The face of ISIS evil. And why a former ISIS sex slave says Shamima Begum must pay for her crimes

14 February 2019 By Paul Martin
Survivors: Nadia Murad (left) and Lamiya Aji Bashar escaped Isis enslavement to become advocates for Yazidis, and were last month awarded the EU’s Sakharov human rights prize

This is the face of evil – a face smashed by the war ISIS launched on civilization.

Like Shamima Begum, this girl was also 15 when she became a bride to an ISIS fighter. But there’s a huge difference: In 2014 Lamiya Aji Bashar was dragged screaming from her small village in northern Iraq by crazed ISIS fighters – and forced to become a sex slave. In contrast, Shamima Begum chose to leave her British Muslim family and her good British school, to join a bunch of mass-murdering fanatics.

Lamiya’s story is horrific. On August 15 2014 she was herded into the village’s school building by gunmen who had just murdered over four hundred men and boys from her village and flung their bullet-riddled bodies into shallow pits. Then they selected which females would live, and which were too old to be attractive sex slaves, so they would die.

The details of Lamiya’s life in captivity are almost to awful to recount, and when I met her recently she found it very hard to provide the details.

Lamiya spent twenty hellish months with five different ISIS men, sold by one to the other and raped time after time.

She eventually managed to flee. But as she ran at night towards potential freedom, Lamiya’s best friend trod on a landmine.  The explosion killed her and  a nine-year-old girl running alongside her. Kurdish fighters found her and got her to hospital in time to save Lamiya’s life, although with horrible scars across her face from the landmine’s shrapnel. She’s made a painful but remarkable recovery.

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This is Lamiya at a Human Rights conference in Paris in late last year 2018 – her face far better than in the AP photo above, It shows Lamiya (right) before completing the many plastic surgery operations on her face. Alongside is her fellow-Yazidi Nadia Murad, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018

Brave Lamiya has had numerous operations to try to reconstruct and repair her face. And she has mustered the enormous courage to give some gut-wrenching details about what happened.

As she and two others were trying to escape captivity, Lamiya’s best friend trod on a landmine.  The explosion killed her and  a nine-year-old girl running alongside her. Kurdish fighters found her and got her to hospital in time to save Lamiya’s life.

Within months of her escape she was prepared to face the world. She claimed the West was not actively searching for over 1,000 girls and women still being held by ISIS criminals in the much-diminished territory they control.

She hopes by speaking out she can alert the world to the plight of well over one thousand sex slaves, who’re still missing – and to the genocidal hatred her small minority group, the Yazidis, has faced.

Since ISIS began collapsing, the slave owners have in some cases contacted the anguished families of the missing – offering to sell the girls or women back. These men decided they needed cash more than sex – so they might bribe their way into neighbouring countries like Turkey to escape. As the last ISIS footholds collapsed in February 2019 several have been brought back, traumatised but at least alive.

The Kurds have even set up a special office that pays rescuers.

For her courage and her outspokenness, Lamiya was awarded the European Union’s top award for human rights, the Sakharov Prize. And another escaped sex slave Nadia Murad was last November awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

What does Lamiya think about Begum’s demand to be allowed back to Britain?

“I despise those girls. When I was the same age as they were, 15, the same kind of men that they married captured me, killed my parents and destroyed my community.

“Those British girls had everything in their country, peace, education and the best life, yet they joined the terrorists in Syria who were already busy killing us.

“They put themselves alongside the monsters. These men that they married were animals in the bodies of human beings: each worse than the last.

“The British and foreign girls and women knew exactly what the killers and rapists and abusers from Isis were doing. They must’ve seen the videos even before they left Britain.

“I see that they left London in February 2015, and all the murdering of hundreds in our villages and the enslavement of girls and women were all over international television and the internet. Our village, for example, was invaded six months before they chose to come and marry ISIS fighters.

