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Freeing Fayza: A Photo Essay — Part 1

15605Today, we have a guest post from Brian Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and author of Counter Jihad: America's Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, which is the first history of America's military operations against radical Islamists, from the Taliban-controlled Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, to the Sunni Triangle of Iraq, to ISIS's headquarters in the deserts of central Syria. He previously worked for the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Afghanistan and has carried out extensive fieldwork in war zones from Kosovo to Kashmir. In this thrilling two-part photo essay, Williams documents his journey to Iraq to rescue a young girl from the repressed Yazidi community who had been kidnapped by ISIS. For more of his photos and articles, visit his website.

It began with an electrifying text message from a member of a network dedicated to freeing Yazidis, a repressed ancient race from Northern Iraq that adhere to a pre-Abrahamic faith that can be traced back to Babylonia, Persia, Assyria and Mesopotamia). The message was stark and simple: “We have a fourteen year old girl whose ISIS captor is willing to sell her for 17,000 dollars. Her name is Fayza Murad from the northern Iraqi town of Siber.” If we could get to Iraq with the required sum, we could save one of the thousands of Yazidi girls who had been dragged off and sold into slavery by the ISIS fanatics who conquered their remote homeland in northern Iraq in August of 2014. If we did not obtain the money there was a high probability that Fayza would never be seen again, as the ISIS “caliphate,” or Islamic holy state, was just about to collapse under assault from Kurdish Peshmerga (“Those Who Face Death”) fighters, Iraqi Army, and U.S.-led coalition bombing.

Thus began a frantic search for money that led myself and a brave group of multinational volunteers, led by a fiery English woman named Anne Norona, from the safety of our homes to the sprawling refugee camps in the burning deserts of Northern Iraq. For me, it was to be the culmination of a long journey to explore the history of a dying race whose origins lay in the mists of time and to share their story with a world that did not seem to care about their genocide at the hands of jihadists.

Lailish: An Entry into the World of a Dying Race

My journey to comprehend this fascinating race—who have endured not only jihadi extermination but centuries of conquest and enslavement by their Muslim neighbors, who defined them as “devil worshippers”—began while researching a history of America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Counter Jihad. In the winter of 2016, I was invited by two prominent Kurdish generals leading the assault against ISIS. At the time, ISIS’s territory in Mosul and northern Iraq lay perilously close to these men’s own Kurdish capital, Erbil, and their mountainous homeland known as Kurdistan. There, I joined a platoon of brave Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, a volunteer fighting force that defended the Kurdish sanctuary in the mountains of north eastern Iraq.

Anne-Norona-at-Ancient-Yazidi-Shrine-

An ancient Yazidi shrine. (Photo courtesy of Brian Glyn Williams)

As we looked across the valley at ISIS positions facing their lines in the distance, I was introduced to my first Yazidi. This source enthralled me with stories of the ancient rituals of his people, whom the world gravely misunderstood as “pagans,” and brought to life the epic story of his long-persecuted race. It was this fascinating narrative that inspired me to travel northward from our fire base at the newly recaptured Mosul Dam to the ancient heart of the Yazidis, their remote mountain temple located dangerously close to ISIS’s frontlines. I was provided with a rare opportunity to access an ancient stone temple and to see Yazidi pilgrims solemnly praying, dipping their hands in a sacred pool of Azrael, the Death Angel. I even had the extraordinary privilege of meeting their second highest priest, Baba Chavush.

As I sat with this gentle holy man, he spoke of centuries of genocide at the hands of surrounding Turks and Arabs, as well as his hopes for peace for his people and all of humanity. With a gold peacock next to him—the peacock being a figure that represents the Yazidis’ primary god, Malak Tawus—he lamented the fate of thousands of Yazidi girls who had been dragged against their will from their families into ISIS captivity and forgotten by an uncaring world.

I flew back to my own safe home in Boston feeling both blessed for having been given such a rare entry into the world of one of the most ancient races in existence, but at the same time troubled by the pain in Baba Chavush’s voice as he described the unimaginable and horrific fate of Yazidi slave girls living in the clutches of their ISIS captors. Their story moved me to write articles about the Yazidi plight, but there was not much more I could do. After all, I was just one man living far away from the war zones of the Middle East.

Little did I know there was, however, another person on the planet far braver than myself, who had decided that she would make that difference. It was this woman, Anne Norona, who would ultimately take me from Boston and once again launch me into the maelstrom of the Middle East.

Anne Norona: Single Mother, Nurse, and “Angel of Sinjar”

Anne-Norona-photo

Anne Norona. (Photo courtesy of Brian Glyn Williams).

Following my field research in the embattled mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, I began to connect with a growing network of Yazidis who I had met on Facebook. They spoke of their dreams for the liberation of their homeland, a return from their refugee camps to their holy mountain haven, Mount Sinjar, and once again—and most painfully—of the plight of thousands of daughters and sisters living as Sabbiya (Koran-endorsed slave girls). I was even shown a horrific video some Yazidis had acquired of black-clad, heavily armed ISIS fighters waving the black banner of Jihad and shouting “Allah u Akbar!” as they triumphantly dragged screaming girls as young as 11 from the pleading hands of their terrified mothers. It sickened me to my core. I was nauseated when I heard that ISIS members considered raping “pagan infidels” to be an act of worship. I was moved by online interviews of members of this peaceful race, who spoke of the horrors of enslavement by the men who had ritualistically slit the throats of their fathers and brothers, gunned down woman over the age of 40 in trenches, and blown up their ancient temples with their priests still inside of them.

