Moderator: Good day to you all, my name is Jonny Gould. I am British radio and television broadcaster and journalist and today we are going to relate the story of Farida Abbas Khalaf, a Yazidi girl, from a village called Kocho in the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq.
Farida was just 20 years old, a good student living a normal peaceful life, when it was shattered forever when the Islamic State attacked Sinjar City in August 2014. Most Yazidis ran for their lives with only the clothes they had on toward the mountains but they couldn’t seek refuge there so they decided to stay in their homes with assurances from the Islamic State that they would not be harmed. However, in the first few days many were slaughtered by ISIS when they encountered slight resistance from the army in Sinjar.
Farida wanted to be a mathematics teacher and continued her studies in Germany, but instead of following that course, she’s become an advocate for Yazidi people, building rights for people, and bringing those who destroyed her family and her family life to justice.
I’m also joined on stage by Farida’s interpreter: Saeed Suleiman. I think this is the first time, hopefully not the last time, I’ll conduct an interview in Kurdish Kurmanji. Farida let me start by asking you…just tell us something about the life you had in your village of Kocho.
Farida (Saeed): Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for this opportunity. If I am to talk about my life in Iraq and Kocho village it was a very simple life. It’s true that we never had the same rights like other Iraqi citizens but we were happy with our life in that a small village.
My father was working with the Iraqi army on the borders, and my older brother was a student in university and he had been in high school while I dreamed to be a mathematics teacher.
But on August 3rd 2014 when ISIS attacked our area, they destroyed my dream and they changed our life.
Moderator: The Yazidi heritage and traditions are distinct, unique from Islam the dominant religion in the area. Just give us an outline of what the key differences are in your culture and your lifestyle.
Farida (Saeed): I cannot compare my religion with Islam religion but because I am Yazidi. I maybe can give you some information about my culture and my religion then you will understand what I mean. Well we know two religions in Iraq. In my religion we believe in God, we don’t have a prophet, but we do believe in the afterlife, we believe in seven angels and the head of seven angels. The most important thing in our religion is to pray and for the others and then we pray for ourselves. Humanity for us is very important, we never force somebody to convert to our religion. We are not saying that we the other should convert. So the thing that we are trying to do is only to live in peace.
Moderator: So were you subjected to racism or prejudice growing up in Kocho before the Islamic State incursion?
Farida (Saeed): Well yes even before ISIS attacked, we didn’t have like I said similar rights like the other citizens of Iraq. The best example – thousands of Yazidis and many generation of Yazidi live in the same area, in same house, but most of them don’t own their houses. They don’t have the document that they own it but the others they do.
When I’m talking about Muslims I’m not talking about all Muslims. Of course they are very good Muslims, and there are radicals, and Islamists, and other religions. I am talking about the radical Muslims, the ones who for example see a Yazidi working in a restaurant and they not eating that food because it was made by a Yazidi. So that was even before ISIS.
Moderator: You are just a high school student, Farida, when Islamic State ravaged your village, murdered men including your father and your brother, and took women and children as prisoners, including you. This must have been extremely violent and painful.
Farida (Saeed): Yes, that was very difficult for me especially when they gather all cultural people in the school building that I was dreaming to be mathematic teacher in. We have lost our dreams in the same building. They gathered all our people from my village in their building, they took all the things that we had, and at that time they asked us to convert our religion to Islam. But we rejected that, we didn’t accept to convert. As a result of rejecting the the request they start killing many men. In one day it was more than 450 men from Kocho who had been killed including my father and two of my brothers. One of them just barely survived.
Moderator: For four months you were held in captivity and abused physically, sexually, and mentally. Did you expect to survive?
Farida (Saeed): Well yes at the very beginning I was planning to escape and I was thinking that I will be able to escape and be free. When I was abducted my father’s words were – I was always remembering his words – before I was abducted he would always telling me that I’m brave, I’m strong, and I will be brave. When I was abducted I was always thinking about what he told me. That was what gave me strength to be alive. It’s true that I have tried to suicide seven times and I tried to escape two times. The third time I succeeded. But yes, always I had hope and also not just because of that but also because of my religion and my faith in God that can help innocent people.
Yes I think I’m are strong but not I’m not the only one who is strong. Every single Yazidi girl who escaped from slavery, they were beat, they were raped, they suffered a lot. But still they were trying to escape and they did. I think that the those girls are very brave, very strong because after what they had happened to them they still were trying to escape and trying to speak about what they faced.
