TIME

Girls Who Escaped ISIS Describe Systematic Rape

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Bilgin Sasmaz—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivers a speech during a press conference at UN headquarters in New York on April 9, 2015.

Girls are forced into marriage and sold as gifts, aid group says

As they destroy antiquities and capture cities, ISIS fighters have also been engaged in a systematic campaign of rape and sexual violence against Yezidi women and girls in Iraq and Syria, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday.

According to the report, the widespread rape of girls and women from the Yezidi Christian minority group—is part of a organized system of abuse that includes slavery, forced marriage, and giving girls as “gifts” to different men. According to a recent U.N. report, about 3,000 people are currently in ISIS captivity, many of them Yezidi women. Last year, ISIS published an article that lays out its defense of sex slavery on religious grounds, despite the fact that sex slavery is condemned by the international community. “The confluence of crises wrought by violent extremism has revealed a shocking trend of sexual violence employed as a tactic of terror by radical groups,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said earlier this week.

One 20-year-old Yezidi woman told Human Rights Watch that ISIS held her and about 60 other women in a wedding hall in Syria, to be raped at will. They were told to “forget about your relatives, from now on you will marry us, bear our children, God will convert you to Islam and you will pray.” Here’s how she described the scene:

From 9:30 in the morning, men would come to buy girls to rape them. I saw in front of my eyes ISIS soldiers pulling hair, beating girls, and slamming the heads of anyone who resisted. They were like animals…. Once they took the girls out, they would rape them and bring them back to exchange for new girls. The girls’ ages ranged from 8 to 30 years… only 20 girls remained in the end.

As horrific as these stories are, they’re not quite new. Human Rights Watch published a similar report detailing ISIS’s forced marriages and conversions of Yezidi people last year, which focused less on specifically sexual abuse and more on widespread devastation of Yezidi communities. Still, international outrage has done little to stop the violence. “People feel quite powerless in the face of a group like ISIS,” says Liesl Gerntholtz, Human Rights Watch Executive Director for Women’s Rights. “Traditional tactics like naming and shaming just don’t work for them.”

ISIS is not the only Islamist militant group to use sexual violation as a tool of terrorism. This week marks the one-year anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls from a school in northeast Nigeria. Based on how Boko Haram has treated other female captives, many fear that the schoolgirls have been forced into marriage or sold into sex slavery. Shortly after the kidnapping, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau boasted that he had taken the girls and planned to “sell them on the market.”

More: Boko Haram Has Fled But No One Know the Fate of the Chibok Girls

But despite the atrocities, there is a glimmer of hope in the latest report on ISIS and the Yezidi women. Yezidi religious leaders have issued statements welcoming abused Yezidi girls back into the community after they escape from their captors, a move that may ease the widespread social stigma against girls who have been victims of sexual assault. “That is unusual, and for me personally, that was a heartwarming part,” says Gerntholtz. “They need to be accepted back, they need to be supported. This was very important and very influential to make sure there were no honor killings or honor-related violence.”

TIME Crime

Ohio Man Said to Train in Syria Charged With Plotting U.S. Attack

Authorities said he received training on breaking into houses

Federal charges have been filed against an Ohio man, accusing him of going to Syria to get terrorist training, then returning to the United States with the intention of killing police or soldiers.

Authorities accuse Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, 23, of Columbus, of leaving the U.S. in April 2014 “for the purpose of training and fighting with terrorists in Syria.”

They say Mohamud, a naturalized citizen, got a passport and bought a one-way ticket to Greece. He did not take a connecting flight from Istanbul to Athens and instead “completed pre-arranged plans to travel to Syria,” they alleged.

Once there…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC news

TIME Middle East

U.N. Warns of ‘Slaughter’ in ISIS-Held Refugee Camp

Palestinian refugees demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp, overrun by Islamic State militants last week, in the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, Lebanon, on Apr. 10, 2015.
Mohammed Zaatari—AP Palestinian refugees demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp, overrun by Islamic State militants last week, in the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, Lebanon, on Apr. 10, 2015.

ISIS controls roughly half of the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria

The United Nations warned Friday of a “potential massacre” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria that was partially seized by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

ISIS now controls roughly half of the Yarmouk camp, which is home to some 18,000 people, according to the U.N.

