The Yezidi people, also 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Bafren Shivan, 19 years old
“My first sexual experience was when I was raped. I was only 16 years old. Before then I didn’t know anything about sex, or indeed the depravity of man.”
Bafreen was captured with her three brothers and over 30 relatives. She was bought and sold twice and repeatedly raped. During her captivity, she was locked in a room and raped at gunpoint.
Her ISIS captor labelled Bafreen as a non-believer, subjecting her to excruciating pain throughout two years of rape and torture.
Nadera Haji Eeto, 32 years old
“When I resisted their attacks, they raped my daughter instead. Afterwards my poor little girl would blame me for her being raped – if I had let ISIS men rape me, my daughter would have been spared. I will never forget her words and the guilt. This will haunt me until I die.”
Nadera was captured with her children and separated from her husband, she was later sold as a sex slave. Despite being sold several times she always made sure to take her children with her.
Nadera and her children were kept in empty houses and an underground prison. They were given very little food and water during the winter and regularly beaten by their captors.
Maha Ravo, 28 years old
“People don’t believe in fairy tales, but I do because my husband and I had the most beautiful love story – until the day ISIS came to our village and took him away from me. I never heard from him again.”
Maha gave birth while in captivity and was caught while trying to escape with her children. As punishment for the attempted escape, ISIS took her three children and tortured them.
All three children died within an hour of being returned to Maha. She wasn’t even allowed to kiss them goodbye.
Simon Hachem Jazaa, 16 years old
“I was raped and beaten and forced to memorise the Quran, but none of that was as hard as when they took my father and brother away from me.”
When ISIS came to Simon’s village they took her and the other young girls to Mosul. The Yezidi girls would be kept in a room where ISIS militants would come and take whoever they liked.
Simon was bought and sold to five different ISIS soldiers, all of them much older than her. She was repeatedly raped, and tortured when she dared to defend herself.
Hadiya Hassan Hassen, 28 years old
“I never believed that God could ever create such monsters as ISIS.”
Hadiya was married for only five months when she was kidnapped by ISIS. They handcuffed her husband and took him away. She hasn’t seen him since.
She escaped from ISIS captivity in 2015 with her daughter and is now living in a refugee camp.
Layla Khudida Hassen, age unknown
“Every day I stare at the door wondering whether my husband will ever come back and if my kids will be able to hug their dad again.”
Layla was captured along with her husband and over 20 other relatives. She has no idea what ISIS have done with her husband or the other men in her family.
She escaped ISIS captivity in 2015 and now lives in the Khanke refugee camp.
Majada Hassan Ahmed, 29 years old
“Our captors bought us shoes and we were confused at what we thought was an act of kindness. It was only when we fled that we realised that the shoes made a lot of noise and had been provided to prevent any escapes. So we took them off and walked barefoot for five days.”
Majida was captured along with her husband, brothers, parents and brothers-in-law. She was separated from her husband the day ISIS raided her village and hasn’t heard from him since 2014.
Majida and her friend escaped after being inspired by a group of Yezidi women who had escaped a few days earlier.
Naam Murad Hassen, 35 years old
“My daughter was only a year old when we escaped from ISIS. It was difficult escaping with a baby, I was afraid that if she would start crying we would be discovered by our captors. I knew I was risking the lives of 26 other people, but how can a mother leave her child behind?”
Naam’s family is one of the countless Yezidi families shattered and destroyed by ISIS. They conscripted her son into their militia and she hasn’t seen him since.
She now lives with her daughter who is too afraid to go to school because of her time in captivity.
Nawroz Salim Abas, 25 years old
“Whenever I made a mistake when reading the Quran, my captors would beat me so hard that my skin would turn blue.”
Nawroz was captured along with her husband and eight more relatives. ISIS militants killed her brother-in-law in front of her eyes before separating the men from the women.
Nawroz was taken with the women to a prison in Syria where she was forced to memorise the Quran despite being illiterate.
Hura Khudida Ali, 60 years old
“I don’t know if my grandson is okay. I don’t know if he’s been provided with food or clothing or if he’s in good health.”
Hura was captured by ISIS along with three of her daughters and 23 men from her family. Her husband was killed during the Iran/Iraq war.
Hura raised her grandson until ISIS militants conscripted him when he was 19 years old. She was powerless to stop them taking him away and hasn’t seen him since.
Photography: Benjamin Eagle