Main Character in Lauded Documentary on Saving ISIS Sex Slaves Is Now Accused of Child Theft

A Swedish website claims that filmmaker Hogir Hirori faked key scenes and concealed information, and that the protagonist separated Yazidi women from their children. But Hirori says that everything in his film is true.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/2022-06-12/ty-article-magazine/.premium/he-made-a-lauded-doc-on-saving-isis-sex-slaves-now-hes-accused-of-child-theft/00000181-487d-d6bb-a1f5-ff7d6d870000

STOCKHOLM – The documentary “Sabaya” by Swedish-Kurdish director Hogir Hirori racked up a raft of prestigious awards last year; the topic was surely compelling: Yazidi women and girls held as sex slaves by the Islamic State and then sold – before their rescue by Yazidi activists in Syria. Now those activists have been accused by a Swedish website of deceiving the victims and taking their children from them.

One reason the film won so many awards, including best documentary at the Swedish International Film Festival and a World Cinema Award at Sundance, is that Hirori did the filming all by himself. You get the feeling you're with him at al-Hawl, the camp in northeastern Syria where the victims received refuge.

At al-Hawl, the filmmakers followed activists from the group Yazidi Home Center in Syria, in particular a man named Mahmud Resho. The women and girls lived there since the Islamic State's defeat in 2019.

The camp – which Hirori has said is plagued by stabbings and shootings – hosts tens of thousands of refugees, most of them women and children, and also thousands of Islamic State supporters. After rescuing the women and girls, the activists took them to Resho’s family home, which the film depicts as a kind of shelter.

One rescue shows Resho and his partners freeing a Yazidi girl named Leila from a tent in the camp; they were armed with a handgun, a cellphone and intelligence from Yazidi women who infiltrated the camp at great risk. Later, a drive from the camp to Resho’s home morphs into a car chase in which ISIS fighters fire at the Yazidis.

Kvartal, the respected Swedish website making the allegations, claims that Hirori faked key scenes, concealed information about the main characters' dark sides and lied to the media that reported extensively on the film.

According to Kvartal, some of the women and girls who bore children as a result of serial rapes by ISIS fighters didn't want to leave the camp because they knew that their children might be taken from them and handed to an orphanage. The conservative Yazidi community wouldn't accept a half-Muslim child.

Resho and his people took the women and girls out of the camp; they promised that any child taken away temporarily would be returned.

But Kvartal says the children weren't returned, and mothers who refused to give them up were held at Resho’s home under a kind of house arrest. The site also reports that Resho proposed to the Islamic State to buy the children so he could sell them on, but this was only a ruse to gain information from ISIS.

“They tricked us, they took us to their homes, and then they took our children from us,” one of the women told Kvartal. Another says about the film: “People will think Mahmud brings Yazidi girls back, and that’s true, but Mahmud treated them worse than ISIS did.”

Kvartal also alleges that Hirori fabricated key scenes and falsely presented key aspects; for example, it reports that Leila was actually rescued from al-Hawl before Hirori came to Syria.

The site says that Leila's rescue and the dramatic chase were either staged with an actress or involved another girl; the girl’s face is covered by a burqa so she can't be identified – and Hirori admits that this indeed was another girl's rescue. Kvartal also alleges that armed Kurdish guards were the ones who removed the girls from the tents and handed them over to Resho and a man named Ziyad, who waited in safety at the camp's offices.

“It’s a real shame if the taxpayers who pay for productions of this type are being misled by the filmmakers,” says Ludde Hellberg, who wrote the Kvartal article.

“In Sweden, millions of krona from public funds are invested in documentaries of this type every year. It turns out there is no oversight mechanism to ensure the authenticity of such films,” he says, adding that his report was based on a wide variety of sources.

“We quote one of the women taken out of al-Hawl by the hero of the film,” Hellberg says, adding that his sources included the former U.S. ambassador to the region, Peter Galbraith, who helped reunite mothers with their children. The sources also included a veteran international journalist in the region, and an interpreter who worked with Canada's CBC television and The Guardian.

“We were very careful, as always, when it came to the credibility of our sources,” Hellberg says. “Every fact that appears in our report is supported by a number of independent sources. Months of work went into the investigation, and fact-checking was done by two experienced editors.”

Hirori says Kvartal's article is misleading and takes things out of context. “Ever since 2014 when ISIS attacked the Yazidis in Iraq, I've been documenting the fate of the Yazidis. The situation with the children born to Yazidi mothers as a result of rapes by ISIS men is extremely tragic and also very complex,” he says.

“I've tried to show this in my documentary; for example, in a scene when one of the rescued women has to give up her baby. Unfortunately, it's impossible for the rescued Yazidi women to keep their children that have Muslim fathers if they want to return to their Yazidi families.

“This is because, according to Iraqi law, a Yazidi woman isn't allowed to have a child by a Muslim man, unless she converts to Islam, whereby she will no longer be welcomed into Yazidi society. Another problem is that the Yazidi religious leaders have given amnesty to the rescued Yazidi women to return to Yazidi society, but not to their children born in captivity, who are still seen as ‘children of the enemy.’

“It has never been a secret that the children are placed in an orphanage waiting for a solution if the women decide to return to Yazidi society, nor is it something I've tried to conceal by any means, as Kvartal claims I have.

“The situation is also clearly explained to the women when they face the decision to return to their families, and they're well aware of the circumstances. It wasn't possible for me to fit all these explanations … into the documentary, as my story was about the rescue of the women, not the fate of the children, which would need a whole documentary on its own.”

Regarding the allegations about staged scenes, Hirori says Leila was one of the girls who agreed to talk about her nightmare in captivity – as a way to get the girls' story out to the world.

Hirori admits he first met Leila several days after her liberation, and the scene depicting her rescue was shot when Resho and Ziyad freed another girl (who wasn't willing to be interviewed or show her face). Hirori admits he erred by presenting this scene as Leila’s rescue.

But he adds: “All the events portrayed in 'Sabaya' and all the parts of the story I tell in my documentary happened exactly as they're shown, and all the footage was recorded live with my camera as it happened. Leila was held captive by ISIS. She was rescued by Mahmud and the Yazidi Home Center from the al-Hawl camp.

“The main rescue scene in 'Sabaya' is a real rescue of a Yazidi woman being taken from the al-Hawl camp. It's by no means staged or faked. I'm in the car with my camera, and the ensuing car chase and us being shot at is completely real. Everything I share in the documentary of Leila’s story is also 100 percent true.”

Hirori’s statements are backed up by an interview on another topic that I conducted with Leila before the Kvartal article came out. There, Leila's recount of her rescue supports Hirori’s assertion that the rescue he filmed was similar to hers.

“Uncle Mahmud took me from there,” Leila said. “When I think about this trip, it feels unreal; my thoughts were all over the place. I was very frightened and didn’t speak with anyone. And then the shooting started. I can still hardly believe that I got out of there.”

Hirori also stresses that documentaries aren't the same as newspaper or magazine articles. "Documentary filmmaking isn't a neutral, objective narrative method. In Sweden especially, the genre has reached an expressive and artistic level through a long tradition of the craft," he says.

"Thanks to support from public service institutions such as the Swedish Film Institute and Swedish television, [the genre] has become an established form of narration that encourages a personal view and creative artistic expression, allowing independent filmmakers to express their own unique view of events. This is different from genres such as journalism and reporting that, rightly so, have strict requirements of neutrality and objectivity.”

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.