The Secret Battle To Save LGBT People From ISIS — And Bring Their Persecutors To Justice
One is the son of a communist who smuggled messages in kebabs for party members. The other is an army widow whose husband was killed by al-Qaeda. Together they want to convince the world that targeting LGBT people is a crime against humanity.
ISTANBUL — The first time Majid and Ahlam saved a gay person’s life, they didn't even know what LGBT stood for.
Word had reached them that three men were being held at home by members of their extended family, who were preparing to execute them for “shaming” the family.
Majid, a bulky 54-year-old who spent much of his life as a housepainter, and Ahlam, the 50-year-old widow of an intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s military, arrived at the house an hour later to find it surrounded by 15 armed men.
As Ahlam remembers, she approached the house on foot and told the men standing outside that she had been harassed on the road. In keeping with local custom, the men invited her to take refuge in the house, and left to find the supposed wrongdoers.
Inside, Ahlam said she found the mother of one of the three men being held captive and worked with her to sneak them out of the house. They made it out the back door undetected and hopped the fence. Outside, they found Majid waiting in the car and were soon joined by Ahlam, who had walked out the front door after thanking everyone for sheltering her. Together they sped off to safety.
“What kind of political movement is this?” he asked. “These guys are kissing each other!”
Majid was shocked when two of the men kissed each other in celebration of their freedom. He called the colleague who had first alerted him about their plight for an explanation: Majid had been told that three “LGBT people” needed rescuing — but had thought LGBT was the name of a political party.
“What kind of political movement is this?” he asked. “These guys are kissing each other!”
So began Majid and Ahlam’s surprising journey to become champions for LGBT rights in a stronghold of Islamist groups in central Iraq. (BuzzFeed News is withholding their last names and other identifying information for security reasons.) This rescue took place in 2011, at a time when they worked for a feminist group focused on helping women escape violence. They came to realize LGBT people were fleeing the same religious fundamentalists who were spurring violence against women. Then, in 2014, ISIS arrived.
This is the story of how Majid and Ahlam secretly worked to help LGBT people escape ISIS at a time when the Islamist militants regularly bragged online — in grisly images and videos that made headlines around the world — about throwing gay men to their deaths. It’s also the story of how they are now trying to bring ISIS to justice.
Majid and Ahlam helped two gay men and two lesbian women escape execution orders during the three years ISIS controlled parts of northern Iraq.
They recorded the stories of 87 people who were tortured or executed for homosexuality, working with a network of their own friends and family members to document ISIS violence.
From the beginning of the conflict, the feminist group Majid and Ahlam worked for, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), was preparing for a time when it might be possible to bring ISIS to justice.
The 87 LGBT cases are part of a much larger dossier of ISIS abuses that OWFI compiled, covering 4,383 victims and 1,804 ISIS members. With help from contacts inside the Iraqi military, Majid and Ahlam also got their hands on many of ISIS’s own records related to these cases in this dossier.
OWFI’s legal team has been trying to find a court that will prosecute these crimes since ISIS’s hold on the region was broken in 2017. But the lawyers know it’s extremely unlikely that Iraqi courts will prosecute ISIS for killing gay people — Iraqi lawmakers, after all, had once made homosexuality a crime punishable by death. And no war crimes tribunal has ever prosecuted a case based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
OWFI wants ISIS leaders to be charged with crimes against humanity for persecuting LGBT people, which would be a revolutionary step in international law. OWFI knows it faces a long fight to make that happen, but it got a chance to start making its case last month. An investigative team that the United Nations Security Council sent to Iraq to help investigate human rights abuses formally asked OWFI for copies of the evidence it had collected.
OWFI’s legal team is led by Lisa Davis, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law and senior legal adviser at Madre, a women’s rights NGO. Davis said there may be no hope for the kinds of trials the legal team would like to see in Iraq, but putting this evidence before the UN could be the start of building an international consensus to treat the persecution of LGBT people as a crime against humanity.
“I want this to be our moment to change the conversation about LGBT issues in conflict — this is our moment.”
