I've said Daesh, the local name for ISIS, with a thick Yezidi accent since the summer of 2014 when I first met Kocho's living ghosts. The emphasis is on the vowels, heaviest on the 'e.' Dah-ee-sh. Maahr-fee Dah-ee-sh. It means 'there is no ISIS.'
Tomorrow marks five years since ISIS entered the small Yezedi town of Kocho in northern Iraq and tried to wipe it off the map. Kocho's ghosts––the nineteen surviving men from the town's original population of 1,888––say that day, they "survived the mass graves." When the town was taken back from ISIS three years later, I stood among the bullet casings by the mounds of dirt that cover the bodies of the dead, and I finally understood their choice of words. The nineteen surviving men lay in the piles too, wounded and bullet-ridden, playing dead among the corpses of their friends and families. Their women were taken and raped. Their children brainwashed and forced to fight. The men's fate was a pile of earth. They didn't just survive an attack. They weren't just injured. They lay in the graves where their stories were supposed to end, and tore life back from the grisliest of deaths.
That summer, ISIS swept across Iraq, killing thousands and displacing even more. IDPs were scattered like confetti sprayed across the landscape. Perched between one life and another, they were all carving out a precarious existence—drying their clothes on string hung between concrete blocks, cooking meagre meals on small fires in the dirt. The heat was bruising, and every crevice of the country was full—a riot of suffering; evidence of an exploding region. A US air campaign began in an attempt to support the Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they tried to push the militants back. I was among the chaos reporting the breaking news, unaware that I'd find myself returning again and again as I tried to excavate my heart in the same way they would eventually excavate the graves.
I hadn't yet heard of Kocho on August 19, as I book-ended a long reporting day by drinking with journalist colleagues in Erbil city. The conversation was unremarkable––sharing frustrations of difficulty negotiating access with unwilling military commanders and unloading the horror of the stories Yezedi survivors were telling us. I returned to my hotel early and logged onto Twitter in our make-shift edit suite to look for updates on the evolving crisis. An image caught my eye. It was the American freelance journalist James Foley. He was in an orange jumpsuit on his knees in the desert, next to a man in black—the man had a knife. Words became clearer through the panic: 'Video shows the beheading of journalist James Foley.'
Somehow, this eventuality had never crossed my mind. This wasn't how it was supposed to end.
I ran from room to room, shouting incoherently. Two colleagues chased me and stood awkwardly near the door, shifting their weight nervously, pleading with me not to watch the video. There was no point arguing, I was on autopilot. Unlike most of the world, I’d known James was with ISIS for months. They were holding my friend Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig too. I was living in Pete’s apartment in Turkey, from where we’d been trying to free him from the militants clutches for a year.
James' slaying changed everything. That night, for the first time, I faced the possibility they wouldn't be coming home. The story we were reporting on—ISIS' brutality and cruelty—became my own story too.
Our assignment ended two days after the news of James' death broke, and the rest of the crew left Iraq. I stayed. I was in bed, tracing the patterns on the hotel room ceiling with my gaze when a phone call punctuated the haze. A Human Rights NGO wanted me to track down the survivors of the massacre ISIS had perpetrated in Kocho on August 15, four days before James' murder. At that time, five men were thought to have crawled out from the graves and were beginning to find their way to Duhok's hospitals and safety. I was to take detailed testimonies from them that may be used in an International Court of Law someday. I agreed immediately and set off to Duhok.
A kindly school-teacher-turned-translator, Sader, offered to help me find Kocho's survivors. Tracking them down was straightforward once we gained the trust of a few members of the Yezedi community; everyone knew someone who knew someone. Before long, we were following detailed directions that led us down a small back road outside the town of Zahko, in the country's far north. As we drove the paved road gave way to gravel, and a chain-link fence crept up to our left; within it was a collection of vehicles and a few porta-cabins, sitting at odds with the expanse of the barren landscape around us. The stones crackled below the tires as we pulled into the gate. A half-dozen middle-aged men in long white robes peered out of the door of one of the porta-cabins. With their wild, scared eyes, they quickly judged Sader and me to be nonthreatening guests and ushered us into the room with them—out of sight of a now-invisible enemy. After brief introductions, we all took seats on the floor, propped up against the walls of the cabin.
I didn't tell the men that ISIS had torn my world apart days earlier; that I was there because I was punch-drunk, my thoughts too foggy, and my heart too gripped with grief to go home. As we sipped cold water from small plastic tubs, one of the men, Kichi Amo, began to tell me his story…
This is Part One of a serialized long-form article. Subsequent installments will arrive in your inbox over the next thirteen days.
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.