THE contrast between the pleasant life of 18-year-old Farida Khalaf (not her real name) in the northern Iraqi village of Kocho two years ago, and the subsequent descent into a nightmarish existence in which she was sold into sex slavery by Isis terrorists, couldn’t be starker.
From hanging out with her friends during school holidays in her family garden — resplendent with mulberry, almond and apricot trees — to attempting suicide as a result of being raped and regularly beaten up by her tormentors, the wonder is that Farida lived to tell her tale.
But she is a strong young woman and once her older friend, Evin, implored her not to kill herself, Farida was resolute that she would bear witness to the treatment meted out by vicious Muslim fanatics — and escape from their clutches.
Farida and Evin were a support to each other, with Evin not quite as reckless when it came to trying to fool their captors.
Kocho’s Yazidi population was 1,700 before war took over.
While they had always maintained friendly and commercial relations with their mostly Muslim Arab neighbours, they knew they had an extremely dubious reputation among Muslims.
As Farida’s grandfather told her, the Yazidi’s history “is one of persecution and suffering”.
As far as Isis is concerned, the Yazidis, who have allegiance to Melek Taus, are devil worshippers who must be wiped out —or enslaved.
For Farida, whose ambition was to be a maths teacher, the civil war in Syria seemed beyond her reality.
It was something she saw played out on television. Farida’s father, a soldier on border duty between northern Iraq and Syria, in a place 50 kilometres away from Kocho, had taught her how to shoot with a Kalashnikov when she was 15.
She was to become quite a warrior when Isis got its grip on her and a group of her contemporaries; teenagers and young women whose ‘crime’ was being female.
With Isis closing in on Kocho, the terrified villagers are told they have three days to renounce their beliefs, acknowledge Islam and become Muslims.
But they refuse. “Faith is the most important thing in our lives,” says Farida’s father.
The villagers are ordered to hand over all their valuables to the Isis terrorists, or else, they will be killed.
In the school building, women and children are separated from the men.
“The last thing I saw of dad was a terribly sad look he gave me as he held hands with Delan and Serhad (Farida’s older brothers.) I’ve stored this memory forever in my mind,” writes Farida.
The women and children hear shots. Their men have been targeted. “You’re all alone in this world. You’ve just got us now. We’re your new masters,” says an Isis soldier to the girls and young women that are rounded up to be sold into objects for the delectation of bullies. The bullies think they have God on their side, kneeling to pray on their mats before sexually abusing their victims.
This book can’t help being a wearying catalogue of viciousness with the enraged and feisty Farida, in particular, being on the receiving end of much of it (she suffers from epilepsy, doubling her troubles.)
But what keeps the reader interested is the fact that Farida’s determination will win the day. But what she has to put up with, before finally escaping with five other women, is appalling. It makes for difficult reading.
Installed in a warehouse on the outskirts of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, over 80 girls and young women await their fates. “Fresh goods,” a Palestinian guard assures the men. One man zones in on Farida and asks what age she is, his fingers on her face.
She bites him, he thrashes her, she faints and has an epileptic fit.
Farida injects the narrative with thoughts on the immorality of what is happening. She feels the men must know they’re commit
ting a crime “because neither Islam nor any other religion in the world endorsed the trade of abducted women.”
What ensues is a kind of countdown to when Farida is raped. The best looking girls are chosen first. Farida keeps fighting and along with her cohorts, is taken to a filthy apartment in Rabia.
Not only is there terror at the prospect of what is going to happen to her, but Farida writes that defilement would dishonour “our entire families”.
She can see only one way out — suicide. She cuts her arm with a number of glass shards from a bottle of orange she had been given and subsequently broke. Farida loses a lot of blood and passes out, waking up later in an Isis doctor’s house.
There are various escape attempts. After opening a locked-up window, Farida squeezes out of the small space but a Syrian turns up on the veranda and she is beaten up.
In cahoots with Evin, the duo is told that they’re being sold to the Chief of the Bater, also known as the Beasts’ division in the Syrian Desert. “You’ll be begging to come back here,” says a soldier.
“Only my soul was able to roam freely, hovering somewhere above the room with the two Libyans, the men who were intended to rape Evin and me.”
Farida tries to make a short circuit by sticking her finger into the light bulb in a bathroom that she and Evin have been pushed into. But the men yank her away.
“I observed myself as if from a distance... that the girl enduring all of this only looked like me. She was my doppelganger. I, the real Farida, was floating above her, where the men couldn’t reach me.” However, both Evin and Farida, who are virgins, are raped.
The next day, they both feel such shame that “we could barely look each other in the eye... Now we were sinful women... And both of us felt guilty too.”
Farida reflects that levelling accusations against themselves was possibly the worst thing about the whole grisly business. In her culture, she writes that a woman’s honour stands for the honour of her whole family.
She had ‘failed’ to protect her honour, although she knew she wasn’t directly to blame.
Heartbreakingly, Farida’s home in Kocho “became ever more like an illusion. Had I really lived in this little paradise?”
She admits that “something inside me seemed to have died.” But Farida holds on to a vestige of resilience, even in her challenging circumstances.
And when it comes to escape possibilities, she is an opportunist. Without giving away the ending, just think of happening upon a mobile phone belonging to one of the Isis tormentors. It proves to be the gateway to freedom.
This final part of the story is not without its hitches. And sadly, gossip mongers in the refugee camp, where Farida is reunited with some family members, speculate about Farida being used goods, unable to marry, given that she has lost her ‘honour’.
She writes that this ‘savage judgement had broken my spirit, something that Isis, with all its cruelty, hadn’t managed.” She describes herself as “a nothing, a nobody, a stranded girl burdening my relatives.”
While Farida has been damaged, she finds salvation in the end — a new start, away from the prying eyes. This is a brave, harrowing but necessary book.