1200 Kidnapped Citizens Entering World of Unknown Destiny, Half of Whom Women and Children
Ninnoy / Jafar Al Talafarry
Kareem Qassim, a 30-year old Turkmen, who lives in the environs of the city of Karbala, south of Iraq, is now busy preparing the last requirements needed for what he dubbed ‘the salvation journey’, which he hopes it can take him to Germany. He doesn’t care about the other members of his family who spend most of their time in front of the silver screen to follow up the operations of liberating Ninnoy. “It seems there is no end… The war here has many facets and it will continue for decades to come.”
Qassim immigrated with his family from Talafar in June 2014 to the holy city of Shiites. While talking via Skype with his friend who managed to reach Germany after a rather hazardous journey during which he crossed the borders of four countries, he jumped suddenly from his place to answer a phone call from his younger brother Muhammad, who belongs to one of the factions of ‘Al Hashd Al Shabbi’, which is fighting nearby Talafar to restore it from ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’, known as ‘ISIS’.
Within hours, roughly 200,000 other Turkmen Shiites immigrated on that same date, moving southwards, leaving the city in which they were born and shared its alleys with their fellow citizens, regardless of their different faiths for decades.
In the course of the phone call, Qassim kept his face away from his family, trying hard to hide his teary eyes, and keep the cell phone away from his face to prevent his brother from hearing the echo of the words that were strangled in his throat. ” I might never see him again. He might not be back. Thousands of Turkmen had been killed in Talafar and thousands more would be killed. They have been saying for years that they would change the city into a burial place for us.”
What actually made Qassim take the decision to leave Talafar for good even before the running fight over the city could say its final word and even before the vision of the situation could become clear in the last two strongholds remaining under the control of ISIS in Ninnoy, Iraq’s northern governorate, which is known for the multiplicity of its faiths and sects – is the absence of any hope for the future. He still keeps the sad memory of losing two cousins during the invasion of the city.
” Twenty years of my life have gone during long years of blockade and poverty, years of wars and abduction. Thousands had lost their lives in a frivolous war that does not seem to come an end. And they still ask me why I want to leave !”
Abbas Mohammed is of the same opinion. Like tens of thousands of Turkmen Shiites, he lives either in one of the makeshift camps or mosques south of Iraq, waiting for more years to be back home.
” Before ISIS took over the city, we were not any better than we are now, simply because over the last ten years frequent explosions were everywhere and ethnic killing was something common. We were in a big jail, and leaving for the nearby Mosul was a risk that might cost one’s life.”
Mohammed stresses on the fact that the sectarian strife turned each and every one into a possible victim at the bloody hands of the extremist groups. ” Movement anywhere was rather risky in a surrounding ruled by extremists, in the absence of the state authority. What is worse is that we were deprived from moving into some neighborhoods after the city was ethnically divided.”
He was on the verge of tears while showing us some mobile photos of his relatives who had either been kidnapped or fallen victims. “This is my father at the time ISIS attacked the city . He refused to let us leave the city like what other people did. We were a big family consisting of 15 persons, including 7 girls and women. There was no means of transport available to all of us, and leaving the city on foot was something exhausting and risky. My father asked me and two of my brothers to leave alone to avoid being a target for the militants. He believes that kids and women are safe and nobody will put them at risk.”, he said.
On the dawn of that day, Mohammed left Talafar, taking some side risky roads. And after he finally arrived before noon in the nearby Sinjar, which was then ruled by the Kurdish Beshmerga, he called his family. ” My mom answered my father’s cell phone. She said while crying that the militants attacked them and took my dad and grandpa. We kept in touch and my mom was answering our calls. But the next day, a stranger answered the call and told me that the family is kept in custody with him.”, he said.
The mobile was kept closed for the next weeks and months. ” We now know nothing about them. I hope they’re still alive. ISIS’s militants had not only shed humans’ blood, but they destroyed everything belonging to Shiites. Many houses, Shiite mosques and libraries had been flattened to the ground, everything related to their history was ruined.”
Turkmen Rescue Establishment, that was following up the file of those killed or kidnapped by ISIS, documented 1200 abduction cases of Turkmen citizens until late April 2016, mostly from amongst Talafar Shiites, including 120 children and around 450 girls and women.
