Folk memories of ancient battles are still a crucial element of Serbian national identity. Photograph: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum
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The Belgrade train

A journey to the troubled heart of the Balkans.

At Cortanovci in November, the Belgrade train enters the wet woodland of the Danube shore. Egrets stand at ease by poplars. Warblers scatter as the train passes. This Serbian district of hills and orchards is known as the Fruška Gora, or “fruitful hills”. It is also a national park, though there’s nothing at Cortanovci to announce the fact. I’ve glimpsed the crossing-keeper only once in all the years I’ve taken the train: a woman in a stripy headscarf, she sat on a plastic chair in the sunlight among chickens and buckets, knitting.

The express trains no longer stop here, but if you follow the woodland track downhill from the platform you come across traces of an old beauty spot. A stream flows over stones that have been patched together like home-made cobbles. Old man’s beard loops between the trees. Near the water, signs of human activity appear: here a pile of firewood, there a hut made from branches and parts of an old car. Moss has climbed the car-door windows like a stain. On the bank, overgrown concrete plinths suggest the cafés that used to line the shore. Only one remains. Inside its cabin, a portable TV blinks from a high bracket. You can sit on the remains of a terrace and drink a brown sludge of coffee, probably made with river water.

The proprietor smokes at a polite distance. For once, in this talkative country, there’s nothing to say. The river holds his attention and yours. Sleek tenant of some of the most contested land in Europe, the Danube is not Serbian, any more than it is Austrian or Slovak or Romanian. Here it is a working waterway, navigable by immense barges loaded with shipping containers. They glide past, engines chuntering. Deliveries from downriver and even the Black Sea head for the industrial quarter of Novi Sad, inconceivable among the trees of this riverbank but no more than 20 kilometres upstream.

The Macedonian novelist and essayist Aleksandar – Sasha – Prokopiev and I found ourselves drinking coffee in the quiet of Cortanovacka Obala one evening in September 2001. We had escaped from a conference being held by the new, post-nationalist new Serbian Writers’ Association in a former local government holiday villa on the scarp above us. Elsewhere the western world convulsed and panicked. Here the late air was muggy under the trees, bright over the water. Clouds of midges caught the light. After a while, two young guys appeared, carrying an assortment of rods and tools. They had a couple of big fish each: carp, probably, or the bottom-feeding fleshy fish the people in these parts call cpaπ. Before we saw them we heard them, calling their dogs: Ide Goran, ide Zoran. The moment they noticed us they started hustling: beautiful fish, you can eat them here. They were dressed in the odds and ends the poor wear everywhere. One had an old shirt and trousers coloured with oil, the other was in a T-shirt and Chelsea strip tracksuit bottoms. They stared at us cheerfully, even as we declined in a fluster of excuses. Finally, Zivot, good health, they shouted like a kind of shrug, parting, and Zivoti, Sasha answered, bouncing a little in his seat and raising his cup.

I found myself wondering what they had done in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s: they must have been in their twenties already by the time the conflict ended, and it’s the poor and uneducated everywhere who are first recruited to fight. Often, here, I’m grateful for the way people keep what they’ve seen unspoken; yet those secrets are frightening just because they exist. This is true even of the people I’m closest to. I couldn’t, for instance, mention my unease to Sasha. That evening his country (its official name, at Greek insistence, is now the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or “Fyrom”) was still at war. It was something he couldn’t bear to speak about. As in its north-westerly neighbour Kosovo, a fault line had been reopened between the mainly Orthodox Christian, ethnic Slav population and the indigenous Muslim communities, known as Albanians, largely concentrated then, as today, in the region close to Kosovo and Albania. Even as I thought about this, the evening news on the café TV switched to pictures of his home town: the capital, Skopje, in its river basin ringed by mountains, among them the highlands around Tetovo, scene of one of the last offensives of the war. Sasha smiled and shook his head and looked away.