Some of the most impactful images I had ever seen in my life were of a brave Yazidi girl named Nadia Murad who had escaped captivity and told the world of the horrors she had endured during her time as an ISIS slave. Nadia became my hero as she traveled the world, from the halls of the U.N. to the airwaves of CNN and even to my own state of Massachusetts, pleading for help for her people and sharing her unbearable story.

As I burned with a sense of helplessness, fury, and desire to help, I received an unusual Facebook message from someone identifying herself as Anne Norona. Her initial messages were guarded, and she wanted to know where my interests in the Yazidis came from. When I explained I was a Welshman/American who had dedicated his life to performing fieldwork amongst various persecuted ethnic minorities ranging from the isolated Kalash Pagans on the Afghan Pakistan border to the Kosovo Albanians and Bosnians she began to open up to me and, in the process, I got to know someone whose life dream was to “grow flowers in my garden and save Yazidis.”    

It soon became apparent that Anne was a fascinating English globe roamer of the sort that had marched out and conquered much of the world, including such names as Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell, and Dr. David Livingston. Anne similarly burned with the desire to get out into the world and help others, but instead of writing books and articles, she put boots on the ground and worked as a volunteer nurse in places ranging from Haiti to the Greek Island of Lesbos, located just off the Turkish coast. Having spent thirteen summers living south of Lesbos with my ex-wife Feyza’s family in the beautiful Turkish coastal village of Cesme, I had myself witnessed the flow of war-haunted Iraqi and Syrian refugees fleeing through Turkey in a desperate attempt to reach the Greek Isles and obtain asylum in the European Union. Lesbos was the frontline on the largest immigration of humans since World War II, and tens of thousands of refugees were living in squalor in makeshift refugee camps on the island.

It was while Anne and a team of volunteers were working for Health Point Foundation in the medical tent in the city of Moria, Lesbos that she came across her first Yazidis. For Anne, a single mother who had run away from home as a rebellious teenager and explored much of the world from Africa to the Orient, her meeting with the Yazidis was in many ways a fulfillment of what the Arabs call kismet, “fate.”

The Yazidis Anne encountered were different from the Muslim Arab refugees in the Lesbos camps. They were physically smaller, were more shy, were often embarrassed to receive assistance, carried themselves with a sense of nobility, and sadly faced continued persecution from Arab /Muslim refugees who mocked them by chanting “Allah u Akbar’’ or attacked them as
“Devil worshippers.” They had in many ways been deprived of much of the assistance going to the Arab /Muslim refugees as a result of their shyness and continued persecution at the hands of Muslims. It became obvious to Anne and her medical team that the Yazidis needed special care, and that is how Anne’s life was changed forever.   

Anne, and a new Yazidi friend and counterpart Shaker Jeffery, became involved in the personal cases of Yazidis, realizing that they had the best of both worlds: Anne had all the contacts in Greece and Shaker all the Yazidi contacts. It was the perfect match. With this combination, they were able to address numerous cases, from helping a young Yazidi woman who urgently needed an eye operation to save her from certain blindness to finding emergency rescuers to help Yazidis petrified and surrounded by violent smugglers in Macedonia to alerting the Greek coastguards when Yazidi boats were crossing the Mediterranean Sea and encountering difficulties.

Anne’s instinct to side with the underdog and to fight in their corner propelled her determination to defend this much-persecuted people. Ultimately, this burning sense of mission drove her to Iraq itself, where she and a trusted team of key Yazidi workers and doctors worked to provide emergency support to the most vulnerable in any given situation. She soon became known throughout the Yazidi community as someone to be contacted in moments of need, and she remained available 24 hours a day online. She would utilize crowdfunding on Facebook to raise money for desperate cases, providing emergency assistance for ISIS survivors, orphans and medical cases.  

Eventually, Anne made her way back home to Britain, to her self-constructed home which she called “The Shed” situated in a flower-covered field near the cliffs of Penzance in remote Cornwall, England. However, she continued her work to assist Yazidis in obtaining passports, supporting survivors and orphans, providing access to medical treatments, and on occasion even helping to free one of the poor Yazidi girls trapped in ISIS slavery.

While Anne would make desperate pleas for help online and among her local community, her mission to provide multifaceted assistance to a dying race that found itself scattered in refugee camps far from their home and facing extinction went largely unnoticed by an uncaring world that was more interested in things like Donald Trump’s latest Twitter storm or Kim Kardashian’s weight gain. That was until things changed in May of 2017. In that month, a desperate plea came from the burning city of Mosul, the capital of the Iraqi half of the ISIS terror state, which would propel both Anne and myself back into the Middle Eastern deserts to free one girl from her terrorist captors.