Immersed in death: on a packed commuter train in New York on the day JFK got shot, there is only one headline. (Photo: Getty Images)
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The assassin’s creed

The killings of Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy all seemed world-changing events. But is assassination anything other than an act of petty vanity?

It was a grey January day in St Petersburg in 1878 when Vera Zasulich, a young nihilist, made the short journey to the office of the city’s governor, General Fyodor Trepov. Here the general listened to petitions and examined complaints. A crowd of people had gathered in the cold. Zasulich waited in line for her turn to approach the great man. At last they spoke, and just as Trepov was turning from her to deal with the next supplicant, she pulled a gun from under her cloak and fired at him at point-blank range. The bullet burst into his pelvis, wounding but not killing him. Zasulich threw down the gun, stood quite still, and waited to be arrested. They beat her, of course, and then bundled her into a room, and then wondered a little feebly what to do with her next.

As they deliberated in the immediate aftermath of her deed, Zasulich moved from moments of dissociation and strangeness to an honest desire to offer advice to her baffled captors. Her words are quoted in a collection of revolutionary-era Russian memoirs, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar, edited by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N Rosenthal:

My foresight, and consequently my precise plan of action, did not extend beyond the moment of attack. But every minute my joy increased – not because I was in full control of myself . . . but rather because I found myself in an extraordinary state of the most complete invulnerability, such as I had never before experienced. Nothing at all could confuse me, annoy me, or tire me. Whatever was being thought up by those men, at that time conversing animatedly in another corner of the room, I would regard them calmly, from a distance they could not cross.

This mingled feeling of elation and satisfaction appears often in the personal accounts of assassins; the work has been done and, in the process, their own lives thrown away. A sudden liberation from the burden of self fills them; they ascend to a height above life. They have realised themselves in the perfection of a deed.

Zasulich’s act succeeded by virtue of its comparative failure. Her shooting of Trepov was an act of revenge, after he had ordered an innocent man to be badly whipped in the house of detention on account of a small act of insubordination. Put on trial for her retaliation, she found herself acquitted unexpectedly; indignation against Trepov and sympathy for Zasulich’s courage meant only one possible end to the trial, despite the weight of evidence against her. That she had only wounded her man no doubt also facilitated her acquittal.

At the end of the trial, there were wild scenes of jubilation in court. Almost everyone was elated; only the judge and Zasulich were suitably sober. The result depressed the judge, who knew that it made a nonsense of the law, and disheartened Zasulich, who had been deprived of her death. She was confronted by the terrible responsibility of living on; freedom had been returned to her.

Zasulich’s state of mind following her attempt at murder is symptomatic of the “archetypal assassin” from the French Revolution onwards, that is, the assassin who struck at a prominent political figure for idealistic and ideological reasons. It illustrates how the results of assassination were perhaps always less vital to the perpetrators than the sheer exhilaration and abandonment central to the deed. There is no question that they also looked for a kind of political “success” in such murders, but in fact such triumphs were always more limited and less vital than the psychological rewards: the desire, in a righteous deed, to justify the self and in the same instant to escape its trammels.

It is doubtful how far assassinations have worked as an instrument of political or revolutionary change. In most cases, such murders have made only a negligible impression on events; the chaos and instability they carry with them have nearly always meant more than the change brought about by the deed.

One of the Great Courses, those DVD lecture series advertised in the New York Review of Books or the LRB, is on Events That Changed History. Two of its 36 defining moments are assassinations – the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the killing of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Both events look world-changing, but were they?

The assassination on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo is a textbook example of contingency in historical matters. Along the Appel Quay, where the visiting Austrian archduke, his wife and their entourage were scheduled to drive past, waited seven adolescent assassins, some of them still schoolboys, all determined to kill their man and spark a situation that might lead to Bosnia joining a Greater Serbia. The car swept by, passing the first assassin, who could not act, as a policeman was standing by him in the crowd. The second assassin was more fortunate, and lobbed a nail bomb that landed on the opened bonnet of the car. The archduke swiftly scooped it up and threw it back on to the road, where it exploded as it hit the ground. One soldier was injured by the blast; 70 holes punctured the car. The bomb-thrower bit into a cyanide capsule but the poison was old and its potency was gone. He pushed past the bystanders and leapt over the wall to drown himself. But the summer’s heat had shrunk the river, and it was too shallow to drown. Vomiting from the unstable pill, he was pulled down by a throng of people and bundled into the custody of the police. When they asked him if he was a Serb, he replied, “Yes, I am a Serb hero.”

Meanwhile the car drove on. The next assassin it passed was moved by pity for the royal pair and failed to fire his gun. The fourth assassin’s nerve failed him and he ran off home. The others watched as the car sped past too fast, and the moment was gone. Disappointed, one of the would-be killers, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, feeling hungry now, crossed the Quay and ambled on to the entrance of Franz Joseph Street; there, at Moritz Schiller’s food store, he stepped in and bought a sandwich. He was still sitting and eating it when the archduke and duchess pulled up in their car, right outside the store. They were coming back from the city hall and the driver had taken a wrong turning. They tried to reverse, but there was too little room to manoeuvre in the narrow street. Princip stood up, strode over to the right hand of the vehicle and, from a distance of four or five paces, fired two shots directly into the car. The first one killed the archduke; the second, intended for Oskar Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fatally wounded the duchess.

