· Vatican City ·

The silent forest

“My life for the slaves”

“I am also in pain, but this gives me strength to help women who were abused… to bring life back to ...
06 February 2021

Nagham, the gynaecologist who treats Yazidi
women who have escaped from Isis

For former Isis prisoners who have survived, her words are the first warm, familiar voice to greet them after months of sexual slavery. Nagham Hawzat Hasam’s voice that resembles the first step into the light. A 42-year-old gynecologist, who belong to the Yazidi tribal minority, a Kurdish-speaking ethnic group with ancient origins, the majority of whom are present in northern Iraq, which was invaded by Daesh guerrillas in the summer of 2014.

The conquest of Mosul was the beginning of the extermination of the Yazidis, contemptuously considered ‘devil worshippers’ because they adhere to a cult of Zoroastrian origin in which a rebellious angel obtains God’s forgiveness. Isis militants threatened Yazidis with death if they did not want to convert to the Muslim religion and used that justification to kill 3,000 people and capture 7,000 women as war booty, forcing half a million Yazidis to flee. Nagham lived in Bashaaqa, about 15 kilometres from Mosul. She tells me "When Isis came to exterminate us, I was working at the hospital. My family came to inform me that we had to flee immediately”.

Together with thousands of Yazidis she walked for days to Dohuk and during that journey his life changed forever. “In the early days I would visit families in the refugee camp to find out if they needed first aid, many needed to go to the emergency room. I remember being shocked by the pain all at once. Twenty days later, I learned that two girl prisoners had managed to escape the guerrillas and arrived at the camp. Traumatised, they trusted no one. “They trusted me because I'm a woman, I'm a doctor and I’m Yazidi”, says Nagham, who has since listened to over 1,200 survivors recount unthinkable atrocities. Nagham uses the word “destroyed” over and over again to define the psychological state of the women she listens to, destroyed. Destroyed like a city bombed, like a house after an earthquake. These are women who, in the merciless hands of their captors, have had to live through what for many is almost impossible to recount, such was their physical and emotional horror. They have seen their children, grandchildren and husbands die. They have been used as sex slaves, often being passed from one to another. “One of them came up to me and asked me: ‘Am I still a human being?’” recalls Nagham, who has never abandoned her new mission since then, collecting stories of rebirth along the way, such as that of Nadia Murad, the Yazidi girl who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, the first to have the courage to publicly recount the rape she suffered at the hands of Islamic State militants. “Nadia arrived in Dohuk camp after escaping from captivity in Mosul. Isis soldiers had tortured her with cigarette butts and raped her”, recalls Nagham. Showing revolutionary strength, Nadia Murad was able to overcome her trauma thanks to a programme that allows Yazidi survivors to move to Germany to rebuild their lives. “In Stuttgart, Murad has become a world-famous human rights activist, and she wrote a dedication to me in her book. It is one of the best things about my new life”, says Nagham, who founded the NGO Hope Makers for Women and has long worked with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

While Dr. Hasam does not specialize in psychology, she seems to have identified the secret path to reaching the tortured hearts of Isis victims. “I can’t say I have a technique. I address them as if they are part of my family. I repeat ‘sister of mine’, with kindness, really feeling that they belong to my story. The kindness, the feeling that they have been part of my life forever. And the fact that I keep reminding them how brave they were. You were in the worst place in the world, I repeat, you had so much guts to try to escape and now you are alive, hearing your voice is crucial”.

The trauma is so deep that it sometimes takes months for them to begin to speak. In her wide experience, Nagham identified the three major psychological stages these survivors must go through. “The first big problem is that in the hands of Isis they have lost faith in humanity. They have come to believe that anyone can become brutal and sadistic”. When they begin to trust Nagham with their story, the first step is accomplished. “The second hurdle is the terror that the Daesh guerrillas will make good on their promise to come after them and kill them along with the rest of their family. That’s why I always try to instill hope in them that everything is over and they can start again”.

For many former prisoners, however, it is impossible to forget and they continue to relive the trauma, which causes significant psychological instability. In the most serious cases, Nagham’s maternal care is not enough, and so psychiatric treatment intervenes, even if the best solution for almost all of them is to change their lives completely. This is possible thanks to humanitarian agreements with countries such as Germany, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, programmes also supported by agencies such as The International Organization for Migration (IOM), where the most difficult victims find a medical centre willing to offer a therapeutic path. “If returning home from captivity means not knowing where to go because the family has been exterminated and the only horizon is a refugee camp where it is not possible to work and find one's own identity, then it is easy to imagine that there is no second life for these survivors”, explains Nagham. She continues the story as if she were a shipwrecked woman issuing an appeal: “Instead, abroad they find mental and physical health, a job and a place in the world. In Germany, I met a patient of mine who had lost her husband and five children and who couldn’t stop crying in Dohuk. In Europe, she found her smile again. There is a notebook in which Nagham writes down the stories that particularly strike her. There are now more than 200 of them and they will probably be published. For this gynaecologist, it is also a form of therapy: “Sometimes I feel destroyed, like them. So I go home, go to my room and lie in bed for days on end. I often cry. For them, for me. When I have finished going over their story in my mind like a bad movie, I feel I am ready to write. Her mother comes to the rescue, repeating to Nagham the same words she used for the former prisoners: “She tells me that I am brave. She tells me that I am doing useful work and that it is the women survivors who give me the strength to go on”. She does not want to pass herself off as an exceptional woman, even though she is one. She does not hide her fragility. Throughout the interview she repeats how nostalgic she is for life in Bashaaqa before the Isis invasion, when she lived in a nice house and could go out shopping with her friends in a carefree way, or spend her free time reading a novel, or watching a movie. “Our life has been annihilated. I’m lucky enough to have a brick house, but many live in tents. The international community must not forget us. I cannot erase my anger at what has happened, especially when I think that Isis has left two thousand children orphaned. I still cannot understand the evil we have suffered, even though we have always respected people who have a different faith from ours. In the evenings, I pray to our god, a kind god who helps people in difficulty like me, like the women who tell me about inhuman violence, and I pray that kindness may return to rule our lives.

by Laura Eduati

The other half

The Bishop of Monterrey creates a Women’s Pastoral Council

"It is not enough that the voice of women be heard, it must have real weight, a recognized authority in society and in the Church," Pope Francis said during his Wednesday catechesis on April 15, 2015. These words expressed exactly the thought of Monsignor Rogelio Cabrera López, archbishop of Monterrey, in northern Mexico; though he decided he would bring it about.  Though, how? The answer came along with preparations for the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination, which fell on May 30 the following year. On October 27, the Archdiocese of Monterrey created the Pastoral Council of Women with a special decree. The advisory body,  which lasted a year, was intended to be “a space for dialogue and confrontation” he said in the presentation. “The presence of women is numerous and significant within the Church of Monterrey”, he stressed, and “we must develop our pastoral care for women by considering it from her being a woman”. The Pastoral Council includes 15 lay and religious women, of various ages and social conditions.  Together they read reality in the light of the Word. They reflect on it and suggest specific actions for the promotion of women both inside and outside the Church, at three hundred and sixty degrees. There is no shortage of work to be done in a country where an average of ten feminicides occur every day. And 60% of female workers do so without it be declared. (L. Cap.)