“And these foreign girls and women were getting privileges in Mosul and Aleppo and Raqqa, things that the ordinary people never got. And of course they knew and saw other fighters, the comrades of their husbands, abusing us, the lowest of the low – the ISIS slave ‘wives’. None of these privileged foreign girls and women came to our aid. They treated us just like dirt.

“Don’t tell me they had no idea of the mass slave trade in girls, or the rapes. I saw an Iraqi doctors working with ISIS rape a nine-year-old girl. I myself was raped by a large number of ISIS fighters in one room as my sister was forced to watch, again and again. Then I had to see them do the same to my sister.

“No way should they be allowed to go back to their home countries.

“They should be brought to one international tribunal just like they do at The Hague at the International Criminal Court. They should be punished according to law.”

Mirza Dinnayi, a human rights activist and head of Air Bridge Iraq, a non-governmental organisation that helps bring women and children ISIS victims to safety and often to Europe, told MediaZones: “There are still more than 3,100 Yezidi women and children missing and most are presumably still held captive by ISIS in remote places where locals are still protecting ISIS fighters and their families.

“Many of the small children are brainwashed within ISIS families, no one took care about their destiny. The foreign fighters played a very bad role against the Yezidi slaves. Many survivors have been speaking about those foreign fighters, men and women as well, who have beaten and abused the Yezidi girls.

“They were not better or different than the Iraqi or Arab ISIS fighters. They had the same tyranny and the same brutality for killing, rape and all kinds of abuse. Sometimes they were even more cruel than the local ISIS.”

Lamia Aji Bashar in Madrid on Thursday.

Lamia Aji Bashar in Madrid. Photo Jaime Villanueva June 2017

MORE DETAILS FROM INTERVIEWS WITH EL PAIS AND WITH THE MAIL ONLINE

On August 15, 2014, forces from so-called Islamic State (ISIS) entered Kocho, a Yazidi village in Iraqi Kurdistan. They took everybody to the local school and separated them into groups: men, pregnant women, older women and unmarried adolescents. Among the latter was Lamia Aji Bashar, then aged 16, with her three sisters. “That’s when it all began,” she said last week in Madrid at the diplomatic delegation from the government of Iraqi Kurdistan.

For the next 20 months Lamia was held captive and repeatedly raped by ISIS soldiers. In December, along with Nadia Murad – who was also held captive and raped by ISIS – the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

“The older men and women were killed and buried in a mass grave. We were transferred by bus to Mosul and then to the area around Aleppo under the control of ISIS. In Aleppo, there were many men from different countries,” she explained. Soon after her arrival, the head of the group, a Saudi, told her and her sisters they must convert to Islam. “I said no. He grabbed me by the neck and lifted me off the ground. My sister begged him to release me and kissed his feet until he did it. Then he shouted, ‘So you do not want to convert!’ and he raped us both.”

They were animals in the bodies of human beings: each worse than the last

LAMIA AJI BASHAR

There were around 250 other young women and girls held captive in Aleppo, some of them as young as eight. “Members of ISIS would arrive and select us: ‘I want this one,’ ‘I want that one.’ In the Sharia court, there was a paper with my picture on it, and beneath it, my price. I was purchased five times, and another time, I was given to a fighter as a gift,” she said.

At no time did her captors show any compassion: “They were animals in the bodies of human beings: each worse than the last. I was trying to speak with them, but they were animals.”

Aji Bashar remembers when one of her “owners” forced her to help him make vests for suicide bombers and to set up car bombs.

ISIS’s violent interpretation of Islam has led to the wholesale slaughter of men and the rape of women considered infidels. The Yazidi, an ethno-religious Kurdish group of half-a-million people who ascribe to one of the earliest monotheistic religions, have been targeted.

