In some places like northeast Nigeria, the Islamic State effectively controls its local affiliate, the Islamic State in West Africa, and has provided it with trainers, expertise and financing, according to research by the International Crisis Group. But researchers say the Islamic State maintains much looser ties to other militant groups like the insurgency in Mozambique, which remains a largely homegrown movement born of local grievances.
For decades there, impoverished locals had watched as elites in the capital plundered the resource-rich region of Cabo Delgado, along the Indian Ocean, which has served as a hub for illegal timber as well as drug and ivory smuggling.
Then in 2009, one of the world’s largest known ruby deposits was discovered in the province, and two years later, oil companies uncovered a natural gas deposit worth tens of billions of dollars. In a sudden — and often violent — stroke, speculators flocked to the area, locals were forced off their land and some small-scale miners were beaten and killed.
By the time the nascent insurgency launched its first attacks in 2017, targeting police stations and local government leaders, it had widespread appeal among petty traders at the ports and disenchanted youths, local researchers say.
The violent crackdown from the Mozambican military, which was implicated in serious abuses against civilians, may have also helped the insurgency — known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a — gain more traction with locals.
But over the past year, the nature of the war has changed. The militant group has destroyed entire towns, displacing 670,000 people, killing at least 2,000 civilians and kidnapping scores of others, according to human rights and humanitarian organizations, and the U.S. State Department.
Mona Lisa lay on a hospital bed in Mekelle, the main city in war-torn northern Ethiopia, her body devastated but her defiance on display.
Named for the iconic painting, the 18-year-old Ethiopian high school graduate had survived an attempted rape that left her with seven gunshot wounds and an amputated arm. She wanted it to be known that she had resisted.
“This is ethnic cleansing,” she said. “Soldiers are targeting Tigrayan women to stop them giving birth to more Tigrayans.”
Her account is one of hundreds detailing abuses in Tigray, the mountainous region in northern Ethiopia where a grinding civil war has been accompanied by a parallel wave of atrocities including widespread sexual assault targeting women.
told the Security Council last week that more than 500 Ethiopian women have formally reported sexual violence in Tigray, although the actual toll is likely far higher, she added. In the city of Mekelle, health workers say new cases emerge every day.
The assaults have become a focus of growing international outrage about a conflict where the fighting is largely happening out of sight, in the mountains and the countryside. But evidence of atrocities against civilians — mass shootings, looting, sexual assault — is everywhere.
increasingly desperate pleas for international action on Ethiopia, led by senior United Nations and European Union officials, the pressure appears to be producing results. President Biden recently sent an envoy, Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, to Ethiopia for talks with Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, that lasted five hours.
On Tuesday, addressing Ethiopia’s Parliament, Mr. Abiy publicly acknowledged that sexual assault had become an integral part of a war he once promised would be swift and bloodless.
said earlier this month.
The war started in November after Mr. Abiy accused the T.P.L.F. of attacking a major military base in a bid to overthrow his government. The T.P.L.F. ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018, then retreated to its stronghold in Tigray where it began to openly defy the new prime minister’s authority.
In some ways, the bitter fight is driven by deeply rooted forces — longstanding land disputes, opposing visions over the future shape of Ethiopia, and a rivalry with Eritrea going back decades. But civilians, and particularly women, are bearing the brunt of the most disturbing violence.
Rocks, nails and other objects have been forced inside the bodies of women — and some men — during sexual assaults, according to health workers. Men have been forced to rape their own family members under threat of violence, Pramila Patten, the top U.N. official on sexual violence in conflict, said in January.
“Rape is being used as a weapon of war,” said Letay Tesfay of the Tigray Women’s Association, which runs a safe house for women in Mekelle. “What’s happening is unimaginable.”
called a concerted effort to destroy the region’s health care system. In his meeting with Mr. Abiy in March, Senator Coons said they discussed “directly and forcefully” the reports of widespread human rights violations including rape.
