DOHUK, Iraq - This week I met a young Yazidi woman who escaped after a year's captivity as a slave of ISIS.
Haifa's horrifying story reminds me of the misguided debate in Washington over whether to label the effort to destroy the Yazidis (and other Iraqi minorities) a genocide. Congress has set a March 17 deadline for the State Department to make up its mind.
By itself this label is of little value to Haifa or to the 2,500 or so other female Yazidi escapees (never mind the thousands who remain enslaved).
These traumatized women have become a symbol of the jihadis' depravity, of why ISIS must be rooted out of the region. But Yazidi survivors need concrete assistance, not just labels or flowery words.
I met Haifa (not her real name) through an extraordinary nongovernmental organization called Yazda, which provides services to displaced Yazidis. More than 900 female survivors have contacted the group looking for help.
Sitting with arms crossed, wearing a long mauve skirt and sweater and a brown head scarf that set off a lovely, troubled face, 24-year-old Haifa kept wringing her hands as her story poured out.
On Aug. 3, 2014, 25 jihadis in trucks surrounded her village and demanded that the families come out and turn over their gold, phones, and money. ISIS had attacked all the major cities, villages, and towns belonging to the Yazidi religious minority, ethnic Kurds whose heartland sits in northern Iraq.
Around 50,000 fled to the mountains, where they were ultimately rescued, with the help of U.S. air strikes. But around 5,000 men were slaughtered and 5,000 women and children taken captive. The jihadis were out to destroy a religious group whose esoteric faith they denounce.
In Haifa's village, most of the men were taken away, while the women were shoved into trucks to begin a horrifying odyssey. (Luckily, her husband was away working.)
A black-clad, bearded jihadi held a gun to her head and told her to convert. Terrified for her 5-month-old daughter and 2½-year-old son, she - and the other women - agreed. It made no difference.
They were held in another village for two days and a night without food or water. After another mass move, the jihadis took the older women away and seized all children age 3 and above, including her sister-in-law's three boys, ages 6, 8, and 11.
Their captors said the boys would be trained to be fighters and suicide bombers. I don't want to think of what became of the little girls.
Soon, hundreds of families were herded into trucks used to transport sheep and taken to a wedding banquet hall in Mosul. "There were so many people, we could only sit, not lie down, and the children were all crying," she recalled. "We got some rice only once a day. There were no toilets inside."
She took a breath and paused. "They told the men that they were going to kill them and take their wives. And they yanked the earrings from my daughter's ears." Soon after, the remaining men, including her two brothers-in-law, were bound and blindfolded and taken away. She never saw them again.
For the next several months, the women were moved constantly. At one point, Haifa recalled, around 400 women and kids were crammed into a locked refrigerated truck for 1½ days with no water, food, or bathroom.
While the historical details are vastly different, ISIS sadism is certainly redolent of Nazi methods. (The Holocaust Museum in Washington has labeled the Yazidi case a genocide.)
ISIS finally took Haifa and the other women to Raqqa, their main Syrian headquarters, where they packed them into an underground prison and said they would be walled in to die.
But the jihadis finally figured out how to make a profit from their female captives, registering them by name, date of birth, and number of children. "Then they took us to a market for selling," she said.
"Daesh sat in a circle. The women had to walk around, and they read off each woman's information to people who came to buy."
Although Haifa never discussed the details - and I didn't press her - the women slaves are raped over and over, and are often resold when their owners tire of them. Girls as young as 11 are sold into this hell.
The first to purchase her was a Saudi who threatened to take away her son. "My son was crying and kissing the man's feet and saying, 'No, she is my mom.' "
One month later, she was sold to a Syrian, who gave her bloody knives to wash, which she worried meant that he was beheading captives. Her third owner, another Syrian, kept her and her children locked in a room in an ISIS-controlled village near Aleppo. Her son found a small knife under a table and she broke the lock.
Dressed in enveloping black, she fled to the street and knocked on a nearby door in desperation. By sheer chance, the person who answered was willing, for a price, to contact smugglers.
Networks of Syrians and Iraqis are willing to risk their lives to extract Yazidi women in return for hefty sums that desperate families borrow and then have terrible difficulty repaying.
Haifa was finally smuggled back into Iraq via Turkey. But her in-laws have no funds to ransom her sister-in-law, nor can her parents afford a ransom for her sister. Her whole family has lost everything and lives in a refugee camp.
So yes, Yazidis are victims of genocide, but the label is a sham unless accompanied by concrete programs to help the victims. For example, hundreds of female escapees desperately need psychological counseling.
Much of the community is desperate to leave Iraq, too fearful to return home even if ISIS is defeated. Would a genocide label lead to Western visas, at least for female survivors and their families?
I will lay out my ideas of how to help these women, and which organizations are doing so, in another column coming soon.