Some still believe that this product of accident and misadventure sparked a world war that killed millions. It is the case that some schoolboys playing the role of doomed heroes helped topple a civilisation; yet, on a grander political scale, the murder was very largely only a pretext for action. There had been brutal assassinations before. Such murders usually occurred within the body politic of a sovereign state, as an element in a coup or an outcome of insanity. By their transnational nature, the numerous anarchist murders from the 1880s to the 1900s offered no foreign country as a suitable target for retaliation; like the pirate, the anarchist was equally an enemy everywhere. As the assassins operated outside the boundaries of the nation state, the vengeance of armed retribution was meaningless in relation to the horrors of their actions. The murders in Sarajevo were entirely different. They occurred on Hapsburg soil but could easily be said to have their origin in the very existence of the Serbian state. The response to the killings potentially involved war – yet such a confrontation was always avoidable as long as everyone wanted peace.

However, far from aspiring to avert a war, the Austrians did all they could to invite it. The Austrian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, wrongly believed, or chose to believe, that the murders in Sarajevo had been carried out with the connivance of the Serbian government. With German backing, the Austrians were disposed to pick a fight. They thought they could bully the Serbs with impunity and quickly crush an upstart neighbour. They pressed for war, but even so meant only to settle scores with Serbia, a smaller enemy whose certain defeat would bolster the empire; they never intended the European conflagration that would burn down their power.

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome. Nedeljko Cabrinovic, the youth who threw the nail bomb at the car, lamented that “if I had foreseen what was to happen I should myself have sat down on the bombs so as to blow myself to bits”. Though he toughed it out in court, in private Princip was devastated by reports of the war. Yet, later, he could hardly believe that a world war could have followed on from their choices; he couldn’t really feel guilty for that bit of bad luck. They had aimed at a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility.

The “world-changing” consequences of the events in Sarajevo depended on the context in which the murders happened. The world was poised for war, and so the killings led to carnage. The deed resonated within the desires of others, and just then what others wanted was what they imagined would be the speedy resolution of questions of European dominance and prestige. If it had not been Sarajevo that pulled the trigger, it would have been something else, but war would have come in any case.

If assassination’s potency to alter history is questionable in Sarajevo, there must be even greater doubts in the case of the killing of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963. Kennedy had mastered the new politics, offering charisma to the electorate. His final place in the national consciousness was as a symbol of all that was most desirable in the American myth. In terms of tangible achievement or foreign policy gains, however, he left almost nothing for posterity; at best, he founded the Peace Corps. The great legislative triumphs of the period, in civil rights, Medicaid, environmental law and social welfare, are all attributable to the much-disparaged and untelegenic Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In the cruellest interpretation, the single most important impact of Kennedy’s career is that his death handed Johnson, as his successor, the moral force to pass these necessary reforms – laws that Kennedy would have been unlikely to get through undamaged on his own. In foreign policy terms, it was almost certainly Kennedy’s weakness with Khrushchev that prompted the Cuban missile crisis, the resolution of which was his only victory. Even that success was not quite what the public perceived it to be, involving as it did the hushed-up quid pro quo removal of US missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile, Kennedy had already sparked an arms race with the Russians, and his policy on Vietnam helped to create the conditions for the disastrous war that followed. There were hints that he would have withdrawn from Vietnam if he had been re-elected; and later there were other hints that he had been murdered precisely because of this private intention.

To imagine that Kennedy could have ended the Vietnam war presupposes a strength of purpose in him of which there was little evidence in the first years of his presidency, other than the brinkmanship of the missile crisis and (on a much smaller scale) his confrontation with George Wallace over racial integration. In any case, Kennedy had fatally undermined the Diem regime in South Vietnam, with consequences that would have precluded such a sudden withdrawal. Otherwise, he inspired and launched the space programme – and that was about all.

Despite this paltry legacy, Kennedy still stands in the eyes of many as a “great president”, even one of the greatest. This owes more to marketing than delivery. Knowing that his Catholicism would prevent a straightforward coronation by the Democratic Party, he was forced to fight the 1960 election campaign on the basis of his national popularity. He had to win primaries and show his power. It was a new kind of strategy, and it hinged on the retailing of Kennedy. They were going to “sell Jack like soap flakes”.