“We know we can’t get prosecutions of LGBT war crimes in Iraq — we just don’t have the legal infrastructure or the political will,” Davis told BuzzFeed News. “What we want to do is to change the discourse of LGBT crimes in the world. What we want is to build the global political will.”
How Majid and Ahlam went from unknowingly assisting a few gay men to potentially transforming the way the world treats the persecution of LGBT people is being told here for the first time. It is based on more than eight hours of interviews with them conducted between 2015 and 2018. Their memories for exact details are sometimes fuzzy, reflecting the trauma of having witnessed so much violence themselves and hearing about much more from hundreds of others. Majid, who has panic attacks and fatigue, carries pictures of children killed during the conflict on his cellphone.
BuzzFeed News was given access to more than 700 pages of emails and documentation that Majid wrote during the conflict. His documents were vetted by a legal team at the CUNY School of Law and Madre to make sure they would stand up to legal scrutiny, and the organizations’ researchers directly confirmed many of his reports with victims and witnesses. BuzzFeed News also spoke repeatedly with the human rights lawyers, researchers, and translators supporting their work.
Davis said she believes the evidence Majid and Ahlam helped assemble against ISIS could transform law on the persecution of LGBT people in a similar way to how a prosecution of the Rwandan genocide helped spur the world to view rape in wartime should be treated as seriously as genocide. They have compiled an indictment of ISIS’s crimes that will be impossible for the international community to overlook.
“Now we have it, and we can’t ignore it,” Davis said. “I want this to be our moment to change the conversation about LGBT issues in conflict — this is our moment.”
Majid had been training for secret missions since he was a boy. His father ran a kebab shop and was an underground Communist Party activist. Majid remembers delivering messages for party members hidden in papers wrapped around kebabs.
Majid held on to his leftist ideals throughout the decades Saddam ruled Iraq, but he felt no joy when US forces toppled the dictator in 2003. Hundreds of civilians were killed by US forces in Majid’s part of Iraq, including his own mother. She died, Majid said, when US forces blew open the door to his brother’s house, mistakenly believing there were militants inside.
Majid, a committed secularist, also hated the Islamist forces that took hold of his region after the invasion. Shiite clerics became powerful leaders and held sway over large militias. At the same time, al-Qaeda, became a force in northern Iraq fighting the US occupation. Its campaign won support from many of the region’s Sunni residents, but it also stirred up hatred toward their Shiite neighbors.
“If you disrespect him with the smallest gesture, you better beware — he can be very hard.”
As fighting between Shiite and Sunni groups escalated around his town, Majid became especially troubled by an explosion of violence against women. This included so-called honor killings, child marriages, and other practices that fundamentalists claimed were endorsed by Islam. Majid made it his mission to help women fleeing violence.
“I know too many women that are very active and have great dreams,” he said. “That’s why I advocate women’s rights.”
He began this work without any organization behind him, but he soon learned about a new group based in Baghdad trying to set up women’s shelters — OWFI.
OWFI was cofounded by Yanar Mohammed, a feminist activist born in Baghdad now living in Toronto, just after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. She said she first learned about Majid through mutual contacts in communist circles. Mohammed had heard stories about “a very brave man who was able to stand against al-Qaeda” when the group’s fighters kidnapped local women, even confronting the group head-on to win the women’s release.
When she finally met Majid in 2004, Mohammed said, she became convinced that “he is someone who you can win over by respect, and he will be with you and hold your back till the end of time.”
But, she added, “If you disrespect him with the smallest gesture, you better beware — he can be very hard.”
Majid became part of the network OWFI was building across Iraq, and he opened a local office in his town.
Ahlam lived near Majid for years without ever meeting him.
For more than a decade, she was married to a man who would rarely let her leave the house. He was an officer in Saddam’s military who was so abusive and controlling that Ahlam said, “I felt like I was his slave.”
Then, one rainy morning in 2005, her husband was kidnapped. The family had just sat down to breakfast when a car pulled up to the house. It was filled with men who had once been her husband’s friends, but they were now members of al-Qaeda. They had come for Ahlam’s husband because he had worked briefly as a translator for US troops.
