How do you 'move on' when your whole village—both its people and the place—are part of the event that changed your life? What does 'coming home' look like when, in the words of Somali poet Warsin Shire, "home is the barrel of a gun”?
These are the questions that propelled me back to northern Iraq just after ISIS was driven out of Kocho two years ago. The colours of the valley that stretched up on each side of the town of Dohuk were not vivid, but they felt rich as they rendered the background of dark scenes that have played on a loop my head; assigning colors to the sets of my nightmares. Years on, the country was still bursting with IDPs. The arrivals from 2014 were tucked away neatly in camps lying in remote vales across the country, while others streamed out of other towns ISIS had controlled for three years as battles were waged to drive the terror group out.
There was a familiar crackle of stones under the wheels as Sader, and I pulled into a parking lot in downtown Duhok. We stopped behind Kichi Amo's bright-red, flatbed truck, and he stepped out to greet us, expectant. He was on his way to the courthouse to take care of some paperwork for his family, and he'd dressed up for the occasion, donning crisp brown trousers and a white short-sleeved shirt with fawn and blue checks. It had been more than three years, but he recognized us. He smiled warmly; his face kind and familiar. In my mind's eye, Kichi has been confined to the porta-cabin in the countryside near Zahko, scared and afraid; yet there he was in front of me, with an enveloping smile. My heart burst. Seeing Kichi again immediately severed part of the gangrenous umbilical cord that kept me fed on the darkness we shared the last time we'd met. We shook hands and arranged to meet the next day in his sparsely furnished apartment in the outskirts of Duhok, whereupon Kichi told me that he feels "like a dead man."
By a small miracle, Kichi wasn't seriously injured in the massacre, despite being shot at alongside his family and neighbours. Later that day, his wife and children were taken captive by ISIS and driven to the nearby town of Tal Afar, along with most of Kocho's other women and children. The night I first met Kichi, I spoke to some of the captured women on mobile phones that hadn't yet been confiscated by the ISIS fighters who imprisoned them. They called each day for just three minutes imploring their families to send help—keeping conversations short to save their batteries and avoid alerting the ISIS guards to their calls. During the desperate, fleeting, calls, they described the local school, and the houses they were being kept in around the town. Eventually, the calls from Kocho's women stopped. We now know the women were kept as sex slaves, sold and traded like possessions, and repeatedly raped by ISIS fighters.
Kichi's two-month-old daughter died from a lack of milk during the first few days of captivity in Tal Afar. From there, ISIS moved his family to Syria. Kichi couldn't be without them. "I moved to Syria for eight months because I knew they were there," he said. He couldn't enter ISIS territories, but just sleeping in the same country brought him comfort and the hope that he might find them.
Eight long months later, Kichi's prayers were answered. He got his family back. Once his wife and two daughters were safe, he sent them to Germany. They were the lucky ones; among 1,100 Yezidi women offered two years of psychological assistance in a programme provided by the Baden Württemberg state and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). There, they received support to overcome their experiences as ISIS slaves. Kichi was not allowed to join his family during the treatment. When they were with ISIS, he followed them to Syria, but in Germany, he couldn't be with them.
Kichi pointed to another man smoking a water pipe on the other end of the long couch in the sparse apartment: "My cousin got [my family back] back through his relationships." The man, who didn't give his name, inhaled the pipe's sweet smoke and frantically sent WhatsApp messages. At one point the man took a call, and I overheard him say he'd pay $5,000 for each of three of Kocho's missing girls. He was quietly negotiating their release. I asked Kichi if I'd heard correctly and he confirmed it while proudly retrieving a folder showing the names of the women they saved from ISIS. "More than 885 women and girls were with Daesh. With the help of my cousin and some Yazidis, we have rescued more than 577 of the people from Kocho," He announced.
Two small, fearful girls peered around the door of the living room. Kichi introduced us and explained that one had been rescued from ISIS just a few days earlier but had no living family to return to. Retrieving Kocho's women brings him pride and a sense of purpose—it's how he's coping with the trauma he's lived through.
This is Part Four of a serialized long-form essay published in newsletter form. Subsequent installments will arrive in your inbox over the next eight days, during the fifth anniversary of the genocide in Kocho.
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Revolutionary Ghosts is a newsletter of personal writing by Emma Beals. It’s about how Syria changed the world and how reporting on it changed me, the idea of moral injury and the practice of moral repair, and the mess we're in and what we do about it. There will also be recipes.