This book is written for every Yazidi.
Nadia Murad is not just my client, she is my friend. When we were introduced in London, she asked if I would act as her lawyer. She explained that she would not be able to provide funds, that the case would likely be long and unsuccessful. But before you decide, she had said, hear my story.
In 2014, ISIS attacked Nadia’s village in Iraq, and her life as a twenty-one-year-old student was shattered. She was forced to watch her mother and brothers be marched off to their deaths. And Nadia herself was traded from one lSlS fighter to another. She was forced to pray, forced to dress up and put makeup on in preparation for rape, and one night was brutally abused by a group of men until she was unconscious. She showed me her scars from cigarette burns and beatings. And she told me that throughout her ordeal ISIS militants would call her a “dirty unbeliever” and brag about conquering Yazidi women and wiping their religion from the earth.
Nadia was one of thousands of Yazidis taken by ISIS to be sold in markets and on Facebook, sometimes for as little as twenty dollars. Nadia’s mother was one of eighty older women who were executed and buried in an unmarked grave. Six of her brothers were among the hundreds of men who were murdered in a single day.
What Nadia was telling me about is genocide. And genocide doesn’t happen by accident. You have to plan it. Before the genocide began, the ISIS “Research and Fatwa Department” studied the Yazidis and concluded that, as a Kurdish speaking group that did not have a holy book, Yazidis were nonbelievers whose enslavement was a “firmly established aspect of the Shariah.” This is why, according to ISIS’s warped morality, Yazidis, unlike Christians, Shias, and others, can be systematically raped. Indeed, this was to be one of the most effective ways to destroy them.
What followed was the establishment of a bureaucracy of evil on an industrial scale. ISIS even released a pamphlet entitled Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves to provide more guidelines. “Question: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty? Answer: It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse. Question: Is it permissible to sell a female captive? Answer: It is permissible to buy, sell, or gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property.”
When Nadia told me her story in London, it had been almost two years since ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidis had begun. Thousands of Yazidi women and children were still held captive by ISIS, but no member of ISIS had been prosecuted in a court anywhere in the world for these crimes. Evidence was being lost or destroyed. And prospects for justice looked bleak.
Of course, I took the case. And Nadia and I spent more than a year campaigning together for justice. We met repeatedly with the Iraqi government, United Nations representatives, members of the UN Security Council, and ISIS victims. I prepared reports, provided drafts and legal analysis, and gave speeches imploring the UN to act. Most of our interlocutors told us it would be impossible: the Security Council had not taken action on international justice in years.
But just as I write this foreword, the UN Security Council has adopted a landmark resolution creating an investigation team that will collect evidence of the crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq. This is a major victory for Nadia and all the victims of ISIS, because it means that evidence will be preserved and that individual ISIS members can be put on trial. I sat next to Nadia in the Security Council when the resolution was adopted unanimously. And as we watched fifteen hands go up, Nadia and I looked at each other and smiled.
As a human-rights lawyer, my job is often to be the voice of those who have been silenced: the journalist behind bars or the victims of war crimes fighting for their day in court. There is no doubt ISIS tried to silence Nadia when they kidnapped and enslaved her, raped and tortured her, and killed seven members of her family in a single day.
But Nadia refused to be silenced. She has defied all the labels that life has given her: Orphan, Rape victim, Slave, Refugee. She has instead created new ones: Survivor, Yazidi leader, Women’s advocate, Nobel Peace Prize nominee. United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, And now author.
Over the time I have known her, Nadia has not only found her voice, she has become the voice of every Yazidi who is a victim of genocide, every woman who has been abused, every refugee who has been left behind.
Those who thought that by their cruelty they could silence her were wrong. Nadia Murad’s spirit is not broken, and her voice will not be muted.
Instead, through this book, her voice is louder than ever.
Amal Clooney, Barrister, September 2017
Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad at the United Nations
Early in the summer of 2014, while I was busy preparing for my last year of high school, two farmers disappeared from their fields just outside Kocho, the small Yazidi village in northern Iraq where I was born and where, until recently, I thought I would live for the rest of my life. One moment the men were lounging peacefully in the shade of scratchy homemade tarps, and the next they were captive in a small room in a nearby village, home mostly to Sunni Arabs. Along with the farmers, the kidnappers took a hen and a handful of her chicks, which confused us. “Maybe they were just hungry,” we said to one another, although that did nothing to calm us down.
Kocho, for as long as I have been alive, has been a Yazidi village, settled by the nomadic farmers and shepherds who first arrived in the middle of nowhere and decided to build homes to protect their wives from the desert-like heat while they walked their sheep to better grass. They chose land that would be good for farming, but it was a risky location, on the southern edge of Iraq’s Sinjar region, where most of the country’s Yazidis live, and very close to non-Yazidi Iraq.
When the first Yazidi families arrived in the mid 1950s, Kocho was inhabited by Sunni Arab farmers working for landlords in Mosul. But those Yazidi families had hired a lawyer to buy the land, the lawyer, himself a Muslim, is still considered a hero, and by the time l was born, Kocho had grown to about two hundred families, all of them Yazidi and as close as if we were one big family, which we nearly were.
The land that made us special also made us vulnerable. Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries because of our religious beliefs, and, compared to most Yazidi towns and villages, Kocho is far from Mount Sinjar, the high, narrow mountain that has sheltered us for generations. For a long time we had been pulled between the competing forces of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, asked to deny our Yazidi heritage and conform to Kurdish or Arab identities. Until 2013, when the road between Kocho and the mountain was finally paved, it would take us almost an hour to drive our white Datsun pickup across the dusty roads through Sinjar City to the base of the mountain. I grew up closer to Syria than to our holiest temples, closer to strangers than to safety.
A drive in the direction of the mountain was joyful. In Sinjar City we could find candy and a particular kind of lamb sandwich we didn’t have in Kocho, and my father almost always stopped to let us buy what we wanted. Our truck kicked up clouds of dust as we moved, but I still preferred to ride in the open air, lying flat in the truck bed until we were outside the village and away from our curious neighbors, then popping up to feel the wind whip through my hair and watch the blur of livestock feeding along the road. I easily got carried away, standing more and more upright in the back of the truck until my father or my eldest brother, Elias, shouted at me that if I wasn’t careful, I would go flying over the side.
In the opposite direction, away from those lamb sandwiches and the comfort of the mountain, was the rest of Iraq. In peacetime, and if he wasn’t in a hurry, it might take a Yazidi merchant fifteen minutes to drive from Kocho to the nearest Sunni village to sell his grain or milk. We had friends in those villages, girls I met at weddings, teachers who spent the term sleeping in Kocho’s school, men who were invited to hold our baby boys during their ritual circumcision, and from then on bonded to that Yazidi family as a kiriv, something like a god-parent. Muslim doctors traveled to Kocho or to Sinjar City to treat us when we were sick, and Muslim merchants drove through town selling dresses and candies, things you couldn’t find in Kocho’s few shops, which carried mostly necessities. Growing up, my brothers often traveled to non-Yazidi villages to make a little money doing odd jobs. The relationships were burdened by centuries of distrust, it was hard not to feel bad when a Muslim wedding guest refused to eat our food, no matter how politely, but still, there was genuine friendship.
These connections went back generations, lasting through Ottoman control, British colonization, Saddam Hussein, and the American occupation. In Kocho, we were particularly known for our close relationships with Sunni villages.
But when there was fighting in Iraq, and there always seemed to be fighting in Iraq, those villages loomed over us, their smaller Yazidi neighbor, and old prejudice hardened easily into hatred. Often, from that hatred, came violence. For at least the past ten years, since Iraqis had been thrust into a war with the Americans that began in 2003, then spiraled into more vicious local fights and eventually into full-fledged terrorism, the distance between our homes had grown enormous. Neighboring villages began to shelter extremists who denounced Christians and non-Sunni Muslims and, even worse, who considered Yazidis to be kuffar, unbelievers worthy of killing (kafir is singular).
In 2007 a few of those extremists drove a fuel tanker and three cars into the busy centers of two Yazidi towns about ten miles northwest of Kocho, then blew up the vehicles, killing the hundreds of people who had rushed to them, many thinking they were bringing goods to sell at the market.
Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion, spread orally by holy men entrusted with our stories. Although it has elements in common with the many religions of the Middle East, from Mithraism and Zoroastrianism to Islam and Judaism, it is truly unique and can be difficult even for the holy men who memorize our stories to explain. I think of my religion as being an ancient tree with thousands of rings, each telling a story in the long history of Yazidis. Many of those stories, sadly, are tragedies.
Today there are only about one million Yazidis in the world. For as long as I have been alive, and, I know, for a long time before I was born, our religion has been what defined us and held us together as a community. But it also made us targets of persecution by larger groups, from the Ottomans to Saddam’s Baathists, who attacked us or tried to coerce us into pledging our loyalty to them. They degraded our religion, saying that we worshipped the devil or that we were dirty, and demanded that we renounce our faith.
Yazidis survived generations of attacks that were intended to wipe us out, whether by killing us, forcing us to convert, or simply pushing us from our land and taking everything we owned. Before 2014, outside powers had tried to destroy us seventy-three times. We used to call the attacks against Yazidis firman, an Ottoman word, before we learned the word genocide.
When we heard about the ransom demands for the two farmers, the whole village went into a panic. “Forty thousand dollars,” the kidnappers told the farmers’ wives over the phone. “Or come here with your children so you can convert to Islam as families.” Otherwise, they said, the men would be killed. It wasn’t the money that made their wives collapse in tears in front of our mukhtar, or village leader, Ahmed Jasso; forty thousand dollars was an otherworldly sum, but it was just money. We all knew that the farmers would sooner die than convert, so the villagers wept in relief when, late one night, the men escaped through a broken window, ran through the barley fields, and showed up at home, alive, dust up to their knees and panting with fear. But the kidnappings didn’t stop.