Ahlam remembered pleading for her husband’s life, but one of the men pointed a gun at her and said, “If you utter just one more word, I will kill you and all of your family.”
Ahlam, who was then pregnant with their sixth child, remembers chasing the car until she collapsed into the mud. No one responded to her cries for help, and the family never learned what happened to her husband.
Ahlam sunk into a deep depression in the months after his abduction, said her oldest daughter. Ahlam nearly stopped eating altogether and started losing her hair. Her daughter said she was at risk of having a miscarriage. So Ahlam moved her family to Baghdad to be closer to better doctors as her due date approached, working for a time as a security screener at a government building. But they were forced to flee the city when sectarian violence erupted — they went to Syria in 2007, which was then much safer than Iraq.
After working in a textile factory with her oldest daughters in Syria, Ahlam brought her family back to Iraq in 2009, returning to the town where she had lived when her husband disappeared so she could claim a government pension for widows. She had just visited a government building to file the necessary paperwork when she spotted the local OWFI office for the first time — it was just across the street. She’d never been involved in politics, but the group’s name — the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq — spoke to feelings she didn’t know she had inside.
“I decided to go in because women are the victims of society — and I am among those victims … a victim of violence, a victim of slavery, a victim of tribes, a victim of religious oppression,” Ahlam said.
“I had this dream inside me to defend women and to prove myself.”
She met Majid for the first time when she walked inside the small office, which was just two rooms with a few chairs. She recalled Majid describing the group as a “feminist organization that works on women’s rights.” She decided to join on the spot.
“I had this dream inside me to defend women and to prove myself,” Ahlam said. “I was in a very bad place. I needed mental support, [to learn] how to trust, how to have confidence ... [and] to be strong [for] my family.”
Her immediate concern was how to survive day to day, but in 2010 she took in a woman who was fleeing a death threat from her ex-husband. He wanted to kill his ex-wife, Ahlam said, because he held her responsible for their 16-year-old daughter’s suicide. They later learned the girl had killed herself after her father promised to marry her to a much older man.
She realized that she could address her own trauma by helping other women with theirs.
“They make me strong, and I help make them less vulnerable,” she said. “We help each other.”
Not long after that, Ahlam joined Majid on rescue missions.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Mohammed, the cofounder of OWFI, explained it took a while to convince Majid that the group should be helping LGBT people for the same reason the group was helping women.
“In his upbringing, it was all about being ‘faggots on the corner of the streets,’” Mohammed said. After OWFI first asked him to rescue the three gay men in 2011, she said, “I had to take him on a safe route to make him feel like it’s a political duty of a leftist to protect somebody who’s being threatened.”
She said she won him over by pointing out, “In this society, gay men are being threatened by honor killing, just like women are being threatened.” Helping LGBT people became a major priority for OWFI at the time, because the group unexpectedly had many people coming into its offices fleeing a wave of violence targeting men believed to be gay.
In 2011 and 2012, there was a spate of anti-LGBT attacks that became known as the “emo killings” — sparked by a campaign against skinny jeans and other Western styles seen as effeminate. Human rights activists estimate that dozens of people were killed in this period under suspicion of being gay.
Majid and Ahlam said they witnessed a man being burned to death by his family during this wave of violence, cementing their commitment to LGBT rights.
Majid was “totally traumatized” by the incident, recalled Davis of CUNY Law, who spoke to him shortly after. She recalled his outrage at the police officers and militia members who stood there and watched as the man’s family set him on fire.
Many OWFI members were unprepared to work with LGBT people, so Mohammed asked Madre and an LGBT rights NGO, OutRight Action International, to organize sensitivity trainings and workshops on documenting human rights abuses. This led to 2014 reports on LGBT abuse in Iraq, mostly focused on abuses in the country’s Shiite areas.