Most of the Shiites, who fled from Talafar and the villages of Ninnoy valley, in what is seen as the largest exodus operation ever recorded in the history of modern Iraq – most of them settled in Hussayneyat shelters on the Najaf-Karbala road, and in other places that are originally prepared to host the visitors of holy burial grounds. Others resettled in tents placed along the borders of the two cities. Some stay in Al Hedareya (40 km. away from Najaf) and about 1000 families live in Al Sayeda Rouqaya makeshift camp
(10 km. from Karbala center), whereas quite a few number of immigrants preferred to settle in rented houses within the cities of the mostly-Shiite southern governorates.
The kidnapped victims
Ali Gameel, a 40-year old Turkmen immigrant, talks while sitting on an old carpet in a small room in the environs of the holy Shiite city of Najaf, which received tens of thousands from Talafar population. He speaks about the last hours experienced by his brother’s 11- member family, who had fallen into the captivity of ISIS, during their attempt to leave Sinjar for the south of the country.
” We formed a 12-vehicle caravan and made our way to Rabeha neighborhood, leaving Sinjar which was then threatened to fall after Talafar. But we took the wrong way and found ourselves in Al Owaynat neighborhood. We discovered that when we saw ISIS black banners. The cars at the front of the caravan attempted to return but they were forced to stop after being faced with a thunder of gunshots, whereas the cars in the back managed to return. I was lucky to be in one of these cars.”
Some had fallen in the grip of ISIS, including the family of Gameel’s brother, which consists of 6 women and 5 men, and since then all contacts with them were cut off.
While wiping the sweat from his reddened face, Gameel went on saying, ” We were shocked. We didn’t know what to do then, and while being afraid of falling into the hands of the organization, someone from the neighborhood offered to help us to bring the women back, but not men. To do this, he asked for a car to do that.”
” I gave him my car and after half an hour, he was back to tell us that the militants took the car and refused to set anyone free. And since then, we know nothing about them.”, he said.
Gameel seemed to have lost the hope of any possibility to see them again, but he was sure to be back home soon after Talafar is restored. ” I’ll return hoping to find out anything that might guide me to their whereabouts.”
Information from Turkmen Rescue Establishment refers that most of the kidnapped men (more than 600) were executed in genocide operations. But most of the women and children are still alive, including those who were transferred to the Syrian city of Al Reka, whereas a handful of them managed to flee, or being restored by their families after paying ransoms through individual efforts.
That same establishment documented by names the killing of 416 Turkmen in Ninnoy, and the injury of 746 others by ISIS in the incidents that took place in the governorate of Ninnoy as a whole. Some were killed before the battles started to take over Talafar, when ISIS attacked the city using mortar guns and missiles. Some lost their lives during direct encounters with the organization. Others met their ends during immigrating from the city, and from the other Turkmen Shiite regions, which then witnessed the exodus of more than 200,000 Turkmen and around 400,000 Yazidis, according to the information given by some MPs and NGOs.
The Forgotten File
Turkmen activists describe the file of the kidnapped Turkmen females as a ‘forgotten tragedy’. They refer to the difficulty of handling their issue, since the society itself prefers to overlook their existence . Their families reject revealing any information about them, not only this, but they regard the mere talking about such issue as a ‘shameful disgrace’, as pointed out by Abbas Al Mawla, a Turkmen activist.
Al Mawla warned against the seriousness of this situation, and its impact on the future of the kidnapped ones and the possibility of setting them free. He refers that the families of the abducted victims have not yet received any national or international support assisting in liberating their girls like what happened with the Yazidis. Yet, some female Turkmen managed to free themselves from ISIS detainment, and already reached their families who refused to give any information about them.
Al Mawla focuses on some points: the necessity of documenting everything about the kidnapped ones, the need to offer the badly-needed support for their liberation, the need to establish centers for rehabilitating the kidnapped after being set free, and referring all those involved in their captivity and enslavement to international courts. “This is the way justice can be done and consideration can be restored to those helpless victims. Such thing cannot be achieved through being ashamed of revealing their stories.”
