Inside the Race to Rescue 2,000 Sex Slaves Still Held by ISIS

While thousands of enslaved Yazidi women and girls are still missing, director Hogir Hirori traveled to Syria in order to document both victims and the women fighting to free them. 'Everybody thought I was crazy,' he tells Haaretz.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/MAGAZINE-inside-the-fight-to-save-2-000-women-and-girls-held-as-sex-slaves-by-isis-1.10597823

As a documentary film about war, “Sabaya” is quite exceptional. It has no talking heads, no explanations about the politics of the conflict, no maps with directional arrows, no timelines, and no dramatic music. No narrator is walking around the battlefield and talking to the camera amid the whistle of bullets. There are not even any interviews, at least not in the usual sense of the word.

All it has are fragments of unfiltered reality, with no cheap thrills or any complex cinematic wrapping. Yet, it won last week the award for the best documentary of 2021 at the Golden Bug Film Awards, the Swedish Oscars. It has also won several prestigious awards for its director Hogir Hirori at film festivals worldwide, including Israel’s Docaviv, and the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

The film describes one of our day’s greatest tragedies – the fate of Yazidi women abducted by Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. It does so by focusing on a small group of Yazidi activists who endeavor to rescue women held by ISIS as sabaya – slaves who can be raped and sold based on religious ideology and theological justifications. ISIS claims these Yazidi women and girls are daughters of an infidel, devil-worshiping religion that rejects Islam and therefore Muslims are commanded to make them sabaya.

This reality still persists; over 2,000 Yazidi women and girls are still missing. Perhaps that is why Hirori says his film’s success at Western festivals is not the important thing. “What I saw on the ground, what I shot, is what I show in this film, without interviews or explanations,” he told Haaretz. “The idea is for viewers to feel reality itself, and for Yazidis to have documentation they can use. Obviously, it was important to make a good film that people would appreciate, but documenting was the most important thing.”

Hirori’s personal story led him to take an interest in the war and its consequences. Born in 1980 in Iraqi Kurdistan, he came to Sweden as a refugee when he was 19 after an arduous three-month journey. “Like everyone of my age in the region, I saw the consequences of the war in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s. I fled in 1991 as an 11-year-old. I was lost and without my parents for weeks. My father was a Peshmerga warrior in the mountains. My mother and grandmother moved us around because the Iraqi regime was after my family.”

But Hirori’s childhood wasn’t just about war. He attended music school, playing classical music and dreaming of a career as a cellist in Europe. He discovered in Sweden that things aren’t so simple. He had to learn the language, establish himself, and study. Eventually, encouraged by his partner who he met in Sweden, he started studying communications and began working in TV.

The director Hogir Hirori.
Director Hogir Hirori. Photo: Dogwoof

“Sabaya” is the third part of a trilogy that Hirori began working on in 2014, when ISIS attacked Sinjar in Iraq. They killed thousands of Yazidi men and raped and kidnapped thousands of women. Hundreds of thousands fled, seeking refuge on Mount Sinjar. “I was shocked that nobody was reporting on what was happening,” Hirori recalled. “I felt a disaster approaching, but nobody wanted to report about it. So I packed my bags, my camera and my equipment, and traveled without knowing exactly what I would do there. My wife was in late pregnancy with our first son. I thought that if I started reporting from there, perhaps other journalists would come, and then politicians would begin taking action. It was early in the war when people started fleeing their homes, and ISIS started publishing its propaganda pictures of decapitation in the streets.”

Only nine people showed up for his flight, which should have been full, because only those who really had to fly made the journey. “There was a silence and a feeling on the plane that we were flying towards death,” he recalled. “Everybody thought I was crazy. When I arrived, I realized I couldn’t stop the war with my camera. The possibilities were limited. The photos I sent over social media reached my friends and a few Swedish media outlets, but their impact was only partial. “

A few days later, other journalists arrived. Hirori began filming what would be the first film in the trilogy, “The Girl who Saved My Life” (2014). “The Deminer” (2018) followed. The process of making the two films repeatedly brought him back to his country of birth and to suppressed childhood memories – the bombings, the battles he had fled and the people who remained behind. “When I completed the second film, I decided again, just as I did after the first, that I’d never return,” he said. “I already had a child, I felt good with the films, and I thought there was no reason to endanger myself again.”

It was Hirori’s wife Lorin, a journalist herself, who suggested he make a third film to tell the abducted Yazidi women’s story. They originally planned to go together to Syria along with a big film crew. But the situation on the ground made that impossible. They decided Hirori would go alone, so as not to put others in danger. He followed the operations of the Yazidi Home Center, which rescues Yazidi girls from their captors. Hirori visited Syria six times to complete the film. Each time, he was director, photographer, producer and sound man. Working alone wasn’t just a technicality. The work completely consumed him.