On 26 September 1960, Kennedy triumphed over Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, on television; radio listeners were more evenly divided on who they believed had won the debate. On the screen, JFK had looked like a superstar, and the sweating, stubbly Nixon, as one journalist put it, “a real middle-class uneducated swindler with all the virtues of a seller of fountain pens in Naples”. The smear on the Democratic posters – “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?” – stuck. The Kennedys’ relationship with the press and with television, their youth, their attractiveness, placed them in a position of mediated confidence with the electorate. However, it was the faux-intimacy of the television image, the allure of cinema. In 1960, in an article for Esquire, Norman Mailer put it like this:

Since the First World War Americans have been living a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull . . . and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation . . . if elected he would not only be the youngest president ever to be chosen by the voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife – some would claim it – might be the most beautiful first lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now be also America’s favourite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s bestseller.

The Kennedys were stars, and John F Ken - nedy died on-screen. The assassination was an experience broadcast on television; two days later Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was shown live by NBC across homes in America. Within half an hour of the JFK shooting, 68 per cent of Americans had heard the news, carried to them by the media. The television set that brought the outside world into the domestic space displayed the pathos to a nation. All could feel involved; the deed became an image.

Yet it was an image that could not be assimilated or understood. In one sense, apart from the tragedy of a young man’s murder, it was precisely its lack of historical significance that rendered it so potent. The plethora of conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s murder responded to genuine mysteries and unresolved problems in the story; the theories were also a way to inscribe meaning into the event, as though an unseen betrayal underwrote it, and they might produce the simulacra of significance. For, just as the assassinations of the 1960s were often assumed to be manifestations of a vague “climate of violence”, so it was that their significance lay chiefly in their effect on American mentalities – even, as Mailer suggests, on the dream life of the nation. It was not the political consequences of Kennedy’s murder, nor indeed all the various assassinations of that decade, that truly mattered, but rather the way they sustained and exemplified an atmosphere of panic, or of social disintegration. They worried Americans with a sense of things falling apart, of a polis under strain.

In the eyes of many, political violence, random killings and unrest seemed a constant factor in American life from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. As the journalist Jack Newfield wrote: “We felt, by the time we reached 30, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated.” The folk singer Dick Holler’s 1968 song “Abraham, Martin and John” links the deaths of Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It presents the four men as simple embodiments of goodness who were not allowed to live out their potential.

In America losing those individuals, irreparable damage was done to the possibilities of national political life. Other people failed to do what the man who was killed might have done. Similarly the history of assassination depends in two senses on the centrality of the individual: in the idea of the “indispensable person” who is assassination’s chosen victim, and in the fantasy that such murders gift their perpetrators with an undying, if ignoble fame.

Though there is a great deal of force to Newfield’s lament, the idea of the “indispensable person” runs counter to the strengths and resilience of democratic life. The American mood in the late 1960s was one of intense unease; and yet the fabric of social and political life held good. The anarchists who struck at presidents, monarchs or high-ranking officials were sometimes engaged in personal attacks, their killings a move in an ongoing vendetta between the government and revolutionaries. More usually they were simply aiming at the office itself: in their own judgement, murdering a symbol and not a person. Yet, seen as such, the deed was meaningless. The president was killed and another president took his place. The structures of power were always designed to take into account the fact of mortality, to maintain continuity; that death should be caused by an assassin’s gun altered little.

Even in the case of the many assassination attempts directed against Adolf Hitler, it is doubtful whether striking their target would have altered events significantly. Hitler’s would be assassins were as much involved in making a gesture, an indication of the survival of an internal opposition, as attempting to decapitate the Third Reich. Success would probably have led to succession by another, equally wicked Nazi. Where assassins did succeed in killing a leading Nazi – with the murder of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 – the murder, for all its justice, merely prompted horrible reprisals, notably the massacres in the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Meanwhile, the “architect of the Holocaust” may have been killed, but the Final Solution continued apace.

In modern times, with very few exceptions (such as the killing of Abraham Lincoln in 1865), assassination has been a sideshow – although, I would argue, a highly significant one. Assassination has often been linked to a kind of “secret history”, contained in the romance of conspiracy theories. It seems instead that assassination belongs to another kind of concealed history – the history, in Norman Mailer’s terms, of the dream life of the west.

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead. Killing was sufficient, even without the understanding of its consequences. Indeed, practical results were the last thing sought for by any assassin. For assassination long ago broke free of any idea of efficacy or political influence, and instead became the central expression of the extremists’ taste for action as such – a pure deed that annihilates both the victim and the perpetrator, even as it depends on the target’s fame and the fame and attention that it grants to the killer. It is an act of self-assertion that is simultaneously a self-negation.

In one respect, the historical importance of Zasulich’s action was limited: Trepov survived and the autocracy continued. However, as a muse of murder she proved a vital figure, her deed provoking attempts against the kaiser in Germany and arousing a broad campaign of assassinations in Russia which led to the murder of the tsar himself. Zasulich’s example was crucial in this swing towards the practice of terror. She was an inspiration to crime. A police official was murdered in Kiev in the spirit of emulation, and when in August 1878 a young man called Sergei Kravchinskii executed General Nikolai Mezentsev on the streets of St Petersburg, he was consciously following the line set by the courageous Zasulich.

