“Daesh [ISIS] feel they have the right to use sabaya girls as personal slaves. To rape them and sell them.” The horrors of life for Yazidi women inside the refugee camp of Al-Hol are laid bare in Kurdish-Swedish filmmaker Hogir Horiri’s devastating documentary, Sabaya.
Almost numbed by the never-ending atrocities he has witnessed and hears on a daily basis, these words come from Mahmud Resho, who, along with Shejk Ziyad, runs the Yazidian Home Center in Northeast Syria. Spoken with a weary resignation, the blunt reality and matter-of-factness with which Mahmud describes the situation they face is reflected in Horiri’s unflinching film. Sabaya does not shy away from the horrendous circumstances it finds, exhibiting bitterly raw emotion, fear and heartbreak very frankly.
The Yazidis are a Kurdish ethnic minority whose homes in the Sinjar province in northern Iraq were attacked by Daesh. With fathers and brothers murdered, often before their eyes, thousands of women were then forced to convert to Islam and taken captive, transported to Mosul, Raqqa and onto the Al-Hol camp. It is these “sabaya”, a term used by Daesh to describe Yazidi women that they have taken as sex slaves, that Resho and Ziyad spend countless days, and many, many nights attempting to free with the help of infiltrators within the camp.
Though the UNHCR emblem is seen in flashes of torchlight as we enter the camp for repeated late-night searches, no humanitarian aid or intervention is anywhere to be seen. These are two ordinary men doing what they can, what they must, to free as many women, and girls as young as seven, as possible and return them to their families across the Syria-Iraq border. Mahmud and Shejk know the right people, and rely on the Syrian Democratic Forces for support, but there is a fearlessness to their actions which is almost impossible to comprehend.
Aware of the danger, and perhaps inured to it, Mahmud is armed with a handgun and his mobile phone, which rings incessantly with images and stories of more and more kidnapped girls. Horiri does not interject, but documents with curiosity, compassion and a great deal of courage. Coming under fire, and in the knowledge that entering the camp at any time is extremely dangerous, he is with Mahmud every stumbling step and bumpy jeep ride of the way. The tension – at times unbearable – is cut intermittently as Horiri, with DP and editing duties to his name as well as direction, takes in the scarred landscape, birds in flight across an azul sky, ruined buildings and often follows Shadi, Mahmud’s son, as he plays around their yard.
Mahmud takes a moment to quietly smoke a cigarette, but there’s never any sense of celebration here – there are always more girls to save. There are few such momentary breathers, but these shots also root the extraordinary rescue missions in the everyday lives of Mahmud’s family. His wife may nag at him for being away so often, but both she and his mother are vital in welcoming and attempting to rehabilitate rescued girls who arrive at the Center.
Speaking of the beatings they received, being sold from one Daesh man to another, the complete lack of control they had over their own lives for years on end, some talk of suicide as the only escape, even after being freed. Greater bravery still is shown by women from Sinjar, some of whom were formerly sabaya, volunteering to enter the camp and act as infiltrators to assist Mahmud and Shejk. The struggle goes on, but the will and determination of this extraordinary group to do so goes with it.
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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63