Soon afterward Dishan, a man employed by my family, the Tahas, was abducted from a field near Mount Sinjar where he watched our sheep. It had taken my mother and brothers years to buy and breed our sheep, and each one was a victory. We were proud of our animals, keeping them in our courtyard when they weren’t roaming outside the village, treating them almost like pets. The annual shearing was a celebration in itself. I loved the ritual of it, the way the soft wool fell to the ground in cloudlike piles, the musky smell that took over our house, how the sheep bleated quietly, passively. I loved sleeping beneath the thick comforters my mother, Shami, would make from the wool, stuffing it between colorful pieces of fabric. Sometimes I got so attached to a lamb that I had to leave the house when it came time to slaughter it. By the time Dishan was kidnapped, we had over a hundred sheep, for us, a small fortune.
Remembering the hen and chicks that had been taken along with the farmers, my brother Saeed raced in our family’s pickup truck to the base of Mount Sinjar, about twenty minutes away now that the road was paved, to check on our sheep. “Surely, they took them,” we groaned. “Those sheep are all we have.”
Later, when Saeed called my mother, he sounded confused. “Only two were taken,” he reported, an old, slow-moving ram and a young female lamb. The rest were grazing contentedly on the brownish-green grass and would follow my brother home. We laughed, we were so relieved. But Elias, my eldest brother, was worried. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Those villagers aren’t rich. Why did they leave the sheep behind?” He thought it had to mean something.
The day after Dishan was taken, Kocho was in chaos. Villagers huddled in front of their doors, and along with men who took turns manning a new checkpoint just beyond our village walls, they watched for any unfamiliar cars coming through Kocho. Hezni, one of my brothers, came home from his job as a policeman in Sinjar City and joined the other village men who loudly argued about what to do. Dishan’s uncle wanted to get revenge and decided to lead a mission to a village east of Kocho that was headed by a conservative Sunni tribe. “We’ll take two of their shepherds,” he declared, in a rage. “Then they’ll have to give Dishan back!”
It was a risky plan, and not everyone supported Dishan’s uncle. Even my brothers, who had all inherited bravery and a quickness to fight from our father, were split on what to do. Saeed, who was only a couple of years older than me, spent a lot of his time fantasizing about the day he would finally prove his heroism. He was in favor of revenge, while Hezni, who was over a decade older and the most empathetic of us all, thought it was too dangerous. Still, Dishan’s uncle took what allies he could find and snatched two Sunni Arab shepherds, then drove them back to Kocho, where he locked them in his house and waited.
MOST VILLAGE DISPUTES were solved by Ahmed Jasso, our practical and diplomatic mukhtar, and he sided with Hezni. “Our relationship with our Sunni neighbors is already strained,” he said. “Who knows what they will do if we try to fight with them.” Besides, he warned, the situation outside Kocho was far worse and more complicated than we imagined. A group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, which had largely been born here in Iraq, then grown in Syria over the past few years, had taken over villages so close to us, we could count the black-clad figures in their trucks when they drove by. They were holding our shepherd, our mukhtar told us. “You’ll only make things worse,” Ahmed Jasso said to Dishan’s uncle, and barely half a day after the Sunni shepherds had been kidnapped, they were set free. Dishan, however, remained a captive.
Ahmed Jasso was a smart man, and the Jasso family had decades of experience negotiating with the Sunni Arab tribes. Everyone in the village turned to them with their problems, and outside Kocho they were known for being skilled diplomats. Still, some of us wondered if this time he was being too cooperative, sending the message to the terrorists that Yazidis would not protect themselves. As it was, all that stood between us and ISIS were Iraqi Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga, who had been sent from the Kurdish autonomous region to guard Kocho when Mosul fell almost two months earlier. We treated the peshmerga like honored guests. They slept on pallets in our school, and each week a different family slaughtered a lamb to feed them, a huge sacrifice for the poor villagers. I also looked up to the fighters. I had heard about female Kurds from Syria and Turkey who fought against terrorists and carried weapons, and the thought made me feel brave.
Some people, including a few of my brothers, thought we should be allowed to protect ourselves. They wanted to man the checkpoints, and Ahmed Jasso’s brother Naif tried to convince Kurdish authorities to let him form a Yazidi peshmerga unit, but he was ignored. No one offered to train the Yazidi men or encourage them to join the fight against the terrorists. The peshmerga assured us that as long as they were there, we had nothing to worry about, and that they were as determined to protect Yazidis as they were the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “We will sooner let Erbil fall than Sinjar,” they said. We were told to trust them, and so we did.
Still, most families in Kocho kept weapons at home, clunky Kalashnikov rifles, a big knife or two usually used to slaughter animals on holidays. Many Yazidi men, including those of my brothers who were old enough, had taken jobs in the border patrol or police force after 2003, when those jobs became available, and we felt sure that as long as the professionals watched Kocho’s borders, our men could protect their families. After all, it was those men, not the peshmerga, who built a dirt barrier with their own hands around the village after the 2007 attacks, and it was Kocho’s men who patrolled that barrier day and night for a full year, stopping cars at makeshift checkpoints and watching for strangers, until we felt safe enough to go back to a normal life.
Dishan’s kidnapping made us all panic. But the peshmerga didn’t do anything to help. Maybe they thought it was just a petty squabble between villages, not the reason Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, had sent them out of the safety of Kurdistan and into the unprotected areas of Iraq. Maybe they were frightened like we were. A few of the soldiers looked like they couldn’t be that much older than Saeed, my mother’s youngest son. But war changed people, especially men. It wasn’t that long ago that Saeed would play with me and our niece, Kathrine, in our courtyard, not yet old enough to know that boys were not supposed to like dolls.
Lately, though, Saeed had become obsessed with the violence sweeping through Iraq and Syria. The other day I had caught him watching videos of Islamic State beheadings on his cell phone, the images shaking in his hand, and was surprised that he held up the phone so I could watch, too. When our older brother Massoud walked into the room, he was furious. “How could you let Nadia watch!” he yelled at Saeed, who cowered. He was sorry, but I understood. It was hard to turn away from the gruesome scenes unfolding so close to our home.
The image from the video popped back into my head when I thought about our poor shepherd being held captive. If the peshmerga won’t help us get Dishan back, I will have to do something, I thought, and ran into our house. I was the baby of the family, the youngest of eleven, and a girl. Still, I was outspoken and used to being heard, and I felt giant in my anger.
Our house was close to the northern edge of the village, a one-story row of mud brick rooms lined up like beads on a necklace and connected by doorways with no doors, all leading out to a large courtyard with a vegetable garden, a bread oven called a tandoor, and, often, sheep and chickens. I lived there with my mother, six of my eight brothers and my two sisters, plus two sisters-in law and the children they had between them, and within walking distance of my other brothers, half brothers, and half sisters and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. The roof leaked in the winter when it rained, and the inside could feel like an oven in the Iraqi summertime, pushing us up a staircase onto the roof to sleep. When one part of the roof caved in, we patched it with pieces of metal we scavenged from Massoud’s mechanic shop, and when we needed more space, we built it. We were saving money for a new home, a more permanent one made of cement blocks, and we were getting closer every day.
I entered our house through the front door and ran to a room I shared with the other girls, where there was a mirror. Wrapping a pale scarf around my head, one I normally wore to keep my hair from getting in my eyes when bending over rows of vegetables, I tried to imagine what a fighter might do to prepare for battle. Years of labor on the farm made me stronger than my appearance let on. Still, I had no idea what I would do if I saw the kidnappers or people from their village drive through Kocho. What would I say to them? “Terrorists took our shepherd and went to your village,” I practiced in the mirror, scowling. “You could have stopped them. At least you can tell us where he was taken.” From the corner of our courtyard, I grabbed a wooden stick, like the ones used by a shepherd, and made for the front door again, where a few of my brothers stood with my mother, deep in conversation. They barely noticed when I joined them.
A few minutes later a white pickup truck from the kidnappers’ village came down the main road, two men in the front and two in the back. They were Arabs I vaguely recognized from the Sunni tribe that had taken Dishan. We watched as their truck crept down the main dirt road that snaked through the village, slowly, as though totally without fear. They had no reason to drive through Kocho, roads around the village connected cities like Sinjar and Mosler, and their presence seemed like a taunt. Breaking away from my family, I ran into the middle of the road and stood in the path of the truck. “Stop!” I shouted, waving the stick over my head, trying to make myself look bigger. “Tell us where Dishan is!”
It took half my family to restrain me. “What did you think you were going to do?” Elias scolded. “Attack them? Break their windshield?” He and a few of my other siblings had just come from the fields and were exhausted and stinking from the onions they were harvesting. To them, my attempt to avenge Dishan seemed like nothing more than a child’s outburst. My mother was also furious with me for running into the road. Under normal circumstances she tolerated my temper and was even amused by it, but in those days everyone was on edge. It seemed dangerous to draw attention to yourself, particularly if you were a young, unmarried woman. “Come here and sit,” she said sternly. “It’s shameful for you to do that, Nadia, it’s not your business. The men will take care of it.”
Life went on. Iraqis, particularly Yazidis and other minorities, are good at adjusting to new threats. You have to be if you want to try to live something close to a normal life in a country that seemed to be coming apart. Sometimes the adjustments were relatively small. We scaled down our dreams of finishing school, of giving up farmwork for something less backbreaking, of a wedding taking place on time, and it wasn’t hard to convince ourselves that those dreams had been unreachable in the first place. Sometimes the adjustments would happen gradually, without anyone noticing. We would stop talking to the Muslim students at school, or be drawn inside in fear if a stranger came through the village. We watched news of attacks on TV and started to worry more about politics. Or we shut out politics completely, feeling it was safest to stay silent. After each attack, men added to the dirt barrier outside Kocho, beginning on the western side, facing Syria, until one day we woke up to see that it surrounded us completely. Then, because we still felt unsafe, the men dug a ditch around the village as well.