For most within the movement, the heightening of stakes seemed inevitable and just. And yet, for Zasulich herself, there was no such easy acceptance of the killings. Soloviev’s infamous attempt to assassinate the tsar with a bomb at the Winter Palace in 1879 merely depressed her. As years went by, Zasulich’s position grew clearer. The assassin’s deed was without revolutionary merit. It led not to great social changes, but only to an ineffectual puff of violence. It exhilarated other revolutionaries, who sensed vicariously and inappropriately the retort of power. Conversely, it dismayed and sickened potential supporters among the masses, or rendered them passive spectators of outrage. The people were not roused to rebel by such deeds, but became mere witnesses to others’ glorious,  or infamous, violence. Worst of all was terror’s dependence upon a sickly illusion in the mind of the assassin herself.

Zasulich knew this at first hand. The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all. Zasulich’s act of terror had sought to publicise another’s brutality; the danger was that such acts would only advertise their own horror. The injustice that prompted them would be forgotten in the impact of the assassin’s bullet. It was, she might have realised, only her own incompetence, in merely hitting Trepov in the hip, that had permitted her deed to appear noble.

Michael Newton is the author of “Age of Assassins” (Faber & Faber, £25)

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The price of a life

In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.

1. Taken

On the morning of 3 August 2014, a 58-year-old chef known as Abu Majed faced the most agonising decision of his life. Earlier that summer, Islamic State (IS) fighters had overrun vast areas of northern Iraq. Now, they were closing in on the villages and towns that surround Mount Sinjar, a jagged ridge of rock that rises abruptly from the flatlands and extends for tens of kilometres towards the Syrian border. Abu Majed’s village, Khanasur, had few defences and would fall to the militants. How should he protect his family?

A popular, humorous man, Abu Majed learned to cook in Baghdad in the 1970s before returning to Khanasur to open his gazino, an outdoor restaurant where young people liked to gather for grilled meat, beer and whisky among trees strung with fairy lights. He had five children and was fiercely proud of all of them. They were at the top of their classes at school and his two eldest wanted to study medicine. To Abu Majed – who, like almost everyone else in Khanasur, had descended from a long line of subsistence farmers – these ambitions were remarkable.

Abu Majed’s restaurant had been a haven during many turbulent years in Iraq. He kept it open through the repressive reign of Saddam Hussein and during the violence that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the threat now posed by the jihadists was greater than anything that had come before – especially because the villagers of Khanasur are Yazidis, an isolated and marginalised religious minority that has lived for centuries in north-west Iraq.

Having heard reports of the jihadists’ brutality elsewhere, Abu Majed was certain that IS’s main target would be the Yazidi men. The best option was for his family to split. After sending his wife and four youngest children – then aged between eight and 15 – to shelter with another family in the village, he walked with his eldest son towards Mount Sinjar. Abu Majed was still on the ascent when his phone rang. On the screen, he saw his daughter’s number. “They’ve captured us,” she whispered.

Abu Majed decided to turn back to try to rescue them, accepting that it would probably be a suicide mission. When he and his son arrived the following day in Khanasur, it was deserted. Devastated and distraught, they returned to Mount Sinjar, joining tens of thousands of fellow Yazidis stranded on the summit with no food, clean water or protection from the fierce sun.

They were trapped. The mountain was surrounded by IS fighters who had rampaged through the nearby villages, slaughtering thousands of Yazidis and taking thousands more hostage. Sometimes they gave people the choice between converting to Islam and death; some converted and were murdered anyway.

A few days into the siege, Iraqi and then American, British and Australian military aircraft began dropping food parcels and water on to the mountain. Often they unloaded from a great height to avoid coming under fire from IS militants and the bottles would burst on impact, water seeping into the yellow dust. When the helicopters could fly low enough, dozens of people struggled to climb aboard so that they could be airlifted to safety – but few made it off the mountain that way. Abu Majed and his son saw old people and infants succumb to starvation. “People were saying, ‘We wish we would die here. Maybe they [IS] could just strike us with chemical weapons.’”

On 7 August, four days after Abu Majed fled to Mount Sinjar, the US launched an aerial campaign to break the siege. At the same time, Syrian Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forced a way through IS lines and opened up a humanitarian corridor a week later. On 14 August, a ragged column of people walked down the mountain and across the sun-bleached landscape into Syria. At great risk, Abu Majed and his son slipped back into Khanasur to salvage a few precious family photographs. Then they walked for 14 hours to the Syrian border. There, they hitched a lift in another family’s car to reach Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

In March, I met Abu Majed in Dohuk, a city of 350,000 people in the fertile mountains of western Kurdistan, where an uneasy peace prevails. At checkpoints evenly spaced along the city’s main tributaries, grim-faced soldiers scrutinise passing drivers with unsettling diligence. There is a feeling of claustrophobia: the memory of IS’s advance is still so recent and the front lines are close.

