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Iraq: Forced Marriage, Conversion for Yezidis
Human Rights Watch
12 October 2014

(Dohuk, Iraq) - The armed group Islamic State is holding hundreds of Yezidi men, women, and children from Iraq captive in formal and makeshift detention facilities in Iraq and Syria.

The group has systematically separated young women and teenage girls from their families and has forced some of them to marry its fighters, according to dozens of relatives of the detainees, 16 Yezidis who escaped Islamic State detention, and two detained women interviewed by phone. They said the group has also taken away boys and forced captives to convert to Islam.

“The Islamic State’s litany of horrific crimes against the Yezidis in Iraq only keeps growing,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “We heard shocking stories of forced religious conversions, forced marriage, and even sexual assault and slavery – and some of the victims were children.”

None of the former or current female detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had been raped, though four of them said that they had fought off violent sexual attacks and that other detained women and girls told them that Islamic State fighters had raped them. One woman said she saw Islamic State fighters buying girls, and a teenage girl said a fighter bought her for US$1,000.

The systematic abduction and abuse of Yezidi civilians may amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.

Interviewees said Islamic State fighters captured the Yezidis, members of a religious minority, during the group’s offensive in northwest Iraq on August 3, 2014. In the first days, the group held the men, women, and children together. Islamic State then separated its captives into three categories: older women and mothers with younger children, in some cases with older men or husbands; women in their early 20s and adolescent girls; and younger men and older boys.

Islamic State has also detained at least several dozen civilians from other religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians and Shia Shabaks and Turkmen, representatives of those groups and relatives of detainees said.


In September and early October, Human Rights Watch interviewed 76 displaced Yezidis in the cities of Duhok, Zakho, and Erbil and surrounding areas in Iraqi Kurdistan. They reported that Islamic State was holding a total of 366 of their family members. The interviewees showed Human Rights Watch lists, identity cards, or photographs of relatives they said were imprisoned, or gave their names and other details. Many said they had sporadic phone contact with the prisoners, who had hidden their phones.

The two current detainees reached by phone, both women, and the 16 escapees – two men, seven women, and seven girls – said they had seen hundreds of other Yezidis in detention. Some said the number was more than 1,000.


The statements of current and former female detainees raise serious concerns about rape and sexual slavery by Islamic State fighters, though the extent of these abuses remains unclear, Human Rights Watch said.

The stigma surrounding rape in the Yezidi community and the fear of reprisal against women and girls who disclose sexual violence could in part explain the low number of first-hand reports, Yezidi activists said. Even acknowledging capture by Islamic State can put women and girls in danger, they said. Scarce services for displaced Yezidis who have undergone trauma, including sexual assault, also may limit options for women and girls to report sexual violence, as well as their willingness to do so.

Islamic State fighters also took boys from their families, apparently for religious or military training, three escapees and a Yezidi human rights activist interviewing escapees said. One 28-year-old man who escaped, Khider, said he watched his captors separate 14 boys ages 8 to 12 at a military base Islamic State had seized in Sinjar:

The older brothers of those boys became so scared. They asked, “Where are you taking them?” They [Islamic State fighters] said, “Don’t worry, we will feed and take care of them. We will take them to a base to teach the Quran, how to fight, and how to be jihadis.”

Khider said the fighters forced him and other captives to convert to Islam, including in a mass ceremony in which he participated with more than 200 Yezidi men, women, and children whom the group had driven to Syria:

They made us recite the shahada [Islamic creed] three times. … Even the little children had to recite it, anyone who was old enough to speak. . … The Yezidi people were crying and scared. They asked us, “Is there anyone who does not want to convert to Islam?” Of course we all kept silent, because if anybody refused, he or she would be killed.

Human Rights Watch is withholding or changing the names of all interviewed captives, former captives and their relatives, and withholding the locations of most interviews and places of detention, for their protection.

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