by Orsola Torrisi
In the first days of August 2014, after capturing the vast city of Mosul, Daesh (or the Islamic State) fighters directed their expansion towards the mountainous region of Sinjar, fanning out across the plain of Nineveh, near Iraq’s border with Syria. It is this region that approximately 400,000 Yazidis, a long-persecuted religious minority whose belief system draws on elements of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity, have made their homeland for generations. Cathy Otten’s With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State is one of the first accounts of the genocidal campaign Daesh unleashed against the Yazidi community in Iraq, and an intelligent depiction of Yazidi women’s ongoing resilience, suffering and survival.
Otten’s book is broken into three sections, reflecting the progression of events as they occurred. After a short, but necessary overview of the recent political history of the area, detailing the intricate power relationships between the Yazidi community, the Kurdish minority and the Iraqi government during and after Saddam Hussein’s rule, With Ash on Their Faces begins with a scene-setting picture of the days before the attack. Engaging extensively with individual stories, and interjecting herself only to maintain the readability of the excerpts she collected, Otten traces the abrupt change of scenery from the celebrations marking the end of the Yazidi fasting period to the confusion, fear and anxiety provoked by the arrival of the jihadist group. The survivors, now mainly residing in camps and temporary shelters in Northern Kurdistan, vividly depict the climax of tension, panic and abject terror which quickly spread across Yazidi villages and describe with intensity their feelings of bewilderment and insecurity once realising that they had been left unprotected amidst Daesh’s onslaught.
A valuable feature of With Ash on Their Faces is already clear at this point: instead of solely focusing on the Yazidi survivors’ accounts of their suffering, Otten chooses not to limit her sample of testimonies. She wisely enriches the description by drawing on conversations with other relevant actors, including Peshmerga and other Kurdish fighters. With care and impartiality (a difficult task given the sensitivity of the issue), Otten presents competing narratives on the controversial role played by the Iraqi military, and the Kurdish militias in particular, during Daesh’s offensive, thereby providing much-needed context on the dynamics behind the assault. A similar approach would be particularly welcome in the debate on how to bring Daesh fighters to justice for their crimes in Iraq, as questions of responsibility of other actors have started to emerge.
The bulk of the book is then dedicated to the immediate and the long-lasting consequences of Daesh’s assault. Through the moving narrations of her interviewees, Otten reconstructs the events and the desperate struggle of Yazidi families forced to flee their homes. While some, besieged by Daesh on Mount Sinjar, were left to die in torrid temperatures, suffering from dehydration, lack of food and exhaustion, others were killed, kidnapped, transported to Daesh prisons or forced to covert and coerced to join the jihadist militant group. Women and young girls were raped, enslaved and auctioned off as concubines to Daesh militias.
It is to these women that Otten wants, specifically, to ‘give a voice’. The second section of the book is thus dedicated to women’s experiences of captivity in Daesh’s prisons and members’ houses, while the third focuses on how their resilience (but also the help of accomplices) enabled many of them and their families to escape enslavement. The survivors describe Daesh’s methods of subjugation, including lock-ups, systematic assaults and gang-rape, starvation and verbal abuse, but also often reflect on their coping mechanisms. In essence, their stories speak of a change, a progression from a state of disbelief into one of strenuous resistance and attempts to escape and survive.
The second important contribution of With Ash on Their Faces is thus Otten’s capacity to shape the contours of violence and genocide from the experiences and the agency of women. Otten seeks (successfully, for the most part) to document the ways in which Yazidi women facing torture and oppression exercise agency and endeavour to remain the shapers of their lives, even in a de-humanising context. Through these female ‘lenses’, the book unearths the complicated influence of gender issues in conflict settings, unsilencing women’s struggles and experiences of horrific violence endured simply because they are women.
Despite the distressing nature of the testimonies, perhaps another remarkable aspect of the book is the delicacy, free from sensationalism or excess, with which Otten approaches the narratives. A haunting feeling of neglect pervades the oral narratives of the Yazidi survivors, whether they point at their past or at their present, not unlike other female accounts of genocidal violence (e.g. the cases of the women of Srebrenica and Potočari). However, Otten does not overemphasise it. With Ash on Their Faces is not an attempt to merely move the reader’s compassion. Rather, it aims to unveil and acknowledge the experiences of the survivors, giving them a voice and looking at them as not merely passive sufferers.
Far from being a scholarly book, With Ash on Their Faces is an insightful read for anyone – inside and outside academia – with an interest in understanding today’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq. Most importantly though, it is an intense and morally needed chronicle of the Yazidis’ battle for survival, providing evidence for one of the most brutal acts of barbarity of this century and, from this, perhaps leading to something verging on accountability. Books like this are the first step towards the understanding and recognition of genocidal violence against the Yazidi community, and religious and ethnic minorities more broadly.
Orsola Torrisi is a MPhil/PhD candidate in Demography at the LSE Social Policy Department and a Research Assistant at the LSE Middle East Centre. Her research explores the demographic effects of armed conflict. Orsola is currently working on a project aimed at documenting and identifying Yazidi victims of ISIS violence with demographic methods and individual-level data.