Health & Fitness

New trauma unit to help escaped Islamic State sex slaves

After their rape and torture by Islamic State extremists for months or years, Yazidi women face ongoing suffering from psychological trauma even if they do manage to escape.

Until now, a lack of psychiatrists and other mental health specialists in northern Iraq meant that many Yazidi women — a minority singled out for especially harsh treatment by IS — got little or no help. That's about to change with the establishment of a new psychological training center at the University of Dohuk in Iraq, the first in the entire region.

For Perwin Ali Baku, who escaped IS two weeks ago after more than two years in captivity, that can't come soon enough. The trauma of being bought and sold from fighter to fighter and carted from Iraq to Syria and then back again weighs heavy on both her body and her mind.

Today, when a door slams, the 23-year-old Yazidi woman flashes back to her captors locking away her 3-year-old daughter, captured with her, to torment her. When she hears a loud voice, she cringes at the thought of IS militants barking orders.

"I don't feel right," she said, sitting on a mattress on the floor of her father-in-law's small, canvas-topped Quonset hut in a northern Iraq refugee camp. "I still can't sleep. My body is tense all the time."

The training center is the next phase of an ambitious project funded by the wealthy German state of Baden Wuerttemberg that brought 1,100 women who had escaped Islamic State captivity, primarily Yazidis, to Germany for psychological treatment. The medical head of that project, German psychologist Jan Kizilhan, is also the driving force behind the new institute, which opens at the end of the month.

The program will train local mental health professionals to treat people like Perwin and thousands of Yazidi women, children and other Islamic State victims.

About 1,900 Yazidis have escaped the clutches of IS, but more than 3,000 other women and children are believed to still be held captive, pressed into sexual slavery and subjected to horrific abuse. As the fighting rages on between Iraqi forces and IS in Mosul, only about 75 kilometers from Dohuk, the number reaching freedom increases daily.

Right now there are only 26 psychiatrists practicing in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which has a population of 5.5 million people and more than 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced people. None specializes in treating trauma.

Perwin received brief, basic counseling after being freed December 30 from IS near Mosul — "they asked 'Do you sleep well?' and I said 'No, I can't sleep well'" — but nothing else. She looks to her toddler, dressed in a red sweatsuit with her hair in pigtails fastened by cherry bobbles, who popped into the tent only to beat a hasty retreat when she saw strangers.

The child has received no treatment at all.

"She's always scared," Perwin said. "And she's had nothing more than cough medicine."

Fighters from the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, swept into the Sinjar region of northern Iraq in August 2014, an area near the Syrian border that is the Yazidis' ancestral home.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis escaped to Mount Sinjar, where they were surrounded and besieged by Islamic State militants. The US, Iraq, Britain, France and Australia flew in water and other supplies, until Kurdish fighters eventually opened a corridor to allow some of them to reach safety.

Casualty estimates vary widely, but the United Nations has called the Islamic State assault genocide, saying the Yazidis' "400,000-strong community had all been displaced, captured or killed." Of the thousands captured by IS, boys were forced to fight for the extremists, men were executed if they didn't convert to Islam — and often executed in any case — and women and girls were sold into slavery.

Those lucky enough to escape are left with deep psychological scars. Kizilhan, a trauma specialist and also a university professor and Mideast expert, has been working tirelessly to help them find support.

"We are talking about general trauma, we are talking about collective trauma and we are talking about genocide," said Kizilhan, who is of Yazidi background and immigrated to Germany at age 6. "That's the reason we have to help if we can — it's our human duty to help them."

The new Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at Dohuk University, in cooperation with Germany's University of Tuebingen, will train 30 new professionals over three years. The hope is to extend the program to other regional universities, so after 10 years there could be more than 1,000 psychotherapists in the region.

The first class is made up of 17 women and 13 men, Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, with backgrounds in psychology, nursing, social work and teaching.

Galavej Jaafar Mohemmad, a Kurdish native of Dohuk who was chosen for the inaugural class, already has some psychological training but said she wants more.

"Iraq has moved from one war to another war, but this time is the worst that has ever happened to humans — that's why I want to help," the 45-year-old said. "Even for the women who have come back from Daesh, Daesh has taken their kids, their husbands — they're free but they don't feel free."

In the Sharya camp, one of about two dozen sprawling facilities for internally displaced people in the Dohuk area, 39-year-old Gorwe has just been visited by two sisters-in-law who are receiving treatment in Kizilhan's program in Germany. Psychological treatment has helped them, but she said it "is no use" for her.

"No matter how many doctors I see, I'll still have the same pain inside me," said Gorwe, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear that the Islamic State would harm her relatives still in captivity.

Twenty-four of her family members were taken by Islamic State militants, including herself, but only 14 — all women and children — have returned. The fate of the other 10, including her husband and four of her children, are unknown.

"I will never forget what happened to us as they were selling us and buying us and beating us, I think about it all the time," she said. "How could you forget?"

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