When a Syrian family in southern Turkey heard a young Yazidi woman crying after she was captured by Isis, they spent months plotting to free her – then risked everything in the attempt
Arezu came with a user guide and a list of defects, so that the buyer could not complain later about her disobedience or bad attitude. She was around 20 years old, and the sound of her crying through several months of Isis captivity had been so pitiful that it broke her neighbours’ hearts and could have splintered solid stone, the family that rescued her said.
Horrified by Arezu’s fate even before they met her, they ended up pooling their savings and putting their own lives on the line for the sake of a desperate stranger, in an extraordinary act of heroism and generosity.
It was the midnight weeping that alerted families in their quarter of Raqqa that there was a slave living nearby. The town was still adjusting to the bleak restrictions of life under Isis rule, even for free men and women.
They had been reluctant to believe the rumours of mass captivity and women taken as sex slaves that had filtered through the internet and local gossip, after Isis captured the Yazidi centre of Sinjar. Followers of an esoteric religion that blends elements from Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism, Yazidis are branded devil-worshippers by Isis, which treats them even more harshly than other religious minorities.
“After they said Sinjar was taken and the Yazidi women were brought to Raqqa, we didn’t believe it. Then Isis women were saying ‘we have Yazidi women at home’ and we still didn’t believe it,” said Noor, a university student who had been idling at home after Isis shut down her classes.
But there was the sobbing just a few doors away, and then the wife of Arezu’s owner began being seen out without her toddler.
“She told us he was asleep at first,” said Noor. “Then we heard from neighbours about the girl. She went out on the roof once and shouted ‘these people have kidnapped me’, but I didn’t tell my mum because she was sensitive.”
Noor was around Arezu’s age and would eventually become her closest friend in Raqqa, companion over the many months it took to extract her from captivity and send her home.
The family posed as would-be slave owners in order to buy Arezu, then pretended to despise her while they nursed her back towards normal life and hunted desperately for her surviving relatives hundreds of miles away.
When they feared her former owners would try to reclaim her, they moved house for several months, and finally risked their own lives to spirit her to the Turkish border and across it to safety.
Since then, spooked by Isis questions about what they did with Arezu, they fled into hiding in a southern Turkish city, where the Observer heard their stories and interviewed Arezu by phone from her home in Iraq.
The young Yazidi woman was taken to Raqqa by an Isis fighter, whom she called Abu al-Bara to protect her identity and that of the family that rescued her. He had given his wife orders that their captive was not to leave the house, where they tormented her with reminders of a family they said was lost for ever.
“They used to tell her, ‘We killed your father and brothers so you have no one. You will have to stay here until you die’,’’ said Noor’s sister, Aisha.
Also a student, Aisha was herself confined to home by the creeping erosion of normal life under Isis – first the imposition of the long abaya, then the face veil and gloves, then dark, silent, flat shoes and a ban on most work or education.
Trips out of home became risky, for fear of violating the latest edict: each was announced in brief notices on the mosque doors. Aisha missed her freedom and, like all the family, wondered how the woman she heard crying next door was coping with far worse.
Arezu’s journey to the depths of misery had begun the previous summer, when Isis swept through Sinjar. Her father and brother sent the women of the family back from what they thought was the front line, but the area where they were hiding was overrun. There followed nearly three weeks of abrupt shifts and terrifying uncertainty as hundreds of women were transferred from one Isis centre to another. In the process, Arezu was separated first from her mother, then her sister.
After around two weeks she was placed with dozens of others in a house where, she thinks, Isis fighters drugged them, because they did little more than sleep lined up on the floor like sardines. When they woke, they were given a drink and slipped back into oblivion, until the day they were shipped away.
“It was five in the morning. They brought a bus and tied our hands and blindfolded our eyes. We were shocked and frightened and crying. They said ‘you have been sold’, but we didn’t know where we were going.”
They ended up in Raqqa at a militant camp, where she was given to a man. “I cried, and lay down on the ground and asked him to kill me, but he refused and said, ‘You are mine – I will take you for myself’.”
She had braced herself for being dragged into the man’s home and raped, but his wife flatly refused. “She told her husband she would not let ‘one of those women’ into her home, so after that he took me to another house.”
She spent a few weeks there before her original owner passed her on again, this time to Abu al-Bara, a senior fighter in the city.
At his house she was confined to tiny quarters, forced to convert to Islam, tormented constantly and badgered to marry. The only thing her captor didn’t do was rape her; instead he bullied her for “consent” to a marriage. “It’s strange to say this: even though he is Isis, in this you could say he was a good man,” said Fatima, mother of Noor and Aisha. “He did not do anything to her; he was waiting for her to agree to marry him.”
Arezu fought to keep him away, refusing to wash or eat for days on end. “While he was there I didn’t go out of my room, didn’t eat or drink so I wouldn’t be forced to go to the toilet, where maybe he could find me,” she said.
Elsewhere Arezu’s fury might have cost her her life, but in this house it was the key to her freedom. After Noor heard her shouting, the family asked their neighbour to bring her to their house to meet them.
“Her husband had told here not to let anyone see her, but after he went off to fight, his wife brought Arezu round. She was around 20, very poor, and had been out of school for some time.”
The family decided the first time they met her that they had to free her. “My brother told me to tell her we would rescue her,” said Noor. “But I was frightened for him, afraid that if Isis found out they would behead him.”
They decided the simplest way would be to try buying Arezu. Al-Bara’s wife made little secret of her desire to be rid of the fierce, traumatised captive who stirred up in her a strange mix of jealousy, rage, pity and frustration.
“She felt sorry for her as a girl who had been kidnapped, but not as a possible second wife,” Noor said. “She was afraid, as a woman and a mother.”