Hirori grew up in a Muslim majority town, but he had childhood friends, neighbors, and schoolmates who were Yazidis. After making his first film, he understood better what the Yazidis had been through as a religious minority. He said he gained a deep understanding of the need to talk about racial and religious hatred and discrimination. In the film, Hirori takes his viewers deep into two places near each other but profoundly different. The first is the al-Hawl camp in northeastern Syria, close to the border with Iraq. The camp, run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, is home to 73,000 refugees, most of them women and children, including thousands of ISIS supporters and members.

The second place is the home of Mahmud, a Yazidi Home Center volunteer. It serves as a shelter for Yazidi women and girls who Mahmud and his fellow volunteers have rescued at huge risk from al-Hawl. Viewers see Mahmoud’s family, especially his mother, wife and young son. “Al-Hawl is a huge camp, like a whole town. It’s hard to control,” Hirori said. “It’s divided into seven sections, one of which is designated for foreigners from around the world. Women living in the camp wear the niqab, but sometimes men don a niqab to infiltrate the camp. Anything can happen there: weapons smuggling, bomb making, stabbings and shootings. You have to be ready for anything. The camp’s economic situation is unstable. Everything is chaotic, and even though ISIS has been defeated militarily, it is still recruiting and strengthening from day to day.”

The film shows the rescue from the camp of Yazidi girls abducted by ISIS. Mahmud and Ziad, another center activist, drag the girls out of tents. They are armed with pistols, mobile phones, and intelligence they have received from Yazidi infiltrators, many of whom are girls who previously escaped ISIS captivity and agreed to return to the inferno.

The film depicts Mahmud’s home as an island of mutual aid, empathy and solidarity. “I lived there while I was filming the documentary,” Hirori said. “They were like family to me. They shared the little they had with me and the ‘guests’ – Yazidi girls rescued from al-Hawl. Mahmud’s mother called me ‘son.’ It is so typical of the Middle East. It reminded me of my childhood. The hospitality where a guest receives food even before the children, and the women help each other even in the most difficult situations.”

The story of the women themselves is at the film’s core. They are not interviewed in the standard sense of the word, but there are conversations. “I hate this world. Everything is dark,” says one of them. “I was in captivity for five years and now I’m here alone.” Another girl asks: “Why? How did God let this happen?” Another tells her story: “I was kidnapped. I was abducted and taken to Mosul. They forced me there to get married for the first time. Me and 61 other girls, just young girls. Then they took us from Mosul to al-Raqqa in Syria, where they gave us to different men. They believe that the Yazidi religion is an infidel religion and so Yazidi girls must be sabaya who clean their houses and are their sex slaves. Abdul Rahman chose me in al-Raqqa. He forced me to marry him. After a year, he died in the war. So, I was moved to a house with ISIS women to be sold to another man. They guarded me the whole time. They controlled my whole life, ever since I was a young girl. My heart is completely broken.”

One of the girls, seven-year-old Mitra, was abducted from Sinjar when she was just a year old. Her parents are still missing. She speaks only Arabic, not Kurdish because she has spent almost all of her short life in captivity. Another of the rescued Yazidi describes what ISIS fighters did to her. “I was sold to 15 different men,” she recalls. The first ISIS fighter to take me was a Swede. He beat me and made a hole in my head. Then I was put in prison and sold to someone in Syria, and later to a Tunisian. He broke my teeth.” After all she had been through, the woman decided to infiltrate back into al-Hawl after her release.

“I was shocked when I first met the Yazidi women infiltrating the camp,” Hirori said. “I had heard about them before, but I was shocked that there are people with such courage. Women who are willing to risk their lives after having been saved. When I asked them if they really wanted to do it, if they weren’t scared, they got annoyed and said of course they wanted to. They said they have nothing to fear, nothing to lose anymore, that it is important for them to help other women.”

Hirori’s trilogy is about the war that has devastated Iraq and Syria. “This war is not just about bombs falling on towns in the Middle East and causing people to flee for Europe,” he said. “We are all responsible for this war in one way or another. Modern Western countries manufacture the weapons. Some fight for oil or fight for influence because of their interests in the region. As a result, countries in the region have been at war for ages, so many years that generation after generation is born and dies without even receiving any education, without having the opportunity to serve food without the fear of being bombed.”

Hirori speaks of long-term solutions to end the cycles of violence, but events in this blood-soaked strip of land in northeastern Syria that have transpired since his film was made do not bode well. On the one hand, ISIS forces are strengthening and again attacking prisons in the region. On the other, Mahmud, the film’s hero, died of a heart attack, and Ziad has been forced to escape Syria after ISIS targeted him and tried to kill him several times.

Some Yazidi women have returned to their homes and families, but others have no one to return to. The Yazidi Home Center has saved over 200 women and girls, but this story isn’t over yet. Herein perhaps lies the bottom line of “Sabaya”: We are now in 2022 and over 2,000 Yazidi women are still missing, still being held as sex slaves and passed from hand to hand, sold as a commodity.