Farida Khalaf’s harrowing account of sadism and sexual torture is lifted by her bravery
The Observer, 31 July 2016
First, some good news. The young Yazidi woman whose story is told in this harrowing book is now safe in Germany, where she is finishing her education. She has been reunited with her mother and younger brothers, who were taken from their village in north-eastern Iraq and kept prisoner by Isis for months. Despite what has happened to her, she is determined to fulfil her long-held ambition to become a maths teacher.
But Farida’s father is missing, presumed dead, and her best friend is still a captive of the self-styled caliphate in Iraq. Even Farida’s name is a pseudonym, adopted to protect her from Isis sympathisers in Europe and the “shame” of having been repeatedly raped by her captors. The book is an unflinching account of the sadistic beatings and sexual torture imposed on a 19-year-old girl by one of the most misogynistic terrorist organisations operating anywhere in the world.
The fact that Isis explicitly encourages its fanatical followers to buy, sell and rape women is well known. Most of the girls enslaved in this way are from Yazidi villages near Mount Sinjar, where their families have lived side by side with Muslim villages for centuries. The Yazidi religion is wrongly regarded by hardline Muslims as a form of devil worship, and in August 2014, Isis fighters gave the inhabitants of Farida’s village three days to convert to Islam or suffer the fate of “infidels”.
What is extraordinary about Farida’s story is the way it goes behind the headlines, offering first-hand testimony of what it is like to be subjected to ethnic cleansing and sexual slavery. She offers a chilling account of how the men in her village were loaded into lorries at gunpoint and driven away to almost certain death. Her 16-year-old brother Serhad was one of only four survivors of the massacre, playing dead among a pile of corpses belonging to neighbours and friends.
Farida and the other unmarried girls were separated from the older women and taken first to the occupied city of Mosul and then to the slave market in Raqqa. “Are all of these girls really still virgins?” an excited “customer” asked the guards. When a Saudi prospective buyer stuck his fingers into Farida’s mouth, she bit him and was beaten senseless.
This terrible story is told in the first person, transcribed from lengthy interviews conducted by a German journalist, Andrea C Hoffmann, while Farida was living in a refugee camp near Dohuk in Iraq. Hoffmann met Farida a few weeks after she and five other girls managed to escape from an Isis military camp near the Omar gas field in eastern Syria, where they had been kept prisoner in shipping containers. At the time, Farida was still recovering from the physical injuries, psychological trauma and malnutrition she had experienced as a captive.
In one of the most chilling vignettes in the book, Farida describes how Amjed, a portly fighter from Azerbaijan, always made a point of praying in front of her before he assaulted her. “Each time he would carry out his religious ritual beforehand,” she recalls. A much younger girl called Besma, who eventually escaped with Farida, was beaten within an inch of her life after she used a pair of scissors to stab the Isis fighter who was raping her.
What these men are doing is not a side-effect of fighting for Isis but an essential element of their ideology. Misogyny is as encoded into the idea of the caliphate as religion, and no doubt all the more attractive to its followers as a result. It allows utterly selfish men who reject modern notions of gender equality to revel in their power over women, deliberately making the sexual act as violent as possible and leaving their young victims bruised and bleeding.
Even when Farida and her friends escaped and were helped by a people-smuggler to reach the refugee camp, their ordeal was not over. Yazidi culture regards rape victims as “defiled”, something confirmed by an elderly woman who cruelly observed that none of the girls would ever be able to marry. Her words had a devastating effect on Farida, who felt as though they “had severed the artery providing me with the will to live”. It is one of many reasons she was ready to leave the camp and start a new life in Germany.
This is one of those rare volumes that offers astonishing insights into the human spirit. Farida resists her captors from the very first moment, fighting them with every ounce of strength she has. Even after months of beatings, she is still fighting and encouraging her friends to look for ways to escape. A catalogue of horror is made bearable only by her extraordinary courage, and the solidarity among girls who literally keep one another alive.
The Girl Who Beat Isis: My Story by Farida Khalaf with Andrea C Hoffman, Square Peg (£14.99)