The family had to be careful. Isis members were only meant to sell their slaves to other fighters, not to ordinary citizens, so the purchase was already illegal. They feared that doing it to set Arezu free could earn them a place on a grim and constantly refreshed row of severed heads in the centre of town.
So Noor’s father made a courtesy visit to their neighbours. Their son needed a wife, he explained, because their daughters would be getting married soon, leaving no one at home to help his wife with the housework. They had researched prices for slave girls and, at a few hundred dollars, buying Arezu would be cheaper than arranging a formal wedding. The war had stretched everyone’s finances, and he understood she had already converted to Islam.
Abu al-Bara agreed, but asked for far more than the family had counted on, because she was young, still a virgin and possibly because he knew the buyers would not have access to other slaves. He began at $1,000, then pushed it up to $1,500 and gave them less than a week to find money they didn’t have.
Arezu recalled hearing the news: “When I told the Isis wife they will buy me, she told me they are lying to me, they hate me and have a young man in the house that they want me for. I went to my room and prayed to God, asking him to take my soul as I have no one.”
Eventually Noor’s brother begged and borrowed the last few hundred dollars, and they went to complete the sale, with Arezu bought and sold “just like a glass, or a table, or anything in a shop”.
“We got a paper listing all her faults, so we can’t return her if we have those problems,” Noor said. “He also gave us a book called ‘provisions of captivity’, and told us to read it and send it back in a week.
“My father looked at it. It had some quotes from the Qu’ran and details about what you could do, how you must treat her, like an instruction manual. It said he had the right to ‘marry her’, hit her, make her a maid.”
When the deal was done, between Arezu’s owner and Noor’s father, Abu al-Bara abruptly told her to cover her face and leave. It was not appropriate for him to see her any more, he insisted.
“She came with just the clothes on her back,” said Noor’s mother, Fatima. “I was sitting in the room and as she came in she ran to hug me and wanted to kiss my feet. She shouted, ‘I don’t need parents any more: you are my parents. I will serve you all my life. Just let me stay.’ ”
After that, for the first few days she barely moved. She spent her time curled up, crying and had to be forced to eat, Noor said. She never wanted to go out, even hidden under an abaya, because each time she saw an Isis fighter it brought bitter memories rushing back.
“When she was in the Isis home, they forced her to pray like she was a Muslim, to say the shahada [the declaration of faith]. When she came to us we told her she did not have to pretend, that we would not force her to do anything.”
The exception was classes. Noor found out that Arezu was illiterate and began teaching her to read and write Arabic. “She used to say, ‘I don’t want to learn anything. I Iost my father and brother – why should I learn?’ But that was the only thing we forced her to do, so she can forget her sadness.”
Noor and her brothers were determined to find what was left of Arezu’s family, or at least confirm who had been killed, but they had little to go on.
“When the Isis woman brought over her bag later, there was a piece of paper inside it with phone numbers that Arezu had tried to remember and write down, but none of them worked,” Aisha remembered.
A contact found a number for her father, who was apparently still alive in Iraq. Isis controlled all the phone lines in and out of the city, so the men travelled to a border town where they could use Turkish mobiles to make the call.
They were greeted not with the joy they expected but suspicion. Arezu’s father thought at first that the family were simply trying to extort money, that it might even be a trick and his daughter was already dead.
So they made the trek again, this time taking Arezu with them to speak for herself. It was a dangerous journey because she refused to remove a nose-stud that marked her as a Yazidi, and was travelling with men who were not her relatives. As a veiled woman, she could pass most checkpoints with little problem, but if a member of the Isis female morality police stopped them for questioning she would be taken away, and the men would probably be punished as well.
When they finally spoke, Arezu and her family spent the whole conversation in tears. “I couldn’t believe … that I had found them and was talking to them,” she said. “That I was reunited with my family after all this, it is something that can never be expressed, something unbelievable.”
Once they had made contact, the family began planning Arezu’s return, a dangerous and increasingly urgent task. “When she was living in our house, she used to say ‘they will come back for me’.”
When she stopped sobbing through the night and started washing, neighbours noticed that she had become calmer and seemed almost content. There were reports that her original owner wanted her back. So in an elaborate ruse, they moved to stay with relatives but returned home occasionally to complain bitterly about Arezu’s temper and character. Eventually they let the neighbourhood gossips know that they had sold her on, and when al-Bara came asking for her, told him the same.
“We said she had refused to get married, and threatened suicide. If she did that, everyone would think my father had raped her, and so we’d had to sell her to protect our honour,” Noor said.
“My husband told him: ‘You were right, she was very stubborn, wouldn’t pray, wouldn’t convert.’ Al-Bara was suspicious and asked for her new address. We said Raqqa is a big place and we couldn’t remember.”
In fact, they had made contact with a Turkish smuggler who specialised in slipping Yazidi girls across the border. The men of the family set off for the border with her, and two weeks later she was back with her family.
“When they bought me, the whole world couldn’t contain my happiness. They gave my life back to me,” Arezu said. “Until the last day of my life I will not forget their goodness to me.”
Her mother reached home four days after she did, but the family still feels broken, she said. Eleven of their relatives disappeared in the chaos following the fall of Sinjar, and they have still not been able to trace four of them.
“We are happy but still sad, because my sister is missing and other people from my family also have not come back, and we know nothing about what happened to them.”
The war has shattered Noor and Fatima’s family as well, with the women heading for Turkey and the men travelling on to Europe to find a way of supporting them: Istanbul’s rules for refugees mean they cannot work or study.
Exiled from their home, and with their savings all gone, they don’t have a single regret, according to Noor. The only thing she misses is her studies, and Isis had halted those anyway.
“Our neighbours all wanted to do the same, but they didn’t have the courage,” she said. “When I think of this, I can’t believe we did it.”
Names and some identifying details have been changed.