Mohammad Ali Salih is a Washington correspondent for Arabic publications in the Middle East.
When Islamic State fighters swept into the Yazidi villiage of Kocho in Iraq in the summer of 2014, teenager Farida Khalaf was kidnapped along with her sister and about 80 other Yazidi girls. Her father and brother and other Yazidi men were defiant but overwhelmed by the onslaught, and were shot to death outside the village. Her mother and other women were forcibly taken to the Islamic State-controlled city of Tal Afar in Iraq, while Farida and the other girls wound up as slaves in the Islamic State’s capital, Raqqa, in Syria.
The Islamic State refuses to acknowledge the Yazidi religion, and as the girls learned from their captors, their families were slaughtered because they were infidels. “It was our right to kill them,” one of the men told them. “For that is what it says in the Quran: ‘Kill the Infidels!’ ” Another man piped in: “And take their wives. That’s why you belong to us now, and we can do what we like with you. You don’t have any rights.”
In her book, “The Girl Who Escaped ISIS,” Farida recounts the horrors she and the other young women endured in captivity. Her story highlights the suffering caused by the Islamic State’s flawed interpretation of the Koran and the group’s brutal intolerance of peaceful religions. In Kocho, Yazidis and Muslim Arabs live side by side in tense accommodation. When a local Muslim leader heard that Islamic State fighters were heading toward the village, he knew what was in store for the Yazidi, and he sought to convert them. But Farida’s mother and father resisted. Within a few days, the Islamic State had killed her father and kidnapped her mother.
Islam and the Yazidi faith have similar, conservative views on sex. In her life before her kidnapping, Farida and her friends used to slip away in the evenings to meet other kids. “The adults frowned upon this, because they were afraid of illicit friendships the members of the two sexes,” she writes. But her experiences were innocent. “After all, my friends and I had been brought up strictly according to our community’s code of honor. For us, premarital relationships were out of the question.”
But her captors had no respect for her modesty, bred of her Yazidi faith, and abused her simply because she was not Muslim. In one scene, she recounts how Islamic State men gathered around her, discussing her unmarried status and her virginity. When a guard called her “fresh goods,” another man said: “We’d have to try them out to be sure.” At which point a fighter began stroking her hair with “sausagelike fingers” and then sticking his fingers into her mouth to check the quality of her teeth. “I was reminded of the livestock market in Kocho,” she writes. “This is how the men would check donkeys and cows before buying them. . . . Instinctively, and out of the blue, I bit him as hard as I could.”
For her defiance, she was beaten with the butt of a rifle until she fainted.
She won a temporary reprieve, but the inevitable soon occurred. She and a friend named Evin from her village were assaulted together. “When we awoke the following morning on two shabby mattresses, our bodies were burning and aching,” she writes. “The smell of blood and sperm clung to the dresses that Evin and I were still wearing from the night before. We felt such shame that we could barely look each other in the eye.”
For months, Farida was bought and sold among Islamic State men until she escaped with a few other girls and found shelter at a refugee camp near the Kurdish city of Dohuk, where a German humanitarian organization was providing help. At the camp, she met Andrea C. Hoffmann, a reporter who later helped her move to Germany and write her book.
Farida is now going to school in Germany. “When I’ve finished school,” she writes, “I’ll study to become a math teacher as I’ve always wanted to. The fanatics who degraded us and treated us like objects are not going to stop me pursuing this goal. I survived to prove to them that I’m stronger than they are.”
By Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffman
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Atria. 224 pp. $24