IS-abused Yazidi women find sanctuary in Black Forest

After surviving torment and rape at the hands of her Islamic State captors, Nadia Murad rebuilt her life at a trauma centre in Germany's Black Forest which became her sanctuary.

IS-abused Yazidi women find sanctuary in Black Forest
Nadia Murad speaking in Germany under a sign reading 'Mut' (courage) in 2017. Photo: DPA

It was here alongside hundreds of other Yazidi victims of IS abuse and terror that Murad found her voice and started the journey that saw her honoured with this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Thousands of kilometres from their war-battered homes in northern Iraq's Sinjar region, 1,100 women and children of the Kurdish-speaking minority were resettled here.

The psychologically scarred women are escaped IS captives who were chosen for an emergency asylum programme set up in 2014 by the state of Baden-Württemberg.

SEE ALSO: Nobel Peace Prize winner who found refuge in Germany honoured

The women, many of whom were sold as IS slaves, have since received trauma counselling for rape, a taboo subject in the Middle East, under the guidance of Kurdish-German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan.

“At the beginning here it was very difficult,” said one of them, Lewiza, speaking in a monotone voice about her culture shock when she arrived three years ago.

“I was always afraid, I thought I was going to fall back into the hands of Daesh,” she said, using the Arabic acronym for the jihadi militant group.

'Everything was new'

The 22-year-old, who declined to reveal her full name, had to rebuild her life from scratch in this picturesque and prosperous corner of Germany near the Swiss border.

“Everything was new to me: undergoing therapy, talking to someone about my condition,” she told AFP. “But every time I speak, I feel much better.”

Sitting beside her, Kizilhan translated her Kurdish into German, a language Lewiza is studying while also training at a hotel school in the region.

It was this Turkish-born German trauma psychotherapist who has helped the women, including Murad, whom he encouraged in 2015 to address the UN Security Council.

Kizilhan sought out the women who were living in refugee camps in northern Iraq under a €95 million state programme.

It has required psychologists, social workers and interpreters with special training to help those from a culture with very different conventions and sensitivities.

“The terms they use are different,” said Kizilhan, who is also training a new generation of psychologists in Iraq to address the country's mental health crisis.

“They do not say they were raped, they say they were 'married' … They do not say they suffer trauma, they say they have 'headaches' or 'stomach aches'.”


In Yazidi culture, as in other Middle Eastern communities, victims of sexual violence can be banished because they and their families are seen to have been dishonoured by rape.

In their desperation, some Yazidi women have committed suicide because of their shame and isolation.

To help them, the psychotherapist turned to the Yazidis' spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, and asked him to offer a gesture of inclusion to the victims, kissing them on theforehead.

“It is only when one is sure of one's identity that one can begin a therapy,” said Kizilhan, speaking in his clinic office decorated with amulets to ward off bad luck and a kilim carpet, testament to his Kurdish origins.

Murad was one of the first women to speak, recalled Kizilhan, who had met her in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Broken by the savage violence she had endured, “she was crying a lot and collapsing on the floor,” he recalled.

“But she said to me: I want to talk about what happened to us.”

After three years of treatment, Lewiza has also managed to put into words the pain she has endured, even if her gaze is lost in the distance when she speaks.

The jihadists “have done so much harm all around them, I don't know if a legal process will be enough to rectify that”, she said.

In his office, also decorated with a green porcelain peacock, one of the most important Yazidi religious symbols, Kizilhan said that although the minority has been battered by violence, it is undergoing a “paradigm shift”.

In “this patriarchal society … it is women like Nadia who have risen up,” he said. “They are the ones who now lead this society.”

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What you need to know about German police ‘Rambo’-style Black Forest manhunt

In scenes reminiscent of the film "Rambo", police in Germany's Black Forest are hunting for a homeless man wearing combat gear and armed with a bow and arrow among other weapons.

What you need to know about German police 'Rambo'-style Black Forest manhunt
Police officer standing to cordon in a residential area in Oppenau during the manhunt. Photo: DPA

What's happening?

Several hundred officers were combing the forest with the help of special forces, helicopters and sniffer dogs on Monday after the man went missing on Sunday.

Police in Oppenau, in south-western Germany, warned local residents to stay at home and not pick up any hitchhikers.

They released a photo of the 31-year-old suspect, who has a bow and arrow, a knife and at least one gun and is known to the police for previous offences, including illegal possession of firearms.

The authorities did not name the suspect, but the Bild tabloid identified him as Yves Rausch, also publishing a photo of him dressed in military fatigues.

Police said they were informed on Sunday morning that a suspicious man was hanging around a hut in the forest.

Four officers sent to the scene said the suspect cooperated at first when approached.

But then he “suddenly and completely unexpectedly” threatened them with a firearm, leaving them “no time to react to the dangerous situation,” police said.

Police are searching for this man. Photo: Oppenau Police/DPA

The man made the officers hand over their weapons before running away, “presumably” taking their firearms with him.

Police described the man as about 170 centimetres (5.6 feet) tall, slim, with glasses, a goatee beard and a bald head.

READ ALSO: German police search for armed man on the run in Black Forest

They said he had spent time in the forest before and had been spotted there as recently as Saturday, so he presumably knew his way around the terrain.

Man spent time in prison

Bild said he lived above a local guest house for three years before being evicted for not paying his rent about a year ago.

He had odd jobs as a rail worker and a golf course caretaker, a former neighbour was cited as saying, describing him as “not an easy person”.

Various weapons and petrol canisters were found in his apartment after he was evicted, as well as a small shooting range in the attic, according to Bild.

The man then reportedly lived in his car by the local swimming pool for a while before moving into the hut at the edge of the forest.

According to Bild, he spent time in prison for shooting his girlfriend with a bow and arrow.

A police spokesman was cited as saying the man was in a state of “psychiatric emergency” and should not be approached.

The police weapons were P2000 semi-automatic pistols that can hold up to 16 bullets each, according to Bild, meaning the man could have an extra 64 shots at his disposal.

By Sebastien Sauges