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Female ISIS survivors on love, grief and the power of endurance

The Yezidi people, sometimes spelt Yazidi, are one of the Middle East’s oldest ethnic religious minorities. Living primarily in the Nineveh province of northern Iraq, they follow an ancient spiritual religion that draws on Christianity, Islam and the old Persian faith of Zoroastrianism. Central to the Yezidi belief system is the worship of a fallen angel, leading many followers of other religions in the region to view them as ‘devil worshippers’.

In recent years, Nineveh – including its capital city, Mosul, which was taken by ISIS in 2014 – has been subjected to horrific destruction at the hands of the jihadist militant group. Amidst the devastation, the Yezidis’ minority faith has seen them particularly targeted. As the men and boys in their families are slaughtered, Yezidi women and their children are routinely kidnapped, raped and executed. Others are forced to convert to Islam and kept as ‘sex slaves’ – a sensationalist term that doesn’t do justice to their trauma.

ISIS does not simply want to oppress the Middle East’s Yezidi community; it wants to wipe them off the face of the planet. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who represents Yezidi campaigner Nadia Murad, is currently urging the UN to launch an investigation into the genocide being committed by ISIS – but for the thousands upon thousands of Yezidi men, women and children who have already lost their lives, it is too late.

Documentary photographer Benjamin Eagle recently visited the Jinda Centre for Female War Victims at Khanke internally displaced persons’ camps in Dohuk, northern Iraq. Working alongside representatives from the relief organisation Khalsa Aid, Eagle was able to meet and photograph several Yezidi women who have been ‘sold back’ to their families by ISIS. The portraits feature in an upcoming exhibition, #IAmYezidi, at London’s Lacey Contemporary Gallery.

mosul

Most of the Middle East's Yezidi community live in Nineveh, northern Iraq. Iraqi security forces are currently engaged in an offensive trying to retake Nineveh's capital city, Mosul, from Islamic State (IS) fighters.

There are many reasons why ISIS might sell Yezidi women back to their families – the militants’ need for money being chief among them. During Khalsa Aid’s last trip to Khanke, 29 young Yezidi women were brought back to the Jinda centre.


Read more: Romola Garai on why we must all fight to stand up for refugees 


Eagle worked closely with a young Iraqi woman named Susan at the camp, who helped him get to know the Yezidi women over the course of several days before he photographed them.

“Susan is an amazing person,” he says. “Anyone can go to these parts of the world, but if there’s no trust, you’re not going to get the intimacy you need [as a photographer]. That’s why Susan was so vital to this project – because she was the voice the women trusted.”

Some of the women’s stories of life in ISIS captivity were so traumatic that Eagle decided against including them in the exhibition. “They were too much. They would just numb people.”


Read more: Yemen: the forgotten war zone


But others were desperate to share their experiences. “Some of these women feel really unheard,” he says. “If being photographed would give them a voice, then they were happy to do that.”

On his fourth day in the camp, Eagle started taking pictures. “I was in a room with about 11 women, all keeping each other company, and it was really beautiful to see them come together and all getting involved,” he says.

amal

Amal Clooney with Nadia Murad, a Yezidi woman formerly held captive by ISIS, at the UN Headquarters on 9 March 2017.

The portraits are serious and dignified, and the women’s accompanying stories are harrowing, but Eagle says the experience of taking the photographs was unexpectedly joyful.

“I’ve got a lot of outtakes of women laughing their heads off,” he says. “Obviously throughout [the portraits] we want to have the realistic look of strength and defiance, but there was a lot of fun as well.”

Despite the ongoing conflict in Iraq, Eagle is desperate to return. “It’s a beautiful place with a plague within the ranks,” he says, “but the people you meet are wonderful. They’re so open and generous, it’s mind-blowing. I’m dying to go back.”

Scroll through the photos below to see a selection of Eagle’s portraits, and read the women’s stories.

#IamYezidi runs from 21 to 27 March at Lacey Contemporary Gallery, 8 Clarendon Cross, London W11 4AP. To find out more about Khalsa Aid’s Yezidi Refugee Relief fund, click here.

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