Whether Mr. Abiy delivers on his promise of bringing the perpetrators to justice, he added, “is going to be critical to any successful resolution of this conflict.”
marched into Mekelle on Nov. 28. Some said they had been raped by soldiers in the camps for displaced people on the edge of the city; others were abducted from their homes in rural areas and held for days as soldiers repeatedly raped them.
The doctor, who like several other medics spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the authorities, produced a list of 18 registered sexual violence patients at the hospital. The youngest was 14. Most said their attackers were soldiers, he said.
In one bed, a 29-year old woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Helen, trembled as she recounted how Eritrean and Ethiopian troops tied her to a tree near her home in Agula, 15 miles north of Mekelle, and assaulted her repeatedly over a 10-day period in late November.
“I lost count,” she said. “They took photos of me, poured alcohol on me and laughed.” Some of her assailants also shot dead her 12-year-old son, she added.
Selam Assefe, a police investigator working on rape cases at the Ayder Referral Hospital, corroborated Ms. Helen’s account.
Most sexual assault cases in Tigray, however, may not be recorded anywhere. Health workers said that officials are reluctant to register such violence, fearing the military could target them for documenting the crime. Patients often remain anonymous for the same reason.
Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, Ethiopia’s minister of women, children and youth, insisted that the federal government was taking seriously the reports of sexual violence in Tigray, and had sent a task force including social workers, police and prosecutors to investigate.
While her own mandate was limited to providing victims with psychological support, Ms. Filsan said she had pressured Ethiopia’s attorney general to deliver justice. But it is a difficult process, she insisted.
“I cannot 100 percent confirm whom this is being committed by,” Ms. Filsan said, referring to the perpetrators.
The sexual attacks are so common that even some Ethiopian soldiers have spoken out. At a public meeting in Mekelle in January, a man in military uniform made an outburst that was broadcast on state TV.
“I was angry yesterday,” he said. “Why does a woman get raped in Mekelle city?” The soldier, who was not identified, questioned why the police weren’t stopping them. “It wouldn’t be shocking if it happened during fighting,” he said. “But women were raped yesterday and today when the local police and federal police are around.”
Haben, a waitress in Mekelle, was raped with two other women at the cafe where they work in December, she said. Her body is still covered in bruises from the assault.
“They told us not to resist,” she recalled. “‘Lie down. Don’t shout.’”
But even if they had shouted, she added, “there was nobody to listen.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Mekelle, Ethiopia.
NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern Ethiopian region where the brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters has become a byword for atrocities against civilians.
On Friday, under mounting American and international pressure, Mr. Abiy went one step further and announced that the Eritrean soldiers had agreed to go home.
Mr. Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a faint glimmer of hope amid a stream of horrific reports about widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.
soldiers from Eritrea — even as Mr. Isaias, the dictatorial leader of the notoriously secretive country, denied that his troops were even present in Tigray.
Mr. Abiy flew to meet Mr. Isaias on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader to halt the carnage, and to reinforce American calls for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops.The United States has publicly called for Eritrean soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.
On Friday Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s declaration that an Eritrean troop withdrawal had been agreed upon. Public statements from both governments “underline full agreement and consensus on all issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Mr. Abiy had left the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on Nov. 4, accusing rebellious Tigrayan leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to topple the federal government.
As the fighting gathered pace, reports of gross abuses against civilians began to emerge from Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, allied fighters from ethnic Ahmara militias, and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front all faced accusations.
But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Mr. Abiy spent five hours in talks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to convey his alarm at the deteriorating situation.
In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Coons said that the talks were “forthright” at times, and that Mr. Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war.”
But Mr. Abiy has fallen short on such commitments before, Mr. Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure.
“It’s actions that are going to matter,” he said.
On Friday a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.
In a mark of the impunity that has come to characterize the Tigrayan conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a major road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a statement Thursday.
a landmark peace deal soon after Mr. Abiy came to power.
The pact earned Mr. Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Mr. Isaias, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, to emerge from international isolation. After the Tigray war erupted in November, though, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility toward the leaders of Tigray.
It was unclear on Friday whether Mr. Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough in ending the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.
In his statement, Mr. Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “out of the Ethiopian border,” where, effective immediately, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border guarding duties.