In this first training, OutRight director Jessica Stern said she had to dispel a number of stereotypes, fielding questions like, “Are gays oversexed?” or whether there were more gay men than lesbians. The trainings became an annual event, and Stern said she was moved by how Majid and Ahlam grew passionate about this work. It was “so obvious that they just take care of [LGBT people]. They did what you would wish someone would do for you.”
“If you want me, come get me. I’m at home.”
Majid and Ahlam’s work grew steadily more dangerous over time. Many local al-Qaeda members in Sunni areas had swung their allegiance to ISIS, and by late 2013 the group had control of major cities. In the months after ISIS laid claim to northern Iraq in June 2014, Majid and Ahlam managed to cross into ISIS territory to help rescue women. Sometimes, they said, they would send messages taunting ISIS members for letting them get past — many of the group’s members had been Majid’s and Ahlam’s neighbors for years.
“Many of our family members and friends used to say we were either crazy or brave,” Majid said. Once, Ahlam got a threatening text message from an ISIS member, demanding she come to the mosque to repent for her work or face execution. She replied, “If you want me, come get me. I’m at home.” Then she broke her SIM card and moved out of her house.
“My own fear became bravery,” Ahlam said.
At times the fighting between ISIS, Shiite militias, and the Iraqi military was so close that mortar shells fell near Majid’s and Ahlam’s houses. More and more reports of ISIS’s brutality began reaching them: women being forced into marriage, women doctors being stoned to death for practicing their profession, the widespread use of rape to terrorize communities.
Some of this seemed to fit the pattern of violence Majid and Ahlam had seen in the regions for years. But they grew increasingly shocked at ISIS’s cruelty, Majid told Mohammed in emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
In an email from late October 2014, he described how a woman had been stoned to death by a mob that included her own father.
“How can a father be so separated from his paternity and humanity and be involved in the stoning of his daughter?” Majid wrote. “The answer is the ideology … concealed within millions of males who were programmed that women are a shame and violate honor[.] … [T]his is the religious heritage.”
Majid responded to the growing violence by documenting everything he could, keeping detailed records whenever he and Ahlam worked with victims or spoke to contacts who secretly called them from inside ISIS territory.
Someday, he wrote to Mohammed that October, “we will publish [all this information] so that all can know of ISIS organization’s terrorism and what it commits of crimes.”
By the time ISIS had made the killing of gay men a key part of its propaganda in 2015, defending LGBT rights had become a special passion for Majid and Ahlam.
As Majid’s understanding of the threat to LGBT people grew, so did his understanding in the importance of the mission. At a conference for Syrian and Iraqi feminist groups in Istanbul in 2015, Majid shouted down an activist from another group who said they shouldn’t be talking about LGBT rights.
“LGBT rights are human rights,” he shot back. “They have rights just like anyone else.”
So when Majid and Ahlam starting getting calls that September from gays and lesbians trying to escape ISIS, they were ready.
“There are two guys, they are gays, and they need to escape from Mosul,” the man on the phone said. “Please help them!”
Majid didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line that day in September 2015. The man said he was a friend of Majid’s aunt, a kindergarten teacher who lived in the area around Mosul when ISIS took control. She had become one of Majid’s best informants, secretly calling him in the rare moments when she could get a signal to give him the details of people who had raped, tortured, or murdered.
After confirming with his aunt that the man could be trusted, Majid agreed to help the gay men escape. They were a couple, whose first initials are M. and F. (BuzzFeed News agreed to withhold the names of victims and sources to protect their privacy.) M. was a 23-year-old who worked in a bakery, and F. was a 26-year-old who worked in a restaurant, and both had been in hiding for three months. They were so frightened that they had a hard time speaking to strangers on the phone, so M.’s mother took the lead in making the arrangements.
Majid and Ahlam had a pretty clear picture of what the two men were running from. For weeks, Majid’s aunt and other informants had been giving him updates of new executions of people accused of homosexuality.
There were the nine boys and men aged between 15 and 21 who were executed on August 6, 2015, thrown from the National Insurance Company building and other landmarks in the heart of Mosul, sandbags tied around their necks to ensure the impact would be fatal. There were two textile workers thrown off the top of a building under construction in the eastern neighborhood of Wadi Hajar. There were three men in their twenties in the district of Karama who were bound in chains, doused with gasoline, and burned to death.
