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After Finally Escaping ISIS Captivity, People Talk About Their Experiences


For more than two weeks, the U.S. and its allies in Syria have said they are on the verge of taking the last ISIS-held territory in the country. President Trump said it would be within a day. He said that on February 15th. Since then, the battle has stopped and started, stopped again as more and more civilians, including family members of ISIS fighters, have been allowed to leave. Stories have emerged of people, including Yazidis from Iraq, who have been held for years and that they are finally escaping ISIS captivity. NPR's Jane Arraf has been reporting on all this from Iraq. She joins me now. Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. Start with the latest on the fighting. This is in this last enclave in a town called Baghouz.

ARRAF: It is. And Baghouz is a village close to the Iraqi border in eastern Syria. There had been an assault conducted by U.S.-led airstrikes and Syrian Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. artillery mortars. Basically, they're going to obliterate that village. But as you mentioned, they found out that there are indeed a lot of civilians there, and they've had to pause it. So essentially, they're trying to make sure that they get rid of the last remnants of ISIS territory while not killing too many civilians.

KELLY: And how many civilians are still trying to flee? Where are they going? What's their story?

ARRAF: That's a great question because the numbers have shifted quite a lot. It started with almost no talk of civilians, although we know that ISIS has been holding Yazidi hostages, kidnapped slaves from the ethnic minority - the religious minority in Iraq. And we also know there are quite a lot of women and children - the women who married ISIS fighters and brought their children along. So they're now leaving. This is probably their last opportunity to leave. And hundreds more have been leaving since yesterday.

KELLY: And as you have traveled along the border and been reporting, you've managed to speak to some of these people. What stories are they telling you?

ARRAF: So I've spoken to the Yazidis, who were kidnapped five years ago when ISIS decided to try to exterminate them. I met one boy who was 13 years old who was telling me just a couple of days after he had been released about the weapons he was taught to use - Kalashnikovs, other ones. And when I asked him, what are you supposed to do with them? He said, well, I'm supposed to kill Yazidis. He was supposed to kill his own people. And these are little boys. I mean, they act really tough, but they look kind of stunned to have been taken out of that so abruptly and back with their families, who they haven't seen in five years. Some of the girls don't recognize their families. The women who have come out who I've spoken with have been used as sex slaves. It's a horrific situation - even worse, of course, for the families who are still missing relatives who haven't come back.

KELLY: Jane, to this other story that's been in the news about the ISIS wives - foreign women who moved to Syria to marry ISIS fighters - and now say they want to go home, back to the U.S. or back to Europe - what do the people you have been interviewing say about them?

ARRAF: I've asked the Yazidi women, well, what do you think should happen to these ISIS wives, because they actually lived with them. And consistently, they've told me that the women that they met were almost as bad as the men. They talk about being raped by the men and then being beaten by the men's wives because the women were upset. They - to a woman and a girl - because a lot of these are girls - they say these people should get no mercy. These wives should suffer what they had to suffer. In fact, a lot of them say, you know, they should be killed. And they also include the children in that, which, of course, points to this whole issue of, how do you ever get over this? How does this society - how do these countries recover from ISIS?

KELLY: How do you move forward? NPR's Jane Arraf reporting there from the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.