We would, over generations, get used to a small pain or injustice until it became normal enough to ignore. I imagine this must be why we had come to accept certain insults, like our food being refused, that probably felt like a crime to whoever first noticed it. Even the threat of another firman was something Yazidis had gotten used to, although that adjustment was more like a contortion. It hurt.
With Dishan still captive, I returned with my siblings to the onion fields. There nothing had changed. The vegetables we planted months before were now grown; if we didn’t pick them, no one would. If we didn’t sell them, we wouldn’t have money. So we all knelt in a line beside the tangles of green sprouts, tugging bulbs out of the soil a few at a time, collecting them in woven plastic bags where they would be left to ripen until it was time to take them to market. Will we take them to the Muslim villages this year? we wondered but could not answer. When one of us pulled up the black, poisonous smelling sludge of a rotten onion, we groaned, plugged our noses, and kept going.
Because it was what we normally did, we gossiped and teased one another, telling stories each had heard a million times before. Adkee, my sister and the joker of the family, recalled the image of me that day trying to chase the car, a skinny farm girl, my scarf falling in front of my eyes, waving the stick over my head, and we all nearly tipped over into the dirt laughing. We made a game of the work, racing to see who could pick the most onions just as, months before, we had raced to see who could plant the most seeds. When the sun started to go down, we joined my mother at home for dinner in our courtyard and then slept shoulder to shoulder on mattresses on the roof of our house, watching the moon and whispering until exhaustion brought the whole family to complete silence.
We wouldn’t find out why the kidnappers stole the animals, the hen, the chicks, and our two sheep, until almost two weeks later, after ISIS had taken over Kocho and most of Sinjar. A militant, who had helped round up all of Kocho’s residents into the village’s secondary school, later explained the kidnappings to a few of the village’s women. “You say we came out of nowhere, but we sent you messages,” he said, his rifle swinging at his side. “When we took the hen and the chicks, it was to tell you we were going to take your women and children. When we took the ram, it was like taking your tribal leaders, and when we killed the ram, it meant we planned on killing those leaders. And the young lamb, she was your girls.”
My mother loved me, but she didn’t want to have me. For months before I was conceived, she saved money whenever she could, a spare dinar here and there, change from a trip to the market or a pound of tomatoes sold on the sly, to spend on the birth control she didn’t dare ask my father for. Yazidis don’t marry outside the religion or allow conversion into Yazidism, and large families were the best way to guarantee that we didn’t die out completely. Plus, the more children you had, the more help you had on the farm. My mother managed to buy the pills for three months until she ran out of money, and then, almost immediately, she was pregnant with me, her eleventh and last child.
She was my father’s second wife. His first had died young, leaving him with four children who needed a woman to help raise them. My mother was beautiful, born to a poor and deeply religious family in Kocho, and her father happily gave her to my father as a wife. He already had some land and animals and, compared to the rest of Kocho, was well-off. So before her twentieth birthday, before she had even learned how to cook, my mother became a wife and stepmother to four children, and then quickly she became pregnant herself.
She never went to school and didn’t know how to read or write. Like many Yazidis, whose mother tongue is Kurdish, she didn’t speak much Arabic and could barely communicate with Arab villagers who came to town for weddings or as merchants. Even our religious stories were a mystery to her. But she worked hard, taking on the many tasks that came with being a farmer’s wife. It wasn’t enough to give birth eleven times, each time, except for the dangerous labor with my twin brothers, Saoud and Massoud, at home, a pregnant Yazidi woman was also expected to lug firewood, plant crops, and drive tractors until the moment she went into labor and afterward to carry the baby with her while she worked.
My father was known around Kocho for being a very traditional, devout Yazidi man. He wore his hair in long braids and covered his head with a white cloth. When the qawwals, traveling religious teachers who play the flute and drums and recite hymns, visited Kocho, my father was among the men who would greet them. He was a prominent voice in the jevat, or meeting house, where male villagers could gather to discuss issues facing the community with our mukhtar.
Injustice hurt my father more than any physical injury, and his pride fed his strength. The villagers who were close to him loved to tell stories of his heroism, like the time he rescued Ahmed Jasso from a neighboring tribe who were determined to kill our mukhtar, or the time the expensive Arabian horses belonging to a Sunni Arab tribal leader escaped from their stables and my father used his pistol to defend Khalaf, a poor farmer from Kocho, when he was discovered riding one in nearby fields.
“Your father always wanted to do what was right,” his friends would tell us after he passed away. “Once he let a Kurdish rebel who was running away from the Iraqi Army sleep in his house, even though the rebel led the police right to his doorstep.” The story goes, when the rebel was discovered, the police wanted to imprison both men, but my father talked his way out of it. “I didn’t help him because of politics,” he told the police. “I helped him because he is a man and I am a man,” and they let him go. “And that rebel turned out to be a friend of Masoud Barzani!” his friends recall, still amazed all these years later.
My father wasn’t a bully, but he fought if he had to. He had lost an eye in a farm accident, and what was left in the socket-a small milky ball that looked like the marbles I played with as a kid could make him look menacing. I’ve often thought since then that if my father had been alive when ISIS came to Kocho, he would have led an armed uprising against the terrorists.
By 1993, the year I was born, my parents’ relationship was falling apart, and my mother was suffering. The eldest son born to my father’s first wife had died a few years earlier in the Iran-Iraq War, and after that, my mother told me, nothing was ever good again. My father had also brought home another woman, Sara, whom he married and who now lived with their children on one end of the house my mother had long considered her own. Polygamy isn’t outlawed in Yazidism, but not everyone in Kocho would have gotten away with it. No one questioned my father, though. By the time he married Sara, he owned a great deal of land and sheep and, in a time when sanctions and war with Iran made it hard for anyone to survive in Iraq, he needed a big family to help him, bigger than my mother could provide.
I still find it hard to criticize my father for marrying Sara. Anyone whose survival is directly linked to the number of tomatoes grown in one year or the amount of time spent walking their sheep to better grass can understand why he wanted another wife and more children. These things weren’t personal. Later on, though, when he officially left my mother and sent us all to live in a small building behind our house with barely any money and land, I understood that his taking a second wife hadn’t been completely practical. He loved Sara more than he loved my mother. I accepted that, just as I accepted that my mother’s heart must have been broken when he first brought home a new wife. After he left us, she would say to me and my two sisters, Dimal and Adkee, “God willing, what happened to me won’t happen to you.” I wanted to be like her in every way, except I didn’t want to be abandoned.
My brothers weren’t all as understanding. “God will make you pay for this!” Massoud shouted at our father once, in a rage. But even they admitted that life got a little easier when my mother and Sara weren’t living together and competing for my father’s attention, and after a few years we learned how to coexist. Kocho was small, and we often saw him and Sara. I passed by their house, the house I was born in, every day on my way to elementary school; theirs was the only dog along that walk that knew me well enough not to bark. We spent holidays together, and my father would sometimes drive us to Sinjar City or to the mountain. In 2003 he had a heart attack, and we all watched as my strong father instantly became an ill, elderly man, confined to a wheelchair in the hospital. When he died a few days later, it seemed just as likely that it was out of shame over his frailty as it was because of his bad heart. Massoud regretted having yelled at him. He had assumed his father was strong enough to take anything.
My mother was a deeply religious woman, believing in the signs and dreams that many Yazidis use to interpret the present or predict the future. When the moon first appeared in the sky as a crescent, I would find her in the courtyard, lighting candles. “This is the time when children are most vulnerable to illness and accidents,” she explained. “I am praying that nothing happens to any of you.”
I often got sick to my stomach, and when I did, my mother took me to Yazidi healers who gave me herbs and teas, which she urged me to drink even though I hated the taste, and when someone died, she visited a kochek, a Yazidi mystic, who would help confirm that the deceased had made it into the afterlife. Many Yazidi pilgrims take a bit of soil before they leave Lalish, a valley in northern Iraq where our holiest temples are, and wrap it up in a small cloth folded into a triangle, which they keep in their pocket or wallet as a talisman. My mother was never without some of that holy soil, particularly after my brothers started leaving home to work with the army. “They need all the protection they can get, Nadia,” she would say. “It’s dangerous, what they are doing.”
She was also practical and hardworking, trying against great odds to make our lives better. Yazidis are among the poorest communities in Iraq, and my family was poor even by Kocho’s standards, particularly after my parents separated. For years, my brothers dug wells by hand, lowering themselves delicately into the wet, sulfurous ground inch by inch, careful not to break a bone. They also, along with my mother and sisters, farmed other people’s land, taking only a small percentage of the profit for the tomatoes and onions they harvested. The first ten years of my life, we rarely had meat for dinner, living on boiled greens, and my brothers used to say they bought new pants only when they could see their legs through the old ones.
Gradually, thanks to my mother’s hard work and the economic growth in northern Iraq after 2003, our situation, and that of most Yazidis, improved. My brothers took jobs as border guards and policemen when the central and Kurdish governments opened up positions to Yazidis. It was dangerous work, my brother Jalo joined a police unit guarding Tal Afar airport that lost a lot of its men in combat in the first year, but it paid well. Eventually we were able to move from my father’s land into our own house.
People who knew my mother only for her deep religious beliefs and work ethic were surprised by how funny she could be, and how she turned her hardship into humor. She had a teasing way of joking, and nothing, not even the reality that she would almost certainly never marry again, was off limits. One day, a few years after she and my father separated, a man visited Kocho hopeful for my mother’s attention. When she heard he was at the door, she grabbed a stick and ran after him, telling him to go away, that she would never marry again. When she came back inside, she was laughing. “You should have seen how scared he was!” she told us, imitating him until we were all laughing too. “If I was going to marry, it wouldn’t be to a man who ran away from an old lady with a stick!”
She joked about everything, about being abandoned by my father, about my fascination with hair and makeup, about her own failures. She had been going to adult literacy classes since before I was born, and when I became old enough, I started tutoring her. She was a fast learner, in part, I thought, because she was able to laugh off her mistakes.
