Living in the shadows: Yazidi women tell of ISIS hell

Journalist Cathy Otten spent five years in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. She shares the experience and her insights

FISHKHABOUR, IRAQ: A Yezidi woman breaks down in tears after crossing from Syria back into Iraq. Tens of thousands of Yezidi--an minority ethno-religious group in Iraq--have made there way to safety after being stranded on Mt. Sinjar. They escaped to the mountain after coming under attack by ISIL (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). After days of being stranded, they were able to safely descend the mountain into Syria and then cross back into Iraq further north. (Photo by Sebastian Meyer/Corbis via Getty Images)
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A sense of foreboding hung in the air on the eve of one of Iraq’s greatest modern tragedies – the killing, displacing and enslaving of tens of thousands of Yazidi men, women and children by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s army of terror.

Mosul had fallen in June and they knew an ISIS attack was likely. But it wasn't until the early hours of August 3, 2014, when vigilant men gripping rusty Kalashnikovs spotted unfamiliar vehicles heading towards them through the desert, that Iraq's Yazidis came face to face with their killers.

In one swift assault, ISIS fighters armed to the teeth attacked and seized Yazidi towns and villages in Sinjar, north Iraq, where about 500,000 members of the religious minority lived.

In the days that followed they killed thousands and enslaved an estimated 6,383 women and children, devastating and traumatising entire communities in the process. Countless families were shattered by the loss of a mother, a daughter, a sister.

SINJAR, IRAQ - DECEMBER 20: Yezidis, fled from Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) forces' attacks on their home town Sinjar, stay in harsh conditions as the winter starts, in a valley of western Sinjar Mountain in Sinjar district of Mosul, Irak on December 20, 2014. Yezidi women and children are seen out side of the tents. (Photo by Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Yezidis like these were forced to flee their villages Getty

As the stifling summer dragged on and the United States announced its air campaign against ISIS, the first group of reporters began to appear. By mid-August the catastrophe had created a media frenzy. Reporters from all over the world descended on the country in turmoil, slinging laptops and cameras and donning body armour.

In the years that followed, the focus fell largely on the gruesome details that emerged as more and more women were able to escape their captors and share their stories. Tales of violence, despair, starvation and rape trickled in as some editors back in the news rooms pushed for increasingly fast-paced stories and sensational details.

At a time when most were churning out hard news, one British journalist decided to slow down, take a step back and delve into the past, present and future of Iraq’s Yazidi women.

Cathy Otten. Rawsht Twana
Cathy Otten. Rawsht Twana

Cathy Otten's first book, With Ash on their Faces: Yezidi women and the Islamic State, is the product of five years spent in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and 14 months of solid reporting and writing.

Otten moved to Kurdistan in early 2013, almost 18 months before the rise of ISIS and the devastation that ensued. For months, the young freelancer lived in the safety of Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city of more than half a million people near the border with Iran.

Then in June 2014 Mosul fell to ISIS – Otten packed her bags and moved west to the capital of the Kurdish region, Erbil, which at the time was just 60 kilometres from the front line.

During the next four years she reported on every aspect of the war against ISIS, paying particular attention to the human tragedy. "I don't think I'd ever encountered anything like that," Otten says from her home in Manchester, to where she recently returned. "Everything had changed, everything had collapsed. It was a huge civilisational catastrophe."

The book, Otten says, was inspired by a trip to Sinjar mountain in 2015 with a young Yazidi woman who was returning to her hometown for the first time since her enslavement. “She was reclaiming the mountain,” the journalist says. “The book came from this. I was so impressed with her resilience.”

With Ash on their Faces illustrates the ways in which oral folklore empowered thousands of Yazidi women living under the brutality of ISIS.

“Yazidism is an oral religion, passed down through hymns sung by specially designated singers and the playing of holy instruments,” Otten writes.

Yazidis have suffered 74 separate genocides, all of which are remembered through folklore. For centuries, tales of resistance were passed down orally from mother to daughter. Then, in 2014, these ancient methods of survival were brought back to life and employed by the captive women.