The fishermen were archetypes, doing what countrymen have done everywhere through the centuries. They could have been taken from the foreground of some 18th-century engraving. The Fruška Gora is a habitable idyll, the kind of landscape that humans have imagined in their search for paradise since before the Torah became the Bible. Eden, after all, was an orchard. But this evening its beauty was a kind of con. The overgrown waterfront made it clear that no one was holidaying in paradise. The tapping and knocking sounds of building in the orchards behind us was a sign not of prosperity, but unemployment. Local people were out of work not only due to the loss of tourist income, but because of Nato’s bombing of local industrial plants and the disappearance of a pan-Yugoslav market for Novi Sad’s manufactured goods. Men were fixing up their houses because there was nothing else to do – and because there were refugees to be accommodated.

For Serbs, the war had ended only two years earlier; their dictator Slobodan Milosevic had been gone for less than a year. The beautiful river we sat by, the water table that feeds the Fruška Gora’s orchards, had been polluted by the depleted uranium Nato used in its bombs. The fishermen’s catch, the fruit, even the water in our coffee could have been conta minated. Who knows? Perhaps it was here and now, on this peaceful evening by the Danube, that Sasha ingested, and I did not, the trace of contamination that would lodge in his thyroid and flower as tumours around his face and neck in the decade to come.

“It has been estimated that one-millionth of a gram accumulation in a person’s body would be fatal. There are no known methods of treatment for such a casualty” – this according to a memo written on 30 October 1943 by physicists working on the US nuclear project. Since Nato’s bombing campaign, leukaemia rates among newborn babies in the former Yugoslavia are said to have risen from one per 1,000 to between ten and 15 per 1,000. Recently Sasha told me, once again evading my eyes, about an epidemic of men with prostate and thyroid cancers in Skopje. Even his friend Mickey the mafioso, with whom we danced and drank at Sveti Naum one August Sunday, has gone into the clinic Sasha knows too well, and never come out.

Now the railway line breaks out of the woods and on to the rolling plain of the Banat, the breadbasket of the Balkans. The last of the Fruška Gora is a bald arable ridge sinking into the great level that most characterises Vojvodina, this ethnically mixed northern region of Serbia. It makes a fine contour, subtle and sensuous like the landscapes painted between the world wars by Sava Šumanovic, a Serb artist from nearby Šid, murdered in 1942. I keep a postcard of Šumanovic’s Autumn Viewon my desk, and its cream and gold remind me of the time we visited the little Austro-Hungarian border town, really more of a village. It was in Šid’s Art Klub, over another coffee, that Nenad Velickovic – novelist, youth worker and an ethnic Serb who remained to endure the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 – lectured me on the presumption of the foreign NGOs that had flooded into his home town: the outsider never truly understands.

The first time I travelled across the Banat, just after the fall of Milosevic in October 2000, the whiteness stretching on all sides dazzled me. This was my first encounter with the openness of the south-east European plain. It’s Pannonia, the site of a huge lost inland sea, Raša, a translator for the UN peacekeeping forces, told me, lifting a hand from the steering wheel to gesture. Pannonia, he explained, stretches from Vienna to Belgrade and from Zagreb to the north-western corner of Romania, and though centred on the Hungarian steppes it encompasses Vojvodina, central Croatia, western Transylvania and corners of several other countries where they fall between the mountain ranges of the Alps, the Carpathians, the Adriatic Dinarides and the Balkan Mountains in the east.

Raša’s wool collar was stylishly turned up; an expensive scarf covered his chin. Yet despite his smart white four-wheel drive with its UNHCR number plates he was a typical Yugoslav mixture, with a Serb surname, a Muslim first name and, as I was discovering, a very Balkan fatalism. We were speeding north from Skopje to Novi Sad along the most inappropriate motorway I have ever travelled. Single-track in each direction, it had a single, shared central overtaking lane: the worst kind of temptation for drivers of a nation renowned for machismo, and which had recently lost a war. Everyone played chicken. Cars raced towards us, and we towards them, until disaster seemed inevitable – averted only by some sudden swerve.