But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep inside Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.
Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Sexual violence survivors from Tigray have blamed horrific assaults on Eritrean troops.
over 500 rape cases have been reported at five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely far higher.
“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” the official, Wafaa Said, said.
Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains out of bounds for aid workers and reporters, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.
Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge to Mr. Abiy.
The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Mr. Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with help from his allies — ethnic Amhara fighters and soldiers from Eritrea.
Were the Eritreans to leave en masse, some analysts say, government forces might struggle to maintain their grip on the parts of Tigray that they now control.
JERUSALEM — The sun was rising on the Mediterranean one recent morning when the crew of an Iranian cargo ship heard an explosion. The ship, the Shahr e Kord, was about 50 miles off the coast of Israel, and from the bridge they saw a plume of smoke rising from one of the hundreds of containers stacked on deck.
The state-run Iranian shipping company said the vessel had been heading to Spain and called the explosion a “terrorist act.”
But the attack on the Shahr e Kord this month was just one of the latest salvos in a long-running covert conflict between Israel and Iran. An Israeli official said the attack was retaliation for an Iranian assault on an Israeli cargo ship last month.
Since 2019, Israel has been attacking ships carrying Iranian oil and weapons through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas, opening a new maritime front in a regional shadow war that had previously played out by land and in the air.
Iranian efforts to circumvent American sanctions on its oil industry.
But the conflict’s expansion risks the escalation of what has been a relatively limited tit-for-tat, and it further complicates efforts by the Biden administration to persuade Iran to reintroduce limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
“This is a full-fledged cold war that risks turning hot with a single mistake,” said Ali Vaez, Iran program director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. “We’re still in an escalatory spiral that risks getting out of control.”
Since 2019, Israeli commandos have attacked at least 10 ships carrying Iranian cargo, according to an American official and a former senior Israeli official. The real number of targeted ships may be higher than 20, according to an Iranian Oil Ministry official, an adviser to the ministry and an oil trader.
first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Most of the ships were carrying fuel from Iran to its ally Syria, and two carried military equipment, according to an American official and two senior Israeli officials. An American official and an Israeli official said the Shahr e Kord was carrying military equipment toward Syria.
The Israeli government declined to comment.
has accelerated in recent years. Iran has been arming and financing militias throughout the region, notably in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political movement that is a longtime enemy of Israel.
Israel has tried to counter Iran’s power play by launching regular airstrikes on Iranian shipments by land and air of arms and other cargo to Syria and Lebanon. Those attacks have made those routes riskier and shifted at least some of the weapons transit, and the conflict, to the sea, analysts said.
Israel has also sought to undermine Iran’s nuclear program through assassinations and sabotage on Iranian soil, and both sides are accused of cyberattacks, including a failed Iranian attack on an Israeli municipal water system last April and a retaliatory Israeli strike on a major Iranian port.
Iran’s Quds force was blamed for a bomb that exploded near Israel’s embassy in New Delhi in January. And 15 militants linked to Iran were arrested last month in Ethiopia for plotting to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.
The sum is an undeclared conflict that neither side wants to escalate into frontal combat.
a major Iranian nuclear site in July and the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist last November. Israel has not publicly acknowledged either operation.
The Israeli offensive against Iranian shipping has two goals, analysts and officials said. The first is to prevent Tehran from sending equipment to Lebanon to help Hezbollah build a precision missile program, which Israel considers a strategic threat.
The second is to dry up an important source of oil revenue for Tehran, building on the pressure American sanctions have inflicted. After the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s fuel industry in late 2018, the Iranian government became more reliant on clandestine shipping.
Sima Shine, a former head of research at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
The attacks typically feature limpet mines and sometimes torpedoes, the American official said. They generally target the ships’ engines or propellers, one Israeli official said. And they are intended to cripple but not sink the ships, the American and Israeli officials said.
a recent oil spill that left tons of tar on the beaches of Israel and Lebanon.
Within Israel, there is concern among maritime experts that the cost of a sea war may exceed its benefit.