Members of ISIS would arrive and select us: ‘I want this one,’ ‘I want that one’

LAMIA AJI BASHAR

Aji Bashar tried to escape on four occasions. After each failed attempt, she was punished. Finally, in April 2016 she succeeded, thanks to smugglers paid by her family. Two others accompanied her: Almas, an eight-year-old, and Katherine, aged 20. Both died while crossing a minefield and Aji Bashar was injured in the explosion, suffering scarring and partial loss of sight.

“I felt happy to be alive, although in my head, I felt dreadful thinking about the suffering of the other women and children,” she explained. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 Yazidis – the majority of them women and children – remain in the hands of ISIS. The figure has been reduced by about half since 2014 as captives escape, are purchased back by their families, or are released by ISIS.

Her village was liberated in May. “It made me very happy to hear the news, but now it is just a pile of rubble, tombs, mass graves,” said Aji Bashar, who now lives in Germany.

She tells her story to raise awareness of the tragedies that have befallen thousands of women, and she considers herself simply a “messenger” with three desires: that ISIS be tried at The Hague, that the victims receive psychological treatment after their liberation, and that the world helps those seeking refuge. Many former captives suffer from post-traumatic stress and some have attempted suicide, according to the NGO Amnesty International.

Although ISIS is currently in retreat in Syria and Iraq, Aji Bashar says she wants to remain in Germany and to become a schoolteacher. Would she return one day to Kurdistan? “Of course,” she says, “but there is no international protection for us. And as Yazidis, we are afraid of returning and suffering genocide like this.”

She stood defiant in the dock. Blood poured from her mouth and nose, while her body was covered with bruises – the result of another savage beating by her Islamic State captors, who used cables and weapons in addition to their fists and feet. 

Once again Lamiya Haji Bashar had tried to escape her tormentors. And once again, the Yazidi teenager had been caught.

A judge in Mosul’s sharia court stared at her. After being told Lamiya kept trying to escape – this time she had been caught leading a breakout of several other girls seized by the terror group – he made his ruling. 

‘He said that either they must kill me or cut off my foot to stop me escaping,’ Lamiya recalls.

So how did she respond to such a terrifying sentence? 

‘I told him that if you cut off one foot then I will escape with the other. I told the judge I would never give up. So they replied they would keep on torturing me if I tried to escape.’

She showed immense bravery, yet it was typical of this remarkable teenager. Eventually her life – and her feet – were saved by a senior IS official, who argued that she should be sold to a new ‘owner’.

Lamiya was one of the several thousand Yazidi women and girls condemned to sex slavery, traded like animals and abused by barbarous fanatics. Another year of fear, agony and assaults lay ahead of her, held captive by a cruel surgeon, who traded kidnapped women and children when not stitching up wounded jihadis.

But now Lamiya is free, though even her escape was etched in pain and tragedy. She was injured in an explosion that left extensive physical scars on her face to go with the deep psychological scars on her mind.

I met Lamiya in a quiet hotel in Germany, where this extraordinary, softly spoken young woman told me her story – a tale of savagery far beyond anyone’s worst nightmare.

She heard her father and brothers being shot, was enslaved by their cruel killers, and then beaten and raped for almost two years by a succession of older men.

During her time trapped in the IS heartland of Syria and northern Iraq, Lamiya saw children sold to old men as sex slaves, and she was forced to help make suicide bombs. At one point Lamiya was thrown into a room to be gang-raped by 40 fanatics. Yet she never buckled. ‘These men were more than monsters,’ she says. ‘That’s why I stayed strong, because I wanted to challenge the life they gave me.’

The brave teenager endured a horrific tale of savagery far beyond anyone’s worst nightmare.

Now, showing remarkable courage, she has taken the unusual step for her gender, her religion and her region, in speaking openly about the horrors.

It is hard to believe that she is still only 18. Lamiya’s stance was recognised last month with the EU’s top human rights award – the Sakharov Prize. Nadia Murad, another Yazidi sex slave survivor, was also honoured.

Their stories remind the world that so many more Yazidi women and girls remain caught in similarly appalling circumstances by bigots who view them as infidels due to their ancient beliefs.