Apparently unconcerned, Raša continued to explain the identity of this central Balkan region. If Vojvodina is a breadbasket, its handles are gripped by Hungary in the north, Romania in the east, the Serbian capital to the south – and Croatia to the west. That northwestern border between Serbia and Croatia around Vukovar suffered the worst of the conflict between those countries in 1991; yet Vojvodina, and the fertile plain of the Banat in particular, is historically anti-nationalist, a region proud of its ethnic diversity.

In 2002, there were still a quarter of a million Hungarians here and at least three million people from other minority groups: Slovaks, Croats, Montenegrins, Romanians and Roma, but also Bunjevci, Germans, Slovenes and Muslims. The regional capital, the liberal university town of Novi Sad, was known for its desire to distance itself from Milosevic; but later in the war the bombing of its bridges and factories hardened local anti-western feeling.

At the southern tip of the Banat, beyond Nova Pazova, the proximity of the capital announces itself with a strip development of new villas, built in red clay breeze blocks. But who would settle here, in one of these tall new houses, their small grassed yards unfit for the village fruit, flowers and chickens? Without shops, without the comfort of longterm neighbours, this is no village, but an echo of city life in the middle of nowhere.

In its own way it represents a more radical social reconfiguration than the tower blocks of the communist era; and it has become home to those who live nowhere. The builders and owners of these houses are the uprooted, the transplanted: the diasporans who come back each summer and dream of returning for good. A man leans his belly on a balcony rail to watch us pass. Between him and the railway line is dusty common land, full of weeds and criss-crossed with tracks. A goat pulls on a long tether. A ditch is clogged with rusting cars, fridges and bin bags of detritus.

The every-man-for-himself straggle of Nova Pazova is nothing like the planned, communist-era new town of Novi Beograd, where the train soon pulls up at a concrete platform of unmistakably 1970s design. New Belgrade’s bug-eyed concrete tower blocks are the symbols of this dormitory district, built across the river from the old capital. It’s densely populated, and a stop here takes time and is full of noise and emotion. The dreamlike sensation of a long journey is over. Families are reunited. The unfeasible baggage of returnees – huge suitcases, crates and sacks – is unloaded, a cue for shouts and laughter. Meanwhile a couple of youths with gelled hair and sharp jackets, up for a night in town, slip into the seats behind you. No one’s going to check their tickets now.

Finally the train begins to move. The platform slides away. You look down on to the Roma settlement that occupies the wasteland beneath the viaduct. This isn’t a couple of caravans and a van parked up in the English style. Instead, streets of shacks have been put together from the materials that shackbuilders everywhere have to hand: plywood, corrugated iron, cardboard, branches, tarpaulin and rags. To the western eye it looks like apartheid. Shouldn’t Roma people live clean, comfortable lives as they keep their culture and freedom of movement? But no state is going to look after them as well as it does its taxpaying voters. The shanty town signals impasse: the failure of utilitarian solutions to address minority needs.

There have been Roma in Serbia since at least the 14th century. They were here before the Turks, who named and rebuilt the great fortress that dominates the Belgrade city scarp. Kalemegdan stands above the confluence of the Danube and the Sava, the river the train must cross to arrive in the capital. Wide brick walls, fortified with turrets, loop around the edge of a rock and face most impressively east and north, towards us. Like the fortress at Petrovaradin, upstream in Novi Sad, Kalemegdan secured the river routes that helped the administration and prosperity of the Habsburg empire. Now its castle walls enclose lawns, trees and kiosks where you can buy cola and pumpkin seeds and sometimes, for your girl or a child, a keyring with a fluffy toy attached. Old men play chess on park benches, ringed by bystanders. And lovers, of whom Belgrade always has plenty, occupy the seats in the shadiest corners, or sit together on the broken walls. When the wind carries, you can hear the zoo animals yowling at the eastern end of the park.