While the Israeli Navy can make its presence felt in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, it is less effective in waters closer to Iran. And that could make Israeli-owned ships more vulnerable to Iranian attacks as they pass Iran’s western shores on their way to ports in the Gulf, said Shaul Chorev, a retired Israeli admiral who now heads the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa.
“Israeli strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and related waterways will undoubtedly grow,” he wrote in a statement, “and the Israeli Navy does not have the capabilities to protect these interests.”
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, Farnaz Fassihi from New York, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
A stubbled crater attests to a recent artillery barrage, but with its bustling streets and shops, the highland Ethiopian city of Mekelle has an air of relative peace.
Then the stories start spilling out.
Of the hospital that begins its days with an influx of bodies bearing gunshot or knife wounds — people killed, relatives and Red Cross workers say, for breaching the nightly curfew.
Of the young man who made the mistake of getting into a heated argument with a government soldier in a bar. Hours later, friends said, four soldiers followed him home and beat him to death with beer bottles.
Of a nightlong battle between government forces and local militia fighters in a nearby town and its aftermath, when soldiers returning to collect their dead stormed into nearby homes, firing indiscriminately.
obtained by The New York Times.
A spokesman for the Ahmara regional government told Bloomberg this week that it was pressing to officially incorporate western Tigray into Amhara.
an investigation was approved by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
In testimony to Congress last week,the United States secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, called the situation in Tigray unacceptable and reiterated calls for Eritrean troops to withdraw immediately.
“They need to come out,” Mr. Blinken said.
Mr. Mulu, the interim leader of Tigray, cuts a lonely figure in Mekelle. An ethnic Tigrayan installed by Mr. Abiy nine days into the war, he lives and works from a suite at the Axum Hotel where he is trying to trying to restart Tigray’s war-battered bureaucracy.
Unlike Mr. Abiy, Mr. Mulu does not deny the Eritrean presence in Tigray. And in an interview he said he had initiated his own investigation into reported atrocities.
“It’s not acceptable that people should die like this,” he said. “But we need evidence. We have requested our security forces to investigate it.”
Tigray’s health services, once among the best in Ethiopia, have been ravaged. On Monday, Doctors Without Borders said that dozens of clinics across the region had been destroyed and plundered by soldiers, often deliberately.
quit his job over the reports of atrocities in Tigray, accusing Mr. Abiy of leading Ethiopia “down a dark path toward destruction and disintegration.”
Inside Tigray, soldiers detained Ethiopian translators and reporters working for four international outlets, including TheTimes, last month. The men were released without charge days later, but by then most foreign reporters had been forced to leave Tigray.
In such a fraught environment, even massacres are contested.
Mr. Abiy’s officials frequently cite a massacre in Mai Kadra, a town in western Tigray, on Nov. 9, as an example of T.P.L.F. war crimes. Witnesses cited in an Amnesty International report blamed the deaths on Tigrayan fighters.
with a reputation for brutality, and insisted that the majority of victims were Tigrayans.
Solomon Haileselassie, 28, said he watched the slaughter from his hiding place in a garbage dump. “I saw them cut off people’s legs and arms with axes,” he said.
Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher, said the group had received credible new evidence of Tigrayan deaths, but stood by the finding that the majority of victims were Amharas.
Restricted access and the “high politicization of violence” make it hard to establish the truth about much of anything in Tigray, Mr. Fisseha added.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Mekelle, Ethiopia.
KIRIKHAN, Turkey — Turkey’s southern border with Syria has become a place of hardship and misery, with tented camps for people displaced by a decade of war on the Syrian side and a concrete wall blocking entrance to Turkey for all but the most determined.
Yet amid the rocky outcrops in one small area on the Turkish side, life is abounding as an endangered species of wild gazelle is recovering its stocks and multiplying.
The mountain gazelle, a dainty antelope with a striped face and spiraling horns, once roamed widely across the Middle East, and as Roman mosaics reveal, across southern Turkey as well. But by the end of the last century, it was hunted almost to extinction, with only a dwindling population of 2,500 left in Israel, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In Turkey, the gazelle was forgotten and thought to no longer exist. The only ones officially recorded were a subspecies, known as goitered gazelles, in Sanliurfa Province in the southeast of the country.