Abu Majed is short and bald, with a wide moustache and a narrow, drawn face. He cried several times as he told me his story when we met in an empty café, and each time he would stare down at his untouched tea until the tears stopped. Then he would quietly apologise. He lives alone in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the nearby town of Shariya and cooks for a battalion of Yazidi soldiers. The work is unpaid but it is a distraction from his sense of loss and loneliness. His eldest son, who fled with him to Mount Sinjar, is a boarder at a pharmacy college. The rest of his family are hostages.

Abu Majed last heard from his wife and three youngest children in October 2015, when they borrowed a smuggled phone from a fellow hostage for a few minutes – just long enough to tell him they were still alive and in Tal Afar, an IS-controlled city in north-west Iraq. He had not heard anything from his eldest daughter, Majida, since March 2015. Then, a few weeks before we met, he received a telephone call from a people smuggler.

 

2. The Yazidis

The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 Yazidis were murdered in August 2014 and between 5,000 and 7,000 were taken hostage. In the months that followed, news began to spread – through hushed phone calls from hostages and the testimony of escapees – of IS’s systematic violence against its Yazidi prisoners. The men and older boys were separated from their relatives and usually killed. Women and children were kept in cramped and filthy conditions, in prisons and old school buildings, where they were deprived of food and water and forced to convert to Islam. Unmarried or younger women and girls were sold into sexual or domestic slavery or given as gifts to fighters. Boys, some as young as eight, were sent to training camps to become jihadists. This January, the UN estimated that 3,500 Yazidis were still in IS captivity.

The IS fighters who brutalise Yazidi boys in training camps or rape and humiliate female slaves have a brutal sense of religious righteousness. A pamphlet released by the group in 2014 instructs that: “It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of as long as that doesn’t cause [the Muslim community] any harm or damage.” It specifies that it is “permissible” to have “intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty”. Should a woman attempt to escape, she should be punished in a manner that “deters others from escaping”.

In March, the US joined the European Parliament in ruling that IS’s crimes against Yazidis constituted genocide. The Yazidis use the word ferman to refer to the atrocity (it is an Ottoman term meaning “royal decree”) and say that throughout their almost 7,000-year history, they have survived scores of attempts to wipe out their people. In 2007, they were the victims of the second most deadly terrorist attack in modern history – after 9/11 – when Sunni militants killed more than 500 people in simultaneous bomb attacks on two Yazidi villages near Sinjar. They describe the events of
August 2014 as the 73rd ferman.

There are perhaps half a million Yazidis, most of whom live in Iraq, though there are smaller communities in Armenia, Georgia, Germany, Russia and Syria. They have historically remained cut off from the rest of society. This is partly because of long-standing discrimination. Under Saddam Hussein, the Yazidis of Sinjar were banned from teaching their own language – Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish – and in the 1970s, they were displaced from their ancestral farmlands and homes on the mountain and forced into “collective villages”. (Abu Majed’s village of Khanasur is one such settlement.)

Their isolation is also partly through choice. You can only become a Yazidi by birth and Yazidis cannot marry non-believers, or even outside their own caste or sect. They are discouraged from sharing their religious beliefs, which are largely transmitted orally, with outsiders.

One morning, I visited Lalish, the holiest site in the Yazidi religion, to which all followers must make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The shrines are built on a hillside, about 30 kilometres south-east of Dohuk. Visitors and pilgrims take off their shoes in the car park, because every stone in Lalish is sacred. There were a few families and young men with selfie sticks but before the ferman Lalish would have been much busier on a fine spring day. The grey stone shrines, with distinctive conical rooftops, are dedicated to Sheikh Adi and his companions. Sheikh Adi was an 11th-century prophet – or, perhaps, a god – who organised Yazidi society into castes: the laymen, called the murids, and their assigned spiritual guides, known as the sheikhs and pirs.

In a courtyard, I met Sheikh Hussein, whose family has looked after Lalish for generations. He has a thick beard and was wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh knotted into a turban and a baggy khaki jacket with matching Kurdish pantaloon trousers. He chain-smoked slim cigarettes. He told me that he believed the ferman was a punishment from God, because Yazidis had grown distant from him. “What happened to Yazidis was because people don’t remember God, but now people remember God,” he said.

The Yazidi God, Melek Taus, takes the form of a peacock. Parallels between Melek Taus and Azazel, or Lucifer – the angel who, according to Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, rebelled against God – have contributed to the belief that Yazidis are devil-
worshippers, a slur that has been used throughout history to justify their persecution. Yazidis do not worship the devil, although unlike Christians, Muslims or Jews, they do not believe that God is purely good. If God is omnipotent, they argue, surely he could defeat the devil? The Yazidi God can be angry and cruel.

 

3. The smugglers

When the chef Abu Majed was contacted by the people smuggler, he was initially suspicious. The smuggler was an Arab Muslim from the town of Sinjar, to the south of the mountain, and IS’s massacres have deepened many Yazidis’ mistrust of their Muslim neighbours. Yet his ethnicity and religion were advantageous: the smuggler could move across IS territory without attracting too much attention and could speak to jihadists in their own language, Arabic.

