Today, we continue with an exciting 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. In this thrilling photo essay, Williams documents his journey to Iraq to rescue a young girl from the repressed Yazidi community who had been kidnapped by ISIS. Check out Part 1 here, and to find more of Williams's photos and articles, visit his website.
The mission to free Fayza actually began in May of 2017 when I was carrying out fieldwork in Bosnia for the defense in a federal terrorism case. Christopher Natola, one of my brightest students who had assisted me in writing my book Counter Jihad, suggested that I actually go to scenic Cornwall, England to meet Anne while I was in Europe. Spurred on by his words, I took a flight from Sarajevo to London, then took a wonderful four hour train ride across England, down to the cliff-side town of Penzance to meet the woman who so fascinated me.
I was welcomed at the train station overlooking a scenic bay and was driven by Anne to the famous “Shed” in her amazing flower-filled garden. For a few days I did an “embed” with Anne and got to see her in action. Living with Anne was like being in the center of a one-person global enterprise that saw her communicating via Facebook with Yazidis who had found asylum in Germany, members of her network in Iraqi Kurdistan trying to free a sex slave, hosting fundraisers in her local community, and, in between, taking time to tell me personal stories and showing me pictures of all of the Yazidis that she and her network of “Mosquitos” (as her team were called in their secret Facebook group) had helped.
Anne did all of this while single handedly raising a wonderful son and working as a nurse in a doctor’s surgery clinic. I was in awe of her. Anne, a single English mother who was making a difference in a world dominated by war, fanaticism, cynicism, and apathy. Her story was almost Hollywood-esque in its sense of mission against all odds. Anne demonstrated that nothing is impossible, that one person can make a tremendous difference.
I flew home back to Boston inspired to tell her story. It was then that the now-famous text message arrived: “We have a girl named Fayza, her ISIS captor is asking 17,000 dollars for her release or she will disappear into the burning black hole that is ISIS-controlled Mosul, Iraq.”
We needed the money and we needed to get it to a smuggler, who would take most of the profits for going into the heart of darkness that was besieged Mosul, to evacuate Fayza out of the burning city. I was deeply touched by the fact that a young Yazidi girl who had the chance to be liberated had the same name as my former wife Feyza. I lost no time in contacting Fayza and she instantly offered her support to our cause. Together we collected funds to assist and, with Fayza’s blessing and prayers for protection, I decided to join Anne and her team which included: K.P., a Canadian Sikh optometrist; Juliet, an English woman from Devon and Baderkhan; and Khairi, a Yazidi friend—all three of whom were members of the Mosquitos.
In early June I flew from Boston via Istanbul to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan with the raised funds. There I reunited with Anne, whom I had by now dubbed the “Angel of Sinjar” (Sinjar being the Yazidis’ sacred mountain). With Baderkhan and Khairi as our local guides, we drove northward parallel to the frontlines of the ongoing war with ISIS towards the northern town of Duhok. As Anne’s contact kept us updated by the hour, we waited anxiously to see if the money we delivered to the daring Yazidi smuggler would actually free Fayza and reunite her with her family, who were living in a sprawling refugee camp.
While we waited for news in 110-degree heat, we visited various Yazidi refugee camps where we met with girls who had been recently liberated from slavery. Their stories were too horrific to bare and it was obvious they were tormented by all they had experienced in three years of brutal slavery. I watched as Anne, Juliet, and K.P. gave each girl several hundred dollars (a small fortune for these, the poorest and most traumatized of refugees who had returned from slavery with only the clothes on their backs).
Apart from those who we met who had literally just escaped captivity, Anne knew all of her cases and their families intimately. She was greeted with hugs and tears as she met with one Yazidi woman who had the sad fate of having lost her husband to ISIS and had suffered for three years with a prolapsed/herniated disc in her back while caring for 11 children in a tented camp in Kurdistan with no way of making a living. Anne and her team went from tent to tent reuniting with people who had become well known to them. In the process, money was given to a woman who needed surgery, toys were given to children of a former ISIS slave, Anne met with UN High Commission for Refugees representatives to discuss a Canadian resettlement program… and we all awaited anxiously for word on Fayza.
Then came the news we had been waiting for: the smuggler sent a triumphant cell phone photo of himself driving Fayza, who we had only seen in ISIS photographs nervously wearing a headscarf, from the Mosul war zone to her parents in the refugee camp. At the last minute, the ISIS captor had lowered his demands and we had rescued Fayza from certain death in Mosul and reunited her with her family.
The images of a crying Fayza being embraced by her weeping father and her mother were, for me, in many ways a rare image of joy in a land defined by death, misery, fanaticism, and slavery. Our team did not probe Fayza on her personal details or the horrors she experienced, as it was not our place to do so. Sadly, there is rarely consistent psychological counselling for Yazidi slave girls or child soldiers freed from ISIS. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are sadly extremely common. We knew that their lives had been shattered and picking up the pieces would take many years, but we all took consolation in the fact that our small group had made a difference. One beautiful young Yazidi girl now had something that so many other sex slaves did not have: freedom and a chance to live her life.
Although Fayza is now out of the reach of her ISIS tormentors, her future is still very uncertain, as she is living in tent 16 of the Chem Misko refugee camp amongst tens of thousands of fellow refugees outside the town of Zacho. While it is difficult to know what sort of demons or nightmares Fayza is suffering from, I took some consolation from the last image I saw of Anne enveloping Fayza in her loving arms, having saved one more of her “children.”
I am now safely back in Boston once more, and I guess some of my own demons and sense of guilt that long haunted me have been exorcised by the freeing of just one fourteen-year-old girl from the horrors of slavery at the hands of brutal terrorists. But I, like Anne, have been touched to my soul by the plight of the Yazidis, and particularly of those young girls still languishing in captivity. I cannot help but wonder how much more we Americans or Europeans would care if we had saved one American or British girl from slavery.
The images of Fayza sitting in Anne’s arms smiling at the camera, still in shock, inspire me now to make this plea: if you have long felt that you cannot make a difference in the world, overcome your apathy and self-doubt in order to believe that you can. And you can start by reaching out to Anne and assisting her in her mission through funds, online activism. Or who knows—perhaps you too can travel to the wind-swept deserts of northern Iraq to help one determined English woman save Yazidi girls… one person at a time.
To learn more about Anne Norona and how you can help, visit the Y.E.S – Yazidi Emergency Support group on Facebook.