ZAKHO, Iraq — Hiyam never expected to love her daughter.
The father was an Islamic State fighter, who bought Hiyam as a slave after the militants swept through the homeland of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. News of the pregnancy filled her with dread.
She told doctors she didn’t want the baby. She tried to induce a miscarrage, straining to carry the heaviest objects she could find. A gas canister, a carpet. At night, she cried herself to sleep.
But when a midwife placed the baby in her arms — the tiny girl scrunching her face up and yawning — Hiyam knew that she had to protect her. “I could feel it. She was a piece of my soul,” she said. “I loved her from that first moment.”
Now 21, the young mother is among thousands of women who made it back to the Yazidi community. But for many of those survivors, homecoming has been marred by difficult questions about what it means to belong again.
The Islamic State had tried to wipe out the Yazidis, whose faith mixes elements of Islam and pre-Islamic beliefs. Four years on, the genocidal campaign against the already isolated religious minority still casts a long shadow, challenging the faith’s long-standing tenets and piling pressure on the religious establishment to navigate the needs of survivors.
In April, the faith’s highest religious body issued an edict that appeared to suggest that children born to an Islamic State father — usually as the result of rape — would be welcomed back. The backlash was immediate, and the door swiftly closed.
But long before that wrangle, hundreds of mothers had already faced the agonizing choice: Keep the son or daughter but stay away forever, or abandon the child to come home.
Hiyam tried anyway.
Iraq’s largely Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority has survived centuries of persecution, their cohesion kept in part because of is closed nature and strict adherence to the guidance of spiritual leaders.
When the Islamic State tore across Iraq in 2014, it shot and beheaded Yazidis in the thousands. Some women were reserved for a separate fate. Instead of death, they were given as sex slaves to the fighters, then abused and traded like chattel.
The mass enslavement has already pushed Yazidi elders to break with centuries of precedent and decree that women and girls could be welcomed back, despite long-standing stigma about marrying or having sexual relations outside of the faith.
But children born of those forced unions are another matter.
According to the religion, a child cannot be counted as a Yazidi unless he or she has two Yazidi parents. “To make special examples in this case would be to whitewash the result of the Yazidi genocide,” said Karim Sulaiman, a spokesman for the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council.
“We know that they’re just children, and that they have no guilt,” he said, “But in this case religion and society just cannot accept them.”
Hiyam, who gave only her first name for fear of provoking a greater backlash, said she was bought and sold four times, and that every one of her male owners used her as a sex slave. She became pregnant at the hands of her fourth owner, an Iraqi fighter from Mosul, whom she remembers as an “animal.”
He called the child Rukayya. But to Hiyam, she was always Hiba. It meant “a gift from God” in Arabic.
Back in northern Iraq, Hiyam’s family was desperate for news. They found smugglers and girls who had escaped. But no one had seen her.
Then came a call from an unknown number. It was Hiyam, using a phone she had hidden in the baby’s diapers.
News of the child hit Shireen, Hiyam’s mother, with dread. Rescue was the priority for now, she thought, but deep down she knew that Hiba couldn’t stay.
Hiyam was finally freed in the summer of 2017, her mother collecting her from close to the city of Mosul, and then driving her back to see the displacement camp where they now lived.
News of the child spread. So did the pressure.
Some suspected her of sympathizing with the militants. Her disabled brothers were mocked openly in the street. One by one, Hiyam’s extended family told her that time was running out.
She stopped leaving her tent. Then neighbors threatened to burn it down.
And so on the morning of Aug. 13, 2017, a Thursday, she rose as normal to bathe Hiba, brushing unruly curls from the little girl’s eyes and wriggling a new dress over her head. She looked, Hiyam said, like she was ready for a celebration.
Then she lay down, wrapped her arms around the child, and watched as her eyelids fluttered and sleep took over.
“I held her so tight, and I kissed her until it was time to go,” Hiyam remembers.
She scooped Hiba up, pulled back the tent door, and walked out past the neighbors, past the sound of tent curtains being hastily pulled back to eavesdrop, and through the camp to a nondescript prefab building.
Once you hand the baby over, that’s it, the aid workers told her. No follow-up, no phone calls, no contact. In some cases, orphanage workers in Mosul and Baghdad say, the mothers arrive in a daze. Other times, they are sobbing, and have to be carried away.
“They gave me a receipt for her,” Hiyam said.
She remembers only one thing from her stupefied walk back through the camp. Hiba was awake, and her screams seemed to rip the air.
Estimates for the number of children born to Yazidi mothers and Islamic State fathers in Iraq and Syria range from several hundred to more than 1,000. Many are now dotted across orphanages, the children still too young to know how or why they got there.
During the rare times Hiyam leaves her tent, she says she has also seen children who, like Hiba, were fathered inside the self-declared caliphate.
Their mothers are believed to have convinced elders that the babies were born to Yazidi, not Muslim, fathers.
“The difference is that I was honest, and these mothers were not,” Hiyam said.
Two years on, there are no photographs left of the child. Hiba’s possessions have almost all been given away, aside from a small pair of white shoes and a woolly headband, that Hiyam packed away and out of sight.
Isolated and distraught, she has attempted suicide several times.
“They told me to get rid of my daughter, they said I had no honor,” she said, staring into space as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Now it’s done. No one cares anymore. It’s just silence.”