I fought back... and survived | 6 juli 2020 | by PAX

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I fought back... and survived

Many women and girls in Iraq face various forms of sexual and gender-based violence, which are worsened as a result of armed conflicts and political instability. PAX partners Al-Amal Association and the Al-Firdaws Society have been gathering stories from women and girls who dare to speak out, stories about fighting back against sexual and gender based violence. We are publishing some of these stories in this blog series. These stories are shocking, and are difficult to read.

The stories have been gathered and are being retold as part of an effort to break the 'culture of silence' around violence against women and lessen the stigma of being a victim. And, of course, to try to improve the government's and the security sector's response to such violence. The Dutch NGO Impunity Watch is also involved in this project.

Names and some details have been fabricated to protect the identities of the people involved.

I am Sawsan from Salah Ad-Din

I lost my father to a terminal illness when I was fourteen years old. His death affected various aspects of my life, but my mother was a tough woman and a great support. Years passed, and when I turned nineteen, my cousin Jaber proposed to me.

We got married and I found myself in a family under the control of Jaber’s mother. She treated us harshly. I became a mother myself and my life got harder. But my mother would strengthen my resolve for the sake of my husband and children, telling me that in life when you give, you shall receive in return.

My mother passed away in 2005, and her loss was devastating.

Jaber joined the local police, and I was mother to four boys and two girls. My struggles with his family persisted until 2013 when we rented a little house of our own. Not long after, ISIS seized control of our town. We were worried for Jaber, who belonged to an institution whose ideologies and dogmas opposed those of ISIS. After a month, I noticed a surprising change in Jaber’s behaviour. He made friends with ISIS members and began working as their driver.

Six months after ISIS took control, my husband was killed. My struggle started then, and my only concern was to provide food for my children. We lived under siege for two years, until our patience ran out along with the food and we decided to escape. At nighttime, my children and I walked towards the Tigris River which was very dangerous despite the short distance. Just as we reached the river, a passing ISIS patrol fired shots at us, hitting several families that were waiting there.

We hid in the bushes without making a sound. An hour later, the ISIS operatives left for fear of being targeted by the planes roaming the skies. So we took advantage of their absence to run to the other side of the river.

Meanwhile, Iraqi military units began advancing towards the town to liberate it. When they reached the town, they brought the situation under control, and started separating ISIS members and men from women, until my family’s turn arrived. They took my children in for interrogation since their father was an ISIS member. I pleaded with them to leave them alone, because they are only kids and had nothing to do with ISIS. They brought them back two days later after brutally torturing them to extract information about ISIS. That very instant, I took my children and went back home to the other side of the river.

But the neighbours were unwilling to take us back. I tried as much as I could to persuade them by telling them I am a woman and that my children are only innocent kids, but I ended up being thrown in a camp for the families of ISIS members.

After settling into the camp, a man called Riad, who works with camp security, began approaching me, and he even offered me a mobile phone to communicate with my relatives, but I refused as his intentions were clear. He once tried to hold my hand and kiss me, but I pushed him away and warned him to stay away from me. I felt both scared and brave at the same time, but I had no choice. When he realized that his attempts would not work, he started threatening me. Despite standing up to him and resisting him, I was worried he might try to harm my children.

Today, I stand proud of myself, one of many brave Iraqi women who managed to ensure selfpreservation and defend their honor. Today, I proved to vulnerable women that we can live in dignity whatever the surrounding conditions. I received support from people who contributed to shaping Sawsan into the Sawsan of today and tomorrow.

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