INTERVIEW: Journalist Cathy Otten on the Yezidis before and after ISIS

INTERVIEW: Journalist Cathy Otten on the Yezidis before and after ISIS

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Journalist Cathy Otten on the Yezidis before and after ISIS

The suffering of the Yezidis of northern Iraq hit international headlines with the rise of ISIS in 2014. Almost three years on, ISIS has seemingly been swept out of the country, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

“With Ash on their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State” by Arbil-based journalist Cathy Otten chronicles the persecution that the ancient religious group suffered under the ISIS jihadists. Specifically, the book (reviewed in HDN here) details the tragic experiences of thousands of Yezidi women sold into sexual slavery during ISIS’ reign of terror. The title refers to the Yezidi women’s survival tactic – learned over centuries - of smearing ash on their faces and cutting their hair to become undesirable to their captors and perhaps avoid assault.

Otten spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about her book and the reporting she undertook to write it. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

How did you come to write the book?

I was already living and working in Iraqi Kurdistan, reporting on these issues. I first met a Yezidi family back in early 2013. A year later I reported on the aftermath of the ISIS attack on Sinjar. But it wasn't until the next year when a more senior colleague who had heard me talk about the stories I reported on suggested I get in touch with a publisher for a book.

I had some quite strong feelings about how sensationally the issue was being reported. This was at the expense of a deeper understanding of the community and the social, tribal and political dynamics in Sinjar. I felt there was a deeper story there. I also felt that the reporting on the women tended to be quite one-dimensional. I wanted to move away from that, presenting these women as more well-rounded characters. That is hard to do as an outsider. The people you're interviewing are very dis-empowered and vulnerable, so there are many different ethical questions too.

Summarize for us who the Yezidis are and what has happened to them over the years, as well as what happened after ISIS emerged.

The Yezidis worship a religion with ancient roots, some say going back to the Sumerians. Certainly they are heavily influenced by pre-Zoroastrian, east Iranian, Mithraism traditions. These practices of worship around rites, sun worship and nature continued in the mountains around Iran and Iraq. The Yezidis were influenced by a 12th century Sufi mystic called Sheikh Adi who came from the Bekaa Valley in what is now Lebanon. He went to Baghdad and established a Sufi order in the mountains of northern Iraq in Lalish. That is now the Yezidi holy center, a very important place like Mecca for the Yezidis. Sheikh Adi's mystical teachings influenced the people living around Lalish at that time, so there was a kind of fusing of ancient pre-Islamic religious practices with the influence of Sufism. Over time the devotees of Sheikh Adi became more renegade in their interpretation of Islam and were cast out of the Islamic community. This renegade element meant they were repeatedly persecuted throughout their history. There are countless tales that members of the community tell - this was only an oral religion until very recently - about attacks and persecutions. The Yezidis lived for centuries on the edge of the Ottoman Empire. Sinjar Mountain was the place where they could try to escape taxation, forced conversion, and the capture of their women. Fast-forward to 2014 and Sinjar is also where they were attacked by ISIS.

How many Yezidis are there in northern Iraq and elsewhere?

 I'm not sure about the exact population but it's less than a million worldwide. They are a very small group. Partly that's to do with strict marriage practices. In northern Iraq there are probably less than half a million Yezidis. There were 300,000 to 400,000 Yezidis living around Sinjar around the time of the Sinjar attack. There are also small communities in the Caucasus and there were a few in southeastern Turkey, though I don't believe there are any left. There were some Yezidis in Syria but also no longer. Now there is a large population in Germany and some in the U.S. and Australia.

They have often been targeted because of the popular belief they are devil worshipers

They worship a peacock angel, which is their demiurge or representative of God on earth. He's the chief of the seven angels, which are very important in the Yezidi creation story. There is actually a likeness in the story of the peacock angel and the Yezidis' creation myth to the devil in other religions, in Islam and Christianity. But of course for the Yezidis he is not the devil. So this is a misinterpretation that has caused a lot of strife for the community.

Although many of the attacks over the centuries were caused by Muslim rulers, Western travelers also propagated crude Orientalist stereotypes about the Yezidis being devil-worshipers. Missionaries made many attempts to convert Yezidis to Christianity, and a lot of their early accounts are full of racist stereotypes.

Much of the book is focused on the issue of an almost industrial sexual slavery system that developed after the ISIS attack on Sinjar. Talk a bit about this aspect of the book.

It was immediately obvious to the people involved that their women and girls were missing. But it took a while for people to understand the scale of what happened. It is thought to be 6,000 or maybe even more than 6,000 women and children who were taken. The U.N. has called it a genocide, saying ISIS went in there with a pre-planned intention to carry out this mass enslavement because it had vehicles and was able to transplant large numbers of Yezidis as the spoils of battle. They were initially taken to places like Baaj, south of Sinjar, and Tel Afar.

The terrifying thing is how organized the capture of the Yezidis was and how methodical the killings were. In the stories I heard during the reporting you hear the same details over and over again from different people. There are videos circulating from the morning of the ISIS attack on Sinjar and you really get a sense of absolute chaos. Lots of people didn't know what was happening. Some of the Yezidis in a town on the north side of the mountain even greeted ISIS fighters smiling and waving because they didn't know what was going on.

