Iraqi high school senior Hengi Abdullah and her best friend Sara* couldn't wait to become teachers after graduation and share a classroom someday. The two had been inseparable since childhood. Both 18, they lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same school. "Always we were together," Hengi tells me. "We don't leave each other's side. We have a lot of respect for each other — anything she asked, I would do, and she would do the same for me."
But their happy youth was changed forever when the Islamic State — a Sunni radical terrorist organization also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Da'ash, with an estimated 30,000 members — marauded its way across Iraq and Syria, gaining a reputation for extreme violence. By June 10, the group had invaded Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, just two hours from the teenagers' hometown.
Two months later, Sara would be sold into sex slavery, lost to her best friend and family.
The horror of the Islamic State's warpath became evident to the Western world when they released videos of masked, English-speaking extremists preparing to behead two captured American journalists, James Foley in August and Steven Sotloff two weeks later. Photos also emerged online — many of them publicized on social media by the terrorists themselves — depicting the brutality committed against innocent Iraqi and Syrian civilians: heads mounted on stakes, crucifixions, the headless corpse of a little girl in a blue dress and Mary Jane shoes.
To date, the Islamic State has killed more than 9,000 Iraqis, wounded more than 17,000, and displaced as many as 1.8 million, according to statistics released by the United Nations in October. And although the exact statistics vary widely, they have abducted between 1,000 and 7,000 women, using sexual violence to horrify their enemies and inspire more men to join the Islamic State.
These terrorists now control vast territories throughout the region, including Mosul. Sending the Iraqi army scuttling, it has also seized huge reserves of high-tech weapons, which it has turned against Iraqi citizens, focusing much of its attack on Christians and Yazidis, a small, ancient religious minority.
Hengi, Sara, and their families practice Yazidism, and in early August, the terrorists attacked several Yazidi towns in northern Iraq, near Mount Sinjar. Hengi and her family were forced to flee on foot as the terrorists neared their town, leaving with little warning and no supplies. Her ailing mother struggled along, helped by her elderly father. Her older sister has a serious heart condition, so Hengi carried her piggyback as fast as she could. The terrorists, in hot pursuit, began firing into the crowd of fleeing Iraqis. Sara and other members of their extended family were separated from Hengi at some point in the chaos.
"We saw women and girls who had been shot, dying," she says. "We saw a lot of kids whose families left them behind because they did not have enough strength to take them. We heard the Islamic State killed anyone they found."
Hengi, her parents, and her 10 siblings made it to the Hane, a town at the base of the sparse and stony Sinjar Mountain, but the Islamic State continued to advance, surrounding the mountain and eventually approaching their refuge.
As Hengi and about 30 other families ran to the nearby village of Pere, "it was a very bad moment," she recalls. "We were thinking of the bad things that would happen to us. … Before they arrived, we heard snipers shooting at us. We were very afraid."
The extremists caught up to them and began grabbing girls and young women. Then, suddenly, Hengi heard a loud noise. American air strikes against the Islamic State had begun, just in time. She and her family ran one way, and the extremists retreated in the other direction.
Sara was not so lucky. The extremists shot 22 adults in Hengi and Sara's extended family, killing fathers before their daughters' eyes. The Islamic State captured six of Hengi's female cousins, Sara included — all students, the eldest 22, the youngest 14.
Hengi knows a bit about Sara's fate only because one of those cousins escaped, calling her recently from a mobile phone in the town of Tal-Afar, about 30 miles west of Mosul. Sara and her other cousins, the cousin said, were being used as sex slaves.
"She said that the women were being raped, asked for help," Hengi says. Her face grows grim as she continues: "She said [the Islamic State] planned to take them to Syria, give them as a gift [to other men]. She started crying on the phone and asked us, 'Please, find a way to help us. We cannot endure this. They forced us to convert to Islam, made us wear plaques [signifying conversion] around our necks.' She said, 'Please, tell the airstrikes to kill all of us. It's better than being with them, because we cannot endure any more.' … My uncle's daughter said on the phone, 'We saw them sell girls to other countries. We are very tired. They just gave us food once, and they hit the women.'"
Hengi says today she hears stories about what's happened to other Yazidi women in captivity — some have been sold as slaves in the market after being repeatedly raped; some continue to be passed around among brutal extremists; others have been psychologically tortured, forced to watch videos and pictures of beheaded Yazidi men whom they may have known — and she constantly worries about her best friend.
"Really, I cannot change my place with her," Hengi says remorsefully, "but I want her to be safe. I'm also very afraid. After the Islamic State came close to us, we did not have days or nights" — she stayed awake and was afraid continuously. "I just want [Sara] to be safe," Hengi says. "She was [always] strong, not afraid." Hengi adds later that unless the Islamic State is wiped out entirely, there will be no safety for herself or her best friend.
Worry for Sara and the rest of her family has put gray streaks in Hengi's hair. She now lives as a refugee in Lalesh, about 90 miles from their home, constantly worried about another invasion by the Islamic State. With her mother, father, and older sister in bad health, Hengi has become the sole provider for her family. She feeds them, washes their clothes, and tries to earn money or find charitable funding to afford the medicine they need.
"As a senior in high school [a few months ago], I thought I would find a good job, get a salary, and help my brothers and sisters go to school too, and have a good life," Hengi says. "Now, I didn't get to finish my education. We're safe [for now], but we're in a bad situation, and we don't know what will become of us in the future."
She's received no further word about Sara or her other cousins. The last phone call from the one who escaped came two weeks ago. "That was the last time she called us," Hengi says quietly. "She didn't call again."
Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a fellow for the Franklin Center and Independent Women's Forum. Follow her on Twitter.
(Pictured at top: Hengi and one of her 10 siblings.)
*Not her real name.