Majid’s sources told him that many of the victims weren’t even gay. The accusation was so widespread and arbitrary, Majid wrote to Mohammed, that “the people in Mosul are now preventing their children from interacting with others ... because accusations [by] the terrorists can be directed at any young man.”
But M. and F. said they knew ISIS militants were specifically looking for them. A gay friend of theirs had been executed three months earlier, and they believed he gave their names to his captors before he died. They’d heard an order had been issued for their execution, and went into hiding.
It was by then impossible for Majid and Ahlam to cross into ISIS territory to get them out. But sources behind ISIS’s lines gave them a route they might be able to use to escape. Ahlam told the mother that M. and F. would have to drive hundreds of miles through a series of smaller towns. There would be no escaping ISIS checkpoints, Ahlam said, and it would be up to them to figure out how to make it through. M.’s mother would have to accompany them, along with F.’s mother and sister, because a family traveling together would attract less suspicion than men traveling alone.
The drive would end at a town called al-Safra, on the end of the Hamrin Mountains, a rugged border region between territory controlled by ISIS and the Iraqi military’s front lines. They would have to cross the mountains on foot, and it was dangerous — one refugee who completed the crossing in the dark told Majid and Ahlam she’d heard a mysterious crunching beneath her feet, only to discover when the sun rose that she had been walking on human bones.
Water was scarce on the mountains, which were littered with land mines, and ISIS snipers would likely shoot them if they crossed in daylight, the men were warned. Ahlam told them they would need a smuggler to show them the way, but they should have no trouble finding one after they reached al-Safra if they could cover the cost, which would be equal to around $800 per person. Ahlam said they would tell their contacts in the Iraqi military to look for them when they came down from the hills.
“We’ll handle our issues,” Ahlam recalled M.’s mother assuring her.
Against all the odds, they made it.
Even Majid and Ahlam say they don’t know how the family got all the way to al-Safra without being detected by ISIS. But if M. and F. had managed to stay out of sight in Mosul for three months, Majid said, they knew how to stay undercover.
When Majid and Ahlam met the two men, they were so shaken they could barely speak. M. did not at first believe they had truly made it out of ISIS territory, and he kissed the ground when reality set in.
Majid and Ahlam said they were so moved that they began crying too. They took the men and their families to the OWFI office, where volunteers had prepared a meal of okra and specially seasoned meatballs. M. and F. were still so nervous that even the sound of the refrigerator cycling on and off made them jump.
After a couple days, Majid and Ahlam transported M., F., and their families to a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
OWFI alerted OutRight, the New York–based LGBT rights group, to M. and F.’s escape, and the group gave the men a little emergency funding to support them. The men gave brief phone interviews to a researcher with the group, mostly confirming what M.’s mother had told Ahlam. They also spoke to a lawyer from Madre, the women’s rights NGO, to help confirm what Majid was documenting.
All these questions made M. and F. even more nervous, Ahlam told BuzzFeed News. The OutRight researcher had explained they could go to Turkey and seek refugee status, a process that can take years. There were also rumors that ISIS members from Mosul had fled to Istanbul. They went to Turkey, but then cut off contact with the NGOs. M.’s mother told OutRight’s researcher that she’d heard they’d crossed illegally to Greece, but she didn’t know how to reach them.
“You know when a bird is in a cage and you free the bird? You won’t find them anymore.”
Ahlam said she wasn’t surprised M. and F. had decided to disappear.
“You know when a bird is in a cage and you free the bird? You won’t find them anymore,” she said. “I felt this [might happen] during the last phone call — finally they are free.”
Before M. and F. had even left Iraq, Majid and Ahlam were already assisting a lesbian couple in their early twenties who were also trying to escape Mosul.
According a report Majid wrote on their case, the women said ISIS had put their names on an execution list after going through old records at Mosul University. The two women had met while students in the teachers college, but had been expelled in 2013 after getting caught kissing in a bathroom. The university had also reported them to the police, but charges of indecency were dropped for lack of evidence.
