EXCLUSIVE: Delal is rebuilding her life in Australia after more than two years held captive by IS, amid moves to ensure her new home plays its part in bringing perpetrators to justice.
WARNING: This story contains distressing content.
Seeing a bearded man on the streets of her Australian coastal town is enough to grip Delal* with a paralysing certainty that her former captors have come, as promised, to wipe her and her kind off the face of the earth.
“They told us they would follow us wherever we go,” the Yazidi refugee tells SBS News. “There are a lot of bearded people in Australia and when I see them I’m fearful. It reminds me of them.”
Delal is one of hundreds of Yazidis now rebuilding their lives in Australia after IS brutally destroyed the world she knew when it targeted the ethnic minority over their religious beliefs in 2014.
The 31-year-old mother of four is one of an estimated 7,000 Yazidis kidnapped by the self-proclaimed Islamic State - to be sold between fighters, abused or raped - as it swept across the community’s heartland of Sinjar in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“They weren’t human beings,” she says. “They were monsters.”
Delal is also the first Yazidi held as an IS slave now resettled in Australia to speak publicly about her trauma.
Her testimony includes horrific accounts of the murder of children - some including acts of extreme sexual violence - and her torment at seeing her own young sons sent away to unwillingly train as the next generation of militants.
“Before Daesh [IS], our life was good,” she says. “I was a hairdresser. My brothers ... they had a welding business. My husband was a barber.”
Families torn apart
More than 40 of her direct relatives - including her husband - now remain unaccounted for, she says. Some haven’t been seen since the initial attack on Sinjar, in which almost half of the estimated 3,100 Yazidis killed were shot, beheaded or burned alive.
Others were never heard from again after IS separated men from women, and children from their parents, as part of what the United Nations recognises as a genocide.
“They handcuffed the men, blindfolded them, and they put them all in a line,” Delal says. “Up until now I don’t know what has happened to them.”
They handcuffed the men, blindfolded them, and they put them all in a line.
Genocide scholar and Yazidi rights activist Nikki Marczak, who has spent time with Delal, told SBS News the atrocities inflicted on the Yazidis were part of a very deliberate campaign by IS to wipe out a group it regarded as “devil-worshippers”.
“The violence unleashed against the community in 2014 was planned in advance and systematic, designed to dehumanise women, break apart families and traumatise the whole Yazidi population.”
Delal says her family was initially held together for nine months, when they were forcibly converted to Islam. About 300 men and 400 children were then taken away, with the remaining 600 women separated into two groups of women and girls.
“They were hitting us with their rifles, kicking us, they would pull the women’s ears, hitting women. They were breaking arms. They would force them into the cars. They were all separated.”
“We will never forget it, what has happened to us. It won’t disappear from the front of our eyes.”
Rape and torture
The brutal gang rape of a young girl by five IS fighters was just one of the atrocities Delal says she witnessed after families were split up. The young girl died from her injuries, she says.
“In their hands … you are dead,” she says. “You have no hope. I thought I wouldn’t come out alive.”
Unlike many, Delal says she was kept together with her three young children because they were unwell. She was also pregnant with her husband’s child and gave birth to her daughter while held for two months in an IS prison in Raqqa.
She was then sent to one of the notorious slave markets set up by IS militants, where Yazidi and Christian women were traded between fighters.
“Me and my children were sold for $45 [USD],” she tells SBS News, after the bidding kicked off at $37. Other women were sold for $30, others $19, she adds.
“If no one would buy for the prices they were calling, they would say ‘just come and take these Yazidi women for your slaves’. And one of them was calling out, ‘I need a gas cylinder, you can take a Yazidi woman for a gas cylinder.’”
Me and my children were sold for $45.
She says an Egyptian man was the first of three foreign IS fighters who bought her. The second, a Saudi, was the most brutal. Injuries sustained during her frequent assaults have required hospital treatment in Australia.
One of the militants threatened to sell-off her daughter, who was 10 at the time and still bears the scar from when he burned her with a hot iron. But the worst damage done to Delal and her children wasn’t physical.
Delal claims the family was forced to watch the sadistic torture and murder of a 16-month-old Yazidi girl, who had been taken away from her mother.
“After they did that, I cried a lot, and they told me ‘if you continue crying, we’ll do the same thing to your son’,” she says.
Boys trained as soldiers
Her two sons, then aged five and seven, also spent six months in an IS camp training as child soldiers. Delal says many children who found a way back to their families after such experiences were “lost”.
“Their mental situation is all mixed up,” she says. “When they took them away from their parents, they were very young. And during their captivity with them they teach them about how to use a gun, they teach them a bad version of Islam.”
Delal’s family was able to pay $35,000 via a broker - $7,000 per person - for her and her four children to escape their captives.
Being in Australia has given her children a sense of security that has helped them begin to move beyond their trauma - especially her youngest son.
“In Australia he’s forgotten a lot of it and slowly he’s coming back to us,” she says. “Here they take good care of us and they are being treated at the moment.”
[My son has] forgotten a lot of it and slowly he’s coming back to us.
Delal says she hopes to reunite in Australia with family, including four of her five sisters who have recently escaped IS and are living in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Her 13-year-old sister is still being held by a fighter. Her children still cry out for their father.
“I give them hope that he will be released and there are many people like him that are captured,” she says.
Hope for prosecution
Last year, the United Nations Security Council resolved to create an independent investigative team to collect, preserve and store evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by IS.
Daphne Haneman, director of the Yazidi rights group Yazda Australia, said little headway had been made.
“Nothing much is happening yet, and we may be waiting two years,” she said. “That’s pretty tragic.”
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told SBS News that Australia was working to assist resettled Yazidis deal with their trauma, help find and reunite them with loved ones still held captive, and to provide a pathway for justice should their tormentors be caught.
“If there is a way in which the federal police can be involved in taking witness statements or gathering of evidence here in Australia to facilitate a prosecution or an investigation then the police will do that,” Mr Dutton said.
Pursuing prosecutions “sends a very clear message that the civilised world won't tolerate the treatment of women and, in particular, young girls in this way and we need to make sure that Australia is part of that effort,” he said.
The civilised world won't tolerate the treatment of women and young girls in this way.
- Peter Dutton
Susan Hutchinson from the Australian-based “Prosecute don’t Perpetuate” campaign - which is calling for the prosecution of abuses by IS - said Mr Dutton’s remarks regarding investigations were encouraging “but now we need to see the action to back them up”.
“We need to see funding allocations, staff tasking, stakeholder engagement, multi-agency coordination, workshops to identify practical barriers and departmental commitments to overcome them,” Ms Hutchinson said.
*Name has been changed
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If you or someone you know is impacted by rape or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.