Some smeared ash on their faces in an attempt to appear less attractive to their male captors. Other women cut their daughters' hair to make them look like boys and some even kept their children from speaking – so that they appeared to be mute to dissuade their captors from taking the youngsters away.

However, Otten points out, storytelling has its limits, and can also be limiting.


Read more:

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Historically, the Yazidi religion has been passed down by folklore. Partly because of this the literacy rate in their native Sinjar region has been low. This in turn made it more challenging for the women to escape their captors, because they were often unable to read road signs or phone messages from their rescuers.

And while folklore plays a defining role in keeping Yazidism alive, this vulnerable minority cannot solely rely on oral history for survival. "I thought it was an interesting element – their use of storytelling to try to counteract the effects of ISIS, or to escape ISIS," Otten says. However, she says, "it's also important to point out that it didn't ultimately work".

But when folklore and oral tradition came up short, the state should have stepped in. Instead, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region's deeply flawed political system not only participated in endangering Yazidis, it did not redeem itself when it had the chance to.

SINJAR, REGIONAL GOVERNMENT OF KURDISTAN, IRAQ - 2015: A civilian walks among the ruins of the devastated town of Sinjar, after its liberation.  The town was liberated from ISIS on November 13th, 2015 by the Peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish word "Peshmerga" is used to refer to those who are part of Iraqi Kurdistan's armed forces. It means "u201cone who confronts death," or "will fight to the death."u201d The capture of Sinjar by the Islamic State on August 3rd, 2014 was very violent. Over 35,000 Yazidi Kurd inhabitants attempted to flee into the nearby mountains. Those who could not escape were killed and the Yazidi women abducted by ISIS were sold or used as sex slaves. (Photo by Reza/Getty Images)
The devastated town of Sinjar after its liberation from ISIS in 2015 Getty 

In Sinjar, the author explains, there are several intersecting histories and narratives. And indeed, Otten's story touches on all of these – effortlessly weaving together voices from all the different components.

But it's this web of factions and self-serving politics, Otten says, that hinders the rebuilding of Sinjar and prevents Yazidis from returning to their homes.

“It’s all about jockeying for the power. Even pushing back ISIS was about territory and land – I don’t think it was done to help the Yazidis.”

Even today, with the rise to power in May of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and his anti-establishment rhetoric, there is little hope of change for the Yazidis. "Nobody has the interests of the Yazidis at heart," Otten says.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, thousands of Yazidis are still living in displaced people's camps in north Iraq. Restless and marginalised, there is little hope of them soon returning home. Many of their houses have not been rebuilt, while the lack of state institutions means the basic functions to make people feel comfortable and safe are not in place. Meanwhile, those who could afford it, have left Iraq. But even then, leaving their home behind and starting afresh in a foreign country comes with its own difficulties.

"The Yazidi religion is closely linked to the land and the temples and shrines around Sinjar and Lallish. It's yet to be seen how the current migrations will influence the way Yazidism is practised," Otten writes.

"It's difficult to leave your land and the lands where you spent most of your time. If it wasn't for ISIS, I wouldn't want to leave, but after ISIS I don't want to stay here," one of the book's interviewees says.

Otten's writing interlaces centuries-old practices with first-hand accounts of indelible pain, delivering a book that is both timely and historical – revealing a side of the secretive community that most readers are unlikely to have heard of.

The heart of the book is rooted in reporting that is exhaustive, incredibly lucid and thorough. The author recounts the fear and anguish of the Yazidis in minute detail, walks the reader through the women's terrifying journeys and finally looks to the future.

At the time of the book's publication more than 3,000 Yazidi women and children were still in captivity, with few attempts to rescue them. As the political and security landscape in Iraq and Kurdistan continues to shift, the Yazidi community is likely to become less and less of a priority for the powers that be. And while many of the women fought tooth and nail to break away from their brutal captors and make their way back home, the trauma they endured will live with them for ever.

"Even if we marry or fall in love, there will still be this thing inside that is broken," one young Yazidi woman told Otten.

Perhaps the suffering will become yet another tale to tell their daughters, or a lyric to recite in an effort to never forget the persecution and murder of thousands of Yazidis, and the world’s failure to protect them.

With Ash on their Faces is available at