When she talked about that scramble for birth control before I was conceived, it was as if she were telling a story from a book she had read long ago and liked only for its punch lines. Her reluctance to get pregnant with me was funny because now she couldn’t imagine life without me. She laughed because of how she had loved me the moment I was born, and because I would spend each morning warming myself by our clay oven while she baked bread, talking to her. We laughed because I would get jealous whenever she doted on my sisters or nieces instead of me, because I vowed never to leave home, and because we slept in the same bed from the day l was born until ISIS came to Kocho and tore us all apart. She was our mother and our father at the same time, and we loved her even more when we became old enough to understand how much she must have suffered.
I grew up attached to my home and never imagined living anywhere else. To outsiders, Kocho may seem too poor to be happy, and too isolated and barren to ever be anything but desperately poor. American soldiers must have gotten that impression, given the way kids would swarm them when they came to visit, begging for pens and candy. I was one of those kids, asking for things.
Kurdish politicians occasionally came to Kocho, although only in recent years and mostly before elections. One of the Kurdish parties, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), opened a small two room office in Kocho after 2003, but it seemed to exist mostly as a clubhouse for the village men who belonged to the party. A lot of people complained privately that the KDP pressured them into supporting the party and into saying Yazidis were Kurds and Sinjar was part of Kurdistan. Iraqi politicians ignored us, and Saddam had tried to force us to say we were Arab, as though we could all be threatened into giving up our identities and that once we did we would never rebel.
Just living in Kocho was, in a way, defiant. In the mid-1970s Saddam began forcibly moving minorities, including Kurds and Yazidis, from their villages and towns into cinder-block houses in planned communities, where they could be more easily controlled, a campaign people call the “Arabization” of the north. But Kocho was far enough away from the mountain that we were spared. Yazidi traditions that became old fashioned in these new communities thrived in my village. Women wore the gauzy white dresses and headscarves of their grandmothers; elaborate weddings featured classic Yazidi music and dance; and we fasted in atonement for our sins when many Yazidis had given up that custom. It was safe and close-knit, and even fights over land or marriage ended up feeling minor. At least none of it had an impact on how much we loved one another. Villagers went to one another’s houses late into the night and walked the streets without fear. I heard visitors say that at night, from afar, Kocho glowed in the darkness. Adkee swore she once heard someone describe it as “the Paris of Sinjar.”
Kocho was a young village, full of children. There were few people living there who were old enough to have witnessed firmans first hand, and so a lot of us lived thinking those days were in the past, that the world was too modern and too civilized to be the kind of place where an entire group could be killed just because of their religion. I know that I felt that way. We grew up hearing about past massacres like folktales that helped bond us together. In one story, a friend of my mother’s described fleeing oppression in Turkey, where many Yazidis once lived, with her mother and her sister. Trapped for days in a cave with nothing to eat, her mother boiled leather to keep them alive. I heard this story many times, and it made my stomach turn. I didn’t think I could eat leather, even if I were starving. But it was just a story.
Admittedly, life in Kocho could be very hard. All those children, no matter how much they were loved, were a burden on their parents, who had to work day and night to feed their families. When we were sick, and the sickness couldn’t be healed with herbs, we would have to be taken to Sinjar City or to Mosul to see a doctor. When we needed clothes, those clothes were sewn by hand by my mother or, after we got a little wealthier, purchased once a year in a city market. During the years of United Nations sanctions on Iraq, intended to force Saddam from power, we cried when it became impossible to find sugar. When schools were finally built in the village, first a primary school and then, many years later, a secondary school, parents had to weigh the benefits of their kids getting an education against keeping them at home to work. Average Yazidis had long been denied an education, not just by the Iraqi government but also by religious leaders who worried that a state education would encourage intermarriage and, therefore, conversion and loss of Yazidi identity, but for the parents, giving up the free labor was a great sacrifice. And for what kind of future, the parents wondered, for what jobs, and where? There was no work in Kocho, and a permanent life outside the village, away from other Yazidis, attracted only the very desperate or the very ambitious.
A parent’s love could easily become a source of pain. Life on the farm was dangerous, and accidents happened. My mother pinpoints the moment she grew from a girl into an adult to when her older sister was killed, thrown from a speeding tractor and then run over right there in the middle of the family wheat field. Illnesses were sometimes too expensive to treat. My brother Jalo and his wife Jenan lost baby after baby to a disease that was inherited from Jenan’s side of the family. They were too poor to buy medication or take the babies to a doctor, and out of eight births, four children died.
Divorce took my sister Dimal’s children away. In Yazidi society, as in the rest of Iraq, women have few rights when a marriage ends, no matter what happened to end it. Other children died in wars. I was born just two years after the first Gulf War and five years after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, a pointless eight year conflict that seemed to fulfill Saddam’s desire to torture his people more than anything else. The memories of these children, who we would never see again, lived like ghosts in our house. My father cut off his braids when his eldest son was killed, and although one of my brothers was named after this son, my father could only bear to call him by a nickname, Hezni, which means “sadness.”
We measured our lives by harvests and by Yazidi holidays. Seasons could be brutal. In the wintertime Kocho’s alleyways filled with a cementlike mud that sucked the shoes off your feet, and in the summertime the heat was so intense, we had to drag ourselves to the farm at night rather than risk collapsing under the sun during the day. Sometimes harvests would disappoint, and when that happened, the gloom would stretch on for months, at least until we planted the next round of seeds. Other times, no matter how much we harvested, we didn’t make enough money. We learned the hard way, by lugging bags of produce to market and then having customers turn the vegetables over in their hands and walk away, what sold and what didn’t. Wheat and barley were the most profitable. Onions sold, but not for much. Many years we fed overripe tomatoes to our livestock, just to get rid of the excess.
Still, no matter the hardship, I never wanted to live anywhere other than Kocho. The alleyways may have filled with mud in the winter, but no one had to go far to see the people they loved most. In the summer, the heat was stifling, but that meant we all slept on the roof, side by side, talking and laughing with neighbors on their own roofs. Working on the farm was hard, but we made enough money to live a happy, simple life. I loved my village so much that when l was a child, my favorite game involved creating a miniature Kocho out of discarded boxes and bits of trash. Kathrine and I filled those model homes with handmade wooden dolls and then married the dolls to one another. Of course, before every wedding, the girl dolls would visit the elaborate house I made out of a plastic tomato crate, where I ran a hair salon.
Most importantly, I would never have left Kocho because my family was there. We were a little village ourselves. I had my eight brothers: Elias, the eldest, was like a father. Khairy was the first to risk his life as a border guard to help feed us. Pise was stubborn and loyal and would never let anything happen to us. There was Massoud, who grew up to be the best mechanic (and one of the best soccer players) in Kocho, and his twin Saoud, who ran a small convenience store in the village. Jalo opened his heart to everyone, even strangers. Saeed was full of life and mischief and longed to be a hero, and it was Hezni, the dreamer, whose affection we all competed for. My two sisters, the mothering, quiet Dimal, and Adkee, who one day would fight with our brothers to let her, a woman, drive our pickup truck and the next weep over a lamb who collapsed dead in the courtyard-still lived at home, and my half brothers, Khaled, Walid, Hajji, and Nawaf, and my half sisters, Halam and Haiam, were all nearby.
Kocho was where my mother, Shami, like good mothers everywhere, devoted her life to making sure we were fed and hopeful. It’s not the last place I saw her, but it’s where she is when I think about her, which I do every day. Even during the worst years of the sanctions, she made sure we had what we needed. When there was no money for treats, she gave us barley to trade for gum at the local store. When a merchant came through Kocho selling a dress we couldn’t afford, she badgered him into taking credit. “At least now our house is the first one they visit when they come to Kocho” she joked if one of my brothers complained about the debt.
She had grown up poor, and she never wanted us to appear needy, but villagers wanted to help us and gave us small amounts of flour or couscous when they could. Once when l was very young, my mother was walking home from the mill with only a little flour in her bag and was stopped by her uncle Sulaiman. “I know you need help. Why don’t you ever come to me?” he asked.
At first, she shook her head. “We’re fine, uncle,” she said. “We have everything we need.” But Sulaiman insisted, “I have so much extra wheat, you have to take some,” and the next thing we knew, four big oilcans full of wheat had been delivered to our house, enough for us to make bread for two months. My mother was so ashamed that she needed help that when she told us what happened, her eyes filled with tears, and she vowed that she would make our lives better. Day by day she did. Her presence was a reassurance even with terrorists nearby. “God will protect the Yazidis,” she told us every day.
There are so many things that remind me of my mother. The color white. A good and perhaps inappropriate joke. A peacock, which Yazidis consider a holy symbol, and the short prayers I say in my head when I see a picture of the bird. For twenty one years, my mother was at the center of each day. Every morning she woke up early to make bread, sitting on a low stool in front of the tandoor oven we kept in the courtyard, flattening balls of dough and slapping them against the sides of the oven until they were puffy and blistered, ready to be dipped into bowls of golden melted sheep’s butter.
Every morning for twenty one years I woke up to the slow slap, slap, slap of the dough against the oven walls and the grassy smell of the butter, letting me know my mother was close by. Half asleep, I would join her in front of the tandoor, in the winter warming my hands by the fire, and talk to her about everything, school, weddings, fights with siblings. For years, I was convinced that snakes were hatching babies on the tin roof of our outdoor shower.
“I heard them!” I insisted to her, making slithering sounds. But she just smiled at me, her youngest child. “Nadia is too scared to shower alone!” my siblings mocked me, and even when a baby snake fell on my head, prompting us to finally rebuild the shower, I had to admit they were sort of right. I never wanted to be alone.
I would pick burned edges off the fresh bread, updating my life plan for her. No longer would I simply do hair in the salon I planned to open in our house. We had enough money now to afford the kohl and eye shadow popular in cities outside Kocho, so I would also do makeup after I got home from a day teaching history at the secondary school. My mother nodded her approval. “Just as long as you never leave me, Nadia,” she would say, wrapping the hot bread in fabric. “Of course,” I always replied. “I will never leave you.”
