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'With Ash On Their Faces': The Story And Struggle Of The Yazidi


More than 6,000 Yezidi women and children were kidnapped, raped and enslaved under the Islamic state's control when it took over parts of Iraq. The Yezidi are an ancient minority ethnic group with deep roots in the country. In her book, "With Ash On Their Faces," Cathy Otten tells the history of the Yezidi and the personal stories of the women who faced all odds in the face of ISIS. Cathy joins us now from Manchester. Welcome to the program.

CATHY OTTEN: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us the story of one of the women you encountered when you were doing your reporting on this.

OTTEN: So I met a lot of women during the reporting for this book. But I think some of the stories that I really wanted to bring out in this text were the stories of how women had not only suffered and been victimized, but also resisted and shown courage and strength when they're in ISIS captivity. So there's a section of the book when I talk about some of the ways that women tried to escape or subvert their captivity when they were in an underground prison in Raqqa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These women were abducted from Iraq and then transported to Raqqa.

OTTEN: That's correct. In that prison, hundreds, if not thousands, of women were kept together in horrible, horrible conditions - sewage around their feet and crammed. They couldn't lie down. There was no sunlight. And I spoke to women who had done things like cut the hair of young girls that they were with to try and make them look like boys so they wouldn't be taken.

I met a woman who had sewed the names of her family and friends and their phone numbers on the inside of her underwear with a needle and thread that she'd snuck into captivity. And with the same needle, she tattooed the name of her husband, who is missing, on the inside of her arm in case she was killed, and they wanted to find her body.

What I wanted to try and understand is, when you're in circumstances of such horror, what is it that keeps you going - whether it's religion or it's love or it's children or it's hope.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what did they say? What makes them carry on? What were the things that they were holding precious to them in these horrible, horrible conditions?

OTTEN: Well, often, it was about their religion. So they would remember the special things that make their faith different from other faiths. They would hold on to sacred bowls of earth or bracelet. So there was a spiritual element of this survival.

It was often - like it would be for most of us, I think, it was about family and friends and the hope that a loved one was still surviving or that a child would be able to go home in the future. And these stories I found had also been told by previous generations of Yezidi women. They've been passed down from persecutions hundreds of years ago because this is not new for the Yezidi people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is life like for the Yezidi women now who have escaped and are trying to reintegrate into society?

OTTEN: I think reintegration is very difficult. But the Yezidi religion has been able to adapt and change. There is a baptism ritual that is now done for women when they come home because they've been forced to convert to Islam, and they've been raped. They can do this and that marks the beginning of their re-entry into the Yezidi community. Psychologically, it's hugely important for them.

But we see the ongoing displacement of the Yezidis as a real continuation of the genocide. And, really, I don't think we can talk about recovery until they feel safe again. And I think that's the same with a lot of people - a lot of people who've become refugees that the trauma remains. It's about dealing with it. But until you feel that you're in a safe and secure place, you can't really begin to process what's happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you've spoken to these women, what do they say that they're looking for? What are their hopes now after this very traumatic period?

OTTEN: When I've spoken to Yezidi women, their hopes are usually to find their loved ones, also just to live normal lives - to be able to go to school, to send children to school, which is impossible as the displacement continues. So the priorities are to get their missing relatives back and their children, to find out what happened to loved ones but also about justice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You write in the introduction to your book that the idea of justice for this group looks a long way off. What would justice look like?

OTTEN: Most Yezidis that I've spoken to, they want international recognition for what happened. But the Yezidis don't tend to have a lot of faith in the Iraqi justice system. So that's why they're putting a lot of faith in the hope that some international courts or mechanisms could come together to try and give them a sense that the world is listening and that there would be some repercussions for what happened to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cathy Otten is the author of "With Ash On Their Faces." Thank you very much.

OTTEN: Thank you very much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.