Heman Ramzi, the chairwoman of the Organization for Turkmen Affairs ‘Tolai’, who documented the names of 850 Turkmen kidnapped in Ninnoy, of both gender, said that the organization faces a serious difficulty in obtaining information due to the lack of cooperation from the families of the kidnapped ones. She referred to the documentation of genocide cases of nine Turkmen women, who were raped and their husbands were murdered in the village of ‘Kurat Kwean’, on the edges of Mosul. She also referred to many tragic stories which the victims’ families prefer to keep abreast, simply because any revelation of this kind of stories will ‘aggravate their agonies’ in a society governed by tribal values.
Ramzy pointed out that there are escape cases from the organization detainment centers. “We’ve been acquainted with a number of cases, where 18 girls and women managed to run off. But most of them met their ends for not being able to walk for days on their way home. One of them was heavy with a child and died with her fetus. Only five of them managed to make the journey on foot, two from Karkuk and three are now undergoing psychiatric treatment outside Iraq.”, she said.
She also draws attention that no authority has so far adopted the issue of the Turkmen kidnapped women, like what happened with the Yazidis, in spite of submitting all the documented information to the concerned authorities of the central government and to the authority of Kurdistan province. ” We laid the whole issue at all doors, but in vain. Not even an investigation committee was formed to consider the matter earnestly. That what makes us look upon it as an unknown file despite all the tragedies encompassing it.”
Another Turkmen activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, summed the bitter reality of the kidnapped saying, ” They have no hope to live even after being freed from ISIS.”
The organization has not stopped at killing men and the teenagers above 13, or at enslaving women, looking upon them as ‘infidels’. But they created a similar fate for children, through forcing them into training camps where they receive religious and psychological rehabilitation, to turn them into time-bombs in their battles.
MP Hassan Touran, acting chairman of the Turkmen Front, said that early last July, the organization forced 25 Turkmen children into a training camp, after they were taken from an orphanage in Mosul. They also targeted the former MP Iman Muhammad Younis Al Salman, who is a Sunni from Talafar, by abducting her four kids and killing both her and her spouse, in October 2014. Their two bodies were thrown into ‘Elw Anter’ well, north of Talafar, where the organization used to get rid of most of their victims’ bodies soon after they started to impose their control over the city. Two of her children were later on set free, but the fate of the other two is still unknown.
Al Salman was a member in the first session of Iraq’s parliament, but she later on devoted her time to run ‘Al Malak’ Humanitarian Organization, which was concerned with the issues of widows and orphans. Her political activity and her nomination for the last parliamentarian election within the list of ” United for Reform”, to represent Iraq’s Turkmen Front; was quite a sufficient ‘pretext’ to take her life.
Like thousands of Turkmen Shiites, who are waiting to restore Talafar and be acquainted with the fate of those kidnapped by the organization, thousands of Yazidi families are hopeful about the return of about 3500 abducted women and children, who were taken captives and enslaved.
In this context, the Yazidi fighter, Khalil Sinjari, said, ” Talafar was a center for the detention of Yazidi women and a location to transfer them either to Mosul or to the Syrian city of RekKa. It was a gateway to their enslavement. Hundreds of the city’s inhabitants and those of the neighboring regions such as Al Behag participated in all the killing , captivity and plunder crimes perpetrated against us. They had caused us untreatable wounds.”
However, hopes seem to be diminishing. Since after restoring more than half of Mosul, only a small number of the kidnapped women and girls were found. If they cannot be located in the other parts of Mosul and Talafar, that are still under ISIS’s control, this means beyond any doubt that most of those kidnapped had either been killed or compelled to leave for Rekka or Dir Alzour in Syria, a state of affairs that makes any hope for the comeback of most of them seems something impossible.
Khayrri Bouzanni, Director of Yazidi Affairs’ Circle, says that 6413 Yazidis of both gender were kidnapped by the organization as per the documents (including 3543 females and 2870 males), whereas 1293 were killed. Up till December 2016, 2851 from the total number of all the kidnapped were set free (including 1492 children of gender, 1013 women and 328 men). However, there are more than 3562 of the kidnapped of both gender still held by the organization (50% of whom are women); besides 2745 motherless or fatherless or parentless orphan children.
