Talking to: Lisa Miara, lives in Jerusalem and northern Iraq, founder of Springs of Hope Foundation. Where: Her apartment in Jerusalem. When: Sunday, 11 A.M.
I caught you totally by chance, during a 72-hour visit to Israel. Tell me where you’ve come from and where you’re returning to this evening.
I’m returning to my house, which is in a small village next to the Shariya refugee camp in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. There are about 20,000 Yazidis living in the camp, people who survived the August 2014 massacre in Sinjar. Nearly half a million Yazidis – those who weren’t murdered and weren’t taken prisoner by ISIS – arrived in refugee camps in northern Iraq. Shariya is one of those camps.
And these are permanent camps, not transit sites, but a place where these people will probably live for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, they’re permanent camps. I actually spend about 80 percent of my time there; I come to Israel less and less. We run a day center in the camp, where you can learn English, Kurdish, computer science, and art and dance therapy. We have two psychologists and a social worker who are there every day, and a physician who comes once a week. We have about 150 schoolchildren, of whom 100 were in ISIS captivity, and some 50 women receive psychological assistance through us.
We’re familiar with the stories of women who were kidnapped by ISIS and became handmaids. That’s certainly not the whole picture. What do you hear, firsthand, from women who have escaped?
The kidnapped women are forced to give up their Yazidi name and take a Muslim name instead. Naturally, they also undergo coercive conversion to Islam and must take on all the Islamic precepts. Not a few women were simply thrown off high buildings because they refused to pray or bow. There are women who weren’t raped but were stuck in a prison three stories underground, without light or air, without food and water. They weighed 20 kilos [44 pounds] when they were rescued, had no hair on their heads and were suffering from terrible diseases. They said that ISIS gave them one dish of rice for 30 women, once a week. That they were urinated on and were made to drink the urine.
These are stories that no one is taking the trouble to publish. Nor is anyone talking about the insane brainwashing that the Yazidis undergo in captivity. We have an 11-year-old boy who was taken to the hospital in Mosul, where by chance he met his sister, who had been missing for three years and whose fate was unknown. She spat on him and called him a heretic. Of course she refused to go back to her family. Another girl, who was located by the Iraqi army, refused to leave because she thought that the whole world was already under ISIS rule and that there was no point leaving Mosul. And there are, of course, the children. Children who served as soldiers in every respect. On the front.
Like in Liberia: the soldiers of Charles Taylor.
Yes, and they too received weapons and they too were drugged. They were given heavy drugs – but they don’t know what. These are broken children. You look into their eyes and it’s as though there’s nothing there. You know, earlier this month we went to buy a bicycle for a boy. The boy had dreamed of having a bike, and a donor contributed money especially for that. We went to a store together and bought a new bike. There’s no smile. No feelings. Dead expressions. Empty eyes. That boy told a psychologist that he used to assemble explosive belts. Ten explosive belts a day. A boy of 8.
He’s 8 now but was even younger then.
Yes. And he describes how they punished him, what they did to children who didn’t manage to do what was asked. They were beaten savagely. Shot at close range. Deprived of sleep for months. These children are covered with scars all over their whole body and face. We have one boy whose whole stomach is stitched – they simply sliced him. One boy reached us a month ago in such a deep state of shock that besides his name he didn’t know anything. He couldn’t tell us who he is. He hides all the time in the camp, disappears for days and no one knows where he is. We have an 18-year-old who was freed a few weeks ago. He was a soldier in every respect – he beheaded people, killed. He was on the front line. Today he doesn’t remember a thing. Nothing at all. By the way, children who were freed and whose parents are dead aren’t only alone in the world, they also have no status, don’t have an ID. They can’t even go to school.
They don’t exist.
There’s a whole generation of children who don’t exist. Their aunts and uncles, their remaining family, don’t have the money to underwrite formal court processes in which they declare that they recognize the child and pay to obtain papers for them. It’s been almost four years since the Sinjar massacre, and 400,000 Yazidis are sitting in tents all day without electricity and running water. In the summer the temperature is 45 degrees Celsius [113 Fahrenheit], in the winter it’s 10 below. There’s no heating and no air conditioning.
And you yourself live in those conditions.
Yes. I live in a house, not a tent, and that’s preferable, but at the moment, for example, I’m sleeping on the roof. It’s simply too hot and it’s impossible to walk on the floor.
Do you feel safe in your house? Who knows your actual identity?
Fear is always present. There’s always a chance; I don’t hide, but I do compartmentalize things. No one needs to know that I sleep here at night by myself. You have to be careful and smart. Three weeks ago, I was interviewed for a Kurdish television network, and the first question I was asked was, “I heard you’re Jewish and Israeli.” What could I say? I said yes. I would have preferred not to say that on television, but it was said.