Yazidis believe that before God made man, he created seven divine beings, often called angels, who were manifestations of himself. After forming the universe from the pieces of a broken pearl-like sphere, God sent his chief Angel, Tawusi Melek, to earth, where he took the form of a peacock and painted the world the bright colors of his feathers. The story goes that on earth, Tawusi Melek sees Adam, the first man, whom God has made immortal and perfect, and the Angel challenges God’s decision. If Adam is to reproduce, Tawusi Melek suggests, he can’t be immortal, and he can’t be perfect. He has to eat wheat, which God has forbidden him to do. God tells his Angel that the decision is his, putting the fate of the world in Tawusi Melek’s hands. Adam eats wheat, is expelled from paradise, and the second generation of Yazidis are born into the world.
Proving his worthiness to God, the Peacock Angel became God’s connection to earth and man’s link to the heavens. When we pray, we often pray to Tawusi Melek, and our New Year celebrates the day he descended to earth. Colorful images of the peacock decorate many Yazidi houses, to remind us that it is because of his divine wisdom that we exist at all. Yazidis love Tawusi Melek for his unending devotion to God and because he connects us to our one God. But Muslim Iraqis, for reasons that have no real roots in our stories, scorn the Peacock Angel and slander us for praying to him.
It hurts to say it, and Yazidis aren’t even supposed to utter the words, but many people in Iraq hear the story of the Peacock Angel and call us devil worshippers. Tawusi Melek, they say, is God’s chief Angel, like Iblis, the devil figure of the Koran. They claim that our Angel defied Adam and therefore God. Some cite texts, usually written by outside scholars in the early twentieth century who were unfamiliar with the Yazidi oral tradition, that say that Tawusi Melek was sent to Hell for refusing to bow to Adam, which is not true. This is a misinterpretation, and it has had terrible consequences. The story we use to explain the core of our faith and everything we think of as good about the Yazidi religion is the same story others use to justify genocide against us.
This is the worst lie told about Yazidis, but it is not the only one. People say that Yazidism isn’t a “real” religion because we have no official book like the Bible or the Koran. Because some of us don’t shower on Wednesdays, the day that Tawusi Melek first came to earth, and our day of rest and prayer, they say we are dirty. Because we pray toward the sun, we are called pagans. Our belief in reincarnation, which helps us cope with Muslims because none of the Abrahamic faiths believe in it. Some Yazidis avoid certain foods, like lettuce, and are mocked for their strange habits. Others don’t wear blue because they see it as the color of Tawusi Melek and too holy for a human, and even that choice is ridiculed.
Growing up in Kocho, I didn’t know a lot about my own religion. Only a small part of the Yazidi population are born into the religious castes, the sheikhs and elders who teach all other Yazidis about the religion. I was a teenager before my family had enough money to take me to Lalish to be baptized, and it was not possible for me to make that trip regularly enough to learn from the sheikhs who lived there. Attacks and persecution scattered us and decreased our numbers, making it even harder for our stories to be spread orally, as they are supposed to be. Still, we were happy that our religious leaders guarded Yazidism, it was clear that in the wrong hands, our religion could be easily used against us.
There are certain things all Yazidis are taught at a young age. I knew about the Yazidi holidays, although more about how we celebrate them than about the theology behind them. I knew that on Yazidi New Year, we color eggs, visit the graves of family, and light candles in our temples. I knew that October was the best month to go to Lalish, a holy valley in the Sheikhan district where the Baba Sheikh, our most important spiritual leader, and Baba Chawish, the custodian of the shrines there, greet pilgrims. In December we fast for three days to atone for our sins. Marriage outside the faith is not allowed; nor is conversion. We were taught about the seventy three past firmans against Yazidis, and these stories of persecution were so intertwined with who we were that they might as well have been holy stories. I knew that the religion lived in the men and women who had been born to preserve it, and that l was one of them.
My mother taught us how to pray, toward the sun in the morning, Lalish during the day, and the moon at night. There are rules, but most are flexible. Prayer is meant to be a personal expression, not a chore or an empty ritual. You can pray silently by yourself or out loud, and you can pray alone or in a group, as long as everyone in that group is also Yazidi. Prayers are accompanied by a few gestures, like kissing the red and white bracelet that many Yazidi women and men wear around their wrist or, for a man, kissing the collar of his traditional white undershirt.
Most Yazidis I grew up with prayed three times a day, and prayers can be made anywhere. More often than I’ve prayed in temples, I’ve prayed in the fields, on our rooftop, even in the kitchen, helping my mother cook. After reciting a few standard lines in praise of God and Tawusi Melek, you can say anything you want. “Tell Tawusi Melek what is bothering you,” my mother told us, demonstrating the gestures. “If you are worried about someone you love, tell him that, or if you are scared of something. These are the things that Tawusi Melek can help you with.” I used to pray for my own future, to finish school and open my salon, and the futures of my siblings and my mother. Now I pray for the survival of my religion and my people.
Yazidis lived like this for a long time, proud of our religion and content to be removed from other communities. We had no ambition for more land or power, and nothing in the religion commands us to conquer non, Yazidis and spread our faith. No one can convert to Yazidism anyway. But during my childhood, our community was changing. Villagers bought televisions, first settling for state run TV before satellite dishes allowed us to watch Turkish soap operas and Kurdish news. We bought our first electric clothes washer, which seemed almost like magic, although my mother still hand, washed her traditional white veils and dresses. Many Yazidis emigrated to the United States, Germany, or Canada, creating connections to the West. And of course, my generation was able to do something our parents hadn’t even dreamed of. We went to school.
Kocho’s first school was built in the 1970s, under Saddam. It went only through the fifth grade, and the lessons were in Arabic, not Kurdish, and were deeply nationalistic. State curriculum was clear about who was important in Iraq and what religion they followed. Yazidis didn’t exist in the Iraqi history books I read in school, and Kurds were depicted as threats against the state. I read the history of Iraq as it unfolded in a sequence of battles, pitting Arab Iraqi soldiers against people who would take their country away from them. It was a bloody history, meant to make us proud of our country and the strong leaders who had kicked out the British colonists and overthrown the king, but it had the opposite effect on me. I later thought that those books must be one reason why our neighbors joined ISIS or did nothing while the terrorists attacked Yazidis.
No one who had been through an Iraqi school would think that we deserved to have our religion protected, or that there was anything bad or even strange about endless war. We had been taught about violence since our very first day of school.
As a child, my country bewildered me. It could seem like its own planet, made up of many different lands, where decades of sanctions, war, bad politics, and occupation pulled neighbors apart. In the far north of Iraq were Kurds, who longed for independence. The south was home mostly to Shiite Muslims, the country’s religious and now political majority. And lodged in the middle were Sunni Arabs, who, with Saddam Hussein as president, once dominated the state they now fight against.
That’s the simple map, one with three solid colorcoded stripes painted more or less horizontally across the country. It leaves out Yazidis or labels them as “other.” The reality of Iraq is harder to illustrate and can be overwhelming even for people who were born here. When I was growing up, the villagers in Kocho didn’t talk a lot about politics. We were concerned with the cycle of the crops, who was getting married, whether a sheep was producing milk, the kind of things that anyone from a small rural town will understand. The central government, apart from campaigns to recruit Yazidis to fight in their wars and to join the Baath Party, seemed just as uninterested in us. But we did think a lot about what it meant to be a minority in Iraq, among all the other groups in that “other” category with Yazidis that, if included on the map, would swirl those three horizontal stripes into colorful marble.
To the northeast of Kocho, a line of dots near the southern edge of Iraqi Kurdistan shows the places where Turkmens, both Shiite and Sunni Muslim, live. Christians, among them Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Armenians have many communities scattered throughout the country, especially in the Nineveh Plain. Elsewhere, flecks indicate the homes of small groups like Kaka’i, Shabak, Roma, and Mandaeans, not to mention Africans and Marsh Arabs. I have heard that somewhere near Baghdad there is still a tiny community of Iraqi Jews. Religion blends into ethnicity. Most Kurds, for instance, are Sunni Muslim, but for them, their Kurdish identity comes first. Many Yazidis consider Yazidism both an ethnic and a religious identity. Most Iraqi Arabs are Shiite or Sunni Muslims, and that division has caused a lot of fighting over the years. Few of these details appeared in our Iraqi history books.
To get from my house to the school, I had to walk along the dusty road that ringed the edge of the town, past Bashar’s house, whose father was killed by Al Qaeda; past the house I was born in, where my father and Sara still lived; and finally past my friend Walaa’s house. Walaa was beautiful, with a pale, round face, and her quiet demeanor balanced my rowdiness. Every morning she would run out to join me on my walk to the school. It was worse to walk alone. Many of the families kept Sheepdogs in their yards, and the enormous animals would stand in the gardens, barking and snarling at whoever passed by. If the gate was open, the dogs lunged after us, snapping their jaws. They weren’t pets; they were big and dangerous, and Walaa and I would sprint away from them, arriving at school panting and sweating. Only my father’s dog, who knew me, left us alone.
Our school was a dull structure made of sandcolored concrete, decorated with faded posters and surrounded by a low wall and a small, dry schoolyard garden. No matter what it looked like, it felt like a miracle to be able to go and study and meet friends. In the school garden, Walaa, Kathrine, and I would play a game with a few of the other girls called bin akhy, which in Kurdish means “in the dirt.” All at once we would each hide something, a marble, a coin, even just a soda cap, in the ground, then we would run around like crazy people, digging holes in the garden until the teacher yelled at us, caking our fingernails with dirt that was sure to upset our mothers. You kept whatever you found, which almost always ended with tears. It was an old game; even my mother remembered playing it.
History, in spite of all the gaps and injustices in the lessons, was my favorite subject and the one I excelled at. English was my worst. I tried hard to be a good student, knowing that while I studied, my siblings worked on our farm. My mother was too poor to buy me a backpack like most of the other students carried, but I wouldn’t complain. I didn’t like to ask her for things.