The smuggler told Abu Majed that his eldest daughter was being forced to work as a nurse in a hospital in Raqqa, the IS stronghold in Syria. He offered details that seemed to fit with the little information Abu Majed had gleaned from speaking to former hostages. The smuggler said that for $18,000 he could buy his daughter from IS and bring her home. Abu Majed has decided to trust him. He has no money but told me that when he receives confirmation from the smuggler that the deal with IS has been agreed, he will start “begging” for funds from his relatives, friends, NGOs – anyone who could help him.

With few other options, despairing Yazidis have resorted to dangerous and expensive ways of rescuing their loved ones from IS captivity. Some, such as Abu Majed, try to scrape together tens of thousands of dollars to pay middlemen – many of them Arab Muslims – who promise to buy slaves from IS fighters in order to liberate them. 

Others have placed their faith in another class of hostage smuggler – often fellow Yazidis – who say that they have devised elaborate schemes for rescuing slaves and sneaking them out of the jihadists’ territory. Their networks extend deep into IS-controlled Iraq and Syria but the operations are planned in Iraqi Kurdistan, where tens of thousands of Yazidis are sheltering in sprawling camps.

Sinjar district is nominally part of Iraq but many Kurds believe that it should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish regional government (KRG) has sought to extend its influence over the area. In November 2014, the KRG set up its “Office of Kidnapped Affairs” in Dohuk to maintain records of missing people, to ensure that survivors receive assistance and to organise hostage rescues. One afternoon, I arrived at the pink villa where the office is based to meet its director, Hussein al-Qaidi, a Yazidi former NGO worker and meat trader.

Al-Qaidi told me that 2,426 Yazidi hostages have been liberated since August 2014, including 1,204 children and 895 women. He said that more than 1,000 of them had been rescued directly by the office, which runs a network of people smugglers able to work within IS territory. A few Yazidis had escaped without help and in the remainder of cases hostages’ families had independently paid a smuggler to bring their relatives home. In these instances, the Office of Kidnapped Affairs refunds the money.

Al-Qaidi would not detail how rescue missions are conducted, saying that this would threaten future operations. Most of the families I spoke to believed that they were making payments to IS to free their loved ones but al-Qaidi insisted that his office never deals with IS operatives directly. “If you believe this money strengthens Da’esh, it’s not true. It does not go to Da’esh fighters,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Al-Qaidi said that the Yazidi hostage crisis had created a perverse trade and a group of “war businessmen” who were pushing up the price of smuggling missions. The KRG is the office’s sole funder and its finances are in a desperate state because of the low oil price, the cost of the war against IS and monetary disputes with the Iraqi government. KRG officials and front-line Kurdish fighters – the peshmerga, or “those who face death” – have not been paid for months. Three families I spoke to, who are internally displaced and yet had somehow raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay smugglers, said that they were still waiting for refunds from the office. The smugglers told me that, for months, no government repayments had been made.

When I asked al-Qaidi what he would do if his office could no longer afford rescues, he said that he had a “plan B”, which he could not divulge. He did say, however, that his office was about to make a big announcement. He was working on a rescue mission to save 19 Yazidi hostages and if I called the next day, he might tell me more.
The following afternoon, I visited a Yazidi couple who have become a crucial part of the smuggling chain and sometimes work as volunteers for al-Qaidi’s office. They live in an apartment in an upmarket gated complex in Dohuk. Khaleel al-Dakhi, 38, is a former lawyer, tall and slim with a cool, confident demeanour.

Moments after we met, he held up his smartphone to display the photograph of a beautiful young woman wearing a tight, red T-shirt, with long, fair hair that she had flicked over one shoulder. He waited for a moment, seemingly enjoying my confusion. Then he told me that she was a Yazidi sex slave who had been put on sale for $11,000.

The photo was sent to al-Dakhi by a Yazidi friend who was posing online as an IS fighter in order to buy and liberate hostages. The friend had obtained a password for an internet chat room through which Yazidi slaves are traded. He forwards information on to al-Dakhi, who keeps a record of where women are being held and by whom.

Al-Dakhi and his wife, Ameena Saeed Hasan, are from the same village as Abu Majed but were already living in Dohuk when IS invaded Khanasur. Hasan had worked as an MP in Iraq’s national parliament until just weeks before the Sinjar crisis. In late 2014, her phone rang incessantly as IS hostages called her to plead for help. At first, she focused on gathering information on where hostages were being kept and how they were being treated, which she passed on to the Iraqi government. Then, she realised, “The government didn’t do anything.”

