Debaga, Iraq (CNN) – Zainab’s eyes are hazel, and a sliver of olive skin peeks from the stretchy turquoise scarf wrapped tightly around her face. Over her shoulder is an insulated bag with the word “Lunch” on it that she is using as a purse. Her nails are lacquered red, the tips just starting to chip. And on her feet are leopard-print flip-flops.
I imagine Zainab before ISIS as a confident teenager, full of verve.
But now, in her eyes, I see grief and a girl beaten down before even entering adulthood.
The 17-year-old is among the girls and women I meet at Debaga, a refugee camp erected in 2014 to shelter Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State after it seized Mosul as the jewel of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Among Debaga’s residents are more than 15,000 children and 8,000 women.
They are from Mosul, Qayarra, Hawija, Tikrit, Kabruk, Tal Qaif, Nimrud, Makhmur. From cities, towns and villages where once they led lives filled with aspiration, if not joy.
Zainab arrived here a week ago, after her life in Hawija imploded with the intrusion of ISIS. She liked going to the market and hanging out on street corners and park benches with her teenage friends. She attended a co-ed school and hoped to finish 12th grade one day.
“I wanted to improve my Arabic. I wanted to learn how to read and write better. Life was beautiful before Daesh,” she said, referring to ISIS by its Arabic name.
But after ISIS, her parents worried for their daughter. Tales of rape and other horrific abuses of women had spread across Nineveh; of the capture and enslavement of non-Muslim women from Yazidi and Christian communities, acts that ISIS claims are justified in the Quran.
So Zainab, who is Muslim, was married off at 16 to save her from ISIS. Three months ago, she became pregnant. In the madness of escaping her ISIS-held town, she lost her baby. She says little about it except there was a lot of blood.
In the grand scheme of Iraq’s suffering, perhaps Zainab’s is low on the scale. Perhaps it does not compare to the sexual slavery of women or the torture, killing and other horrendous atrocities committed by ISIS.
But what happened to her is also an assault. She was a child still and robbed of her freedom, her life’s trajectory altered because of an ideology that does not value her worth as a woman. Early marriage for girls has emerged, sadly, as a coping mechanism under the militants.
The representative in Iraq for the United Nations Population Fund, Rama Balakrishnan says: “This is equally violent.”
My mind weighs heavy with the tales the Iraqi women tell. Most have fled their homes in recent days and are able to portray a fresh picture of life under ISIS in places that are severed from the outside world – without television, phones or the internet.
It’s not that the lives of these women were untouched before the militant men in black arrived and brandished their guns and had their way. Things had been getting worse for women in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, the rise of sectarian strife and fundamentalist Islam. But in the summer of 2014 came the biggest blow when ISIS enforced its extreme ideology in northern Iraq.
Choose that ideology or face the wrath of ISIS: Those were the only options. The women began wearing gloves and socks with their black abayas and niqabs and could show only their eyes in public. Even then, they were barred from looking at any man other than their husbands.
“They are not Muslims,” Iman, 26, says of the ISIS fighters. “Islam does not say those things. But they lashed us, beat our husbands if we did not comply. So we did.”
Iman and the other women shared their stories on the condition that CNN use pseudonyms and not show their faces. They live with a palpable fear of being discovered; even in this camp, monitored by the United Nations and other international humanitarian agencies, they are uneasy, anxious.
I fix my gaze beyond Debaga and think of the war unfolding just a few miles from these arid flatlands and oil fields. Fierce fighting has erupted to drive ISIS out of Nineveh province and its capital, Mosul.
This camp of tents, tarps and corrugated metal in the Iraqi desert serves as an oasis for the desperate. The number of people here displaced from ISIS-controlled towns and villages has swollen to nearly 35,000; Debaga could soon burst at the seams if predictions of an exodus from Mosul hold true.
Humiliated and frightened in public, the women tell me they became prisoners in their own homes. They had little choice but to attempt dangerous escapes.
Iman’s belly is so big that even under her swirling black robes, I can tell she is pregnant.
“Nine months,” she says. “Any time now.”
In that state, she left her home on the outskirts of Mosul and walked for 10 hours with her husband and two young children before they were picked up by approaching Iraqi forces and delivered to the Debaga camp two days ago. She had not been receiving proper pre-natal care, and the doctors at the camp determined she will need to be taken to a hospital in the Kurdish hub of Erbil for a cesarean delivery.
I ask about her journey from Mosul, why she fled in her condition. Her initial answer is wholly expected: “I was afraid for my daughter.”
She continues: “But I was afraid as much for my son. He would have been brainwashed by them and one day forced to join their ranks.”
It is, she says, a mother’s nightmare. She did what she had to do: risk the life of her unborn child to save the others.
The prospect of a military victory over ISIS in Mosul offers glimmers of hope for a better future, but the women are unsure if life can ever be the same again.
How long, they ask, will it take to reverse the damage that has been done; to undo a perverse way of thinking that does not see women as human beings? How long before they can walk in the streets without constantly surveying their surroundings?
We sit on plastic chairs outside a small center for women set up behind cloth-draped fences. No men are allowed to enter. The women learn life skills here and find comfort in one another. Occasionally, they let slip a smile.
The UN agency also provides vital health services to the women, including reproductive care and counseling for those scarred by trauma.
Women displaced by war are at serious risk of being cut off from essential health services and life-saving emergency obstetric care, says Balakrishnan, the 42-year-old native of India who oversees women’s programs at the camp.
In Iraq, he says, the concerns are greater because of the nation’s high fertility rate. Of every 200,000 Iraqis who arrive at refugee camps, 8,000 are likely to be pregnant women.
Many have been raped and are carrying the children of men who are not their husbands. That’s the conclusion of Dr. Nieran Munther, who delivers babies at the Debaga camp. Munther says sometimes the babies look nothing like the women’s husbands. Other times there is no husband at all, making it difficult to process paperwork if those women need care at more sophisticated hospitals in the Kurdish region.
In the process of fleeing their homes and living in the camps, pregnant women often lift heavy objects like buckets of water and suffer miscarriages. The physical strain can also dislodge contraceptive devices like IUDs and cause vaginal bleeding.
And they suffer at the hands of husbands who are also damaged by war and take out their stress and anger on their wives.
Leila, 19, tells me ISIS shot and killed her sister’s husband, a policeman in Kabaruk, in front of the family. Leila’s own husband survived but was forced to grow a beard and stop wearing shorts. He had been traveling from their home near Mosul to work in a restaurant in Erbil, but after ISIS he could no longer go. Nor could he find work, and he shut himself off from the world.
“We were hungry,” says Leila, the only woman who allowed CNN to use her real name. “The owners of our market were kind and we ate because of their generosity. They said we could pay them back after we were free.
“My husband changed, though,” she said. “He developed mental problems. He began beating me and my children. These horrifying things have affected him. He was not like this before.”
Leila, too, is pregnant – five months. She already has two little girls.
“We have lost our freedom,” she says. “We have lost everything.”
With those terrible words, we leave Debaga and head for the main highway that will return us to the relative safety of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Our convoy’s security guard tunes the radio to 97.5 FM and we hear the roars of ISIS, describing grisly victories in Syria, Libya and here on the Ninevah Plains. Between their boasts are repetitive recitations from the Quran.
A chill conquers me; these are, after all, the voices of the men who shattered the lives of the women of Iraq.