Escape from the Isis hell

Published by The Times (18th November, 2017)

‘The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State’ by Nadia Murad and Jenna Krajeski

Three years ago I flew into Iraq shortly after Islamic State had seized the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar. My flight was delayed, leaving me just a few hours to find something to write about for the next day’s newspaper. Close to deadline I heard of a village called Kocho, where residents were being told to convert to Islam or die, and dashed out my hastily gathered story.

Over the next few days Yazidi survivors streaming from shattered communities told me nightmarish tales of men gunned down in droves and women carted off like cattle. There were rumours of girls sold into sex slavery. I spoke to one terrified teenager in captivity, a whispered nocturnal conversation on her hidden phone, then later to a jihadist jailor who boasted of their right to enslave Yazidi women refusing to convert.

I was nervous as I gathered hideous details and spoke to despairing families. Selling women into slavery seemed so extreme that it felt false, like something from medieval history. Surely even these fanatics would not stoop so low? Yet now we know their bestial atrocities against the Yazidi, an ancient religion with one million followers, were far worse than even those first few stories indicated.

Much of the detail of their depravity emerged from a few courageous women who, having escaped captivity, dared to disclose the obscenities they endured. Foremost among them is Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old woman from Kocho who ended up as voice of her people, speaking before the United Nations and befriending Amal Clooney. Aided by the American journalist Jenna Krajeski, she has now put her story into print.

The Last Girl offers powerful insight into the barbarity they suffered alongside glimpses into the mystical Yazidi culture. Looking at the cover picture, it is hard to equate the black and white image of a long-haired woman hinting at a smile with the horror story that unfolds over 306 pages. The first section is especially strong as we meet a naive girl in a rural village who loved weddings and dreamt of becoming a hairdresser. Her family were large and poor, but content despite her father’s bigamy.

Villagers in Kocho concentrated on crops, farm animals and family. They felt close to the Kurds, their lives improving after the 2003 US-led invasion, although Sunni extremists in surrounding villages began to denounce ‘unbelievers’ such as the Yazidi. Fear grew after huge suicide bombings near by killed 800 people in 2007. Yet as she went to school, Murad knew nothing about how first al-Qaeda, then Islamic State, were flourishing all around them until the sudden fall of Mosul in June 2014.

For two weeks their village was besieged. Then one day everyone was ordered into her school. Seeing a proud Yazidi man stripped of his watch, Murad realised they were in serious danger. She watched as all the men were taken off in trucks, then heard gunshots in loud bursts and lasting for an hour. Seven members of her family were murdered, although two wounded brothers survived the slaughter.

Younger women were loaded on buses, where one militant groped her breasts. ‘It felt like fire. I had never been touched like that before . . . my tears fell on his hand, but still he didn’t stop.’ Far worse was to follow as she was taken to a market, led away by a judge as his fourth sabiya (sex slave) and repeatedly raped. With intense honesty, she admits that, unlike many Yazidi women who said they fought back, ‘I just closed my eyes and wished for it to be over . . . I felt so alone that I barely felt human. Something inside me died.’

The cruelty of the captors is beyond belief. The judge made her epilate, put on make-up and wear a party dress to serve tea to his guests. He said he was helping her, then hit her if she shut her eyes while being assaulted and made her lick honey from his toes. After a few days she was caught trying to flee. ‘I told you if you tried to escape something really bad would happen to you,’ he said softly. After whipping her, he took off her clothes and sent in six guards to gang rape her. She was 20 years old.

There is much more of this abuse as Murad is passed around other militants. ‘You don’t know who will open the door next to attack you, just that it will happen and that tomorrow might be worse.’ Clearly it descended into a painful blur. Yet she was just one woman among thousands — and as she says, all have similar stories of savagery. One was tied up when raped, another attacked in her sleep, a third in a car. Some were made to dye their hair blond and act like wives, many more were starved and tortured. Scores are still missing.

Krajeski captures Murad’s tremulous voice well. The final section tells of her flight, aided by a poor Sunni family who took great risks to help after she banged in terror on their door. She mentions other escapers who were turned in six times. You can feel her baffled fury at families carrying on normal lives under Isis while Yazidi women were kidnapped, raped and tortured all around them.

It would have been good to get more detail on how Murad became such a spirited spokeswoman, the final segment feeling slightly rushed. Yet as she points out people seem only interested in the sexual abuse of Yazidi girls rather than wider genocide. ‘I want to talk about everything — the murder of my brothers, the disappearance of my mother, the brainwashing of boys — not just the rape.’

She is right to say this, even though her book panders to this voyeuristic fascination with their plight. It is not always easy to turn the pages as Murad descends into hell. But this is an important book by a brave woman, fresh testament to humankind’s potential for chilling and inexplicable evil. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is that this joins a packed library of similar tomes from the past. ‘I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine,’ she concludes hopefully.

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