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National Security & Defense

The Savagery of ISIS

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa, Iraq, June 29, 2014. (Stringer/Reuters)

“They took us to pits on the farm that were supposed to be our graves . . . They threw us down there in shifts. Every fifteen minutes they would lower down about a dozen men . . . and open fire on them. They arranged us into rows, telling us to line up next to each other so it would be easier for them to shoot us. My brother was in the first shift. My other brother was in the second shift. I was in the third. I knew everyone down there with me; they were my neighbours and friends.”

Up to this point, I imagine most readers will assume that the above passage is a quotation from a survivor of the Nazi atrocities. Only the end of this passage identifies that it is a more recent testimony that we are hearing.

“After they shouted Allahu Akbar, the sound of gunfire rang out, and once they had finished shooting us one by one, I was swimming in a pool of blood. They shot at us again, then a third time. I shut my eyes and prepared to die, as one must.”

“How long did you stay like that?”

“I was bleeding there for almost five hours.”

“Where were you shot?”

“In three different places. Once in my foot and twice in my hand.”

“And did everyone else die?”

“All except for one other man, Idrees, a childhood friend of mine. His feet were injured. I tried to drag him out of the pit with me but I couldn’t because half my body — the left side — was bleeding. I couldn’t lift him with just one hand. Idrees, I said to him, climb up on my bank, get on. But he couldn’t move. He was still alive but I wasn’t able to save him. I struggled to get out of the pit and walked away from the school. As I crossed the farm road, I heard the nonstop rattle of gunfire, and I dropped down onto the ground, which is where I stayed, hidden under the wheat and barley until the sun went down.”

The above is the account of a man called Khalid, a resident of the Nineveh plains who like many thousands of others tried to flee ISIS in August 2014 but was captured by them. His testimony is one of many collected in a remarkable new book by the poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail titled “The Beekeeper of Sinjar.”

Along with Cathy Otten’s “With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State” (2017), it is one of the most disturbing and important books I have recently read. Both are by women who have worked first-hand, with incredible commitment and determination, to ensure that some of the worst atrocities of our times are not forgotten. In a culture like ours, which is becoming expert at forgetting what happened the day before yesterday, they have also provided a clear testimony for years to come about the full horror of an episode that only happened four years ago.

Among much else, both books provide an insight into a mindset so alien to most citizens of stable modern states that they might be forgiven for thinking that it can be dismissed outright. Here’s an account in The Beekeeper of Sinjar of a Yazidi woman who was captured, sold at a slave market, and bought by an ISIS fighter in 2014.

Oh, Muslim, come, there’s a virgin in heaven. That’s the beginning of the song that Abu Nasir sang for me every night before he raped me. He would take some drugs and get high to that song. One time I asked him what the song meant, “You’re a Yazidi infidel. It’s not your fault, you were born like that. When you die, you’ll become a houri to entertain us, we Muslims,” he replied. “Doesn’t that mean you have to wait until we die to do what you’re doing to us, since we are still alive?” I asked. “I bought you, making you my property. This marriage duty is part of the jihad,” he said. Of course, I couldn’t speak my mind freely with him. The main motivation for these Daesh men was sexual: they would kill anyone in order to rape women. In the end they would kill themselves to meet their houris in heaven.

Plenty of people would find it difficult to make sense of this. But it is worth trying. At one stage in her book, Mikhail relates the story of a woman who had been captured and used by ISIS fighters. Along with another girl, she describes how their ISIS captors “married and divorced us eight times on the same day, and they made us wear porno outfits. We were too tired to resist. We didn’t say a word. Tears flowed down our cheeks.” She made her feelings felt to an ISIS man to whom she was later sold. As a punishment he burned her chest with an ember, telling her, “This is so you’ll remember me for your whole life.” Only a few pages later, we read of ISIS fighters at a checkpoint reproving a sick woman in a car for not having her head sufficiently covered.

Rape and modesty might seem an inherently unstable cocktail of beliefs, but it is one that ISIS practiced with considerable success earlier this decade. If it isn’t to come back in any of its forms — watered-down or otherwise — then as many people as possible should make themselves familiar with the creed that these men followed. For not only are the scars of their savagery far from healed. The embers are far from out.


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