Before raping her for the first time, the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group informed Arizona aid worker Kayla Mueller that she must marry him or die.
Zeinat, a 16-year-old Yazidi girl who was held captive with Mueller, related the story to CNN softly, striking blue eyes looking out into the distance.
After the exchange with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, she said, Mueller, who died in ISIS custody in February, returned in tears.
“We asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’” Zeinat said. “And Kayla told us al-Baghdadi said: ‘I am going to marry you by force, and you are going to be my wife. If you refuse, I will kill you.’”
Zeinat was among thousands of Yazidi women captured by ISIS and forced into slavery. Militants have targeted the group, one of the world’s smallest and oldest monotheistic religious minorities, for slaughter.
Al-Baghdadi hand-selected Zeinat and eight other Yazidi girls at a slave market, she said. When they arrived at his home in Raqqa, Syria, they were forced to watch a video showing an ISIS fighter beheading American journalist James Foley.
“They said to me, ‘If you don’t convert to Islam, this will happen to you,” she said.
Zeinat tried to escape but was picked up by an ISIS sympathizer and returned to al-Baghdadi, who brutally beat her, giving her a bloody nose and dislocating her arm, and locked her up.
It was in that cramped, dark cell that she met Mueller, who had been kidnapped outside a Doctor’s Without Border’s hospital in Syria in 2013. Before her capture, Mueller was working for the international aid agency Support to Life, assisting refugees from the Syrian civil war in southern Turkey.
Over the next several weeks, the two “became like sisters,” Zeinat said.
The guards told the prisoners not to talk, so they spoke in whispers. Mueller had learned a little Arabic from her captors.
She told Zeinat that ISIS militants had pulled out her fingernails after she was kidnapped in an attempted to get her to admit she was a spy, another fellow captive, Dalal, told the BBC. But most of the time they tried to talk about happier things, sharing memories from their lives before they lost their freedom.
It was summer, and the cell did not have electricity, so the heat was stifling. The prisoners were given “just a little bit” of bread and cheese in the morning and rice or macaroni in the evening, Dalal said. Mueller gave most of her food to her cellmates.
“She didn’t want us to be hungry,” she said. She described Mueller as “a very kind person” who comforted her and the other girls in the prison when they cried. “She would tell us: ‘You will get home. You will see your parents again.’”
Guards came in daily to ask whether the women had prayed and read their Qurans. Mueller prayed because she was afraid, Dalal said, but she never truly converted.
Zeinat and Mueller eventually were moved to a house belonging to Abu Sayyaf, who oversaw the Islamic State’s oil operations before U.S. special operations forces killed him in May.
At first, the women worked as servants.
“Our life was very hard,” Dalal said. “They beat us. We didn’t know if they would kill us from one moment to the next.”
Then, one day, al-Baghdadi sent for Mueller. There was no formal wedding ceremony, but after al-Baghdadi raped Mueller and claimed her as his wife, he forced her to wear a veil covering her face and hair and spent hours teaching her about the Quran.
“When she came back [from seeing Baghdadi], sometimes she just lay down without saying a word,” another Yazidi teen told the BBC. “Sometimes she would cry under a blanket. She tried to hide that from us. She didn’t want to upset us. She wanted to seem strong.”
Zeinat said al-Baghdadi threatened the other girls: “I did this to Kayla. And what I did to Kayla, I will do to you.”
The terrorist group uses a selective reading of the Quran to justify sexual assault, celebrating it as “spiritually beneficial,” according to internal memos obtained by the New York Times. One Yazidi girl said her captor described her rape as “his prayer to his God.” Others said their assailants prostrated themselves in prayer before binding them, gagging them, and raping them.
“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” a 12-year-old girl raped by an ISIS fighter told the Times. “He told me that … he is allowed to rape an unbeliever.”
Zeinat tried to persuade Mueller to run away with her.
“I saw how you suffered,” Zeinat related that she said to Mueller. “I saw how much pain you were in.”
But Mueller refused, telling her, “If I escape, they will behead me.” She was afraid the teenagers were more likely to get caught if they were in the company of a Westerner.
Zeinat and another hostage slipped out of a window under cover of darkness and ran to a small village, where they found a family willing to drive the girls, shrouded in a niqabs, to Kurdish-held northern Iraq.
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ISIS sent Mueller’s family photographs of Mueller’s dead body wrapped in a traditional Islamic burial shroud, following a Jordanian airstrike on the compound where she was being held. U.S. officials have not yet confirmed the circumstances of her death. The escaped hostages expressed doubt that it was the airstrike that killed her.
In her memory, Mueller's hometown of Prescott and the Prescott Kiwanis Club announced plans last week to build a playground.
Her parents, Carl and Marsha, stated that a playground is a fitting tribute because their daughter loved children. Before moving to Turkey, Mueller volunteered in India and Israel. She’s worked with more than a dozen different nonprofits, including Amnesty International, America’s Promise, the African Refugees Development Center, and Big Brothers Big Sisters for America.
“It’s hard to express how important it is,” her father told Fox 10 News. “We do not have a grave.”