Khazir, Iraq: One wrong word to an ISIS fighter in Mosul last year was all it took to set in motion a harrowing chain of events for an Iraqi woman who became so traumatised that she trembled in fear even after escaping the group’s control.
The widowed mother was being vetted to receive a pension from the ultra-hardline Islamists a few months after they seized the northern city in 2014 and turned it into the Iraqi capital of their self-styled caliphate.
“I made the mistake of telling them my husband had been a victim of terrorism,” she said in an interview on Tuesday at a government-run camp in Khazir, east of Mosul. “One of them hit me and broke my teeth. Then they took me to a house and held me for three days.”
The jihadists locked her up in a filthy room with rats and bugs. She was blindfolded and her arms and legs were bound by chains as one of the men – or perhaps several, she couldn’t tell raped her over and over again, she said.
ISIS, which is putting up fierce resistance to a US-backed offensive to retake Mosul, the group’s last major stronghold in Iraq, has been accused of massacre, enslavement and rape since it swept across large swathes of the country’s north and west in 2014.
There was no way of verifying her story, but it reflected others’ experiences coming to light as civilians from the most populous city ever controlled by the jihadists emerge from their grip and grapple with 2-and-a-half years of suffering.
A 13-year-old girl who also spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said her father had married her to a neighbour four years her senior who turned out to be with ISIS.
The slender adolescent now clutching a pink sequinned purse said he had threatened to kill her and permitted his brothers to sexually assault her.
After escaping Mosul a few weeks ago, she learned he had made it to a nearby camp and informed the authorities. They detained him, but the pair remain married.
The 37-year-old widow fled last month to Khazir camp, where she receives counselling from UNFPA, a UN agency focused on gender-based violence. She asked that her name be withheld for fear of retribution and donned a face veil that revealed only her eyes.
When ISIS released her after the assault, the diminutive, round-faced woman returned home thinking her nightmare was over.
She sent her two younger children – now nine and 11 – to stay with relatives in the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil and planned to join them as soon as she could save enough money to smuggle herself and her eldest son.
But a few weeks later she discovered she was pregnant with the child of one of her ISIS tormentors. In addition to the trauma of being raped, she feared the stigma in Iraq’s conservative society of an unmarried woman giving birth. Within two months she had rushed into marriage with a man who had agreed to adopt the child as his own.
“Die of hunger or get married”
“They were forcing widows to get married. This was one of their rules: either die of hunger or get married,” said the woman, who occasionally wept and fidgeted with her hands underneath a loose-fitting garment.
Her new husband, though, also had a troubled past. An engineering student in his last year of university, he had been sentenced to death in connection with a crime of honour before ISIS seized Mosul. In jail, he befriended jihadists who helped him escape when the group routed government forces in 2014.
Soon after the pair married, ISIS gave the man an ultimatum: fight with us or we kill you. He yielded, and his new wife found herself back in the militants’ clutches.
When her family living outside Mosul learned that she was now married to an ISIS member, they severed all connections with her. Her late husband’s brother took custody of her two young children and moved them to Baghdad, vowing never to let her see them again.
When Iraqi forces reached her neighbourhood last month, she said, they detained her new husband to investigate his jihadist ties.
She took her eldest son with her to the camp but left the baby, now just over a year old, with her new husband’s second wife who remains in Mosul. His fate and that of hundreds or perhaps thousands of other children born to the jihadists remains unclear as the group loses much of its territory and its bid for statehood.
“They think this is the son of their father, they don’t know the truth,” the mother said of the second wife’s family. “The boy doesn’t look like me.”
She has resolved never to return to Mosul, even if ISIS is eliminated. “I want to go somewhere far away where nobody knows me.”