The 400,000-strong Yazidi community is persecuted by extreme Muslims for devil-worship since their religion, blending aspects of ancient Middle East traditions, reveres an angel which takes the form of a blue peacock.

Lamiya comes from the Yazidi village of Kocho in northern Iraq, where the 1,800 residents were told by IS to convert to Islam or die. Until then she had had a happy childhood, growing up on a prosperous farm owned by a wealthy family. She went to school, worked hard and hoped to become a teacher.

‘When I first heard of Daesh [another term for IS] on television I thought it was some kind of new animal,’ she says, underlining her youth. ‘I didn’t know they were a terror gang.’

Yazidi women were split up – married women and younger children were taken to Tal Afar and unmarried women and teenagers were sent to Mosul

When IS swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second city, 80 miles west of Kocho, elders realised their village might become caught up in the spiralling conflict, but they never thought peaceful civilians like them would be targeted. 

However, in early August 2014, after capturing the nearby city of Sinjar, two cars filled with IS fighters arrived. 

‘They asked us to convert, but said they would do no harm,’ Lamiya says. The village was surrounded, yet a few families managed to flee.

Then, on August 15, a large force of black-clad men stormed the village – locals recognised some as those from nearby towns.

Everyone was ordered into the school, stripped of all their possessions, and females were taken to the first floor.

‘I was so scared. I was thinking of my father, my family, my life,’ says Lamiya. ‘Then they took all our men – fathers, sons, brothers.’

It was the last time she saw her father and two brothers. IS told the terrified women that the men were being sent to Mount Sinjar, where many Yazidi had sought refuge. ‘Ten minutes later we heard the shooting start,’ recalls Lamiya.

The men were slaughtered in their own streets. Then the women were split up: married women and younger children were taken to nearby Tal Afar, while unmarried women and teenagers were sent to Mosul. Older women were shot dead the next day.

Lamiya and three of her sisters soon got a taste of the fate that lay ahead. ‘The men began attacking us, touching us and kissing us.’

In Mosul, the captives were forced into a big building filled with hundreds of similar-aged Yazidi. It turned out to be a market for militants to buy sex slaves. ‘Men came all the time to choose girls. If someone refused to go, they were beaten with cables,’ says Lamiya. ‘It was so painful to see these old men, these monsters, attack the girls. Even girls of nine and ten were crying and begging not to be attacked. I can’t describe how horrible it was.’

A Saudi man in his 40s bought Lamiya and one of her sisters, taking them to the IS stronghold of Raqqa and keeping them handcuffed much of the time. ‘He was a very bad man,’ she says.

‘He beat us for the three days we were with him.

‘Once he tried to kill me with his hands around my neck because I rejected his advances.’

To soften up the sisters, the man took the pair to an IS base and threw them into a room. ‘There were about 40 fighters who abused us. You can’t imagine this – two small girls at the hands of so many monsters. Terrible things happened to us.’

Afterwards the girls were sold to different fighters, fetching about £100 each. Lamiya ended up with an even more brutal man from Mosul.

Although kept in a locked room, she made the first of five escape attempts when alone in an apartment by jumping from a window. Spotting a local man, she begged him for help and he took her to hide in his home for three days.

ISIS members in Central Asia pose with guns. One IS leader forced Lamiya to work beside men making suicide vests, where they churned out 50 devices each day

ISIS members in Central Asia pose with guns.

One IS leader forced Lamiya to work beside men making suicide vests, where they churned out 50 devices each day

‘The family asked if a relative could come and pick me up, but they were all in captivity. The family was afraid of Daesh, so after three days the man called two fighters, saying he had found a girl.’

Her ‘owner’ was quickly tracked down thanks to a computerised registration system used by IS to record sales of women. Before being handed back, Lamiya was tortured by six men before her furious master beat her viciously.