“Today, this hour, we are looking at nothing short of the potential massacre of the innocents,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said in a call with journalists on Friday.

“We have called for a cease-fire,” Gunness said. “We have called for humanitarian access so that people can have aid administered to them where they are.”

The camp is located in the outskirts of the capital Damascus, which is mostly controlled by government forces.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon warned that the refugee camp “is beginning to resemble a death camp.”

TIME On Our Radar

Photojournalist Moises Saman Receives Guggenheim Fellowship

Photojournalist wins prestigious fellowship

Magnum photojournalist Moises Saman was about to step out to dinner in Barcelona last night when he heard some very pleasant news: he had just been awarded the prestigious 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Awarded annually since 1925 “to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions” the Guggenheim is one of the most prestigious awards of its kind.

Saman says he had long known of the Fellowship, but assumed it was geared towards topics such as “poetry and science,” he tells TIME. “I knew there’s a photography element but it tends to be fine art.”

Nevertheless, Moises submitted a photojournalism project on the Arab Spring—part of which is shown in this gallery. Shot from 2011 to the present day across Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan, Saman says he “felt really strongly about this body of work and felt it was very relevant to the times.”

Saman plans to use the funds to continue the Arab Spring project. Next step? He’s going to Kurdistan in May.

Moises Saman is a Spanish-American member of Magnum Photos and winner of awards from World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year and the Overseas Press Club.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

TIME Syria

Canadian Jets Have Begun Bombing ISIS Targets in Syria

A Canadian Armed Forces CF-18 Fighter jets arrive at the Canadian Air Task Force Flight Operations Area in Kuwait
Reuters Canadian Armed Forces CF-18 fighter jets arrive at the Canadian Air Task Force Flight Operations Area in Kuwait on October 28, 2014 .

They joined a coalition sortie attacking the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa

Two Canadian fighter jets conducted their nation’s first air strikes targeting ISIS forces in Syria on Wednesday, following the passage of a new mandate in Ottawa last week that expands Canada’s role in the ongoing war against the militant group.

“The [Canadian Armed Forces’s] first airstrike against ISIS in Syria has been successfully completed,” said General Tom Lawson, the country’s Chief of Defense Staff, in a statement. “Canadians can be proud of the work that their Canadian Armed Forces are doing, and the contribution they are making to coalition efforts.”

During Wednesday’s mission, two Canadian CF-18 Hornets joined eight other coalition jets in a sortie targeting an ISIS garrison near the group’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. The Canadian aircrew and aircraft returned safely to base following the raid.

TIME Syria

Palestinians Meet to Plan Attack on ISIS in Damascus

A man stands on a staircase inside a demolished building in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6, 2015.
Youssef Karwashan—AFP/Getty Images A man stands on a staircase inside a demolished building in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6, 2015.

The factions in Syria are trying to agree to fight back against ISIS in Yarmouk refugee camp

Syria’s Palestinian factions met Wednesday in an attempt to form a united front to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), whose fighters now control most of the Yarmouk refugee camp on the edge of Damascus. One week after ISIS fought their way into Yarmouk, thousands of civilians remain trapped inside.

“There is consensus to fight ISIS among Palestinians,” says Farouk al-Rifai, a spokesman for the Palestinian Civil Society Network in Syria who is currently in Damascus, “but disagreement about cooperating with the criminal regime,” referring to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Palestinian fighters were taken by surprise last Wednesday when ISIS militants appeared in the camp after being allowed in by fighters from al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Since then they have been battling ISIS in the rubble-filled streets of this once crowded and vibrant Palestinian neighbourhood.

“This was already a place where women were dying in childbirth because of lack of medicine and children were dying of malnutrition,” says Chris Gunness, a spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. “We’ve just got reports of terrified people holed up in their houses with intesnse street fighting raging outside.”

And on top of the street fighting, residents inside say the regime continues to strike the camp.

“The situation now is dire because the regime is striking using barrels (bombs) and targeting civilians,” said Abu Abdallah, who is still inside Yarmouk but didn’t want to use his real name. “The worst part is the regime does not discriminate between civilians and fighters.”

