The story of the heroic farmer who, in 2014, set out to rescue dozens of Yazidi women enslaved and brutalised by Isis
Review by Louise Callaghan
Survivors of the Isis genocide: Yazidi in 2017ELIZABETH FITT/ALAMY
Of all the groups who suffered as Isis swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014, the Yazidis suffered most. This quiet, insular people has lived and thrived around the foot of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, clinging to their bare-scrubbed land, for millennia. They worship the Peacock King, one of seven angels who guard the world. They can’t eat lettuce or wear blue, nor can they marry outside the faith. All of this made them seem like devil-worshippers to Isis, worthy only of enslavement and death.
In August 2014, black-clad militants came to Sinjar and rounded up thousands of Yazidis. Men were killed, children were stolen, to be “re-educated” as Isis fighters. The old were buried alive. Women were enslaved. Up to 7,000 were taken by Isis fighters as sex slaves, bought and sold like cattle, sometimes to dozens of men.
This remarkable book tells of one man’s attempts to fight back and to rescue his people from a life of horror. Until the day Isis came, Abdullah Shrem had led a quiet life tending to his bees in the shadow of Mount Sinjar, amid the pointed white temples of the Yazidi ancestral lands. But that August, he fled with a group of survivors to the slopes of the mountain, with only handfuls of honey to sustain them. Abdullah made it, but his brother, sister and 56 members of his family didn’t. They are still missing, along with more than 6,000 others.
As the nightmare unfolded, Abdullah realised what he had to do. He would leave beekeeping and work full-time to rescue his people from Isis — almost like an Iraqi Oskar Schindler. Plugged constantly into his phone, he sent men and women, disguised as everything from tamarind juice sellers to Isis fighters, scurrying through the caliphate to rescue women. In the hands of Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi Assyrian poet, the stories of these women and their escape, with Abdullah’s help, become a horrifying tightrope walk.
One story stands for many. Maha was pregnant when she was captured with her four children in 2014. The family was sold for £113 apiece, to a man called Khalid, a hospital director. Three months after Maha gave birth to her fifth child, Khalid sold her 14-year-old daughter to another Isis man. Desperate to save her 12-year-old from the same fate, Maha tried to escape, but was caught. Khalid tied Maha and her daughter to a bed and beat them with all his strength. Then he killed Maha’s three baby sons in front of her. As she mourned by their graves, a local woman lent Maha her cell phone. She contacted Abdullah, and he helped her escape with her daughter.
Abdullah’s story is a remarkable one, and it is told with great intensity by Mikhail, an Iraqi Christian who now lives in America after being forced to flee Baghdad. The presentation is fresh, with the women’s stories interspersed with transcripts of the author’s phone conversations with Abdullah and digressions into her past. The tales of escape are almost unbearably tense.
In their desperation to avoid being captured by Isis, Yazidi female fighters, some as young as 14 years old, formed all-women units in the Sinjar ResistanceALAMY
Unlike others, who have lingered uncomfortably on the prurient details of the Yazidi genocide, Mikhail has documented her subjects’ stories so they will not be lost. For all the power of the testimony, though, the book has its drawbacks. Direct translation from Arabic often sounds overwrought in English, and the author’s poetic flourishes also cloud the stark horror. It’s when Mikhail is at her most direct, allowing the women to speak for themselves, that their stories are at their most devastating.
Now begins the next great challenge for the Yazidi. Isis was pushed out of Sinjar in 2015, and many, including Abdullah, have come back. As their women return, those who survived are leaving their ancestral lands in droves. Many go to Europe or Canada, where they are, rightly, prime candidates for asylum. Will the Yazidis start to disappear from Iraq? Or will they stay, rebuild and thrive again in the shadows of Mount Sinjar? With this short book, the tragedies and the heroism of this time of horror will survive intact.
Serpent’s Tail £10.99 pp209
Louise Callaghan is The Sunday Times’s Middle East correspondent