The rediscovery and survival of the mountain gazelle in Turkey has been largely thanks to one man and his love of nature.
Yasar Ergun, a village teacher who became a veterinarian and professor at Hatay Mustafa Kemal University in the city of Antakya, heard in the mid-1990s from an old hunter that there were wild gazelles in the mountains along the border with Syria.
A keen hiker, he set out to try to find them. Barely 25 miles from Antakya — the ancient city of Antioch — Kurdish villagers knew about them and shepherds occasionally saw them. The gazelles live on the rocky hillsides, where their markings and coloring make them almost invisible. But they come down in groups to graze and find water on the surrounding agricultural land.
The professor spotted his first one in 1998 and, after a decade of observing them, estimated that there were about 100 living in the area.
With a small grant for a teaching project, he bought a camera and telephoto lens, which led to a close encounter and a breakthrough discovery.
“It was the mating season,” he recalled. “I ran to the road, and the male ran toward me to defend his females. It was very unusual.”
When he examined the photos, he realized the gazelles differed from those in southeastern Turkey.
“This one was light brown, with some parts white, and the horns were completely different,” he said. He was sure he was looking at the mountain gazelle, but found little interest in his claims in academic circles, he said.
“I sent the photographs around — professors just laughed,” he said.
He drew on the help of Tolga Kankilic, a biologist, who gathered samples of dung, fur and skin from the remains of dead gazelles for genetic testing, and found that the DNA matched that of mountain gazelles.
The discovery presented Mr. Ergun with an altogether more important task: to help the gazelles survive. There were several threats to them — lack of water and habitat especially — but by far the greatest danger was illegal hunting. Hunting is allowed only under license in designated areas in Turkey, but illegal hunting is rife.
The gazelles had disappeared completely from other regions, including Adana, farther west, where American soldiers stationed at Incirlik air base used to hunt them 20 years ago, he said.
“The end of a genetic source is the same as the collapse of Earth,” he said. “Nature needs biodiversity.”
He won a grant from the World Wildlife Fund in Turkey for a grass-roots project with local villagers and bought mountain gear and amateur walkie-talkies for several shepherds, who began monitoring the gazelles. They dug basins in the rock to collect water for the gazelles, though it took the animals months to trust the water source.
With his knowledge of village life, Mr. Ergun began softly, gaining the support of local shepherds, educating children to protect the gazelles and even encouraging a local Kurdish legend of a holy man who lived with the gazelles and milked them.
With the hunters, Mr. Ergun and his helpers adopted an approach of traditional courtesy and respect, drinking tea with them but never mentioning their hunting.
“We never tried to use force to stop them,” he said. “We would say, ‘Hello, we are from the Nature Project.’ Sometimes silence is more powerful than talking.”
The local people were Kurds, a mountain people with their own language and culture — and a history of resistance to the Turkish state.
“If you make an enemy, just one, in 10 years you will have 10 enemies, and in 100 years you will have 1,000,” Mr. Ergun said. But as the shepherds began monitoring the gazelles, the hunters got the message.
Mr. Ergun also needed the cooperation of the Turkish Army, which has a base in the area. The gazelles occupy a narrow strip of territory along the border a few miles wide and less than 20 miles long that is mostly a restricted military zone.
Yet the military restrictions, and the outbreak of war across the border in Syria 10 years ago, helped the gazelles in unexpected ways. Turkey built a cement wall along the border and dismantled an old buffer fence, which opened up more territory for the gazelles and protected them from straying into Syria, where hunting remains a threat.
The project grew, securing government support for a breeding center and sanctuary for orphaned and injured gazelles. The gazelles began to thrive, increasing from about 235 in 2012 to more than 1,100 last year, according to an official count by Turkish government agencies.
In 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey declared a protected area of 50 square miles for the gazelles, and plans for a cement factory and quarries in the area were canceled.