They’d spent months hiding in abandoned houses on the Mosul outskirts until September 2015, when they met someone in Mosul who had Majid’s number. He passed them on to Ahlam because they were more comfortable speaking to a woman. She gave the women a similar route that they’d used with M. and F., but it took the women nearly two months to be ready to make the trip.
In November, they crossed the Hamrin Mountains to a town called Rubaidah, where Majid and Ahlam picked them up. They also soon moved on to Kurdistan, where they remain to this day.
They had spent the night walking hand in hand, they later told CUNY’s Davis in a phone interview. When Davis asked why, when they knew it could increase the risk of stepping on a land mine, she said one of the women replied, “Because if we were going to die, we will die together.”
The fighting is not, in fact, over. ISIS has lost its territory in both Syria and Iraq, but cells remain active, including in the region where Majid and Ahlam live. Majid and Ahlam also did not feel any profound sense of relief when ISIS’s hold on the surrounding region was broken. The Shiite militias that swept into their area to help push ISIS out brought with them a new round of sectarian violence.
But ISIS’s decline creates a new challenge — Ahlam said that if there is no accountability for the kind of violence ISIS committed, it makes it all the more likely that it will happen again. And if ISIS can get away with atrocities on this scale, why would anyone think twice before raping a woman or attacking an LGBT person in Iraq?
“Our responsibilities are getting bigger after the end of ISIS,” she said.
They have little faith in the Iraqi courts, which began holding trials last year that rushed to judgment so swiftly that there was no effort to investigate specific atrocities — or even give the defendants a chance to refute the charges. OWFI’s legal team made a long-shot request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation in November 2017, but the court rejected the petition last month because Iraq has not signed the treaty that would give the ICC jurisdiction within its borders.
But just after the ICC turned OWFI away, a UN investigative team working in Iraq formally requested a copy of OWFI’s documentation. The team is formally charged with advising the Iraqi government on its own investigations into ISIS, but it was created by the UN Security Council to promote meaningful investigations of human rights abuses.
This is unlikely to directly lead to charges for LGBT persecution, but it is a chance to get the documentation from Majid and Ahlam before some of the world’s leading experts in international law. Lawyers working on cases against ISIS are also discussing holding some kind of symbolic tribunal for cases they can’t get prosecuted in Iraq. Some are also considering bringing charges in a country like Germany, which allows its court to hear international criminal cases even when the crimes were committed in another country.
“We must create a historical memory so that history doesn’t forget what happens to LGBT people in conflict.”
CUNY’s Davis said OWFI and its partners are trying to do more than convict ISIS members — they’re trying to convince the world that it should treat the targeting of LGBT people as a crime. Dozens of countries still criminalize homosexuality, and no war crimes tribunal has ever considered the question of whether it’s illegal to kill LGBT people. Just a few UN resolutions specifically condemns LGBT persecution but there’s no legal mechanism for directly enforcing them. Many lawyers argue that language about persecution on the basis of “gender” in the treaty that created the ICC in 1998 covers persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But it also includes a convoluted definition of “gender” that some anti-LGBT governments hoped would prevent exactly these kinds of prosecutions.
Cynthia Tai, a former prosecutor at the ICC, said OWFI’s documentation is “unprecedented.”
“I believe that this is the first time that the world has seen such a robust and holistic collection of documentation that presents a clear picture of gender-based persecution,” said Tai, who offered pro bono support to OWFI’s legal team. She said the documentation makes a clear case that “LGBT are included in the definition of gender, given that people are being persecuted on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identify.”
The stories Majid and Ahlam collected will also be impossible for the world to ignore, CUNY’s Davis said. They demonstrate that ISIS’s targeting of LGBT people was widespread and systematic, key tests of whether a form of persecution may be considered a crime against humanity.
“We must create a historical memory so that history doesn’t forget what happens to LGBT people in conflict,” Davis said. “What we want to do is to change the discourse of LGBT crimes in the world.” ●