“I felt sorry for the people of Mosul. It must be awful to have a band of thugs attack your city and force everyone living there to live by their rules. It was said that they treated the population with extreme brutality, driving out the Christians and shooting the Shia soldiers, one after another. If they wished to avoid being arrested, women had to be fully veiled with a niqab. And anybody who protested was shot or beheaded with a sword. Or at least those were the rumours. What sort of life was that? How could the people tolerate it? Thank goodness we lived here in such seclusion, at the foot of Mount Sinjar, I thought. Surely nobody would come this far.”
Farida Khalaf was like any other 18 year old in Northern Iraq. Born in Kocho, a village just to the south of Mount Sinjar, she spent her days playing football with her brothers in the garden – or ‘little paradise’ – in which mulberry, almond and apricot trees grew. She would organise picnics with her friends, pore over fashion magazines, and copy the elaborate hairstyles that she saw featured. At school, she had earned the nickname ‘calculator’ due to her ability to always outsmart the other students in her maths lessons. She dreamed of being a teacher, and was overjoyed when a teacher from a neighbouring village told her that she could possibly receive a scholarship to continue her studies.
‘Life was being kind to me,’ she remembers.
Unfortunately, Farida’s luck was about to change. As she followed the news stories about ISIS throughout the summer of 2014 with growing horror, she grew evermore concerned about her country. Spending her days ‘numbed in front of the television,’ she couldn’t believe the brutality of these terrorists, and looked upon their victims with disbelief and pity. However, as Yazidis, Farida and her family were seen by ISIS as devil worshippers, and so it wasn’t long before these terrorists became more than just headlines for Farida.
The Girl Who Escaped ISIS tells of Farida’s brutal treatment at the hands of ISIS soldiers, from the day they stormed into her village and shot all of the men to her experiences at a human market in Raqqa, where her journey of sexual slavery began. Over the coming months, Farida was sold to multiple men, sometimes for as little as $50, beaten to within an inch of her life, and raped repeatedly. Through a series of in-depth interviews with Farida, journalist and author Andrea Hoffman has constructed a first-person narrative that provides a horrifying glimpse into ISIS’s horrifying regime.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the graphic descriptions of the beatings that Farida suffered at the hands of her tormentors, is the absence of detail when it comes to her sexual traumas. Before her capture, Farida had led a sheltered life in her traditional Yazidi community. ‘Neither Evin nor I had a precise idea of what [rape] actually meant,’ she recalls. ‘All we knew is that we mustn’t in any circumstances allow them to touch our bodies. If we failed to prevent them from doing that, our entire families would be dishonoured.’
This sense of deep shame that Farida harbours when it comes to sex helps explain why she is comfortable describing acts of the most brutal violence, but skims over any violence which is sexual in nature. The only detail which she makes sure to include is that ‘the particularly religious’ ISIS fighters would kneel down and pray before raping their slaves, ‘thus celebrating their rape as an act of worship.’ This sense of shame surrounding sex is so deeply ingrained in Farida’s culture that she tells us, through Andrea, of how she and her prisoners made a vow to kill themselves before allowing any ISIS fighter to touch them because ‘No Yazidi man would want to marry us afterwards. It must not come to that. We bore a responsibility to ourselves and the honour of our families.’
As it transpires, Farida is right to have worried about ‘dishonouring’ her family. When she eventually escapes from ISIS’s clutches and is reunited with her surviving relatives in a refugee camp, an elderly woman cruelly remarks that the returning girls are ‘defiled,’ saying ‘their lives are ruined forever.’ Heartbroken, Farida says that she ‘felt as if the old woman had severed the artery providing [her] with the will to live. [The woman’s] savage judgement had broken [her] spirit, something that ISIS with all its cruelty hadn’t managed.’
It is not until two years later, when she has moved to Germany, that she is able to accept that what was done to her does not mean that she is ‘defiled’ or worth any less. When a journalist at a press conference asks her how she is dealing with the social stigma of being sexually assaulted, Farida answers ‘I don’t have to be ashamed of anything,’ and it is in this moment that the reader realises that Farida has truly broken free from ISIS, mentally as well as physically.
The Girl Who Escaped ISIS is, despite its subject matter, not a difficult read. One does not need to have an in-depth knowledge of human trafficking, terrorism or the situation in Iraq and Syria to be able to engage with this text in a meaningful way, and at only 199 pages, it is not overly taxing for the reluctant reader.
Farida’s ordeal is something that is far from unique and is an experience that people must recognise as an ongoing reality, not just within the Islamic State, but worldwide. There are up to 30 million slaves in the world today, and an estimated 80% of those are sex slaves. While most people are aware of ISIS’s practices of buying and selling humans as slaves, this book makes the headlines so much more real and provides the reader with an understanding of the grim reality that is life for so many Yazidi women and girls. For this reason, it is a shocking, but necessary read.
If you want to buy The Girl Who Escaped ISIS by Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffman, please click here.
For more information about modern day slavery, click here.
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