Yazidi Women Hide Among ISIS Wives In Syria Detention Camp

Jun 5, 2019
Originally published on June 7, 2019 12:56 am
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Members of an oppressed religious minority have had to take extreme steps to survive. They are Yazidis who live in northern Iraq, where many died or were enslaved when ISIS seized the region five years ago. Now that ISIS has been driven back, Yazidis are slowly returning to view. And some have now turned up inside a detention camp for ISIS families. NPR's Jane Arraf has had one dramatic story after another about the Yazidis. And she has now met one young Yazidi woman who was hiding among ISIS wives.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I'm sitting on the floor with Navin Dinai (ph) in a house in a quiet village in northeastern Syria. Dinai is 24, a former radio announcer. It's the very morning she's been freed from the camp. She says she feels reborn.

NAVIN DINAI: It's now also, like, dream for me. Now I know I'm free. I am so, so happy.

ARRAF: Dinai was detained with thousands of others when the last piece of ISIS territory fell in March. She ended up in the al-Hol detention camp, too afraid to tell anyone she was Yazidi. We're at the home of the Yazidi official who got her out of the camp. She's still dressed in the long, black skirt she wore among ISIS wives. She wears glasses with thick, black frames. She switches to the Arabic she learned from the fighters who enslaved her for five years.

DINAI: (Through interpreter) When it came to al-Hol, I wanted to surrender. But I was afraid. Maybe they would say I was ISIS. There were a lot of things I was afraid of.

ARRAF: She was even afraid she would somehow be sent to an American prison.

DINAI: (Through interpreter) Until yesterday, all my days were spent in fear. If I revealed myself, I was afraid. If I didn't reveal myself, I was afraid.

ARRAF: So for weeks, she moved from tent to tent in the heavily guarded foreigner section of the camp, staying with women who left Europe and other places to live under ISIS. There are 11,000 women and children in the foreigner section, so it was easy to hide. Dinai learned English in the camp. She says she lost track of time. She might have been there a month. It might have been three months.

DINAI: One day like one month for me.

ARRAF: She was afraid of the Kurdish Syrian guards. So they wouldn't see her face, she didn't go to the market. To the Western women she stayed with, she called herself Aisha or Um Fatima (ph) - typical Muslim names.

DINAI: (Through interpreter) I didn't tell anyone I was Yazidi. When they would say, where are you from, I would say, excuse me. I don't want to say where I am from. And they would say, OK, OK.

ARRAF: And then one day, she heard a Kurdish journalist from the part of Iraq where she's from interviewing a group of British ISIS wives. She told some of the women who she really was.

DINAI: (Through interpreter) Honestly, they helped me when they knew I was Yazidi. They encouraged me and helped me to reveal myself.

ARRAF: The journalist, Barzan Jabar, persuaded her to wait for him to bring a Yazidi official to the camp. She waited for hours, her heart pounding.

DINAI: (Through interpreter) I told the women, if he doesn't come by by evening, I'm going to go and hide again.

ARRAF: Just then, Jabar and the Yazidi official returned and convinced her it was safe to come out. She didn't know that it would ever happen.

DINAI: Maybe yes, maybe not. Maybe one day come, I am free, maybe not.

ARRAF: ISIS swept into Dinai's home region of Sinjar in 2014, intent on wiping out Yazidis. They killed hundreds of people and enslaved thousands of others. Dinai had quit school after seventh grade because of health problems. At age 19, just before ISIS came in, she was working in community radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: On Sinjar Mountain radio, Dinai took song requests, read the news and hosted a food program. The people she worked with are scattered now in Iraq, Germany and the U.S. In Sinjar, there are still mass graves being uncovered. More than 2,000 Yazidis taken captive are still missing, and there are dozens of women and children believed to be still in hiding in al-Hol camp. Dinai doesn't want to talk a lot about what happened after she was captured. She was held in guesthouses for ISIS fighters in Mosul and then in Syria.

DINAI: (Through interpreter) I was sometimes with other girls and sometimes alone by myself in a room. There weren't many ISIS coming to the room; just the men who owned me.

ARRAF: She hadn't spoken to her family for four years. When she called to tell them she was free...

DINAI: (Through interpreter) My father was crying. I was very sad to see him cry.

ARRAF: Like other Yazidis from Sinjar, they're living in a camp for displaced people in Iraq. Dinai still has her hair covered, compulsory under ISIS but something young Yazidis don't do. I ask if she thinks she'll keep it that way.

DINAI: Maybe not, but now I am so tired.

ARRAF: Too tired to make decisions about what she'll do with her future. She'll have to wait days, maybe even weeks for the border to open between Syria and Iraq. And then she wants to rest and spend time with her family. Then she'll think about the future she thought she might never have.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, in northeastern Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.