How in the world does an Israeli Jewish woman, a mother and a grandmother, come to be living in a refugee camp in northern Iraq?
After three years, I still don’t have a good enough answer to those questions, I admit.
Let’s go back in time. Almost 20 years ago, you founded an NGO to help victims of terrorism. In Jerusalem.
Today that seems to me like a distant dream, compared to what I’m coping with now. At that time I was dealing mainly with rehabilitating the wounded through sports and art. I was very interested in the means by which terrorism was financed. We’re talking about the period of Hamas attacks between 2000 and 2004. One day, an American company that was researching the funding of terrorism contacted me. We really hit it off, and I became active in all kinds of projects of theirs. In 2015, they invited me to be a member of a delegation to Halabja [a Kurdish city that was attacked with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s forces during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88].
We decided that, as long as we were already there, we would try to meet with Yazidis who survived the massacre. We hired a driver and obtained the necessary permits, and went to Shariya. We were there for a few hours, no more. But it all stuck in my mind: the voices, the stories, the people. When I got home and started to digest everything that had happened, I knew that I couldn’t walk away. But what could I do? I’m a woman, an Israeli, in a hostile country, in a misogynist culture.
What happened then?
The truth is, it’s unbelievable. I was sitting with a friend in a café in Israel and telling her a little about what I’d seen, because I’d experienced and stored up so much. I had the feeling that someone sitting close by was eavesdropping on the conversation. We spoke more and more quietly, but then he came over and asked for my business card. I gave him one. He called me that evening and told me that he had been in the café with his wife and mother-in-law, an Auschwitz survivor, and the mother-in-law wanted to know how much it would cost to rescue a woman from ISIS captivity. I told him I thought it would be about $3,000. He said: You’ve got it. He transferred the money to me. Within a month I had something like $20,000, which Holocaust survivors here in Jerusalem raised.
It felt like I was in a dream, like Alice in Wonderland. So I had money, but I didn’t know exactly how I could use it. I went to the post office and asked whether it could be transferred to Iraq, but they laughed at me and said it was a hostile country. I realized that I had to do something on my own. I knew a Yazidi person named Khalil who was searching for his family. He’s a lawyer who lives in Sinjar, and after the massacre he and a few friends got organized and started to rescue people. I was his guest and saw the women when they came out of ISIS captivity, and I discussed rescue plans with him.
What do you mean “rescue plans”?
The rescue plans of three or four years ago are completely different from what’s happening today. At that time it was easier to make contact with the captives. The families still had cellphones and money, and there were also some who managed to escape on their own, because the ISIS people were more focused on the vehicles and the weapons they seized. They hadn’t yet grasped the economic potential of capturing women and selling them. At the time, some women were able to take advantage of the lack of alertness and escaped. Every woman who got out was able to provide more information – where she had been, where other women were being held, other children.
And the rescuers effectively also mediate between the families of the captives and ISIS.
The rescuers were then working systematically, with the Google Earth app. At one stage they simply built a model, using plywood, of Tal Afar [an Iraqi city near Mosul], with the mosques and the houses and the streets, and they asked the women to point out where they had been, on which floor, what was near the door of the apartment they’d been held in, and so on. [The rescuers] came up with pictures of all types of weapons, as they knew the women wouldn’t be able to identify the exact weapons used by their captors, but would certainly be able to point to a picture. By this means they gradually produced a picture of the region and of the forces active in it, and they started to free women and children.
Some of the rescue missions were genuine operations, not in return for a ransom.
I know one rescuer who was a beekeeper and sold honey door to door – he knew the city like the back of his hand. He got involved in the rescue work when he started looking for members of his family. So far he’s managed to pull out a 1,000 people but has only found one of the dozens of his own missing relatives. He was actually in direct contact with the captors, especially with the foreigners among them, the mercenaries. He would sell them cigarettes, because smoking is prohibited for ISIS’ Muslim soldiers, but the foreign ones all smoke. It was also easier to work with them.
Because they had no ideological interests, they came to ISIS from the outset for money.
Right, and they wanted to make money on the side. By the way, from the stories, I understand that they were the most violent of all, especially the soldiers who came from Sudan and Morocco. Levels of brutality I had never heard of. But unlike the Syrians and the Iraqis [who prefer to keep the captured women as slaves], they were ready to sell the women.
What’s the situation today?
We’re no longer involved in those efforts in any form. Rescues are still taking place, for pay. The families receive photographs of the children and women on WhatsApp from the captors who want to sell them, and try to raise the money.
How much money are we talking about?
More than $20,000.
Absolutely. Four years ago, people went from tent to tent collecting a dollar here and a dollar there. People walked around with notebooks with lists of how much they owed and to whom. Today, of course, they don’t even have that kind of money. They’re all in debt. No one has money, but still, when they hear about an opportunity to buy someone, they try. They’re still fighting.