When she couldn’t pay the taxi fee to send me to a secondary school a few villages away while ours was being built, I started working on the farm again, and waited and prayed for the school to be finished soon. There was no point in complaining, the money wouldn’t just appear, and I was far from the only kid in Kocho whose parents couldn’t afford to send them away.
After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991, the United Nations put sanctions on Iraq, hoping that it would limit the president’s power. While I was growing up, I didn’t know why the sanctions existed. The only people who talked about Saddam in my house were my brothers Massoud and Hezni, and that was just to shush anyone who complained during televised speeches or rolled their eyes at the propaganda on state TV. Saddam had tried to get loyalty from Yazidis so that they would side with him against the Kurds and fight in his wars, but he did so by demanding that we join his Baath Party and call ourselves Arab, not Yazidi.
Sometimes all that was on TV was Saddam himself, seated behind a desk smoking and telling stories about Iran, with a mustached guard beside him, going on about battles and his own brilliance. “What is he talking about?” we would ask one another, and everyone shrugged. There was no mention of Yazidis in the constitution, and any sign of rebellion was quickly punished. Sometimes I felt like laughing at what I saw on TV, the dictator in his funny hat, but my brothers cautioned me not to. “They are watching us,” Massoud said. “Be careful what you say.” Saddam’s enormous intelligence ministry had eyes and ears everywhere.
I knew during that time that it was ordinary Iraqis, not the political elite and certainly not Saddam himself, who suffered the most under the sanctions. Our hospitals and markets collapsed. Medicine became more expensive, and flour was cut with gypsum, which is more often used to make cement. The deterioration was most clear to me in the schools. Once Iraq’s education system had attracted students from all over the Middle East, but under the sanctions it crumbled. Teachers’ salaries were reduced to nothing, and so teachers became hard to find, even though nearly 50 percent of Iraqi men were unemployed. The few teachers who came to Kocho when I started, Arab Muslims who lived in the school, joining the Yazidi teachers, were heroes as far as l was concerned, and I worked hard to impress them.
When Saddam was in power, school had one obvious purpose: by offering us a state education, he hoped to take away our identity as Yazidis. This was clear in every lesson and every textbook that made no mention of us, our families, our religion, or the firmans against us. Although most Yazidis grew up speaking Kurdish, our lessons were in Arabic. Kurdish was the language of rebellion, and Kurdish Spoken by Yazidis could be seen as even more threatening to the State. Still, I eagerly went to school every day that I could, and I learned Arabic quickly. I didn’t feel like I was submitting to Saddam or betraying Yazidis by learning Arabic or studying the incomplete Iraqi history; I felt empowered and smart. I would still speak Kurdish at home and pray in Kurdish. When I wrote notes to Walaa or Kathrine, my two best friends, they would be in Kurdish, and I would never call myself anything other than Yazidi. I could tell that no matter what we were learning, going to school was important. With all the children in Kocho getting an education, our connections to our country and the outside world were already changing, and our society was opening up.
Young Yazidis loved our religion but also wanted to be part of the world, and when we grew up into adults, I was sure we would become teachers ourselves, writing Yazidis into the history lessons or even running for parliament and fighting for Yazidi rights in Baghdad. I had a feeling back then that Saddam’s plan to make us disappear would backfire.
In 2003, a few months after my father died, the Americans invaded Bagdad. We didn’t have satellite television to watch the battle unfold, or cell phones connecting us to the rest of the country, and so we learned slowly, over time, how quickly Saddam fell. Coalition forces flew noisily over Kocho on the way to the capital, jerking us from sleep; it was the first time I had ever seen an airplane. We had no idea at the time just how long the war would go on and how much of an impact it would have on Iraq, but in the simplest terms, we hoped that after Saddam, it would be easier to buy cooking gas.
What I remember most from those early months after the invasion was the loss of my father and little else. In Yazidi culture, when someone dies-particularly if that death is sudden and comes too soon, mourning lasts for a long time and sweeps up the entire village. Neighbors retreat from normal life along with the family and friends of the dead. Grief takes over every house and shop and spreads through the streets, as though everyone has been made sick on the same batch of sour milk. Weddings are canceled, holiday celebrations are moved indoors, and women switch out their white clothes for black. We treat happiness like a thief we have to guard against, knowing how easily it could wipe away the memory of our lost loved ones or leave us exposed in a moment of joy when we should be sad, so we limit our distractions. Televisions and radios are kept off, no matter what might be happening in Baghdad.
A few years before he died, my father took Kathrine and me to Mount Sinjar to celebrate the Yazidi New Year. It was my last time with him at the mountain. Our New Year is in April, just as the hills in northern Iraq glow with a light green fuzz and the sharp cold eases into a pleasant cool, but before the summer heat sneaks up on you like a speeding bus. April is the month that holds the promise of a big profitable harvest and leads us into months spent outdoors, sleeping on rooftops, freed from our cold, overcrowded houses. Yazidis are connected to nature. It feeds us and shelters us, and when we die, our bodies become the earth. Our New Year reminds us of this.
On the New Year we visited whomever in the family had been working as shepherds that year, driving our sheep closer to the mountain and walking them from field to field in order to keep them fed. Parts of the job were fun. Shepherds slept outside underneath handwoven blankets and lived simply, with lots of time to think and little to worry about. But it was also grueling work, far from home and family, and while they grew homesick, we missed them back in Kocho. The year my mother left to take care of the sheep, I was in middle school, and l was so distraught that I failed every one of my classes. “I am blind without you,” I told her when she returned.
That last New Year with my father, Kathrine and I rode in the back of the truck while my father and Elias sat in front, watching us in the rearview mirror to make sure we didn’t do anything reckless. The landscape whipped by, a blur of wet spring grass and yellow wheat. We held hands and gossiped, concocting overblown versions of the day’s events that we would later use to taunt the kids who had to wait at home. As far as they were concerned, it would be the most fun we ever had, away from the fields and school and work. Kathrine and I would nearly bounce over the side of the truck as it raced down the road, and the lamb tied up in the back near us was the biggest lamb we had ever seen. “We ate so much candy,” we would tell them back home, watching for the envy in their faces. “We danced all night, it was light outside by the time we went to sleep. You should have seen it.”
The true story was only slightly less exciting. My father could hardly say no to the candy we longed for, and, at the base of the mountain, the reunion with the shepherds was always joyful. The lamb, which had in fact ridden in the back of the truck along with us and was then slaughtered by my father and cooked by the women, was tender and delicious, and we all danced Yazidi dances, holding hands and spinning in a wide circle. After the best parts of the lamb were eaten and the music turned off, we slept in tents surrounded by low fences made of reeds to keep out the wind. When the weather was mild, we took down those fences and slept in the open air. It was a simple, hidden life. All you had to worry about were the things and the people around you, and they were close enough to touch.
I don’t know how my father would have felt about the Americans invading Iraq and taking Saddam out of power, but I wished he had lived long enough to see Iraq change. Kurds welcomed the U.S. soldiers, helping them enter Iraq, and they were ecstatic at the idea of Saddam being deposed. The dictator had targeted Kurds for decades, and in the late 1980s his air force had tried to exterminate them with chemical weapons in what he called the Anfal campaign. That genocide shaped the Kurds, who wanted to protect themselves from the government in Baghdad in any way they could. Because of Anfal, the Americans, British, and French established a no-fly zone over the Kurdish north, as well as the Shia areas in the south, and Kurds had been their willing allies ever since. To this day, Kurds call the 2003 US. invasion a “liberation,” and they consider it the beginning of their transformation from small vulnerable villages into big modern towns full of hotels and the offices of oil companies.
In general, Yazidis welcomed the Americans but were less certain than Kurds about what our lives would be like after Saddam. Sanctions had made our life hard, as they had for other Iraqis, and we knew that Saddam was a dictator who ruled Iraq with fear. We were poor, cut off from education, and made to do the most difficult, dangerous, and lowest-paying jobs in Iraq. But at the same time, with the Baathists in power, we in Kocho had been able to practice our religion, farm our land, and start families. We had close ties with Sunni Arab families, particularly the kiriv, whom we considered bonded to our families, and our isolation taught us to treasure these connections while our poverty told us to be practical above all else. Baghdad and the Kurdish capital, Erbil, seemed worlds away from Kocho. The only decision the rich, connected Kurds and Arabs made that mattered to us was the decision to leave us alone.
Still, the promises Americans made-about work, freedom, and security-quickly brought Yazidis fully to their side. The Americans trusted us because we didn’t have any reason to be loyal to anyone they considered an enemy, and many of our men became translators or took jobs with the Iraqi or American armies. Saddam was pushed into hiding, then found and hanged, and his Baathist institutions dismantled. Sunni Arabs, including those close to Kocho, lost authority in the country, and in the Yazidi parts of Sinjar, Sunni Arab policemen and politicians were replaced with Kurdish ones.
Sinjar is a disputed territory, claimed by both Baghdad and Kurdistan, strategically close to Mosul and Syria and potentially rich with natural gas. Like Kirkuk, another disputed territory in eastern Iraq, Kurdish political parties consider Sinjar to be part of their greater Kurdish homeland. According to them, without Sinjar, the Kurdish nation, if there ever is one, would be born incomplete. After 2003, with American support, and with the Sunni Arabs steadily losing wealth and power, Kurds who were aligned with the KDP happily came to fill the void in Sinjar. They established political offices and staffed those offices with party members. With the Sunni insurgency mounting, they manned checkpoints along our roads. They told us that Saddam was wrong to call us Arabs; we had always been Kurds.