An estimated 18,000 people remain in the camp, once home to around 180,000 mostly Palestinian residents. At least 3,500 of those who remain are children, according to aid workers. Yarmouk has already been under siege for more than two years and people have literally starved to death inside the camp. The siege and on-going clashes among regime troops and rebel forces have made delivering aid and supplies almost impossible at times. Gunness say his organization has had no access to the camp since the latest round of fighting broke out April 1.

“We need a pause [in the fighting] and humanitarian access so we can get aid to the civilians that need it,” says Gunness.

The U.N., aid organizations and activists are calling for an immediate end to hostilities in Yarmouk and for the protection of the civilians, but inside the camp there are now confused battle lines and shifting alliances among militias.

The Palestinians say they had an agreement with the Nusra Front, who control several checkpoints into Yarmouk, to keep calm and maintain security in the camp. Instead, the Nusra Front stopped Palestinian allies from entering the camp and welcomed ISIS.

This marked an unusual alliance between ISIS and Nusra, two of the most powerful armed forces in Syria. Since ISIS emerged in Syria, it has competed with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country. If the cooperation in Yarmouk was replicated in other parts of Syria, ISIS and Nusra would become a much stronger force.

“This is a localized thing,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, “but it may be a harbinger of things to come elsewhere in Syria.”

Now, its hard to see which international powers have the ability to appeal to the numerous factions warring in and around the camp — some allied with opposition rebels, some with al-Qaeda and others with Assad or ISIS.

“It begs the question, ‘who can stop this?’ I suspect we have very little leverage,” says Shaikh. “If we’re not careful we will be recounting the story of Yarmouk for years to come.”

When Syrians first rose-up against the regime of Assad in 2011, Palestinians tried to remain neutral. For decades Palestinian refugees in Syria co-existed with the government, which supported some of their political factions, but by Dec. 2012 Yarmouk was the site of heavy fighting between forces allied with the regime and those against it.

Now, mostly destroyed, Yarmouk has become a microcosm of the increasingly complex battlefield and shifting alliances in the four-year civil war. What were once clear sides for and against the regime, are increasingly complicated by new fronts against the Islamist groups and infighting among rebel forces who try to maintain what little they hold.

“Alliances are constantly shifting. This is a very bad cocktail of groups and interests,” says Shaikh, pointing out that the increasingly unpredictable situation shows there will be no military solution to the Syrian conflict. While the various fighters may be switching sides and setting new precedents for the wider Syrian conflict, Gunness points out that all have outside supporters.

“All the parties on the the ground in Syria have backers. They are all clients of somebody. Somebody buys their guns or buys their knifes or supports them,” says Gunness. “Those with political or diplomatic, financial or economic, religious or spiritual influence needs to bring that influence to bear so civilian life can be spared.”

TIME National Security

Social Media Ban Lifted on Muslim Preacher Who Inspired Syrian Fighters

Cleric is a particular favorite of foreign jihadists in Syria

Ahmad Musa Jebril, a Michigan-based Muslim cleric, is free to return to social media after the lifting of a ban imposed upon him because his sermons were inspiring foreign jihadists to join the conflict in Syria, Reuters reports.

Last summer, a federal judge ordered restrictions on the imam after he was identified as an English-speaking preacher particularly admired by fighters traveling to Syria to join groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jebril’s access to the Internet was severely restricted and he had to regularly report to probation officials.

Court documents reveal that Jebril, a U.S. citizen, has had a long involvement in hardline Islamist ideology along with his father.

Although the bans have now been lifted for a few days, it appears that Jebril has not yet been active on Twitter, YouTube or his own website.

[Reuters]

TIME Syria

U.N. Official: State of Syrian Refugee Camp ‘Beyond Inhumane’

Syria
AP Map shows Palestinian refugee camp in Syria's capital

A U.N. official has described the ISIS clashes and shelling in Yarmouk refugee camp as "beyond inhumane"

(BEIRUT) — Shelling and sporadic clashes struck a Palestinian refugee camp under attack by Islamic extremists in the Syrian capital Monday, a situation that a U.N. official described as “beyond inhumane.”