At Belgrade, the Danube is enormous, easily incorporating the thickly wooded Great War Island that floats just below the citadel. But it is chiefly the Sava that Belgraders proper live on and with. Wider here at its final point than the Thames is at Westminster Bridge, or the Danube under the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the Sava is a Yugoslav river. Named for Saint Sava, the princely archbishop who founded the Serbian Orthodox Church and drafted the first Serbian constitution in 1219, it starts as a racing, turquoise stream in the Julian Alps of Slovenia. After passing through Ljubljana and then Zagreb, it serves as the border between Croatia and Bosnia for 200 kilometres until it reaches Sremska Mitrovica, the town whose prison was appropriated by the Serbian army during the wars of the 1990s.

In her third-floor apartment on a corner block near the Belgrade mouth of the Sava, Marianne, a literary translator who had married into the life of the city, once gave me a glimpse of the kind of bourgeois good life envisioned by the 1930s architect of her block. Her flat was all oak and glass, a circlet of rooms that opened into each other and, repeatedly, on to views of the street and river. Although the original fittings and the bigblocked parquet floors were looking a little tired, the flat continued to model the good life, its interlocking rooms suggesting the interlocking dialogue of family life.

Further west, though, the riverbank ceases to be residential and becomes utilitarian. Here, a train arriving from the south must shunt through a series of sidings below the city rock. Warehouses turn anonymous gable-ends to the tracks where workers amble. Sleepingcars are parked up seemingly at random; curtains flap at their open windows. Beyond lie the trade fair grounds, then suburbs that quickly turn away from the river, leaving its banks to birds and fishermen.

The Sava is also where the pleasure-barges anchor. Nightclubs, restaurants, brothels – in the years after communism they were powered by mafia money and turbo-folk. The aesthetic is bling and glitz; girls with straining corsets, huge eyelashes, fake tans, and enormous voices. Turbo-folk has great tunes (it is derived from folk material, after all), great emotion and a limited palette of topics: lament, passion, nationalist longing. It makes the folk-rock giants of the British 1970s look like mincing antiquarians. Turbofolk isn’t exactly dumbed down – the emotion it works up can be almost complex, at times genuinely sweet-and-sour – but it is amped up. It’s music for drunken parties, music to make the room sway and young women pump their right arm in the air, first finger extended, as they mark the sweet spots where, deliberately breaking her voice, the singer maxes out the emotion.

Turbo-folk is playing at every wedding party you stumble upon. It’s what binds the room together when everyone is already sodden with sentiment and slivovitz. It is grandiose and unsubtle, and a quarter-century ago you could have enjoyed or ironised the vulgar sentiment and thought no more about it. But in the wars of the 1990s the music became nationalist ammunition. The new aristocracy of the time were the mafia warlords and their turbo-folk molls.

Early 1995 brought the marriage of the most famous couple from that world, the mafia warlord Arkan (real name: Željko Ražnatovic) and the turbo-folk star Ceca. Arkan, who had graduated from organised crime and football hooliganism – he was the leader of Red Star Belgrade’s notorious followers, the Delije – wore a faux-military costume. Five years later he was dead, murdered in the lobby of Belgrade’s InterContinental Hotel. Two years after that, when I stayed in the less glittering Hotel Taš, there was still a “No Firearms” sign over the door of the breakfast room, which served nightly as a casino; but the morning eggs were irreproachable. The wars, and their turbo-folk soundtrack, had a tremendous kitsch momentum, although it’s disgusting to use this term in relation to the horrors inflicted on the civilian populations of former Yugoslavia. Still, both violence and music showed detached, postmodern Europe the potency of the lowest common denominator: what happens when thousands surrender their individual judgement to vulgarised emotion.

Balkan folk songs have form as a repository of warlike memory. Perhaps the bestknown of all is “The Field of Blackbirds”, which turns a story of defeat by the Ottoman imperial forces at Kosovo Polje in 1389 into a call to arms for Serbian nationalism. An oral peasant culture, such as still survives in the Balkan countryside, is a fertile context for the transmission of history and ideas through ballad and song. This is not so different from “When Adam Delved and Eve Span”, which we’ve inherited from our 14th-century Peasants’ Revolt, or the protest ballads sung by the wives of striking miners in the 1980s.