How many people is ISIS still holding in captivity? The numbers I found are contradictory.
At the end of 2017, about 2,000 women and 1,000 children were missing. No one knows how many men have disappeared. Most of them were probably murdered and buried in a mass grave that same day.
In fact, almost everyone in the camp is waiting for someone.
August is approaching and tensions in the camp are rising because it’ll then be four years. Four years have passed since these people lost children, or since their mother disappeared. Our cleaning person at the center? Every free minute she looks at her phone, at the pictures of her children. Looks and even passes out. There are suicidal tendencies. Our psychologists are preoccupied with how to prevent suicides.
Two weeks ago, a woman I’d never seen before came to the center. She sat in the garden and fiddled with her scarf. Tied it and untied it, tied and untied it, around her neck. I took her to one of the staff so he could translate. I said to her: You want to commit suicide, right? She said yes. I told her: Take off the scarf, please. I took her into the psychologist. She’s in treatment.
However you look at it, you made an extreme decision. True, you already had experience with terror victims, you already had an NGO, but this isn’t like anything you were familiar with. Where do you even start?
I don’t know what was behind that decision. I just jumped into the water, even though I knew I didn’t really have anything to give, and I still know that, on the ground. Who am I to do something like this? It’s a long road on which you learn something new every day. I looked at those women who returned from captivity with nothing. Barefoot. With only a hijab. The first thing I understood is that you need to get them clothes.
Regarding the children, I understood that they need some sort of education, because besides the fact that there’s nothing there that even resembles schooling, it’s also a way to give them some sort of focus, to create a framework for them that might give them hope for the future.
These women have unbelievable forces of life and survival. I imagine that it resembles the inner strength of Holocaust survivors who went through hell and came to Israel to build the country. They’re women who don’t want pity, don’t think that anything is coming to them because of what they endured. During the whole time I’ve worked with them I never heard anyone say even once: Give me, I deserve it. When a woman or a child arrives at the center, the first thing I do is ask them to paint while music plays in the background.
What do they paint?
Only horrors. Violence. Blood. Bodies. We look at the paintings, and that’s where the process actually begins. The treatment. Gradually we build relations of trust. Friendship. They aren’t ashamed to say what they’ve been through. Baba Sheikh, their spiritual leader, issued a fatwa immediately and declared that these are saintly women who need to be accepted back into the Yazidi community and society. But there’s a stigma.
After all they’ve endured, their own community rejects them?
At this stage, regrettably, Yazidi society is not ready to accept women who bore children in captivity as a result of rape. That creates a twisted situation of women who don’t really want to leave captivity, because they don’t want to abandon the children. Some women couldn’t take the pressure and left the children behind, and they need to cope with that, too, on top of the trauma and shame. It’s so complicated. When they come to us to the center and there’s someone to talk to and accept them, they feel they’re being spoken to at a personal level. We constantly tell them they’re heroines, amazing and brave.
We also try to record the stories, to document them. The stories come out gradually; not at first. It’s a culture in which honor plays a very important part. There is tremendous shame. It’s a process. I can sit in a park with someone I’ve known for a long time and suddenly she’ll take out her phone and show me a picture of her captor and tell me about him.
Are you yourself in therapy? How do you cope?
At the end of every day the whole team sits and talks about what we heard. That makes it easier. There are days when I get home and bury my face in a pillow and scream, because whenever it seems to me that I’ve heard everything and seen everything, I discover new horrors that I can’t even imagine. One boy told me that he beheaded someone and was told to put the head in a pot and cook it. Can anyone eat after a story like that? Is it possible to grasp what that child is going through?
Yes. So I throw myself into doing things.
The financing of the NGO relies on donations, using quite an original model: You ask for small sums for specific goals: an art lesson, a birthday cake.
The donations come mainly from private people who want to help heal the world, and they relate to our activity. We have donors from Israel, the United States, even Korea. I’m now launching a big campaign. I want to raise $80,000 to build a playground for the children in the camp. I have many more plans. I’m now creating a children’s orchestra. I dream of establishing a trauma center with a delivery room to give the women both psychological support and medical treatment. I also want to find some sort of answer for women who are HIV positive. That’s a growing phenomenon there.
Other than donations, how can people help?
I also need help with advice and know-how. I want to open some sort of program for young people 16 to 18 who were in ISIS. I understand that they have different needs, that you can’t ask them to come and paint pictures. If there’s a mental-health professional who specializes in adolescents, I’d like to consult with him. I’ll also be happy to talk with people who engage in art and music therapy, and with occupational therapists. And of course, if there’s anyone who knows how to go about creating a [trauma] center for women who might be able to put me in touch with people anywhere who’ve established centers like that – anyone who thinks he can help – I’ll be happy to hear from him.
Lisa Miara can be reached – via English-language messages only – at firstname.lastname@example.org