Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) — Nadia’s handshake is strong, but her voice trembles as she says hello. Leaning against a window, she describes in painful detail the twisted journey that saw her evade the grip of terrorists only to fall victim to Baghdad’s sex trafficking underworld.
Stories like Nadia’s have become all too familiar in the wake of ISIS’ defeat in Iraq. The decline of the militant group has given rise to another evil: human trafficking networks that thrive on the spoils of war, the displaced and the desperate.
And she was the perfect mark.
Nadia was living in Sinjar, northern Iraq, in 2014 when ISIS rounded up thousands of women and girls like her from the Yazidi ethnic minority and forced them into sexual slavery. But she says she managed to escape, fleeing with her family through scattered hills to an IDP camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. CNN is not using Nadia’s real name out of concerns for her safety.
Still, she was haunted by the fate of others who were not as lucky. She said she started sending money to a man she believed was a trusted friend, who she had met while on the run from ISIS and who said he was coordinating humanitarian aid for other Yazidis. Encouraged by their conversations and propelled by her desire to help, she began organizing demonstrations at the camp, demanding the release of Yazidi women.
Then the calls started. “I would get the threats by phone,” Nadia said, explaining that she wasn’t sure who was harassing her. “I wasn’t afraid for myself, but for my little sister. They said, ‘If you don’t come, we know where your sister goes to school.'”
When she received a letter from an NGO supporting her application for asylum in the United States, she reached out to her friend, asking for help to get to the embassy in Baghdad. “He said, ‘My sister, I can take you. I know a guy in the Iraqi parliament, I can take you to him.'”
On the road to the capital, she sensed something was wrong. “He kept stopping to talk on the phone and send messages,” she told CNN. “I said, ‘Take me back, I want to go back.’ He said, ‘No, it’s ok, it is about a group of Yazidi girls I freed from Fallujah, they are waiting for us in Baghdad.'”
“He knew my weakness, I was happy when I heard that some of our girls were freed. He convinced me to continue the trip,” she said.
When they arrived in a rundown Baghdad neighborhood, notorious for its drug gangs, the unthinkable happened. The old man, who her friend had told her was a parliamentarian, greeted them in a dilapidated building. “He said to me, ‘You are mine now, you are mine now.'” He was the head of a sex trafficking gang.
Nadia was shocked. The friend she had trusted all along — with her money and with her fears — had sold her into sexual slavery.
“I started fighting … I started hitting them. They both beat me hard,” she said. She says they sedated her with an injection and everything went black.
When she came to, she said she was surrounded by empty bottles and dirty plates, naked and in pain from having been raped by multiple men. She says she thought it was as many as 10, judging by the mess they left behind. “I lost my life, I was destroyed,” she said. “Three months they would torture me like this, every day.”
Nadia tried to run away, but each time her captors caught and beat her. One time they attacked her so brutally that she had internal bleeding and was taken to the hospital. She heard doctors talking about how they had to save her organs.
In the hospital room, Nadia said the head of the gang would sit at her bedside, stroking her hair and calling her his daughter. He told the medical staff that she had a mental illness and had fallen down the stairs.
When Nadia was released from hospital, she said another woman — another victim of the gang — was brought in to keep watch over her. Nadia begged the woman to let her go, but the woman just laughed.
The woman lifted her shirt, revealing a scar on her stomach she said she got when they stole one of her kidneys. “‘This is what they did to me. I had two little children and they sold them,'” she told Nadia, before adding: “‘you will be forced to stay with them, you will get used to this, all that is happening to you.'”
After months of abuse, just when Nadia thought her life would end, she was rescued. She said she wasn’t sure who the men were that saved her, but they took her to a hotel run by a Yazidi and she was ultimately reconnected with her family.
Now, Nadia says she wants justice.
“I am fighting this,” she said. “I am using what is remaining of my breath to be a voice for us all, so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
“Everywhere, there are victims”
Statistics are difficult to come by due deficient identification guidelines and a lack of referral procedures in Iraq. A dearth of coordinated agencies tracking trafficking activities in the country also means that accompanying data is nearly nonexistent.
But by many accounts, human trafficking has become rampant in the refugee camps dotted across Iraq, as well as in cities like Baghdad, where modern day slavery and forced prostitution networks are growing. Agents from trafficking networks often promise to resettle refugees from Kurdistan, but instead bring them to hotels and brothels in Baghdad, Basrah and other cities across southern Iraq, according to reports from by both the US State Department and SEED, a Kurdistan-based nonprofit.
“When you look everywhere, there are victims,” Dr. Ali Akram al-Bayati told us, sitting on a bench on the bank of the Tigris river. Pointing to families picnicking and teenagers snapping selfies, he said there was a lack of awareness within Iraqi society about what was happening behind closed doors.
Al-Bayati works to combat human trafficking as part of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, which was set up and funded by the government. Ostensibly set up as an independent institution, the commission’s mandate is to gather information, investigate cases and bring them to court, but al-Bayati says it lacks the finances and power to do so effectively.
Nadia’s case is among the many that the commission is trying to support. According to Nadia, the Iraqi justice system is failing her: the case is being buried in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad.
