In August 2014 I travelled to Kurdistan with Sun Features Writer, Oliver Harvey, to cover the humanitarian crisis created by Islamic State following its infiltration of Northern Iraq and Kurdistan, their capturing of the cities of Sinjar and Mosul and the Kurdish Peshmergas efforts to fight back. Twelve months later we returned to witness the current situation.
For those of you who’ve been on a mission to Mars or comatose for the past 12 months, here’s a little background information.
On 3rd August 2014, ISIL fighters attacked and seized the city of Sinjar and its neighbouring towns and villages in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. In the days that followed, they began slaughtering an estimated 3-4000 mostly Yazidi men and boys and capturing an estimated 5-7000 women and girls who were to be given to ISIL fighters as a reward or to be sold as sex slaves.
So having packed my bags (see previous post) I was ready to go. I loaded up the car and headed off to Heathrow Airport to check in and be on my way.
After landing in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, on 4th August 2015 we stepped off the plane into blistering 50ºc heat. We had our passports stamped with 15 day visas at passport control, grabbed our gear from the conveyor belt and made our way to the exit where a car was waiting to take us to our first hotel in the city.
For the first few days of the trip we would link up and trail Baroness Emma Nicholson, co founder of British charity the AMAR Foundation. She was visiting refugee camps in Iraq to highlight the Yazidis’ plight and to check on the progress of ongoing and new projects within these camps. After a sleepless night in an Erbil hotel room, where the air con wasn’t working too well, we relocated to Duhok about 100 miles to the East.
We visited a number of IDP camps over the next few days where the Baroness visited medical and educational facilities her charity had provided. She also met up with Noor, one of three Yazidi girls for whom she had arranged a visit to the UK to tell her horrific story of being sold as a sex slave in a bid to deter young British Muslims from joining IS. I was lucky enough to photograph their emotional reunion.
While in these camps we had the opportunity to track down and talk with several girls and young women who had escaped from Islamic State after being sold into slavery. One of the women we met was Khalida, aged 25.
Khalida told us how she, her husband Falah and their children, all under five, were caught by IS fighters, or “Daesh” by which they are known locally, as they tried to flee the City of Sinjar.
“We tried to flee by car but Daesh made a road block.”
“We were stopped and immediately asked, ‘Are you Muslims or Yazidis?’ They were heavily armed so Falah said ‘Muslims’. Then they took him away.”
“As he left, Falah said, ‘Don’t be scared, nothing will happen’. I never saw him again.”
Like many captured Yazidi men, it is believed that he was murdered.
Khalida and her children were then taken to Aleppo in northern Syria where they were then sold to a Syrian man from Homs.
For two months and four days she was the IS man’s rape slave.
Khalida said: “There are things you never forget. I heard Daesh were even taking breast-feeding babies from Yazidi women and selling them for £75 to Daesh families who wanted another child”.
“On local TV they showed Daesh men throwing babies down a well. What could a child have done to deserve that? I have lived alongside Muslims and Daesh are not Muslims.”
When the Syrian eventually tired of Khalida she was sold again, for £2,800, to an Iraqi whom, she said, was a top-ranking IS man.
She said: “He was an engineer making roadside and car bombs.”
When the Iraqi tired of her too, members of her family in Iraq were alerted that she might be released for a price.
In June, this fragile and elegant woman, who refused to cry as she told her harrowing story, escaped IS after her family paid £13,000 to buy her freedom.
This was just one of many similar stories we heard from women in the camps, one of whom was only 15 years old. We chose to hide Khalida’s face for the photos to protect her identity, even though she was happy to be photographed unveiled.
As we travelled around the camps we saw signs painted on tents depicting the genocide that took place last year. At a medical clinic in Khanke refugee camp near Duhok a group of young girls were waiting to greet the Baroness, each carrying a red rose and wearing a white long sleeve T shirt with the words ‘3.8.2014 EZIDI Genocide’ printed on the front. On the back was a large number ’74’. I asked a young man in his 20s, who told me he was an engineering student, what the ’74’ signified and he told me;
“It’s the number of times we [Yazidis] have genocide done to us”
I wandered around one of the camps temporarily separated from Oliver and our translator/fixer. With the light starting to fade, I was met by a group of children who wanted to be photographed, which I was only too happy to do.
While I was taking their pictures I felt a tug on my sleeve. I turned to find an elderly man with a long beard who wanted to show me something. I followed him a short distance to one of the portacabins that were being used to house the refugees where he gestured for me to look in. I was horrified to find a young girl, who was obviously mentally handicapped, chained by her ankle to the inside of a toilet cubical. After a little help from one of the children I’d been photographing, who luckily spoke a small amount of english, I managed to find out that she was 9 years old and her name was Aziza.
The man who wanted to show me Aziza turned out to be her father. I asked if I could take her picture, to which he agreed. I’m not sure how long this poor girl had been chained up in this cabin but judging by the amount grime from the aluminium flooring on her skin, clothing, walls and doors, it must have been a while. I took my pictures and left the cabin, quickly dropping a frame of the number above the door for reference .
Aziza’s father then took me to the cabin next door which also had a young girl sat just inside the doorway with a bright red top on and a beautiful beaming smile, but there was nothing from her hips down. She was born without legs. The man had two other children who were handicapped in some way also and I believe that he showed me them as a cry for help. I didn’t want to let him down. At the time there was nothing I could do to help other than take the picture and get it to the right people who could, so after returning to the hotel, and with Oliver’s help, the photo’s were sent to a charity that works within the camp. I have recently heard back that the managers of the camp have been informed of this situation and they are looking in to what can be done to help this family.
After spending 3 days in the IDP camps around Duhok, it was time to see if we could find some foreigners fighting against IS with the Kurds and we had heard that we might find a British fighter at a house in Duhok.