As bombs crunched into the ground around them in February last year, three young Yazidi women cowered in dug holes in the eastern Syrian desert, cradling their terrified children.
In the month that followed, hundreds of people hiding near them were killed by devastating barrages that destroyed what was left of Islamic State’s so-called caliphate and freed the former slaves and their toddlers from five years in the terror group’s clutches.
But the ordeal of their lives was yet to begin. The trio, then aged 19, 20 and 24, and their five toddlers were thrown on to the last lorry out of the town of Baghouz, the black banners of the extremists replaced by the white flags of surrender, and driven to al-Hawl refugee camp where tens of thousands of people from towns and cities seized from Isis were being interned.
The women lay low in the camp, worried about being discovered by Kurdish guards who would identify them as former captives and separate them from other detainees. For a month they lived with a dilemma: being identified could deliver freedom, but it could bring a greater heartache than the horrors under Isis – being separated from their children, maybe for ever.
For Yazidi women who gave birth to children of Isis fighters, those worst fears have now been realised. Their communities in Iraq have demanded they leave their children in Syria before they are accepted home. The forced separations have led to dozens of women being estranged from their children, some of whom they were told to hand over as soon as they gave birth.
Nearly two years after the collapse of Isis, what to do with the children born to extremists, and how to reunite families created and broken in such circumstances, remains far from being resolved among Yazidi communities and Iraqi officials. Even in Europe, where many Yazidis have been given asylum, those with the children of Isis have not found governments welcoming.
“I have 22 young mothers in my care,” said Dr Nemam Ghafouri, the founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan, a charity that supports Yazidi women. “There are 56 children in the orphanage in Rumaila in Syria. We believe there are many dozens more such women and children.”
When the three women were found in al-Hawl, officials arranged to send them home to their families in the ancestral Yazidi homelands of northern Iraq. All three had been seized from the town of Sinjar in mid-August 2014 as the terror group swept in from the south, unleashing its wrath on a community it had long targeted as “godless”.
Their ordeals traced almost the full arc of the Isis rule over western Iraq and eastern Syria, from their enslavement on 3 August 2014, weeks after the group had overrun Mosul and charged towards Erbil, until its capitulation on the banks of the Euphrates River.
Thousands like them were enslaved and passed around as trophies among the ranks of the jihadists. Thousands more men, including the three girls’ fathers and brothers, were killed in what has since been recognised as an attempted genocide and one of the most shocking events in the extremists’ five-year rampage.
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The trio were repeatedly raped and sold before agreeing to marry. Two wed Saudis and the third an Iraqi. All the men were killed. Hundreds of women like them gave birth to children by men from all parts of the globe, nearly all of whom died.
After they were found in al-Hawl, the three women were taken to an orphanage in north-east Syria and told to leave their children with carers who would look after them while they got resettled at home in Iraq.
“I looked at them and I knew I couldn’t believe them,” said one of the women, now 20, speaking from the Iraqi town of Duhok where she lives in a rented flat with her mother and sister, both of whom were also enslaved. “When I came here, they told me I need to forget about them. They can never come to join me.”
Ever since, the young mother has had to beg for photographs from workers at the camp. She was allowed to cross the border to visit once for four hours but has been discouraged from doing so again. “Them, our clerics, my family and the Kurdish leadership on both sides all behave like that part of my life is over,” she said. “I would rather be back in the hell of Baghouz than endure this sort of pain.”
A second of the former hostages said she was eight months pregnant when she was in al-Hawl. “I gave birth at the orphanage in Rumaila,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to look at my baby, let alone hold him. So much has happened to us, and now this?”
The third young mother, who, like her friends, agreed to meet in a coffee shop in Duhok, said there appeared to be no hope of Yazidi leaders changing their mind on a ruling in April last year in which clerics said rape survivors were welcome back but not their children.
Yazidi elders were criticised for taking an inflexible stance on an issue that has caused shame among their community. “I don’t want to talk about this subject because it’s very complicated,” said a spokesman for the Yazidi cleric Baba Sheikh.
Ghafouri, the charity founder, said: “Why should the UN listen to a patriarchal culture where only men are deciding what is better for a family? These girls are saying that life after being rescued is worse than being under the bombing of the entire world. What is better for the children should be a consideration here.”
The third mother – all three feared retribution from their families if they were identified – said: “My only option is to go live abroad. I will go anywhere. All I need is a government that will accept me – and my children.”
The fallout from the chaos that Isis caused continues to preoccupy several Yazidi smugglers who are trying to rescue community members who slipped through the cracks as the caliphate collapsed.
“We know there are some in Idlib. There are some in Mosul too,” said one man who has rescued more than 30 survivors, including women and children, by paying ransoms in Syria. “Some have made it to the migrant route, including mothers with Isis children. That might be the best place for them, even on the high seas in sinking boats. At least they have their children.”
Additional reporting by Nechirvan Mando