And due to the attacks launched by ISIS militants, the majority are coming from the edges of Mosul, Talafar and other regions west of Ninnoy, as many as 360,000 from the total number of 550,000 Yazidis in Iraq were compelled to immigrate leaving their homes behind.
The enormous number of victims, and of those kidnapped or missed, refers to the depth of the challenges that need to be confronted to re-stitch the social fabric which had been ripped apart by the organization. Yazidis, for instance, would not take less than a year after liberation to feel like returning home to Sinjar. The same applies to the Kurdish Sunni and Shiite Muslims of the city, something that might also be repeated in Talafar.
Abdu Dawoud, a Turkmen immigrant, who stayed in Karkuk, expresses his fears of the future. “No one knows how the angry Shiite Turkmen would react to the attempts made by ISIS to obliterate their existence in Talafar. They had killed and abducted hundreds of them and forced half of the city population to run off and be turned into immigrants or refugees. The organization brought warriors from Turkey, Caucuses, and other Arab countries to take the reins of the city and control even the destiny of the Talafar’s Sunnis.”, he said.
Ripping the Social Fabric Apart
Lawyer Dolfan Brawerri, draws attention to the social rupture ISIS will leave behind and the difficulty of restructuring coexistence. “It’s an entirely complicated process, not just a rhetorical speech delivered in a reconciliation conference, or the legislation of a new can set things right again. The situation is not solely concerned with the victims’ families.”, he said.
” The organization wanted to eradicate any opportunities for future coexistence and went on tearing the social fabric apart and implicated hundreds of the city Sunnis with it. They sought to devastate the Shiite history through blowing up all Shiite mosques, libraries, holy shrines, and cultural centers, even the houses of the political and tribal senior figures did not escape devastation.” he added.
” There are things irrevocable , and others will take long years of work in an environment that has been ethnically divided after the occupation of Iraq in 2003, when the country was pushed into a sectarian war, cropping up thousands of victims before it could be deescalated a little after 2009. But coexistence remained fragile in Talafar until ISIS appeared and divided the citizens of Turkmen into two conflicting sects.”, he said.
Such division seems crystal clear to all, including the Turkmen common people, the educated elite, and politicians, even outside the borders of Talafar. The sectarian difference seems to have overpowered the national unity.”
Hafal Mohammed, a writer concerned with the minorities’ statuses, comments on this situation saying, ” In the devastated city of Sinjar, which is known for its national, sectarian and religious diversity, most of its population look upon their return as madness amidst the anarchy of the widespread various militant formations, orientations and agendas. Yazidis fear of being exposed again to annihilation at the hands of the extremist groups that spread and disappear in the surrounding boroughs, villages and in the nearby tribal area. On the other hand, Muslims have their fears of the vengeance of the Yazidi hardliners, who lost their families and wait in makeshift camps on Sinjar Mount, and near their mass cemeteries- waiting for any opportunity for retaliation. Everyone fears everyone in a dramatic scene that will be repeated in Talafar and in a much vindictive form.”
Mohammed wonders, ” After all the rupture perpetrated by ISIS, and the tragic drama of the fallen victims, how can the conflicting powers of the oppressed victims and the criminal oppressor be convinced to return to their former common coexistence after expelling ISIS? And how can the Shiites be persuaded to be back home from the south, and how can they be assured that their existence would not be jeopardized again?, And in what way can the Sunnis be persuaded that they would not fall victims to the clout of the Shiite powers, who want to rule the city and turn it into a Shiite stronghold overlooking Syria?”
Amidst the murky scene formed by the sectarian wars, Abbas Mohammed Ali insists on rejecting the idea of leaving Ninnoy. “Yes, we won’t be able to restore our missing life or forget those who killed our families; neither can we be able to change our surroundings. But that does not in any way mean leaving everything behind”.
On the other side of the equation, people like Kareem Qassem and many other hundreds of Shiites and Sunnis living in Talafar and in Yazidi Sinjar, are seen sneaking into the international borders, in their search of a better life outside the map of the fire that had been smoldering for 13 years.
The above investigation was achieved with the support of the Iraqi Network for Investigative Journalism ‘NIRIJ’.