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 I 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. 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 him 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.
Copyright © 2017 by Nadia Murad. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.