Turkey is enormously rich in flora and fauna, but is industrializing rapidly and lagging in nature conservation, said Sedat Kalem, the conservation director of the World Wildlife Fund Turkey, which gave two small grants to help start the gazelle project. The government did not step in to rescue the gazelles, and it was left to a local initiative, he said.
“But we were happy to be instrumental in this result,” he said. “The locals have done a great job. If everybody can take care of their own environment, that is the key for overall success for protecting biodiversity.”
Not all of the villagers are convinced of the importance of protecting the gazelles.
“It’s actually a pain,” said Nuray Yildirim as she baked flatbread in an outdoor oven in the village of Incirli. “There are too many of them, and they eat the chickpeas and the wheat.”
But others described the gazelles as a blessing, even holy.
“They have been living here since the time of our ancestors,” said Mehmet Hanafi Cayir, a farmer. “The richness they bring will come to our door.”
Mr. Ergun’s attachment is primarily scientific. He said the increase in gazelles had brought wolves and even hyenas back to the region, which reflects a healthy ecosystem.
He also has plans for the future. As the numbers increase, he wants to reintroduce gazelles to other areas of Turkey and beyond.
“The habitat is suitable for these gazelles,” he said.
“Maybe we can reintroduce them in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq,” he added. “They lost them just 30 years ago. The people of the Middle East suffered so much. We should offer them this.”
FAYSH KHABUR BORDER CROSSING, Iraq —The nine young mothers rushed into the spartan offices of a Syrian border post, looking for the sons and daughters taken from them two years ago, children they thought they would never see again.
The bewildered children, dressed in new puffy jackets from the orphanage they had come from, were mostly too young to remember their mothers. They started to cry as the sobbing women grabbed and kissed them and then led them away from the orphanage workers who were the only caregivers they knew.
“I was so happy, but it was a shock for both of us,” said one mother, who said she had been dreaming of seeing her daughter again for nearly two years. “She is not used to me yet.”
The girl was now 2 and a half.
The secret handoff on the Syrian-Iraqi border last week was so far the only reunion of Yazidi women from Iraq and the children they had while sexually enslaved by their Islamic State captors.
repeatedly raped, traded and sold at will. About 3,000 Yazidis are still missing.
When ISIS was driven from southeastern Syria in early 2019, most of the Yazidi women were freed and taken with their children to halfway houses. They were told by Yazidi elders that they could go home but that they had to leave their children behind. Many of the children were taken to the Kurdish-run orphanage.
Some women who were not identified as Yazidi, including some who hid their ethnicity in order to keep their children, were taken to Al Hol, a squalid detention camp in northeastern Syria. Despite the camp’s conditions, the woman with the 2-and-a-half-year-old pretended to be Arab so that she could stay there and keep her child.
During the final days of the caliphate, when American-led airstrikes were pounding Baghuz, Syria, and she was wounded by shrapnel, she fought to keep her infant daughter alive. She fed her flour mixed with water to keep her from starving. She sewed baby clothes from cloth cut from her own dresses.
Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor, advocate and Nobel Peace laureate, has said she believes the women should be allowed to decide whether to be reunited with their children.
“They didn’t have a choice when they were taken into captivity,” she told The Times. “They didn’t have a choice in any of this, and they must get the help and decide what they want.”
Before the women embarked on the trip to recover their children, Mr. Galbraith told them that third countries would take them in, a prospect that is far from assured.
At the safe house a few days later, the large house rang out with the shrieks and laughter of small children, all under age 6. Some of the mothers watched them worriedly, still afraid of what might happen to them.
Several women said they hoped they would be able to be relocated to a third country together.
Most, but not all of the children, were beginning to bond with their mothers.
The mother of the 5-year-old said she was still struggling to get the girl to warm up to her. The girl had cried in terror at being taken away from the orphanage. But the woman said she was determined to make a new life for them.
“No one can make us live far from each other anymore,” she said.
Suddenly the woman with the 2-and-a-half-year-old shrieked.
“She said, ‘Mama’!” the woman exclaimed. She leaned down to the little girl dressed in pink and urged her to say it again.