On paper, the Iraqi government has stepped up efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers, but al-Bayati said it has failed to tackle the sweeping nature of the problem. His claims are backed up by the State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons report.
Iraq’s government “increased law enforcement efforts, but did not hold criminally accountable officials complicit in trafficking, including child soldiering and sex trafficking,” the State Department said, citing reports that officials in key security positions had played a role in protecting traffickers from prosecution. “The government continued to lack implementing regulations for the anti-trafficking law, hindering its ability to enforce the law, bring traffickers to justice, and protect victims.”
Inconsistencies in Iraq’s 2012 anti-trafficking law, which criminalized some forms of labor and sex trafficking, has opened opportunities for wrongful convictions.
According to the State Department, the Iraqi government also failed to report what efforts it had made to pursue allegations that security and military personnel in IDP camps were complicit in sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and girls.
“If you are talking about human trafficking, of course when you investigate you will see some of the officials who are involved in that,” al-Bayati said. “Whether they are higher or lower officials, of course it’s not in their interest to reveal all the facts.”
Naming the officials would be pointless. They are too powerful, and his own commission is too weak, al-Bayati says. He told us he had received subtle threats but when pushed he wouldn’t go into detail at the risk of putting his life into more jeopardy.
Gaps in the government’s referral procedures have also prevented many victims from receiving appropriate services — the government-run trafficking shelters in Baghdad remained empty throughout 2017, according to the US State Department Trafficking in Persons report.
Al-Bayati said he was aware of around 150 reported cases of sex trafficking across Iraq in 2018. Only four to five women were placed in government shelters, he said.
Last year, al-Bayati said, 426 people were detained for alleged involvement in trafficking crimes — only 53 were sent to prison.
But available figures aren’t reflective of the scale of human trafficking in the country. Fear of retribution and stigma, as well as a lack of faith in the government and the judicial process, silences victims and those who work with them.
Still, there are those trying to help — albeit, discretely.
Operating in plain sight
When we arrived at the address for the anti-trafficking NGO, there was no way to know that we were in the right place. There’s no sign outside and the first-floor masquerades as something else. We aren’t naming the NGO to protect the safety of its employees.
Such a level of secrecy came as a surprise given the relative security in the Iraqi capital these days. The NGO is afraid of getting targeted by gangs and militia groups operating with impunity beneath the city’s vibrant veneer.
Inside a room, Ahlam sat in a plastic chair, trembling under a black abaya which concealed her face. All we could see were the soft billows in fabric created by the wringing of her hands as she described how she became prey for sex traffickers in Baghdad.
“It all started with my older brother,” said Ahlam, whose name has been changed for her safety.
In 2014, Ahlam’s brother joined ISIS in their home province of Diyala, north of the capital, quickly rising to the rank of Emir. He married Ahlam off to an ISIS fighter, but when her husband was detained a few months later, she moved back in with her brother.
Ahlam said her brother had become more radical and more cruel during his time with ISIS. She said he beat her and her sisters and imprisoned her in a room with no food. When she complained to another relative, her brother threatened to kill her.
A cousin ultimately helped her flee to Baghdad, but once she got there she had no one to turn to for help.
“I was in the street, going around lost. Baghdad is a big city, a crowded city,” she said. “I got in a taxi. The driver asked me where I want to go, and I said I don’t know.”
Confused and scared, Ahlam poured her story out to him. He was sympathetic and offered to help. “I thought a savior had arrived. I said to myself finally there is good in the world. He said he could find me something with a relative,” she recalled. “I said ‘where?’ He said, ‘you will find out later.'”
First, Ahlam said she was brought to a casino, before being sold to a brothel.
“He brought me to another woman who took me to a house,” Ahlam recalled. “I realized that the girls there work as prostitutes.”
The NGO where Ahlam ultimately sought shelter is focused on identifying potential victims before they become ensnared in these networks. They have teams working across the country with vulnerable populations, displaced people living in camps, those desperate for work, and others living in the streets.
They try to spread their message through word of mouth and alert potential victims to warning signs, but Iman al-Silawi, the head of the NGO, said there were neighborhoods they don’t dare go to.
Ahlam says she begged to leave the brothel, but the madame beat her, broke her phone and sold her on again.
“She forced me to work as a prostitute. She would bring men into the house and she would force me to have sex with them,” Ahlam said, sobbing. Ahlam was trapped in the brothel for a few months before seizing an opportunity to run away.
According to people who work with victims, Ahlam’s story is representative of the way trafficking rings operate today across Iraq: in plain sight. Those with ties to the networks — like the taxi driver — keep their eyes out for vulnerable women and try to lure them in. And, with a large population of vulnerable people, those networks have swelled, their tentacles reaching across the country and up to the highest levels of government.
“What is my crime?” Ahlam asked. “What have I done to deserve this?”
She bowed her head and contemplated her future. Gone are her childhood hopes of a happy life, a loving husband, a family — dreams that were first stolen from her by ISIS, then by those exploiting her vulnerability, and finally by her own government which failed to protect her.