In Kocho the changes after 2003 were huge. Within a couple of years, the Kurds started building a cell phone tower, and after school I would go with friends just outside the village to watch the giant, metal structure grow out of our farmland like a skyscraper. “Finally Kocho will be connected to the rest of the world!” my brothers said, delighted, and soon enough, most of the men and some of the women had cell phones. Satellite dishes installed on the roofs of houses meant we were no longer limited to Syrian films and Iraqi state TV, and Saddam’s marches and speeches disappeared from our living room. My uncle was among the first to get a satellite dish, and as soon as he did, we all crowded into his sitting room to see what was on. My brothers looked for the news, particularly on Kurdish channels, and I became addicted to a Turkish soap opera where the characters constantly fell in and out of love.
We had resisted calling ourselves Arab, but being told that we were Kurdish was easier for some to accept. Many Yazidis feel close to a Kurdish identity, we share a language and ethnic heritage, and it was impossible to ignore the improvements in Sinjar after the Kurds came in, even if it had more to do with the United States than with Barzani.
Jobs in the military and security forces were suddenly open to Yazidis, and some of my brothers and cousins traveled to Erbil to work in the hotels and restaurants; a new one seemed to be built every day. They quickly filled with oil workers or tourists from other parts of Iraq looking for a cooler climate, reliable electricity, or a break from the violence plaguing the rest of the country. My brother Saoud worked construction jobs near Duhok, in the west of Kurdistan, operating a cement mixer. He would come home with stories of Kurds who, like Arabs, looked down on Yazidis. Still, we needed the money.
Khairy began working as a border guard, and soon afterward Hezni became a policeman in Sinjar City. Their salaries gave our family our first steady income, and we started to live what felt like real lives, thinking about the future and not just the next day. We bought our own land to farm and our own sheep to herd and didn’t have to work for landlords anymore. The paved roads outside Kocho made it much quicker to drive to the mountain. We picnicked in the fields near the village, eating plates of meat and chopped vegetables, the men drinking Turkish beer and then tea so sweet it made my lips pucker. Our weddings grew even more elaborate; women sometimes made two trips to Sinjar City for clothes, and men slaughtered more lambs, and if they were very well-off, a cow-to share with the guests.
Some Yazidis envisioned a future Sinjar with a strong local government that was still in lraq, but others thought we would eventually be part of an independent Kurdistan. With the KDP office in Kocho and the peshmerga in Sinjar, I grew up thinking that was our destiny. We became more distant from our Sunni Arab neighbors. While travel to Kurdistan got easier, it became harder to get to the Sunni villages where insurgents, and the extremist theology that guided them, were gaining ground. Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, didn’t like the Kurdish presence in Sinjar. It reminded them of the power they had lost, and they said that with the Kurds in control, they didn’t feel welcome in Sinjar and could no longer visit Yazidi villages, even the ones where their kiriv lived. Kurdish peshmerga interrogated them at checkpoints that were once manned by Baathists, and many lost their salaries and jobs when the Americans came and dismantled Saddam’s institutions. Only recently they had been the richest and best-connected people in the country, but with a Shiite government supported by the occupying Americans in power, Sunni Arabs suddenly lost their power. Isolated in their villages, they would soon decide to fight back. Within years that fight became fueled by a religious intolerance that made Yazidis, even though we had never had any power in Iraq, their target.
I didn’t know then that the Kurdish government was content to distance Yazidis from our Arab neighbors because it helped them in their campaign to take over Sinjar, or how disruptive the American occupation was for ordinary Sunnis. I was unaware that, while I went to school, an unnamed insurgency was paving the way for Al Qaeda, and eventually ISIS, to flourish in our neighboring villages. Sunni tribes across Iraq tried, and mostly failed, to rebel against the Shiite authority in Baghdad and the Americans. They became accustomed to violence and harsh rule, which went on for so long that many Sunnis my age and younger grew up knowing nothing but war and the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that became part of that war.
ISIS built up slowly in those villages just beyond our borders, a spark that I didn’t notice until it became a bonfire. For a young Yazidi girl, life only got better after the Americans and the Kurds took over. Kocho was expanding, I was going to school, and we were gradually lifting ourselves out of poverty. A new constitution gave more power to the Kurds and demanded that minorities be part of the government. I knew that my country was at war, but it didn’t seem like it was our fight.
IN THE BEGINNING, American soldiers visited Kocho almost once a week to hand out food and supplies and talk to the village leaders. Did we need schools? Paved roads? Running water so that we no longer had to buy tanks off of trucks? The answer to all of it, of course, was yes. Ahmed Jasso invited the soldiers over for large, elaborate meals, and our men glowed with pride when the Americans said they felt so safe in Kocho they could lean their weapons against the walls and relax. “They know the Yazidis will protect them,” Ahmed Jasso said.
Kids ran to the American soldiers when they pulled into Kocho, their armored cars kicking up dust and drowning out the village noises with their loud motors. They gave us gum and candy and took photos of us smiling with the presents. We marveled at their crisp uniforms and the friendly, conversational way they approached us, so unlike the Iraqi soldiers before them. They raved to our parents about Kocho hospitality, how comfortable and clean our village was, and how well we understood that America had liberated us from Saddam. “Americans love the Yazidis,” they told us. “And Kocho especially. We feel at home here.” Even when their visits slowed to a trickle and then stopped completely, we held on to the American praise like a badge of honor.
In 2006, when l was thirteen, one of the American soldiers gave me a ring as a present. It was a simple band with a small red stone, the first piece of jewelry I’d ever owned. It instantly became my most valued possession. I wore it everywhere, to school, digging on the farm, at home watching my mother bake bread, even to sleep at night. After a year, it had become too small for my ring finger, and I moved it onto my pinky so I wouldn’t have to leave it at home. But it slid up and down on that finger, barely catching on my knuckle, and I worried about losing it. I glanced at it constantly to make sure it was still there, curling my hand into a fist to feel it pressing against my finger.
Then one day I was out with my siblings planting rows of onion seedlings when I looked down and noticed that the ring was gone. I already hated planting the onions-each one had to be laid carefully into the cold dirt, and even the seedlings made your fingers and hands stink, and now l was furious at the tiny plants, digging frantically through them, trying to find my present. My siblings, noticing my panic, asked me what had happened. “I lost the ring!” I told them, and they stopped working to help look. They knew how important it was to me.
We walked our entire field, searching in the dark dirt for a little glimpse of gold and red, but no matter how hard we looked and how much I cried, we couldn’t find the ring. When the sun started to set, we had no choice but to give up and go home for dinner. “Nadia, it’s no big deal,” Elias said as we walked home. “It’s just a little thing. You’ll have more jewelry in your life.” But I cried for days. I was sure that I would never have anything as nice again and I worried that the American soldier, if he ever came back, would be angry with me for losing his present.
A year later a miracle happened. Picking the new onions that had sprouted from those seedlings, Khairy saw a small gold band poking out of the dirt. “Nadia, your ring!” My brother beamed, presenting it to me, and I ran to him, grabbing it out of his hand and hugging him, my hero. When I tried to slip it on, though, I found that, no matter how hard I tried, the ring was now too small even for my pinky. Later my mother saw it lying on my dresser and urged me to sell it. “It doesn’t fit you anymore, Nadia,” she said. “There’s no point in keeping it if you can’t wear it.” For her, poverty was just one wrong move away. Because I always did what she said, I went to a jewelry seller in the Sinjar City bazaar, who bought the ring from me.
Afterward I felt heavy with guilt. The ring had been a gift, and it didn’t seem right for me to sell it. I worried what the soldier would say if he returned and asked about his present. Would he think that I had betrayed him? That I didn’t love the ring? The armored cars were already pulling up to Kocho much less frequently, fighting had grown worse in the rest of the country, and the Americans were stretched thin, and I hadn’t seen that particular soldier in months.
Some of my neighbors complained that the Americans had forgotten about us, and they worried that without contact with them, Yazidis would be unprotected. But I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to explain what happened to the ring. Maybe the soldier who gave it to me, even though he was kind, would be upset that I had sold his present to the jewelry merchant in Sinjar City. Coming from America, he might not understand what even that small amount of money meant to us.
. . . . .
The Last Girl. My story of captivity and my fight against the Islamic State
by Nadia Murad
get it at Amazon.com
In November 2015, a year and three months after ISIS came to Kocho, I left Germany for Switzerland to speak to a United Nations forum on minority issues. It was the first time I would tell my story in front of a large audience. I had been up most of the night before with Nisreen, the activist who had organized the trip, thinking about what to say. I wanted to talk about everything, the children who died of dehydration fleeing ISIS, the families still stranded on the mountain, the thousands of women and children who remained in captivity, and what my brothers saw at the site of the massacre. I was only one of hundreds of thousands of Yazidi victims. My community was scattered, living as refugees inside and outside of Iraq, and Kocho was still occupied by ISIS. There was so much the world needed to hear about what was happening to Yazidis.
The first part of the journey was by train through the dark German woods. The trees passed by in a blur close to my window. I was frightened by the forest, which is so different from the valleys and fields of Sinjar, and glad that l was riding by it, not wandering between the trees. Still, it was beautiful, and I was starting to like my new home. Germans had welcomed us to their country; I heard stories of ordinary citizens greeting the trains and airplanes carrying fleeing Syrians and Iraqis. In Germany we were hopeful that we could become a part of society and not just live on the edge of it.
It was harder for Yazidis in other countries. Some refugees had arrived in places where it was clear they weren’t wanted, no matter what kind of horrors they were escaping. Other Yazidis were trapped in Iraq, desperate for the opportunity to leave, and that waiting was another kind of suffering. Some countries decided to keep refugees out altogether, which made me furious. There was no good reason to deny innocent people a safe place to live. I wanted to say all this to the UN that day.
I wanted to tell them that so much more needed to be done. We needed to establish a safe zone for religious minorities in Iraq; to prosecute ISIS, from the leaders down to the citizens who had supported their atrocities, for genocide and crimes against humanity; and to liberate all of Sinjar. Women and girls who escaped from ISIS needed help to rejoin and rebuild society, and their abuse needed to be added to the list of Islamic State war crimes. Yazidism should be taught in schools from Iraq to the United States, so that people understood the value of preserving an ancient religion and protecting the people who follow it, no matter how small the community. Yazidis, along with other religious and ethnic minorities, are what once made Iraq a great country.
