Freed after years in jihadist captivity, Jihan faced an agonzing ultimatum: abandon her three small children fathered by an ISIS fighter or risk being shunned by her community.
“Of course I couldn’t bring them home. They’re Daesh [ISIS] children,” said Jihan Qassem matter-of-factly, sitting in a sparse concrete structure she now calls home.
“How could I, when my three siblings are still in [ISIS] hands?,” she added, highlighting the harsh reality that the children serve as constant reminders of the brutalities inflicted on the closed, tight-knit Yazidi community by ISIS.
Dozens of Yazidi women and girls systematically raped, sold and married off to jihadists after being abducted by ISIS from their ancestral Iraqi home of Sinjar in 2014 have faced the same gut-wrenching dilemma. What to do about the children born of these forced unions?
Now freed, the women are desperate to heal from the wounds inflicted on the conservative minority – but raising jihadist offspring would make closure impossible, they said.
Kidnapped at 13, Jihan was forced to marry a Tunisian ISIS fighter at 15 and then fled with him and their children from ISIS’s bombarded Syrian holdout of Baghouz four months ago.
When US-backed forces learned she was Yazidi, they whisked her and her two-year-old boy, year-old girl and four-month-old infant to a northeast Syria shelter hosting other mothers from the brutalized minority.
The safehouse, known as the Yazidi House, circulated her photograph on Facebook and her older brother Saman, still in northern Iraq, recognized his long-lost sister.
He wanted her home. But without the children.
After days of an anguished back-and-forth, Jihan decided she would leave her infants with Syrian Kurdish authorities in exchange for what she said was her real family.
“They were so young. They were attached to me and I to them… but they’re Daesh children,” she murmured.
She said she doesn’t have any pictures of her children and doesn’t want to remember them.
“The first day is hard, and then little by little, we forget them,” she said.
‘No one asks about them’
For centuries, Yazidis who married outside the sect — even against their will — were ex-communicated.
Girls forcefully taken by ISIS in 2014 risked suffering the same fate, but a landmark decree by Yazidi spiritual leader Baba Sheikh said survivors of ISIS’s sexual abuse should be honoured by the community.
That compassion however has not been extended to their children.
In April, the Yazidis’ Higher Spiritual Council issued an ambiguous decree welcoming “children of survivors,” sparking hope of a second reformation to accept those born of a Yazidi mother and IS father.
But a ferocious backlash from conservative Yazidis prompted the council to clarify that nothing had changed: it would only welcome children born to two Yazidi parents.
Any further reform was seen as a threat, opening the floodgates of change to a traumatized community, said Yazidi activist Talal Murad.
“If there’s this kind of change in the creed, other things could change too – there will be a breakdown, a total collapse of the Yazidi religion,” said Murad, who also heads Ezidi24, an outlet covering Yazidi affairs.
Council representative Ali Kheder told AFP the debate wasn’t solely about dogmatic reform.
“First, according to Iraqi law, any child with a missing father will be registered as a Muslim, automatically,” said Kheder in the Council’s headquarters in Sheikhan.
Islamic law, on which the Iraqi constitution is based, stipulates that religion is inherited from the father.
Psychologically too, Kheder said the Yazidi society remained too scarred by the prolonged abduction of their own people to accept raising the children of their abusers.
“Until now, we have thousands of Yazidi women and girls in [ISIS] hands. No one asks about them. They ask about a few children that can be counted on one hand,” said Kheder.
The Council said it does not keep statistics on returning Yazidi survivors with infants born of rape.
– Agence France-Presse