At 17, Farida was forced into sexual slavery by Islamic State soldiers. This is the story of her extraordinary escape.
In a small village of Kojo in northern Iraq, Farida was living a “simple” life, harbouring dreams about the one thing many Western teens see as interfering with their daily life — school.
“We didn’t have that big of dreams. My big dream was to continue school to become a maths teacher,” she told the ABC.
Later, that very school would forever be stamped in the villagers’ memories as a place where their families were murdered.
Born into a family of four brothers and a father who worked for the Iraqi Army, Farida developed a quality she later associated with saving her life.
“The reason that I tried to keep strong was, my father inspired me and said, ‘you are strong and I’m sure you will be strong, doesn’t matter when and how’,” she said.
She now thinks he might have foreseen what was looming — after all, the Yazidis had been persecuted many times before.
And sure enough, on August 3, 2014, Islamic State (IS) militants surrounded the villages near Mount Sinjar.
While hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains where many of them later perished, for the residents in Kojo it was desperately late — IS had already started blockading the nearby villages.
What began as a negotiating campaign to turn the Kurdish religious minority into Muslims ended in genocide.
Men, women and children were taken to the school where they were robbed of their valuables and executed.
She lost her father and all but one brother — she didn’t know it then, but he had survived by pretending to be dead among the corpses.
Farida’s mother was captured by the militants and the 17-year-old was taken to a slave market in Mosul.
Sold as a sex slave
IS militants grouped slaves into three categories: virgins who were sold as sex slaves and generated income for the caliphate; young women with small kids; and women with older kids and elderly women, who did manual labour.
Teenage Farida’s body was sometimes sold, sometimes “gifted” to IS soldiers.
“I have been in many different places when I was in captivity, but most of them, they were the same,” she said.
They were markets for Yazidi girls. They [IS soldiers] were selling Yazidi girls and giving them as gifts and raping them again and again.
“I have seen all these things.
“They sold me without money also.”
An indication of how far the IS stronghold’s tentacles spread — among her buyers were militants from Libya in northern Africa.
Failed escapes lead to torture
During four months of captivity, Farida tried to escape twice from the “military prison-like” buildings. Each failed attempt resulted in torture, leading to seven suicide attempts.
“They were always beating me, and in Syria one day they beat me much more than on other days. Even now some of my friends — the ones who were in captivity with me — say, ‘we will never forget how they were beating you’,” she said.
All the while, Farida pretended not to speak Arabic.
“One of the reasons was, I didn’t want to communicate with them to reveal information when they asked me questions — because of my family,” she said.
“Also, I didn’t want to read the Koran.
And when they were talking to each other, I pretended I didn’t understand Arabic because I wanted to see what they were going to do and what they were going to plan.
And then one day, a Muslim man from Farida’s region told the soldiers Yazidis in her village did speak Arabic and she was “lying and cheating”.
With her disguise fading and two other imprisoned girls recently killed, she panicked.
“When I was watching how they beat younger girls, aged eight and nine, and they were raping many other girls, beating them, that was giving me more strength to escape and be their voice,” she said.
Finding a path to freedom
One day, Farida found a phone where a SIM card hadn’t been removed and called her uncle.
“When I called my uncle and told him I’m Farida, he told me, ‘no, Farida is not alive’. He just cancelled [the call],” she said.
“Then I called him again and told him, ‘no, it’s me, I’m alive,’ until I led him to believe that I’m alive.”
Emotively, she started plotting one more escape.
It was something utterly trivial, a negligent act, through which she regained her freedom.
They thought they had locked the door, but it was actually open,” she said.
That night, at 1:00am she and five other girls ran out of the compound in Syria.
Anxious the militants were going to track them down, the girls walked all night and hid in the valley — until they saw a house.
“I told my friends, ‘I’ll go and see at the house if they can help us,” she said.
“If the family in the house is also with IS, I will not come back. Don’t come to the same house and follow me.”
But one of the girls interjected: “You have helped me all the while, and I will not let you go alone.”
The family in the house helped them flee, but her escape highlights the more sinister, financial motives of some who assisted the IS captives.
“They helped us, but we paid them later,” she said.
Nowhere to call home
Farida, like many former IS sex slaves, found herself alone in a refugee camp in Iraq — freed but nothing to return to.
There, she met Professor Jan Kizilhan, the head of a German refugee program — the Special Quota Project — which has seen psychological treatment and visas granted to 1,100 former IS slaves.
He has personally interviewed and conducted psychological tests on 1,400 sex slaves like Farida. The stories are gut-wrenching.
“When a nine-year-old girl sat in front of me and told the story of how they [IS terrorists] observed when they executed her father and grandfather, and took her alone to the city of Mosul and later to Raqqa, and during 10 months was raped around 100 times by eight different men, you ask yourself, ‘how can this happen?’,” he said.
“This girl asked me many times, ‘why are humans so cruel?’.”
Sometimes it took him weeks to decide who could be given a new chance in Germany.
With one 16-year-old rape survivor in a refugee camp, it was a matter of days.
“At [one] night, she had a nightmare and she believed that IS was coming back to take her again. She panicked and thought, ‘what can I do, because I know if they take me they will rape me again’,” he said.
So, in her shock situation she took gasoline and burnt herself — 80 per cent of her skin was totally burnt.
“I talked urgently with our government and in two or three days we were able to take a special flight and bring her to Germany, and she has had 28 operations.”
Adjusting to a safer world
Farida and other former sex slaves were given a chance to new life in the “free world”.
They were accommodated in safe houses in south-west Germany.
The organisers were initially fearful IS would continue to target the women — once raped, the women are “married” to the militants and “belong to them”. Professor Kizilhan said some women were still threatened by the soldiers via social media.
When the girls and women first arrived, they huddled in the same room and locked the door every night. Now, they sometimes lock it, sometimes it stays open.
Slowly, they have started regaining control of their lives, the program’s social worker Marion said.
“The mothers had to grow into the role of the head of the family. They don’t know this role. And little by little, they learn it,” she said.
They live a normal life here, but I think they don’t recover completely. I think their whole life was shaped by the experience.
Professor Kizilhan agreed, but said psychotherapy had enabled the girls and women to control the symptoms — and evidence is in statistics.
In refugee camps, he documented about 60 suicides of former IS sex slaves. None of the 1,100 children and women assisted by the Special Quota Project have attempted suicide since arriving in Germany.
‘I can be alive again’
Three years on, Farida has taken back her independence.
“When I came to Germany and they helped me and supported me, that was a way that I can be alive again,” she said.
Through the Special Quota Project, she was joined by her brother and mother. Her life is now mostly spent in meetings, trains and airports, giving up to 20 speeches a week to raise awareness about the roughly 3,000 girls and women still in sexual enslavement.
Her message to them — don’t give up.
“I know it’s very difficult, I’ve been in the same situation. I know how hard it is to be with them [IS soldiers], but I want to tell you, don’t lose heart,” she said.
“Your community, families, friends are waiting for you. Never think that they won’t accept you. Be hopeful and one day you will be free.”