Using Hasan’s political connections and al-Dakhi’s business ones, they were able to mobilise a network of sympathetic Arab Muslims living in IS-controlled parts of Iraq to help them carry out rescues. They, too, were reluctant to discuss their techniques in detail but said in general hostage smuggling works like this: first, the hostage will provide Hasan or al-Dakhi with precise details of their location and their captor’s routines; then, the couple will co-ordinate with their smuggling network to locate a nearby safe house to which the hostage can flee and from where a smuggler can collect them. The hostage will often be passed between several different smugglers, chosen for their ability to blend into the community, and kept in a number of safe houses until they can travel to the IS border. Al-Dakhi liaises with the peshmerga on the front-line checkpoints so that the escapees are allowed into Kurdistan.

He often drives to the border, or even into the militants’ territory, despite the danger. When the women first see him, they sometimes rip off their headscarves, or kneel to kiss the ground, or break into a run. “They’ve been through all these terrible situations. They have suffered so much and in those moments they can’t believe they’ve made it,” al-Dakhi told me.

He is adamant that no money goes to IS. “We don’t buy hostages, we steal them,” he said. He estimates that he and his wife have rescued over 100 women and children, but they say that it is becoming ever harder to carry out a successful mission. IS has split up many groups of hostages. Increasingly the women are on their own and do not have access to a phone. Smugglers are demanding higher payments because of the rising danger. Six smugglers in al-Dakhi’s network have been killed. On one occasion, an IS fighter pretended on the phone to be a young Yazidi boy and then murdered the smuggler sent to rescue him. Another time, a smuggler was killed by a militant who disguised himself as a female hostage by wearing a black niqab.

 

4. Freedom

I contacted the Office of Kidnapped Affairs several times to ask if the rescue of the 19 Yazidis had been successful and each time was asked to call back. Then, I chanced upon the man who brought the hostages home: Abdallah Sherim, a 41-year-old Yazidi who felt compelled to help with rescues after 56 members of his extended family were kidnapped. I met him near Dohuk, in his brightly painted house on a small hill that overlooks Khanke IDP camp, where rows of blue-and-white tarpaulin tents are pitched close together in the churned-up roadside mud.

Sherim used to work as a trader between Sinjar and Aleppo in Syria. When his terrified relatives began to call him from captivity, he contacted his former business associates, who helped him find Syrians he could trust to assist him in carrying out rescue missions. He claimed to have liberated more than 200 Yazidis, including 24 members of his family. He showed me photographs of two nephews he had smuggled home a year earlier. They had since been resettled in Germany and had sent him snaps in their new football kit.

As we spoke, one of his sons turned up the volume on the TV. It was showing Nuce Ezidixan, a Yazidi news hour that is broadcast daily. Just as I was about to ask him to turn the volume down, I saw on the screen al-Qaidi from the kidnapping office – and then Sherim. They were posing next to the 19 liberated hostages: five women and 14 children. Al-Qaidi did not mention on the television, as Sherim later did, that nine of the smugglers involved in the mission had been captured. Nor did he mention the $6,500 per person the rescue had cost, money the families had raised themselves.

One of the 19 hostages rescued by Sherim’s network and then paraded on Yazidi TV was the 25-year-old Jehan (she asked that I did not use her full name). She is tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep, hoarse voice, and was wearing a long, flowery dress and a threadbare brown headscarf. Her hands were tattooed with the words ya allah – “O, God” – over and over. Her name ran up her right forearm in crude Roman capitals and on that hand was also written, el-hurriya, in Arabic script: “freedom”. All the female hostages had inked that same word on to one another’s hands but when her friend had tattooed her arm, six or seven months earlier, Jehan could not imagine what it would feel like to be free.

I spoke to her in the Rwanga IDP camp in western Kurdistan, where she was staying with the uncle who had paid $6,500 for her release. The camp houses as many as 15,500 people in white prefabricated cabins. It was dusk and groups of women squatted outside their front doors, preparing piles of foraged leaves to cook with oil and serve with rice or bread for dinner.

Jehan’s family rose stiffly from the floor when I arrived. Three sides of their single-room cabin were lined with faded mattresses and a neat pile of blankets occupied one corner. It was becoming chilly and we huddled close to a small kerosene stove. Jehan said that since her release, three days earlier, she had been unable to sleep. She could not stop worrying about her four siblings and her mother, who were still missing and believed to be in IS hands.

They were from Kocho, a village that IS did not attack until 15 August 2014, a day after the siege on Mount Sinjar was broken. When the jihadists stormed Kocho, the men were separated from the women and then shot. The UN estimates that up to 700 men and boys were murdered that day. Jehan was taken with other women, girls and infants by bus to the city of Mosul, 150 kilometres away, where she was later sold into “marriage” to an 18-year-old Libyan fighter with ambitions to become a suicide bomber. They lived together in Raqqa for six or seven months. He forced her to say Islamic prayers and made her promise to teach them to her family. In his will, he granted her freedom. According to IS’s religious leaders, if a fighter liberates his slave, he is guaranteed a
place in heaven.

