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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Rescuing the Missing in Syria

Easter in 2015 was forever ruined for Carolyn. Seven years ago, ISIS kidnapped Carolyn, an ethnic Assyrian, from her home village of Tel Jazera in eastern Syria. She has suffered unimaginable horrors as an ISIS "wife" since taken at the age of 15. Will we commit this Easter to rescue her and other women still held hostage by ISIS?

Carolyn's parents shared how she cried in terror as she was dragged from her home in April 2015. But Carolyn was not alone. ISIS forced thousands of Yazidi women into fake marriages, which were really kidnapping and rape. Trapped in a cyclical hell, Carolyn and hundreds of Yazidi women were bought, raped, resold and raped again.

Some escaped while other families paid ransoms. Unfortunately, many, many others remain missing. Yet while kidnapped, Carolyn's whereabouts are known, but she is currently beyond rescue.

Asked by her family and advocates to raise her case, Carolyn's parents told me through an interpreter, "We have heard from many sources that she has been in Al-Hol Camp since 2017." Al-Hol is a lawless displacement camp in the baron moonscape of eastern Syria. It is a holding cell for upwards of 60,000 individuals, many suspected ISIS family members or other sympathizers.

The camp conditions are reportedly harsh, and crime is rampant. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) defending this autonomous area of Syria guard the Al-Hol camp, doing their best with minimal international support and even less international interest to repatriate camp members. It is dangerous, thankless work. In January, the SDF fought a weeklong battle with ISIS trying to break out fighters from a nearby prison. Clashes within Al-Hol have also cost the lives of aid workers and prevented access to its residents.

Major international powers have chosen to ignore this problem. The U.N. special representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, recently referred to Al-Hol as "a ticking time bomb." Stating how tens of thousands of people are stuck in "limbo," the camp is more like an open-air prison. And among this group, victims like Carolyn continue to suffer at the hands of their victimizers, all trapped together.

The family knows of Carolyn being bought and sold at least four times. Reports indicate she arrived at Al-Hol in April 2019. She now has two children from these men, a young boy and girl. Escapees from Al-Hol report that Carolyn is very close to her children and will not leave without them.

The stigma of children born of rape in traditional societies has often placed mothers in an impossible position—abandon their children to return home or stay locked in with their tormentor to protect their children. Thankfully, Carolyn's parents want all three to come home.

"She is our beloved daughter, and we know that she is an innocent girl because she was forced to go," they told me. "We will welcome her home at any time with her children. We live for that day to hug her and her children in our arms."

But her parents cannot find her by themselves. And the SDF guards do not have the resources. I asked a representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF, about looking for Carolyn and missing Yazidi women. They said they need international support. It is impossible for them to undertake any camp canvassing alone.

Tragically and inexcusably, rights-respecting nations have never launched a coordinated effort to find ISIS victims. This despite increasing global recognition that ISIS' brutal atrocities that began in 2014 against the Yazidis, Assyrians/Christians and others constitute genocide. The United States has reached this conclusion (twice), as has Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Nations. And in November, a German court found an ISIS fighter guilty of genocide. But no search for the missing has followed.

Without a targeted effort to find the missing, these lost souls will continue to be tortured. The major powers mustn't look too far, with many victims believed held in Al-Hol. Yes, the Ukraine crisis currently dominates the attention of the world. Still, with a modicum of political will and minimal resources, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and others could launch a process to determine who is in Al-Hol.

A formal recognition of the problem would be a start. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is drafting a report on missing persons in Syria. The U.N. General Assembly tasked the secretary general to research missing persons disappeared by the Syrian government. In this effort, it is also vital the U.N. highlight ISIS captives in Syria. Yet statements by U.N. leadership make it uncertain whether the report will include this neglected issue.

This Easter marks the seventh year of Carolyn's abduction. She and other Yazidi victims will needlessly suffer without action while families remain separated. As Carolyn's parents pleaded, "We ask everyone who can help us to bring her home. We pray she knows how anxious we are to have her and her children with us!"

However, until a search is launched, Carolyn and other women like her, will continue to live with their tormentors. We must not let this continue until next Easter.

Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on ending 21st-century persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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