Please take off your shoes,” the office manager suggested softly. “Women tell their stories in this room. It’s sacred space.”
It was a nondescript office in Dohuk, northern Iraq, a place I found myself as I traveled with the Preemptive Love Coalition. But our host was right. When Amena, a young Iraqi woman recently rescued from ISIS, began to tell her story, we sat stunned, humbled, and silent before the sacred trust of her words.
In August of 2014, thousands of men, women, and children from Amena’s Yezidi community were slaughtered or kidnapped by ISIS. Members of this small religious minority are considered particularly heretical by ISIS; the Yezidis, consequently, have experienced the extremist group’s vicious wrath. Mass graves hold the bones of hundreds of men, boys, and women too old to be desired as sex slaves.
Amena might have preferred death to her “marriage” to an ISIS fighter who used her and then traded her to other fighters like a prize. But no, she could not die. Though ISIS had killed her husband, she still carried his baby in her womb. Her five other children had also been captured by ISIS, but she knew where they were; she knew they were alive.
Months passed. Amena gave birth to a perfect little baby. And then something snapped inside her—she had to get out, had to get her kids out. A chance came to escape, and she took it.
But Amena failed. She was recaptured. Her captors punished her by killing her newborn baby, as well as her 18-month-old and 4-year-old. They gave her a photo of her three babies wrapped in their funeral clothes, eyes closed, lying side by side as if asleep.
Four days before I arrived in Iraq in November 2015, Amena and her 10-year-old daughter had finally succeeded in escaping after 15 months in ISIS captivity. Amena showed us the photo of her dead babies. Her 12-year-old daughter is still with ISIS—along with hundreds more Yezidi women and girls being used and traded as sex slaves.
When a trauma counselor asked Amena why she’d agreed to tell her story, she simply said, “Because you need to help these women.”
You need to help these women, she repeated softly.
The Amenas of the World
I’d heard that same refrain years earlier in a small clapboard church in Rutshuru, a rural village in the eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo. While on a trip with World Relief, several friends and I sat on wooden benches and listened as one woman after the next—11 in all—slowly and softly told their stories. The storytellers ranged from age 8 to 60. All had been brutally raped by soldiers or rebels in Congo’s long-running civil war.
Claiming it was cheaper to rape a woman than waste a bullet, Congo’s fighters perfected rape as a weapon of war. They knew that if they could rape enough women, they could destroy the entire soul of a village, a region, a country. If they could impregnate the women, so much the better. Every child born of hate would place one more unwanted burden on an already reeling community.
Some of the women we met had watched their husbands be murdered by the same rebels who later raped them. Others were so viciously violated they ended up in the hospital for months with painful wounds that never healed. And all suffered from the stigma and shame unfairly wrapped around victims of sexual violence.
As the women told their stories, we listened. We wept. We knelt on the floor before each one and prayed for her. Our presence, our tears, and our prayers were all we had to offer in those moments. We knew those were good and worthy gifts, but we also knew the women needed more. Our translator, a local man whose heart broke for his sisters, sensed what we were feeling.
You need to help these women, he whispered.
The Profound Suffering of Women
As a young woman I never dreamed I’d end up in war zones. But repeatedly over the years I ended up in places like Croatia and Bosnia and Rwanda and Congo and Lebanon and Jordan and Iraq. I couldn’t ignore what I was seeing or deny what I was learning. I realized that no matter where violent conflict occurs, it has the capacity to destroy everything, from the tiniest baby to the infrastructure of an entire society.
And always, always, always, women suffer unbearably.
Particularly vulnerable are women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Syria/Iraq. In each of these conflicts, forced displacement, family separation, and inadequate access to basic necessities combine with the presence of multiple armed groups to make women especially vulnerable.
In the Congo alone, seven out of ten women have experienced sexual violence, and in South Sudan many women admit to being raped by both government and opposition forces. In Syria the absence of fathers and brothers who are killed or fighting forces young girls into the “protection” of an early marriage. But too often these marriages are just another name for exploitation and abuse—little better than the “marriages” offered by ISIS.
A Single Thumbprint
In 2012 when my friend Belinda Bauman and I met with the Congolese women I described earlier, the women authorized us to tell their stories by signing a release form. But one woman, Esperance, couldn’t write, so she signed with her thumbprint. The image of that thumbprint planted itself in Belinda’s soul, gradually becoming a symbol of the millions of women throughout the world who are suffering due to of violent conflict. Inspired by Esperance, Belinda launched One Million Thumbprints (1MT), a grassroots movement dedicated to intervening on behalf of women in three of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a woman: the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Syria/Iraq.
That intervention is two-fold: 1) Advocating the UN and other governing bodies to follow through on resolutions and laws passed to protect women in conflict zones. 2) Partnering with and building the capacity of proven organizations already on the ground in these countries. These organizations meet practical needs (food, clothing, shelter, rape kits, and trauma assistance), help stabilize communities (through training in negotiation and peacemaking), and provide sustainable long-term solutions (such as economic and educational development, micro-savings and microfinance, farming co-ops, and refugee resettlement).
To raise awareness and funds for 1MT, 15 women, including Belinda and myself, will be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, summiting on March 8, 2016, International Women’s Day. Our dream is that by then we will have swamped the UN with a million thumbprints, all pleading the case of women impacted by war, and we will have raised enough money to fund proven grassroots efforts that can bring practical help and hope to these women.
But our dream needs you!
We need your thumbprints! (Yes, we really have a plan for gathering thumbprints.)
We need your voices spreading the word! (Are there any writers, bloggers, speakers, or storytellers out there?)
We need your nickels, dimes, and dollars gathered together and overflowing on behalf of our global sisters. (Or your $10s, $100s, $1000s!)
I’m way too old to be climbing a mountain—as my grandsons are quick to point out!—and I’ll probably have to work way harder than I imagine to hit that summit on March 8. But I think women like Amena in Iraq and Esperance in Congo are worth it. I think the dream of 1MT is worth it.
I think the world is going crazy with hatred and that there’s only one power that can stand against that hatred—the power of God’s love manifested by God’s people. That means me, you, us, loving lavishly in the name and power of God.
We need to help these women. Together, we can.
Lynne Hybels is an author and advocate for global engagement. In 2009 she started a fundraising campaign for victims of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is currently raising funds and awareness for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Lynne hosts educational tours in the Holy Land focused on reconciliation efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, and she wrote Nice Girls Don't Change the World. In 1975, Lynne and her husband, Bill, started Willow Creek Community Church. Lynne and Bill have two grown children and two grandchildren.