The difference, however, lies in the degree of surrender of better judgement, of individual responsibility, that turbo-folk evokes. “History is now and England,” T S Eliot wrote, though we don’t believe him. Turbofolk singers urge us to believe that history is now and Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo. They position the listener inside the song, telling him that he is part of the story it narrates. They do this through both the words and the music, which doesn’t settle for being tuneful, or even good to dance to. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of it as something akin to soul music: a mix of the evocative national pull of folk music, the “belonging” repertory of regimental or Northern Irish marching bands and the meaningful tug of gospel. It’s music to make a lump rise in your throat against your better judgement.

Yet Belgrade also has a vibrant countertradition. Radio B92, still broadcasting today, confirmed its anti-nationalist stance during the war years not only through its news and commentary but by broadcasting western pop and rock music. In a way that got lost in the west in the 1970s, such music remains politicised here as the sound of idealism and rebellion. There is also a history of indigenous rock as critique. In the 1980s, Idoli, a Belgrade new-wave band with members from across Yugoslavia, issued songs of sardonic social commentary. In 1980 their “Retko te viðam sa devojkama” (“I rarely see you with girls”) was a pioneering gay statement in mainstream culture.

During the war years, B92 playlists moved from Prince and REM to Tricky and Super Furry Animals. Later, the radio station felt a responsibility to sanitise folk music because of the role turbo-folk had played in the war. It did so in part by issuing Srbija: Sounds Global compilations, featuring indisputably ethnographic artists.

The Belgrade train grinds across the steel railway bridge above pleasureboats still moored on either side of the Sava. Squint to the right along the northern bank and you can see a bare patch of ground, something like a building site, where the headquarters of Mirjana Markovic’s JUL party, the old communist left, was destroyed by a Nato bomb in 1999. At the time Markovic, who is still involved in Serbian politics today, was married to Slobodan Milosevic. Nato also bombed RTS, the city’s equivalent of Broadcasting House, as well as a large, army-run building out on the Pancevo road, which turned out to be not a military headquarters, but a hospital. For more than a dozen years, the ruins have been left exposed to the weather as a huge, open-air protest.

As the train arrives on the east bank of the Sava, the White City is grey with dust and petrol fumes, and dusk is settling over the scarp. Soon, it will be too dark to see the remarkable Jugendstil buildings downtown, the Austro-Hungarian villas of the embassy district, or of Knez Mihailova. On that wide pedestrian boulevard the Roma kids will be packing away their fiddles and money caps; suited men will be filling the tables of Snežana: Srpski restoran; and where the American Cultural Centre used to be before it was torched, girls in skintight jeans with tousled hair will scream with laughter down the cement arcade.

At the southern end of Knez Mihailova, where it meets the roaring traffic of the arterial Terazije, stands Hotel Moskva, the best in the city, its newly renovated green tiled roof and gilded art nouveau wall panels gleaming. The Moscow’s marble tearoom becomes a piano bar in the evenings, but the menu never changes. If you don’t want to drink you can still have a thimbleful of thick coffee and a not-quite-fully-thawed cream cake.

Below the hotel the city tips downwards, back to the Sava. Facing it is the Hotel Balkan, where in 1996 the Hungarian writer Péter Zilahy, then a young rebel taking part in the failed anti-Milosevic uprising, photographed government troops waiting under the hotel sign, symbol of the collapse of regional hospitality. Below the Balkan and the Moskva, Balkanska – Balkan Street – winds down to the railway station. You can probably see me there, toiling uphill.

Here’s the stop for the night bus to Skopje. Here’s the small leather-goods shop where I bought a most useful belt. The baklava shop. “Zlater” on the jewellers’ fascia board. The internet café. And ahead of me, huddled on its eccentric corner site, is the Hotel Prag, our usual place.  

Fiona Sampson is a poet. Her latest collection is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

MOISES SAMAN/MAGNUM
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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