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ISIS Survivor Holds Onto The Names Of Those Who Enslaved Her


We have the story now of a fight for justice against long odds. A woman enslaved by ISIS has held onto the names of her captors. While some ISIS militants face death sentences, most will never face trial. But the woman who survived captivity is unwilling to forget. We should warn you that this story by NPR's Jane Arraf contains disturbing details.

LAYLA: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Layla unzips a worn, fake leather purse. And she pulls out photos and a folded piece of paper torn from a notebook. We're sitting in a container in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, a hundred miles from her home. The paper is written in blue ink. It lists the names of 17 ISIS fighters who bought and sold her.

LAYLA: (Reading) Abu Ibrahim Ansari (ph), Abu Omar (ph), Omar Amari Nezdi (ph), Abu Hamad al Ansari (ph)...

ARRAF: She matter-of-factly reads the names the men were known by - for most, their first names and where they were from.

LAYLA: (Reading) Sughaid al Libi (ph), Abu Bara al Saruti (ph), Abu Hata al Saruti (ph)...

ARRAF: The men who enslaved her were mostly Syrians, Libyans and Saudis. When one of her last remaining relatives raised the money to buy her back from ISIS a year-and-a-half ago, she dictated the names to him. She didn't want to forget. She's carried the list in her purse ever since.

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) This is Abu Obeida (ph). He would sell me to the others - some for a week, others for a week or a month. It would always be in the same house.

ARRAF: She's in a camp for Yazidis displaced when ISIS killed and captured more than 6,000 of them in 2014 - a campaign of genocide. Entire villages were destroyed. Layla is in her late 30s. She wears a black cloak. She's been biting her nails. She occasionally lights a cigarette - not common for women. She says her brother-in-law suggested it after she was released.

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) He gives me cigarettes and coffee and Pepsi to forget because I'm always thinking and feeling sad.

ARRAF: Mostly, she thinks about what she'd lost - her husband and three sons, shot by ISIS and dumped in a mass grave when the group stormed into the Sinjar region of Iraq five years ago.

LAYLA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: She shows us a photo of her brother's wedding before Sinjar fell. Now everyone in the wedding party is dead - her parents, her brothers and sisters, uncles, cousins - 21 relatives gone. To remember her own family, she has this photo.

LAYLA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: There's a blue sky with clouds and a rainbow, and her husband is superimposed on the photo along with her four children.

LAYLA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Only one of them is still alive. Her husband, who was a schoolteacher, along with all but their youngest child, were shot in the massacre five years ago. She and her son, who was 8, were taken captive. She introduces herself as Layla. It's not her usual name because she's afraid the ISIS fighters who held her, the ones who weren't killed in battle, will come after her. She will never feel safe again.

After she and her son were captured, she was repeatedly raped. When she wasn't cooking and cleaning, she was locked in a small dark room with no lights, no fan in the summer or heat in the winter. She wore the same dress for three years. She did what they wanted to protect her son.

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) He was a little boy, and they were making him carry huge barrels and other heavy things. Also, he had to massage seven or eight men a day or wash them in the shower.

ARRAF: She tried to escape three times. The last time...

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) We knocked on the doors of about 10 houses of civilians. At the last one, I told them I have this phone number for my brother. Can you call him? He will come and get us. They said no, and they called ISIS to come and take us back.

ARRAF: And when she was returned to the fighters...

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) Until I die, I will never forget what ISIS did to me.

ARRAF: They blindfolded and handcuffed her and gave her 150 lashes with a cable. They gave her electric shocks, then they dragged her behind a car. Her front teeth were knocked out. Her son ran away to another ISIS family. Eventually, her brother-in-law heard through informants where she was and borrowed $12,000 to buy her back from ISIS. He says when she was released, she was so weak she could barely walk.

She made her list of names and filled it in with the places and dates where she was held. There are thousands of suspected ISIS fighters. Some are sentenced to death in summary trials. There is hardly anyone gathering evidence from women like Layla. And even if they were, it could take years to build a case. Here's the thing about Layla: even though she's terrified, she's really brave. She'd heard that her son, now 13, was being held by an ISIS family in the al-Hol detention camp in Syria.


LAYLA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: She made this video with her face uncovered to send to camp officials, naming the ISIS family he was believed to be with and asking for help. And then she crossed back into Syria, where she had been held captive, and went with a small group of women into the sprawling camp full of the wives of ISIS fighters.

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) I wore the same clothing that ISIS women wear. I went everywhere - to the hospital, to the playground. I have no one else except God and this son, so I had to do everything I could to find him.

ARRAF: She was forced to leave Syria before she could find him. But a few days later, he was rescued. When we meet her, it's the day before they were to be reunited. But she says she can't feel anything.

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) I am dead. I see students going to school; I remember my sons. I see teachers; I remember my husband. My son will be like all the other sons without mothers. After everything happened, I really want to die.


ARRAF: Outside her tent, there are children playing in the sunshine. Layla comes out to say goodbye, and then goes back in to her memories and to a list of names of people who will likely never see a courtroom.


ARRAF: Jane Arraf, NPR News, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.