When her “husband” blew himself up on a suicide mission in Syria in mid-2015, Jehan was free to move wherever she wished within IS territory. Perhaps she could even have planned an escape but she did not know then if she had any family to go home to. Instead, she stayed with an aunt who was kept as a slave in the city of Tal Afar. She moved several times and spent her final months in IS hands living in a guest house in Raqqa. It was populated by would-be jihadi brides who had joined the extremist group from all over the world: the UK, the US, France, New Zealand, Turkey and Pakistan. The women could browse paper files resembling CVs, which listed fighters’ interests and achievements alongside their photographs, to find a husband. She says that her role in the guest house was simply to study the Quran.

Towards the end of 2015, international air strikes on Raqqa intensified, causing terror in the guest house. In February, the five Yazidi women staying there persuaded IS militants to transfer them, together with their 14 children, to a small village. There they were less closely monitored by the jihadists and one hostage succeeded in calling her husband. In turn, the husband called Sherim, the rescue co-ordinator in Dohuk, who engineered an escape plan.

One day at noon, an Arab woman knocked on the door of the house – as they had been told by Sherim to expect – and drove the 19 hostages to the village of Tal Hamis. They spent a week hiding there, before a sheep farmer collected them and took them to his tent, where they stayed for one night. Another Arab smuggler walked them towards the town of Kobane, which has been under Syrian Kurdish control since January 2015, following a fierce four-month battle with IS. The smuggler instructed the women and children  to follow his footsteps exactly to avoid stepping on landmines.

In Kobane, a Kurdish smuggler met them and drove them to a Yazidi shrine in Sinjar, almost 500 kilometres away. There they met Sherim, who accompanied them for the final drive to Dohuk.  Jehan has since been questioned by Kurdish government agents and received medical check-ups but no other support, she says.

Hussein, the uncle who paid for her release, was one of the hundreds of men from Kocho rounded up for execution. He was shot three times, once in the back and twice in the leg and then lay, still as a corpse, among the dead bodies of his friends and neighbours until he could escape. He has been living in Rwanga for over a year and he is heavily in debt. Before he paid for Jehan’s release, he had already spent $20,000 buying back his wife. One of Jehan’s sisters recently managed to call him: she is being held as a slave in the Iraqi city of Fallujah but no one can afford the cost of her release. Another of Jehan’s uncles, named Salem, told me that he had spent $70,000 to buy back his relatives. The family raised the money by borrowing from displaced families in Rwanga and now some of their debtors are asking when they will be paid back. “We’re dead with our eyes open,” Salem said.

On a stormy morning, I travelled from Dohuk to Sinjar. Beyond the main checkpoint out of Kurdistan, there were few cars. We followed a potholed road that runs along the Syrian border. We passed Arab and Yazidi villages flattened in the fight against IS, grey houses whose concrete roofs had sometimes shattered into great, heavy plates and other times had curved and distorted to resemble folds of cloth. The driver listened to a new Yazidi radio station that played prayers, traditional love songs and poetry. “This time, it was a real ferman,” the voice on the radio said, speaking over the militaristic music. “The volcano of hunger came to our mountain . . .” The IS front line has now been pushed back to the south of Mount Sinjar. As they departed, IS left behind booby traps to kill or maim the first Yazidis to return to their abandoned homes or search for their relatives’ remains.

Some Yazidis feel that they can never go back  to their former houses, in villages of ghosts. Many have left for Europe, some illegally and others through special programmes: Germany has resettled around 1,000 Yazidis. Many people in IDP camps told me that they could never feel safe in Iraq again, each repeating the same story. They said that hours before IS invaded, the peshmerga stationed in the area, who were affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, repeatedly promised that civilians would be protected and told them not to leave their homes. But the peshmerga unexpectedly retreated, taking their weapons with them. Before the Yazidis were attacked, they were betrayed. And long before that final betrayal, they were neglected and sidelined by Iraq’s Muslim majority.

There are other Yazidis who say they will never leave their homes, their shrines and the mountain that protected them during the darkest days of the ferman. The mayor of Snune, the largest town north of the mountain, told me that of the 23,000 families that lived in Sinjar Province in 2014, around 5,000 have come back. They have little to return to: few areas have running water, or electricity, or functioning schools and health clinics. Most are surviving on food handouts from NGOs, Iraq’s government or Kurdish fighters from Turkey.

Finally we reached Khanasur, the home village of the chef Abu Majed. Other than the checkpoint, guarded by two teenage female Yazidi fighters, the once bustling main street was empty. The shops, beauty salons and cafés were boarded up, the shutters spray-painted with the names of peshmerga battalions from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria. At the edge of the village, beyond an abandoned football pitch, we found Abu Majed’s restaurant. The rain had stopped and the cloud had lifted to reveal the long, rugged form of Mount Sinjar.

By peering over the high concrete wall, I could see the roof of the simple bungalow in which Abu Majed and his wife and five children once lived, as well as the tops of the trees in the restaurant garden, which were still strung with unlit fairy lights. A goatherd approached from the nearby scrubland, shaking her head. “Poor Abu Majed,” she said.

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad