By Chris Arsenault
TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A year after their capture by Islamic State militants, escaped sex slaves from the Yazidi minority are reaching northern Iraq, but get almost none of the psychological support they need after their ordeal of rape, torture and captivity, an aid group said.
A center set up by the Yazidi support group YAZDA in Kurdish-controlled Dohuk, northern Iraq, has received more than 400 Yazidi former captives, YAZDA staffer Jameel Chomer said.
"We are still receiving three or four escaped slaves each week," Chomer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The girls who have run away from ISIS, they don't even have a place to live, they are living in crowded tents with other refugees," he said, speaking by phone from Dohuk on Tuesday. "They continue to suffer... treatment and therapy is lacking."
When Islamic State militants attacked Yazidi communities around Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq in August 2014, they captured around 5,000 Yazidis, said University of Chicago researcher Matthew Barber, a YAZDA member who conducted field interviews in northern Iraq last month.
IS is still holding at least 3,000 Yazidis, a predominantly Kurdish minority whose religion has elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam, Barber told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
IS militants consider the Yazidis "devil worshippers" because of their faith, and believe Islamic law entitles IS fighters to rape, abuse and forcibly convert members of the minority sect.
ESCAPED YAZIDIS NEED THERAPY
Captives are sometimes able to buy their freedom when family members pay their captors, Arab tribesmen often mediating their release, and sometimes manage to escape, Barber said.
"I have seen (escaped) girls in their early teens coming out of the (YAZDA) office and they are so traumatized they have difficulty making eye contact with other women who would normally be approachable," Barber said.
"They can't connect emotionally... these girls need professional therapists and it's more than what we are able to provide at the moment."
A few Yazidi women and girls have been trafficked as far away as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Iraq, Chomer said, citing testimony from escaped Yazidis which could not be independently verified.
Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people are living in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq, and aid agencies are working to provide them with food, tents and blankets, Chomer said.
But inadequate resources have been devoted to emotional and other support for escaped sex slaves, activists said.
Neither central government nor local authorities in Kurdistan have set up a psychological support center for victims, Chomer said, though NGOs and the United Nations were trying to make up for the lack of counseling.
"Some local people have gotten some training to deal with trauma," Chomer said. "But they are not experts at dealing with people who were traumatized by torture."
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)