling away her nose, lips and ears.
It was in that state, physically disfigured and mentally so scarred that she had falsely thought her former captors were coming for her, that German doctor Jan Ilhan Kizilhan found her in a refugee camp in northern Iraq last year.
Now 18, Yasmin is one of 1,100 women, mainly of the Yazidi religious minority, who have escaped IS captivity and are in Germany for psychological treatment. The pioneering program that Kizilhan helps run, which has attracted international attention, tries to address a basic problem: Long after the women are rescued, the trauma remains. Even in refugee camps in Iraq, Kizilhan noted some 60 cases where Yazidi women committed suicide.
Recalling her ordeal today, Yasmin hunches over in her chair, grips her gnarled hands together and looks down at the floor. But she straightens up and her face brightens as she remembers Kizilhan entering her tent in the refugee camp. He told her and her mother, in their own language, how he could help in Germany.
"I said, of course I want to go there and be safe, and be the old Yasmin again," she recounts. She asks that her last name not be used out of ongoing fear of possible reprisal from Islamic State sympathizers.
It was on August 3, 2014, that IS fighters swept into the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, home to the majority of the world's Yazidis. They killed the men and took some of the boys, women and girls. An estimated 3,200 Yazidis are still in IS captivity in Syria.
As the attack unfolded, members of the estimated 100,000-strong Yazidi community in Germany approached politicians in Berlin for help. Winfried Kretschmann, the governor of the prosperous western state of Baden Wuerttemberg, was moved and decided to take action.
"He asked us, what can we do? We're a state we don't have an army," recalls Michael Blume, the state's expert on minority issues. "We looked into it and said, no state's ever done it, but we could bring a special quota here."
State parliament across party lines committed 95 million euros over three years to bring women abused by IS — most Yazidis but also Christians and Shiite Muslims — to Germany. Blume reached out to Kizilhan, a psychologist specializing in trauma. Kizilhan, who is of Kurdish background, was born in Turkey and speaks Kurdish, including the Yazidi dialect, German, Turkish, Farsi, English and even some Arabic.
From February 2015 to January 2016, small teams of experts including Blume and Kizilhan went to refugee camps in northern Iraq. Kizilhan made 14 trips himself and personally interviewed all 1,400 women and girls found, trying to determine who would benefit best from the limited program.
"It was an evil that I had never seen in my life," he says. "I'm experienced in trauma, I had already worked with patients from Rwanda, from Bosnia, but this was very different. If you have an eight-year-old girl in front of you and she's saying she was sold eight times by IS and raped 100 times during 10 months, how can humankind be so evil?"
In the end, he decided upon 1,100 women and girls ranging in age today from 4 to 56, rejecting only those whom he didn't think psychotherapy could help.
Kizilhan and others then met with the head religious leader of the Yazidis, the Baba Sheikh, at the holy site of Lalish. He agreed not to ostracize the victims, despite the perceived affront to honor in their culture. Instead, he kissed each one on the head and told them their community was very proud of them.
"Most of the women cried, very shocked but happy to be accepted by the highest priest," Kizilhan says.
Yasmin was 16 when she and her sister were separated from their family as they fled into the mountains, and spent seven days in IS captivity. After they escaped, she was still terrified and always crying.
She falters when trying to describe what led her to set fire to herself, talking vaguely rather than reliving the memory.
"Their voice was in my ears," she says. "I could hear their voice, I was so scared."
Then she heard what she thought was a shell exploding nearby.
"I couldn't take it anymore," she says. "And this is what happened to me."
Today, Yasmin shares a modest single-family home with her parents, sister and two brothers, who joined her later. Her sister, a year older, won't talk about what happened to her, and nor will most of the other women in the program. But for Yasmin, the desire for the world to know outweighs her hesitance to dredge up horrific memories.
"It is very important to tell our stories because the world should know what happened to us, so that it doesn't happen again," she says.
In addition to long-term psychotherapy, she has somewhere between five and 15 surgeries ahead of her, Kizilhan says. She dreams of going out in public again without turning heads, without children looking at her and crying.
"I want to be through the surgeries and be healthy again," she says. "My family is here and I want to start a new life."