“If women had rights in my society, half of what happened wouldn’t have happened.”Salwa, Yazidi Survivor
It's this indictment of her own, Yazidis, that stays with me for how familiar it feels.
Yazidis are considered ‘infidels’ by ISIS – they were killed by the thousands, the women enslaved en masse, when the terror group was at its zenith in Iraq and Syria. And yet, when recalling the horror, it’s the way her own society imperilled her that 21-year-old Salwa remembers.
This documentary is filmed in Germany in 2018, where 1,100 Yazidi survivors of ISIS brutalities found refuge. There, they have managed to rebuild shattered lives even as mothers and sisters are missing – presumed enslaved or killed – fathers and brothers dead.
When ISIS Came Knocking
Before it was too late for Salwa in Iraq’s Sinjar, before the militants came, she says it was Yazidi men who prevented them from running.
“The men refused to run despite their wives asking them to. ‘We men don’t run away, we stay and fight’. But the women didn’t know how to drive, so they couldn’t run either. I doubt if in all of Sinjar, even four women know how to drive – if they knew how to drive, they would have escaped and survived. The men could’ve stayed and fought if that was what they wanted. They should have fought and not let us face what we faced.”Salwa, Yazidi Survivor
Knowing how to drive seems like a small thing, in the grand scale of what was happening in Iraq and Syria. And yet it is that small independence they were denied that might have made all the difference.
The camera follows three women – Lamiya, Salwa and Bazi – as they go about their lives in Germany; to classes, to work.
The interviews seem almost too voyeuristic as the interviewer asks uncomfortable, probing questions that make for difficult watching. Not enough that they went through hell, now they must rip open the wounds for us to spectate.
Lamiya was one of two Yazidi women survivors who won the EU’s prestigious human rights award – the Sakharov Prize – for their work in advocating for their besieged community.
What stands out in ‘Hell and Hope’ is the matter-of-factness with which the women tell their stories.
Barring Salwa, who becomes agitated recalling the concentric injustices heaped upon her, the women remain stoic while recounting their horrible past.
“If I stayed in Iraq, I might have committed suicide.”
“I tried to kill myself several times, but suicide is not a solution.”
“I saw a green light, then I became blind.”
The narration is disorganised, with the story flipping between the three women and their brothers almost randomly, bits of background and current-day appearing haphazardly in a way that can be disorienting.
Despite the gripping horror of each story, there is not much different in the perspectives offered than what we’ve heard over the years now in countless pieces of reporting – the kidnappings, the slavery, the killings.
What’s new is the fine detail that comes out when you have multiple women tell broadly the same story; the banality of evil.
The concerted effort to separate and isolate women; mothers from daughters, sisters and friends from each other. The use of children as bargaining chips and punishment for mothers. The widespread betrayal of trust in these conditions, across the board; neighbours, friends, strangers.
“We held each others’ hands, but they [Daesh militants] separated our hands by hitting us with sticks and pulling our hair.”
“The road was closed. A Sunni neighbour pretended his car was broken down [blocking the road] so that other cars couldn’t pass. We were stopped there. Two of three Daesh militants came, carrying guns.”
“I knocked on a door. A woman came out, and said her husband would come and help me, so I waited. When he came back, he came with Abdullah al-Amriki [the militant she was escaping].”
“The wives didn’t help us, they encouraged the men.”
‘When Men Do Bad Things (To Women), It’s Normal... When Women Do It, It’s Disgusting’
Two of the three women who spoke expressed disgust, contempt and were especially distressed by the encouragement given to Daesh terrorists by their wives.
It was felt as a deeper betrayal, even though Salwa explains why they did it:
“What we saw was that the women encouraged their husbands. This is why I always say that women should see the world and get an education. They controlled women’s minds. What was Daesh telling their wives? They would say that women don’t go to heaven, that a woman is incomplete. Only men go to heaven, so in this life, women must please their husbands, and when they go to heaven, they can ask for their wives to join them. After a Daesh militant kills Yazidis, because they are infidels, he will go to heaven and if he is satisfied with his wife, he will ask for her to come.”
A New Life
The story ends on a retributive note, with a young girl saying she would recognise the man who raped her if she saw him, and wants him punished. Even though the girls are settled now in Germany with jobs and friends, some of them still find it difficult to sleep. Even an ocean away and years later, the scars still itch. But how did they make it out of that hell? The German government reached out.
“We took only those who couldn’t be helped there [Iraq]. If their condition was good or their family structure was intact, we didn’t take them. We only took the most severe cases.”Dr Michael Blume, Director of Minorities Division, State Department, Germany in ‘Hell & Hope’
Director Amish Srivastava talks about how the goodwill of the German government helped them escape. All of the Yazidi women given safe passage to Germany had been housed in IDP refugee camps in Kurdistan.
“The girls did not apply for asylum. The government of the German state of Baden Württemberg came up with a special quota program to give girls, children and other victims a direct residence permit for 3 years.”Amish Srivastava, Director, Hell & Hope
While the women are free to go back if they want to, most of them don’t have a life to go back to. They have been given three-year residence permits to stay in Germany, which renew automatically. They can also apply for citizenship under German law after eight years, adds Srivastava.
“Approximately 20 persons may have returned back to Iraq out of 1,100 who were brought to Germany in the special quota program. [...] Most of the girls who met us did not show great desire to go back to Iraq. They say that their houses are broken, ISIS killed their parents, families, friends and made mass graves around the area. So they cannot go back and live there.”Amish Srivastava, Director, Hell & Hope
Watching the documentary is an exhausting experience, but the viewer is forewarned. One of the first lines that appear on the screen is “Girls risked their lives to escape Islamic State captivity. Few succeeded.”
That’s a glimpse into the stories that follow, that leave you blinking back angry tears by the end.
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