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Her Daughter Was Taken By ISIS 6 Years Ago. Now She May Have Found Her

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Iraq, where members of the Yazidi religious minority continue to search for thousands of missing loved ones, now six years after ISIS launched a campaign of genocide against them. ISIS killed Yazidi men, enslaved women and kidnapped children, seeking to erase the Yazidi identity. NPR's Jane Arraf has sent this report from Northern Iraq about one mother who ended up in Canada. She has now returned for the girl she believes may be her long-lost daughter.

NOOR: (Speaking Arabic).

KAMO ZANDINAN: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The little girl, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, speaks in a soft voice as she sits next to the woman who might be her mother. The shy 10-year-old is in an orphanage in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The girl refers to herself as Noor from an Arab family in Mosul. But Kamo Zandinan, who's Yazidi, believes she's her daughter Sonya, taken from her by ISIS when she was just 4 years old.

ZANDINAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Zandinan has come back here from Canada to do a DNA test, and she's waiting for results to verify that the girl is her daughter. They're still getting to know each other. Noor tells her what she's been drawing...

NOOR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: ...A panda, flowers and a house. The orphanage director, Amal Zaki Abdullah, says approvingly, the girl's very well-behaved.

AMAL ZAKI ABDULLAH: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "God willing, the test results will come soon and you will take her. And I'm sure she'll be the best daughter," she tells the mother. Zandinan doesn't seem to consider the possibility that this isn't one of the daughters who was taken from her.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: We first met Zandinan in Sinjar in Northern Iraq in late October. Along with her 6 and 8-year-old son, along with other Yazidis, they were giving blood samples for DNA tests that investigators will use to try to identify bodies of Yazidis in mass graves.

ZANDINAN: I have two daughters, one son and my husband missing.

ARRAF: They've been missing since ISIS took them away five years ago. She believes her husband and eldest son were shot. A week later, they took 4-year-old Sonya and another daughter, Suzan, who was 13. She says the fighters knocked Suzan to the ground and started tearing off her clothes in front of her. She never saw the girl again. And she never heard word of Sonya until she was resettled in Canada with her four remaining children.

There, in March, she saw a Facebook photo of a girl found by Iraqi police in Mosul, rescued from an Arab family. Police have occasionally found Yazidi children as they look for ISIS fighters. This one had Zandinan's distinctive nose and a scar that her mother says she recognized.

ZANDINAN: She is in Mosul now. I come back. I test for DNA.

ARRAF: She's desperate to find and hold onto whatever she can of her family. But there's so much trauma here that coming back was incredibly hard.

ZANDINAN: Hard, hard, hard. I come back to my house, I see anything. It's hard, hard. Yeah.

ABDULLAH: Zandinan, who never went to school as a child, has been learning English in Canada. The younger children speak it now better than their native language. For them, Iraq is just a country they come from.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

ARRAF: We visit them at a relative's house in a village. Zandinan's sons Arkan and Rakan are playing cops and robbers in the yard.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What kind of gun is this? A pistol. Bleh (ph).

ARRAF: Zandinan tells us in the Yazidi dialect that she gave birth to the youngest boy a month after they were taken captive by ISIS. Her husband, an Iraqi soldier, told her he knew they would kill him.

ZANDINAN: (Through interpreter) He knew they would separate us. The only thing we wanted is to finish another day together. We never knew when it was going to happen. The same day they took my husband and son, they gathered all of us in the yard. They were going to kill all of us, but they sold some of us instead.

ARRAF: After we leave the orphanage, she tells us more.

ZANDINAN: (Speaking Kurdish).

ARRAF: She says the ISIS fighters beat her to take 4-year-old Sonya away, literally ripping the screaming girl from her arms. Zandinan had been hiding her 13-year-old daughter, Suzan, but the fighters found her.

ZANDINAN: (Through interpreter) I told them she was sick, but they tore her clothes in front of me. It was so difficult to see her in that situation. Suzan was crying and screaming, saying, mother, don't leave me. We were holding onto each other, but they beat me with a stick, and she fell on the ground, and I couldn't do anything.

ARRAF: Tears run down her face. ISIS took Zandinan and her remaining children to the Syrian city of Raqqa, where she was bought and sold by Arab and foreign fighters. She tried unsuccessfully to escape three times before her relatives managed to pay smugglers to rescue her. Zandinan believes her husband and eldest son are dead. As for Suzan, she believes she's still alive, living with an ISIS family like Sonya was.

ZANDINAN: (Speaking Kurdish).

ARRAF: If there was serious help, I could find her, she says. I don't know where she is, but my heart tells me she never left Iraq.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELIOS' "IT WAS WARMER THEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.