Moderator: You mentioned your attempt on your own life, seven times. Your attempt to escape three times, the third time was successful. How did you escape?
Farida (Saeed): I tried to commit suicide seven times when I was subjected and still you can see in some places on my hands the way we were trying to suicide. But the thing is one day after all this happened to me and I wasn’t suffering there they brought one day my father’s picture and they told me that “you are the daughter of this infidel”- because they were calling Yazidis as infidels – “and we know that he was working with military on the borders” and I told them no it’s not my father I don’t know who this man is. Then somehow they know that he was my father and they told me “we know that he teached you to how to do that and trying to escape” and then when the Prince, the Emir, just like they say they were Princes from ISIS came and they decided to kill me. In the same day I stole a mobile phone from one of them and I call my uncle. He survived what happened before but he said there was no way that he can help me because we were in a place that was too dangerous. Then it was at night, it was about one o’clock at night, and we just escaped and we made it.
Even when I talked to my uncle he didn’t believe that I’m alive because they were they heard that I already suicide. I already died. And even when I was free they somehow didn’t believe that I am alive.
Moderator: So now the question I have to ask you is how do you live with the memories of this nightmare? How do you rebuild a life in an new country?
Farida (Saeed): Well it depends which life am I talking about. When it comes to my private life I’m gonna say I don’t even have a life because I decided to give my life to my community. Decided to be the voice for those who are still in captivity- which until today about 3,000 Yazidi women and girls and children are still abducted. I decided to be the voice for the ones who are still living in IDP camps, the ones who are still there with almost all of the village still destroyed and it’s not being rebuilt. So what I’m trying to do is not just focusing on my private life but I’m trying to focus to be their voice as well.
Moderator: It’s important to say we we talked about this yesterday in preparation for our discussion that contra to reports that there have been in the media, Farida, you are not stigmatized by your community because of the torment you suffered.
Farida (Saeed): Well a lot of times I’ve had the same question that many asked me, the same question which is wrong, which is not true. It’s true that when I was abducted I was thinking sometimes maybe my community and even any other community can accept me after all this I have been through. But I was thankful when I escaped and I came and I met the Yazidi community and especially the head and leader of the Yazidi community and religion Hajji Ismail he said that you are more than welcome again in the Yazidi community and religion. And even all the Yazidi’s respect us much more than before, they are supporting us. This was something that really helped me and other survivors.
Moderator: Saeed you are also an international activists on behalf of the Yazidi people and in our discussions you revealed to me that though there are bigger communities now growing in Germany, etc. 80% of the Yazidi community are still living in tents in northern Iraq and have been there for nearly four years. What do you want to see from the international community?
Saeed: Again I’m not going to give you something like a beautiful speech or a diplomatic way. I’m going to me give you some facts. If we come back to a few years ago at the same summit – Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – I think it’s from about 5-20 years there were three person invited to this summit. All three of them are Yazidis. In 2016 Vian Dakhil a Yazidi woman she was here, in 2017 Shirin, and today Farida. What is shocking is all three of them asked for the same things. That’s means not a lot has changed.
When Vian for the same things and Shirin and Farida today, the same numbers are still the same. About 80% of Yazidi people still live in IDP camps. There is no real actions to rebuild their areas. Areas on Nassar Yazidi village in central Sunos or near Sinjar are not protected, it’s not safe. Mass graves are still not protected. Survivors are still in captivity. That means that as a human being we should feel shameful, an international leaders should feel shameful, when the same girls are asking for the same things like a hundred times. There are many Faridas in the Yazidi community, until when will they ask you the same thing?
It’s time to wake up. It’s enough sleep. It’s a message to the international community. It is a message to all the readers. If you can do something, I don’t know when. If you listen to Farida I hope next year Farida or somebody else will come and thank you for the actions that you did and will be great for the actions that you have already did and she will not talk about same tragic story but she will say thank you that you did all these good things. I hope we will see that.
Moderator: The words of Saeed Sulieman and Farida Abbas, Thank you very much. Farida has a question for the audience.
Farida (Saeed): My question to all of you: imagine that you are in my position, you’ve been abducted, sold, raped, your father and brother have been killed, your orphaned in captivity, your whole community is still suffering and you have tried to travel in the world for more than one year and speak and repeat the same story again and again but you don’t really see the good results. What is gonna be your feelings and what you are you gonna do? So if you want do something put yourself in my position and then answer my question. Thank you.