After her second escape attempt, the man sold her. When I tell Lamiya she was obviously trouble, she smiles shyly for the first time. 

‘Every time I tried to escape they tortured me, but it made me stronger. I never gave up.

‘I saw so many atrocities, so many crimes. This gave me the power to keep fighting against them.’

She was taken by a white-haired man from Mosul, who lived with his wife and son. ‘I told him you cannot take me into your family as a slave,’ says Lamiya. ‘Please don’t do things with me there. Then he raped me.

‘I once asked his wife and mother to help protect me from the sexual abuse but they said that was his right since I was an infidel.’

This man held her for two months. Later Lamiya discovered he had another wife: a blonde, blue-eyed younger woman who spoke German. ‘She was very nice but I could not believe she accepted this man.’

After another escape attempt, Lamiya was passed on to an IS emir. ‘Each man was worse than the one before,’ she admits. ‘Everyone said I was difficult, so they beat me from the start. They were always beating me, always abusing me.’

The IS leader was an expert bomb-maker, with a big basement in Mosul filled with cars, liquid explosives and electrical equipment. Lamiya was made to work beside men making suicide vests – she was taught to connect the wiring as they churned out 50 devices each day.

As she worked, she heard air raids and missiles exploding nearby.

‘I hoped they would attack us and we would die,’ Lamiya says. ‘I wanted to end my suffering. I also wanted them to destroy this terrible place because it was making bombs.’ 

 She said: ‘Every time I tried to escape they tortured me, but it made me stronger. I never gave up.”

At one point, when some other Yazidi girls were bought down to the basement, Lamiya persuaded them all to make a dash for freedom. This led to another brutal beating and her being hauled before the sharia court.

She was later kept by a surgeon, who made her run errands in his hospital. Eventually he gave her a mobile phone so that he could summon her – but Lamiya used it to contact an uncle in Kurdistan.

At that point, she was being held close to the Kurdish front line, and her uncle paid a smuggler $7,500 (about £6,100) to get her out.

She walked through the night with Katherine, another teenager from Kocho, and a nine-year-old girl called Almas. But at 4am, Katherine inadvertently stepped on a mine, killing her and the nine-year-old, and leaving Lamiya with her terrible injuries.

Lamiya remembers little after the explosion, which happened nine months ago. Kurdish soldiers carried her to hospital, where doctors were forced to remove one of her eyes. They also treated her wounds before her uncle came for her. 

Later she was taken to Germany by Luftbrucke Irak (Air Bridge Iraq), a charity that helps children and terror victims. The charity funded two more operations, restoring some sight to her left eye, and laser treatment to soften her facial scars.

Unsurprisingly, Lamiya remains traumatised and is plagued by nightmares. ‘I think about the suffering of all those other girls,’ she says.

They include her nine-year-old sister, Mayada, glimpsed only in a snatched photograph standing before a black IS flag. Five other sisters have managed to escape the clutches of jihadis.

One day Lamiya wants to restart her studies and go to university. But for now, this courageous teenager speaks out to remind the world that 3,600 Yazidi women and girls are still enslaved by IS.

‘These people wanted to eliminate my people and my religion but we will survive,’ says Lamiya. ‘My job is to tell those women and girls that they are not alone. And we will demand justice for those monsters who hurt us so much.’


ISIS moved the girls from Mosul to Syria.

During her meeting with Egyptian presenter Wael al-Ebrashy, Bashar said that ISIS was interested in training male children to join them, along with adopting girls for sex.

She pointed out that she saw an Iraqi doctor raping a 9-year-old girl, as ISIS did with her and other girls, adding that ISIS was selling girls back to their parents after they raped them.

She said that she wanted to kill herself when she was raped in front of her sister, pointing out that ISIS considers the Yazidis disbelievers, so they allow the rape of Yazidi women.

She said she does not know where her mother is after the latter had been abducted for four years, adding that she is the only survivor of the kidnapped girls.