The women and children were taken off and basically treated like animals. Young girls were sold and locked away in houses. There was awful abuse, as you can imagine. The young and more attractive girls were sold first, sold off in auctions. Some of the older women were forced to do housework. A lot of the children have completely disappeared and some who have found their way back have completely forgotten who they are, forgetting Kurdish and instead now speaking Arabic after being trained as imams or fighters for ISIS. Some of those who have returned don't trust their parents and have this fundamental confusion about what is going on. For the men in the community there have been big shifts in Yezidi culture toward accepting the women back. But that has been really difficult for Yezidi men as it is a traditional culture with a strong sense of honor and shame.

The book is made up of more than 100 interviews with victims. How did you go about conducting those interviews?

I'd already been covering the issue as a journalist so I already knew many of the people in the community. But the scale of the project and the subject matter was really daunting. I'd never written a book before and didn't know anyone who had. So I just went straight into it. I spent probably around seven months traveling around Yezidi areas with Yezidi friends, visiting people and trying to be transparent about the aims of the project. In the camps here in Iraq sometimes Yezidis are visited by journalists and they don't quite understand that the journalist isn't there to help them like an NGO worker. So I tried to be very straight, spending time with people and getting to know them. It became clear who was comfortable speaking and who wasn't. It was a very instinctual process really. But it was also a very intense experience. I had nightmares at the time of doing the reporting.

The Yezidis are a very conservative and introspective community. And the women you spoke to are in many cases still going through trauma. As I was reading I thought that only a woman could successfully win the confidence of the subjects to report such material.

I think that's probably true. But I also think that being an outsider, a non-Yezidi, created a different barrier that made it difficult. It also had to go through translation, because although I understand a bit of Kurdish it is definitely not enough, as the Yezidis speak Kurmanji Kurdish. I was working with female Yezidi translators while doing these interviews and I think that helped. They were very smart and interesting in their own right, able to explain cultural and language idioms that I may not understand.

You talk in the book about how it wasn't clear whether the women subjected to rape and sexual abuse would be accepted back into the community. How did this aspect of inter-Yezidi communal dynamics play out?

One of the reasons why ISIS used sexual abuse was as a way to wipe out the Yezidi community, more than just by killing the men. Because the Yezidis have very strict rules about not being able to marry outside the community. In the past there was a famous case of an "honor killing" of a Yezidi girl who ran away with a Sunni Arab man. But in the ISIS case actually the Yezidi community did react quite quickly to accept back these women who were subjected to abuse.

I don't want to paint a too rosy picture. It has not been easy for any of the women and girls who have returned. Yezidis can't marry outside their religion or caste and in the diaspora some people have started talking about how this is actually causing problems. So some younger Yezidis are now saying they should relax these rules, and not just for the women who were forced to convert to Islam and suffered these terrible things. 

How many Yezidis are still being held by ISIS?

I think the last figure I saw was that over 2,000 women and children are still missing. A lot of men are also still missing because a lot of the mass graves around Sinjar Mountain haven't been properly exhumed because they are on this disputed territory line, it's not safe and international organizations can't go there. It's very difficult to access Sinjar at the moment. We've recently seen clashes between the KRG and Baghdad. Even before 2014, the fact that the Yezidis lived along this disputed territory actually made them really vulnerable.

What is the current situation in Sinjar? How many Yezidis have returned since ISIS was basically driven out of Iraq?

Sinjar city itself was completely destroyed. I was never there before but by all accounts it was a very interesting, beautiful place. It was underneath Sinjar Mountain with a 4th century Roman fort, as well as Shia shrines and different types of mosques, an Armenian church, different Christian communities, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Turkmens and Arabs.

A lot of Yezidis have actually gone back to the towns around Sinjar. It has been a slow trickle based on the various military campaigns. But I've not been back for a while and now it's very difficult to get there due to this recent fighting between Baghdad and the KRG and all the tensions. Most Yezidis still don't feel safe living in Iraq and are trying to leave. I don't think I have any Yezidi friends who aren't trying to leave.

In Turkey people have been warning darkly about a second PKK headquarters potentially being set up in Sinjar. Who’s in control there?

From what I've heard it seems like there's a bit of a security vacuum. Iraq's al-Hashd - or Popular Mobilization Forces - are in control of most areas around Sinjar now. Before it was the Peshmerga. So the security dynamics keep shifting. A lot of the Yezidis who joined the PKK early on have now switched to join Yezidi groups under the al-Hashd. From conversations I've had it seems that the PKK has lost some power and influence there. Some of the PKK commanders who had been directing operations on Sinjar Mountain have gone back to Kandil. But the Sinjar area is still important for the PKK as a kind of fall-back from the Rojava enclave in Syria.

For the Yezidis the PKK was always just an alliance of convenience. Even though a number of Yezidis have been members going back, I don't think the PKK has always been a natural fit with the traditional Yezidi culture in Sinjar. They have very different views on the role of women, for example.

The Sinjar area has also always been important for smuggling. Whoever holds the border area has always been able to make a lot of money from smuggling: Whether it oil, cigarettes, sheep, or al-Qaeda fighters. That's one reason why the area is important for the PKK and other forces.



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