They had only given me three minutes to talk, though, and Nisreen urged me to keep it simple. “Tell your own story,” she said, sipping tea in my apartment. That was a terrifying idea. I knew that if my story were to have any impact, I would have to be as honest as I could stand to be. I would have to tell the audience about Hajji Salman and the times he raped me, the terrifying night at the Mosul checkpoint, and all the abuse I witnessed. Deciding to be honest was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, and also the most important.
I shook as I read my speech. As calmly as I could, I talked about how Kocho had been taken over and girls like me had been taken as sabaya. I told them about how I had been raped and beaten repeatedly and how I eventually escaped. I told them about my brothers who had been killed. They listened quietly, and afterward a Turkish woman came up to me. She was crying. “My brother Ali was killed,” she told me. “Our whole family is in shock because of it. I don’t know how someone can handle losing six brothers all at once.”
“It is very hard,” I said. “But there are families who lost even more than us.”
When I returned to Germany I told Nisreen that any time they needed me, I would go anywhere and do anything I could to help. I had no idea that soon I would partner with the Yazidi activists running Yazda, and begin a new life. I know now that l was born in the heart of the crimes committed against me.
AT FIRST OUR new lives in Germany felt insignificant compared to those of the people living through war in Iraq. Dimal and I moved into a small two-bedroom apartment with two of our cousins, decorating it with photos of the people we had lost or left behind. At night I slept beneath large color photos of my mother and Kathrine. We wore necklaces that spelled out the names of the dead and each day came together to weep for them and to pray to Tawusi Melek for the safe return of the missing. Every night I dreamed about Kocho, and every morning I woke up and remembered that Kocho, as I knew it, no longer existed. It’s a strange, hollow feeling. Longing for a lost place makes you feel like you have also disappeared. I have seen many beautiful countries in my travels as an activist, but nowhere I wanted to live more than Iraq.
We went to German classes and to the hospital to make sure we were healthy. Some of us tried the therapy sessions they offered, which were almost impossible to endure. We cooked our food and did the chores we had grown up doing, cleaning and baking bread, this time in a small portable metal oven that Dimal set up in the living room. But without the truly time-consuming tasks like milking sheep or farming, or the social lives that come with living in a small, tight-knit village or school, we had too many empty hours. When I first got to Germany, I begged Hezni all the time to let me come back, but he told me to give Germany a chance. He said I had to stay, that eventually I would have a life there, but I wasn’t sure I believed him.
Soon enough, I met Murad Ismael. Along with a group of Yazidis living around the world, including Hadi Pir, Ahmed Khudida, Abid Shamdeen, and Haider Elias, the former translator for the US. military who had stayed on the phone with my brother, Jalo, almost until the moment of his death. Murad had cofounded Yazda, a group fighting tirelessly for Yazidis. When I first met him I was still uncertain about what my new life would be like. I wanted to help, and to feel useful, but I didn’t know how. But when Murad told me about Yazda and the work they were doing, particularly helping to free and then advocate for women and girls who had been enslaved by ISIS, I could see my future more clearly.
As soon as these Yazidis heard that ISIS had come into Sinjar they left their normal lives to help us back in Iraq. Murad had been studying geophysics in Houston when the genocide started; others were teachers or social workers who dropped everything to help us. He told me about a sleepless two weeks spent in a small hotel room near Washington, D.C., where he and a group including Haider and Hadi spent every moment fielding calls from Yazidis in Iraq, trying to help them to safety.
Often, they succeeded. Sometimes they didn’t. They had tried to save Kocho, he told me. They had called everyone they could think of in Erbil and Baghdad. They made suggestions based on their time working with the American military (Murad and Hadi has also been translators during the occupation) and tracked ISIS on every road and through every village. When they failed to save us they vowed to do whatever they could to help anyone who survived and to get us justice. They wore their sorrows on their bodies, Haider’s back aches constantly and Murad’s face is lined with exhaustion, and in spite of that, I wanted to be just like them. After I met Murad, I started to become the person I am today. Although the mourning never stopped, our lives in Germany began to feel significant again.
When I was with ISIS, I felt powerless. If I had possessed any strength at all when my mother was torn from me, I would have protected her. If I could have stopped the terrorists from selling me or raping me, I would have. When I think back to my own escape, the unlocked door, the quiet yard, Nasser and his family in the neighborhood full of Islamic State sympathizers, I shiver at how easily it could have gone wrong. I think there was a reason God helped me escape, and a reason I met the activists with Yazda, and I don’t take my freedom for granted.
The terrorists didn’t think that Yazidi girls would be able to leave them, or that we would have the courage to tell the world every detail of what they did to us. We defy them by not letting their crimes go unanswered. Every time I tell my story, I feel that I am taking some power away from the terrorists.
Since that first trip to Geneva, I have told my story to thousands of people, politicians and diplomats, filmmakers and journalists, and countless ordinary people who became interested in Iraq after ISIS took over. I have begged Sunni leaders to more strongly denounce ISIS publicly; they have so much power to stop the violence. I have worked alongside all the men and women with Yazda to help survivors like me who have to live every day with what we have been through, as well as to convince the world to recognize what happened to the Yazidis as a genocide and to bring ISIS to justice.
Other Yazidis have done the same with the same mission: to ease our suffering and keep what is left of our community alive. Our stories, as hard as they are to hear, have made a difference. Over the past few years, Canada has decided to let in more Yazidi refugees; the UN officially recognized what ISIS did to the Yazidis as a genocide; governments have begun discussing whether to establish a safe zone for religious minorities in Iraq; and most important, we have lawyers determined to help us. Justice is all Yazidis have now, and every Yazidi is part of the struggle.
Back in Iraq, Adkee, Hezni, Saoud, and Saeed fight in their own ways. They stayed in the camp, Adkee refused to go to Germany with the other women and when I talk to them, I miss them so much I can barely stand. Every day is a struggle for the Yazidis in the camps, and still they do whatever they can to help the whole community. They hold demonstrations against ISIS and petition the Kurds and Baghdad to do more. When a mass grave is uncovered or a girl dies trying to escape, it is the refugees in the camp who bear the burden of the news first and arrange the funeral. Each container home is full of people praying for loved ones to be returned to them.
Every Yazidi refugee tries to cope with the mental and physical trauma of what they have been through and works to keep our community intact. People who, just a few years ago, were farmers, students, merchants, and housewives have become religious scholars determined to spread knowledge about Yazidism, teachers working in the small container homes used as camp classrooms, and human rights activists like me. All we want is to keep our culture and religion alive and to bring ISIS to justice for their crimes. I am proud of all we have done as a community to fight back. I have always been proud to be Yazidi.
As lucky as I am to be safe in Germany, I can’t help but envy those who stayed behind in Iraq. My siblings are closer to home, eating the Iraqi food I miss so much and living next to people they know, not strangers. If they go to town, they can speak to shopkeepers and minivan drivers in Kurdish. When the peshmerga allow us into Solagh, they will be able to visit my mother’s grave. We call one another on the phone and leave messages all day. Hezni tells me about his work helping girls escape, and Adkee tells me about life in the camp. Most of the stories are bitter and sad, but sometimes my lively sister makes me laugh so hard that I roll off my couch. I ache for Iraq.
In late May 2017, I received news from the camp that Kocho had been liberated from ISIS. Saeed had been among the members of the Yazidi unit of the Hashd alShaabi, a group of Iraqi armed militias, who had gone in, and I was happy for him that he had gotten his wish and become a fighter. Kocho was not safe; there were still Islamic State militants there, fighting, and those who left had planted IEDs everywhere before they ran, but I was determined to go back. Hezni agreed, and I flew from Germany to Erbil and then traveled to the camp.
I didn’t know what it would feel like to see Kocho, the place where we were separated and where my brothers were killed. I was with some family, including Dimal, and Murad (by now, he and others from Yazda were like family) and when it was safe enough to go, we traveled as a group, taking a long route to avoid the fighting. The village was empty. The windows in the school had been broken and, inside, we saw what was left of a dead body. My house had been looted, even the wood had been stripped off the roof, and anything left behind was burned. The album of bridal photos was a pile of ashes. We cried so hard we fell onto the floor.
Still, in spite of the destruction, the moment I walked through my front door I knew it was my home. For a moment I felt the way I had before ISIS came, and when they told me it was time to leave I begged them to let me stay just an hour more. I vowed to myself that no matter what, when December comes and it is time for Yazidis to fast in order to draw closer to God and Tawusi Melek, who gave us all life, I will be in Kocho.
A LITTLE LESS than a year since giving that first speech in Geneva, and about a year before returning to Kocho, I went to New York with some members of Yazda, including Abid, Murad, Ahmed, Haider, Hadi, and Maher Ghanem, where the United Nations named me a Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. Again, I would be expected to talk about what happened to me in front of a large group of people. It never gets easier to tell your story. Each time you speak it, you relive it. When I tell someone about the checkpoint where the men raped me, or the feeling of Hajji Salman’s whip across the blanket as I lay under it, or the darkening Mosul sky while I searched the neighborhood for some sign of help, I am transported back to those moments and all their terror. Other Yazidis are pulled back into these memories, too. Sometimes even the Yazda members who have listened to my story countless times weep when I tell it; it’s their story, too.
Still, I have become used to giving speeches, and large audiences no longer intimidate me. My story, told honestly and matter-of-factly, is the best weapon I have against terrorism, and I plan on using it until those terrorists are put on trial. There is still so much that needs to be done. World leaders and particularly Muslim religious leaders need to stand up and protect the oppressed.
I gave my brief address. When I finished telling my story, I continued to talk. I told them I wasn’t raised to give speeches. I told them that every Yazidi wants ISIS prosecuted for genocide, and that it was in their power to help protect vulnerable people all over the world. I told them that I wanted to look the men who raped me in the eye and see them brought to justice. More than anything else, I said, I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.