Subtitled Yezidi Women and the Islamic State, journalist Otten’s first book With Ash on Their Faces (OR Books, £13 paperback, £10 ebook) is based on extensive, sensitive interviews with the women of the minority religious sect in northern Iraq who were abducted in 2014 by ISIS and enslaved. But Otten, a Big Issue North contributor who moved from Manchester to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013, also spoke to politicians, Kurdish fighters, the smugglers who rescued some of the women and other pivotal figures for a book that places this latest genocide against the Yezidis in the context of the hugely complex politics of the region.
How did the idea for the book come about?
The book idea came from my initial reporting on the topic for the Independent newspaper and their Sunday review magazine back when they still had a print edition. I had already met members of the Yezidi community but slowly began to realise the extent of the enslavement by ISIS, and the horror of the massacres that took place in 2014 when ISIS swept across northern and western Iraq.
From my conversations, I was obviously struck by the terror of what the women had been through, but I also felt that the way the issue was being reported was often sensationalised, focusing on the sexual violence alone at the expense of a broader depth and context for the conflict.
The Yezidis had faced 73 genocides before the ISIS assault. What did this mean when the 74th one happened?
The Yezidis have suffered many persecutions since their inception in the 12th century (although the roots of the religion are much, much older). Because the faith deviated from Islam, they were massacred and their women enslaved by successive Muslim rulers. They were also often forced to convert by Christian missionaries roaming northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey. So in many ways the Yezidis were very used to these attacks historically and the stories of these attacks became part of the mythology of the religion, which was orally transmitted.
What does the book’s title refer to?
The title refers to the ways that women in the community tried to avoid capture and rape by ISIS by putting ash on their faces to make themselves look unattractive. This is just one of many methods of resistance Yezidi women used. Yezidi women told the same stories for hundreds of years. I was struck by the similarities to the tales of trying to survive ISIS enslavement, and I was also struck by the way that these small stories of female resistance are often not part of the historical narratives of conflict.
How did you go about securing the vast number of interviews you did, not only with the Yezidi women but also military and political figures – and some of them on the frontline?
I used good contacts with friends and colleagues in the Yezidi community and spent lots of time living in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan and visiting families every day for hours at a time. I would go to camps and temporary shelters and talk to people about their lives and get to know them, not just as sources but as people, and also explain as honestly as I could to them the nature of my project and make sure no one was involved who didn’t want to be.
I think this is especially important when interviewing victims of sexual violence or child survivors. Often not enough emphasis is put on agency, control and consent. Doing long interviews of this nature is gruelling and I didn’t want to further upset anyone. I tried to visit families regularly so I became a regular feature and not someone unusual. A lot of people I interviewed also want to ask me questions or berate me about British and American foreign policy, which is understandable, so we would have those chats. I didn’t want to grill anyone or make survivors of violence feel like they were on trial (true for men also), so we would have lighthearted conversations too and I tried to make sure they knew they were in control and had a choice. Still, there were some awkward conversations around concepts of shame, for example, or corruption and money with some officials.
With officials and military leaders I had to get permission and wait for appointments, often with numerous Kurdish fixers helping me. During those interviews I wasn’t so worried about being sensitive and I didn’t have as much time. This was also the process for navigating military lines, checkpoints and accessing hard to reach towns in war zones or under the control of different militia groups. I would often employ a local driver and work with Yezidi or Kurdish students or people who know the area. Being freelance makes this all really difficult, isolating and precarious.
One Yezidi girl, kidnapped along with her mother, stopped sleeping because she feared her mother would kill them both to escape their plight, such was their bleak outlook. Elsewhere Nadima’s three children were poisoned by their captors. Is there a form of justice for these people that can go anywhere near redressing such cruelty?
Well, lots of Yezidis, including women, would like to see blood revenge for their ISIS captors or those who joined or supported ISIS. No one has faith in the Iraqi criminal justice system, which is endemically corrupt and backlogged. Torture and the death penalty are used, so when we talk about justice we might have different ideas to the survivors of violence. Obviously the problem with revenge is it encourages more cycles of violence, and doesn’t address the communal and political fractures that allowed these massacres and rapes to take place in the first place. In the book I have tried to describe what events led to the violence politically and socially, although these are really hard questions.
Many Yezidis want to see international justice and trials at the International Criminal Court, but Iraq is not a signatory to the ICC and there are many other factors which complicate this, including the transnational nature of the ISIS “caliphate” and multiple nationalities of its fighters, and the difficulties of identifying perpetrators from testimonies. These debates are happening now among international law professionals, activists and governments about what justice should look like. The matter is especially important now that the caliphate is crumbling and ISIS fighters are being captured. I may differ from my Yezidi friends and colleagues here, but I think comments from US and UK officials about the benefits of killing Brit/American ISIS fighters on the battlefield are unhelpful and in the long term don’t demonstrate that justice has been properly thought about or carried out, or even that our involvement in these countries in the first place has been properly considered. I would also add that these problems in Iraq also go back to pre-2003 atrocities and debates still rage about justice there.
Reports filtered back to the kidnapped women that those who had escaped were being welcomed back by their families, rather than shunned because their rapes had brought dishonour on them. What was the impact of these reports?
This was a huge shift for the religion that in the past had cast out women or men who converted or married outside the religion. These women were forced to convert and raped, but they still thought that they would bring dishonour to their families and wouldn’t be allowed back. Honour killings have happened in the Yezidi community in the past as well as in the wider Kurdish community in Iraq where violence against women connected to shame is unfortunately very common. I don’t think all enslaved women heard these reports, but for the ones that did it galvanised them to try and take action or escape, and was a huge relief.
How will the near collapse of ISIS affect the Yezidis?
This has yet to be seen. If ISIS returns to being a guerrilla insurgent group then it could mean more danger and insecurity. The Yezidis certainly don’t feel safe living in Iraq and want to leave. Unfortunately the end of ISIS also means political disputes and fights that existed before ISIS took over large parts of Iraq are re-emerging. This is incredibly worrying for the Yezidis. They are also concerned about their radicalised youth (Yezidi boys trained to fight by ISIS) and young children and women who are lost somewhere in the caliphate.
What does the growing standoff between Iraqi and Kurdish forces following the Kurdish referendum mean for the Yezidis?
It means more insecurity, anxiety and probably more violence. In Iraq this sort of violence tends to be played out on fault lines between militia group control, and these are often the areas where minorities like the Yezidis live (there are historical reasons for this). Most Yezidis are firm in their thinking that they need to leave Iraq, even though their holy places are there. They’d like asylum in the UK or other countries, education, jobs and the chance to live safely like everyone else. But that goes for many other groups in Iraq too.