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Brenda Stoter

How one Yazidi family was saved from IS by an Arab tribal leader

Nadine (left) and her family, saved by a bond with an Arab family [Brenda Stoter]

Date of publication: 8 August, 2017

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In-depth: An ancient circumcision ritual bonded Nadine's family with that of a wealthy Arab, who sheltered them from the genocidal Islamic State group, reports Brenda Stoter.

​It's been three years since the Islamic State group attacked her village in the district of Sinjar, but Nadine Naif remembers it like it was yesterday.

The 47-year-old mother of three was in her house in Tel Banat when an IS militant came to their home, pretending that he wanted to help them. "Stay here. In the evening I will come back to take care of you," the fighter urged them.

Back then, Nadine and her relatives didn't exactly know what on what was going on. The reports of thousands of Yazidi murders at the hands of IS, and the kidnapping of 10,000 women and children, had yet to emerge.

They decided to leave their home.

"We went to our uncle's place nearby. But IS caught us while we were trying to hide from them," Nadine told The New Arab,while sitting in her tent at an IDP camp near the city of Duhok.

IS militants took them first to a village where they were holding hundreds of Yazidi families in captivity. After twenty days, the whole family was transferred to Kocho, another Yazidi village that IS had taken over. Here, they managed to contact a man named Fadel.

Video: [From the archives]
A Yazidi who escaped IS tells her story

Fadel was a wealthy Sunni, and a tribal leader from the Shammar tribe, one of the world's largest and most influential Arab tribes. He was also a close friend of the family.

When Fadel found out where the family was, he rushed to the IS headquarters in Kocho, where he negotiated with the local militant leaders. "Please, let me take them with me," he told them. "They belong with me."

Read more: Yazidi survivor demands genocide trial for IS leaders

While thousands of other Yazidi women and children were transferred to other places in Iraq and Syria - and most of the Yazidi men were killed on the spot - Nadine and her children, along with dozens of their relatives, were taken to the tribal leader's house in Ba'aj, a small town in Nineveh governorate.

Immediately, the family buried their mobile phones and Yazidi clothing. It was the beginning of a long period in hiding.

But why would the local sheikh go to such lengths to protect this Yazidi family? The families go way back and have a long history together, explained Nadine. He was their 'krive' - a kind of godfather or patron. "And he had promised to protect us," Nadine said.

Just like Muslims, Yazidis circumcise their young boys. During the ceremony, the man who holds the boy on their lap is considered his godfather, or "blood brother" - or krive.

Before 2003, the krive was often historically selected from among religious families or even influential Muslim families. Yazidis believe that this creates a special bond between two clans; they have to respect and protect each other whenever needed.

But the ritual shared between the two religious groups declined amid Iraq's sectarian violence, and after the Yazidi genocide in 2014, it completely disappeared. 

Feature continues below map



Other Yazidi families didn't enjoy the protection offered by this ritual bonding. In many camps across northern Iraq, Yazidis share stories of how their Arab neighbours, with whom they had lived with in the same villages for decades, cooperated with the militant group.

Some local Arabs hunted them down or helped IS execute the men, they testified. There were 6,470 Yazidi women and children known to have been enslaved by IS fighters, a spokesperson of the Kurdistan Regional Government said, and thousands more are suspected to have been taken. They were kept by militants as sex slaves, raped again and again, and killed when their bodies could take no more.

Read more: IS publishes 'rules for female slavery'

But Fadel never once thought about betraying Nadine's family, she said.

"He was very good and friendly, and treated all of us like we were his own family. He never expected us to pray and gave us plenty of food. His wealth was our wealth."

 
Fairuz, now 16, feared she would be sold into
sexual slavery if caught by IS [Brenda Stoter]

But it wasn't easy. "Still, life was stressful," she said. "If I wasn't busy hiding, I was busy crying instead."

Although they dressed and behaved like Muslims, they were always living in fear of being discovered.

They spent their days feeding sheep and doing manual labour on the farm. They never left the village and had little contact with anyone - even their close neighbours.

"We had to be very careful because [IS] had spies everywhere. It was like we were living in a prison," said Fairuz Hassan, Nadine's 16-year-old daughter.

The fear was all-encompassing, said Nadine. "If a strange car passed by, we would hide ourselves inside the home. We were particularly worried about the youngest girls like Fairuz. Maybe IS would have insisted on marrying them off." Nadine looked at her daughter with worried eyes.

Read more: Harrowing video sheds light on IS' sickening sex slavery

In February, fighting was raging between the Iraqi army and IS. Fairuz was injured while working outside in an airstrike targeting a nearby IS base. The wounds to the teenager's stomach and legs were so severe that there was no option but to go to the local hospital.

When they arrived, they walked right into the hisbah - the religious police of the Islamic State group. The IS officers immediately asked why the bleeding Fairuz was disobeying the strict dress code for women - not wearing a black face veil.  

"We didn’t have time to put it on, she is hurt very badly," her mother said quickly, showing an IS identity document Fadel had arranged for them.

The paper stated that the family were Kurdish Muslims. In the two months that Fairuz had to stay at the hospital, the family were in constant fear that someone would discover they were Yazidis.

"The nurses in the hospital treating me belonged to IS. If one of them would have asked me to pray, they would have found out I was a Yazidi," said Fairuz. "I never learned how to pray in the Islamic way," she added, holding her stomach. She has still not fully recovered.

Fortunately, it never got that far. By the end of April, middlemen paid by the KRG smuggled the whole family - a total of 36 people - out of Ba'aj after months of negotiation. Two months later, a number of villages south of Sinjar city, Ba'aj and Kocho included, were "liberated" by Iraq's Shia Hashd al-Shaabi Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The whole family now lives in smalls tent in an IDP camp.

Fadel and his family also fled to safer areas.

"We are very grateful," said Nadine. "Thanks to him, we are still alive."


Brenda Stoter is a Dutch journalist who writes about the Middle East, with special attention to women and children and Western female jihadists. Her articles have been published by Al Jazeera English, al-Monitor and Middle East Eye as well as featured in Dutch and Belgium national newspapers and magazines, including De Tijd, Trouw and De Groene Amsterdammer.

Follow her on Twitter: @BrendaStoter

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