Hatem al-Dimashqi, an activist based in an area just south of Damascus, said the Yarmouk camp was under attack Monday. Both Al-Dimashqi and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said Syrian government’s air force has dropped several barrel bombs on the camp since Sunday.

ISIS militants stormed the camp Wednesday, marking the extremist group’s deepest foray yet into Damascus. Palestinian officials and Syrian activists said they were working with rivals from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be cooperating in the attack on Yarmouk.

Nusra said in a statement it is taking a neutral stance in the camp.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees known as UNRWA, told The Associated Press in Barcelona late Sunday that the agency has not been able to send any food nor any convoys into the camp since the fighting started.

“That means that there is no food, there is no water and there is very little medicine,” he said. “The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane. People are holed up in their houses, there is fighting going on in the streets. There are reports of … bombardments. This has to stop and civilians must be evacuated.”

He said 93 people have been evacuated from the camp so far.

The United Nations says around 18,000 civilians, including a large number of children, are trapped in Yarmouk. The camp has been under government siege for nearly two years, leading to starvation and illnesses. The camp also has witnessed several rounds of ferocious and deadly fighting between government forces and militants.

Gunness said the camp has been under siege for nearly two years, adding that “things were bad and things got worse when the fighting engulfed the camp.”

 

TIME Syria

Residents Flee Clashes at Palestinian Camp in Syrian Capital

Syrian state TV reported as many as 2,000 people have left the Yarmouk camp in Damascus

(BEIRUT) — Hundreds of residents of a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus fled Sunday amid shelling by government forces and clashes between Islamic State fighters and Palestinian militants, activists said.

An activist based in an area just south of Damascus, Hatem al-Dimashqi, said many residents started fleeing the Yarmouk camp after midnight as the fighting let up. The camp has been subjected to intense shelling and airstrikes by the government.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and al-Dimashqi said those who fled the camp have reached the southern Damascus suburbs of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem, which are under rebel control.

Al-Dimashqi and Syrian state TV said as many as 2,000 people have left the camp. The activist said that many of those who fled the camp are staying in schools or abandoned homes.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Ramallah that residents of Yarmouk have been victimized by Syria’s civil war. Government forces and different rebel factions are clashing and “we pay the price,” he said.

He added that the Palestine Liberation Organization in Damascus has formed a “cell to handle this tragedy and they are trying to work it out with the least losses.” Abbas said: “We are in touch with our brothers there to find a way out and protect our people.”

Islamic State militants stormed the camp on Wednesday, marking the extremist group’s deepest foray yet into the capital. Palestinian officials and Syrian activists said they were working with rivals from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be cooperating in the attack on Yarmouk.

The Nusra Front said in a statement Sunday that it is not participating in the battles and is taking a neutral stance. The statement added that Nusra opened its offices and welcomed all those who don’t want to take part in the fighting and gave them refuge.

The Observatory said the fighting has killed 26 people since the clashes first broke out.

In Gaza, several hundred supporters of the ruling Hamas group staged a march late Sunday in the Jebaliya refugee camp to protest the Islamic State group’s takeover of parts of Yarmouk.

“Palestinian blood is not cheap,” Mohammed Abu Askar, a local Hamas leader, told the crowd, threatening revenge for the Islamic State incursion into Yarmouk.

In Damascus, Anwar Raja, the spokesman for Damsascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, which supports embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, said several pro-Assad factions have united to defend the camp. He said more than 100 civilians have been either killed or kidnapped by the IS fighters whom he said now control about half the camp, adding that the priority now is to evacuate civilians.

The United Nations says around 18,000 civilians, including a large number of children, are trapped in Yarmouk. The camp has been under government siege for nearly two years, leading to starvation and illnesses caused by lack of medical aid. The camp has also witnessed several rounds of ferocious and deadly fighting between government forces and militants.

Most of the camp’s estimated 160,000 inhabitants fled in late 2012 as clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Assad Palestinian gunmen— many to overcrowded and destitute Palestinian refugee camps in neighboring Lebanon. Only the poorest remained behind.

Also Sunday, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said six Lebanese truck drivers who were held by militants after they captured the Nasib border crossing point with Jordan have returned safely to Lebanon. The agency reported on Friday that 10 drivers were held by militants. The fate of the others is still unknown.

___

Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

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