Yazidi elders disown former slaves of Islamic State, forcing them to choose between their children and their community
Bundled up in oversized scarves and coats, and squirming over lounge chairs, the 12 young children seemed startled as nine strange women with outstretched arms hurried towards them.
Some of the women sobbed as they embraced the bemused toddlers, who stared at them blankly not recognising their mothers, or understanding what the fuss was about. One mother stood motionless with her head in her hands, while another stared intently into her tiny daughter’s eyes.
The nine mothers, all members of the Yazidi community, and their children, all born to the terrorists who enslaved them, had been reunited for the first time since the collapse of Islamic State in early 2019. And after two years of preparing for such a moment, the women were about to make the most momentous decisions of their lives.
The extraordinary scenes at the Iraq-Syria border crossing last Thursday were the culmination of months of lobbying by officials, including from the Biden administration, protracted debates among the Yazidi community and the determination of young mothers cruelly stripped of the children born to them to reclaim what was theirs, no matter the price.
Each of the women had used an excuse to slip away from their family. The last time most of them had been at Samalka, they had been rescued from the giant al-Hol refugee camp in eastern Syria where the remnants of Isis’s collapsed so-called caliphate were collected.
The Yazidi were allowed to return to Iraq, but their children were seized from them before the border and taken to an orphanage. Yazidi elders had since refused to allow the children to join their mothers. To the community, the children were outcasts who ccould never be assimilated into Yazidi society. The unwritten reckoning was that if the mothers chose their children, they would need to forgo their community.
Until last week, it appeared unlikely that the women, all aged between 19 and 26, would ever be able to make such a decision. The children had been banned from entering Iraq and only a few mothers had been able to enter Syria on day passes to visit the orphanage. Then came a convergence of people and circumstances, which made the seemingly impossible suddenly doable.
Nemam Ghafouri, an organiser of the Yazidi mothers and the founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan, an NGO, received a phone call from the former US diplomat and long-term contact of Kurds on both sides of the border, Peter Galbraith. The Syrian Kurds were prepared to do a deal, he told her, and he was flying to Erbil to make it happen.
Galbraith had worked on the Senate foreign relations committee for 14 years and has been a friend of Joe Biden since 1980. Like him, the new US president had taken an interest in Kurdish issues. The calculation on both sides of the border was that doing business on an issue such as this might pave the way for more extensive reengagement after the turmoil of the Trump years.
“I asked Nechirvan Barzani [the president of the Kurdish regional government] to talk to Mazloum Abdi [the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces] and he agreed,” he said.
After fraught discussions throughout Wednesday during which Galbraith called the White House to secure the transfer, Syrian Kurdish officials bundled the 12 children – who could all be definitively linked to the nine mothers waiting for them – into a minibus, and headed for the border.