Kocho's Living Ghosts - Part Two

This is Part Two of a serialized long-form essay. Read Part One.

As dawn broke in Kocho on August 3, a group of residents climbed swiftly and silently into their cars and started their engines. The day's temperatures were yet to creep into the high 40's. There were no planes in the sky, no Kurdish Peshmerga troops in sight to protect them. News of ISIS' advance in the neighbouring area had reached Kocho, and they feared the window of time before the group's fighters arrived was closing––they had to get away. Their vehicles were exposed against the arid landscape as they began down the main road toward Sinjar, 35 kilometres away. Soon ISIS-branded SUVs with their big black flags waving roared up behind them, forcing the convoy off the road.  The fighters pulled the fifty members of Kocho's tight-knit community out of their vehicles, lined them up along the side of the road, and shot every last one of them.

The convoy's two survivors let everyone back in Kocho know what happened and warned them to stay where they were. So that's precisely what Kichi Amo did. He was still in Kocho that afternoon when ISIS fighters began to materialize in town.

As he spoke to me, Kichi began scrolling through his phone, bringing up pictures of a wise-looking older man. The man in the photographs was Ahmad Yasim Kasan, Kocho's village chief, or Mukhtar. He served his people faithfully and was, in turn, deeply respected by Kichi and the others from the village. Kichi showed me image after image––the Mukhtar alone, in robes, and with the men of the town––co-opting me into trusting him too.

When the fighters appeared in Kocho, the Mukhtar called his equals in the neighbouring Arab villages—whose Sunni-Muslim populations he suspected were able to appeal to the militants to spare the village. "Please," he begged; "Ask them to treat us in a good way." When the ISIS fighters told the town's residents to give up their weapons and raise a white flag, they thought the Mukhtar's plea's had worked. The militants surrounded the town and blocked all entry and exit points, climbing onto the rooves of the houses to keep a watchful eye on the town. Kichi was afraid, but ISIS told them they were safe. They had no choice but to trust them.

The siege lasted twelve days. On August 15, Abu Hamza, a local ISIS Emir—a religious leader with a role akin to that of a local mayor for the group— swept into Kocho and made an announcement that brought the standoff to an end: All Kocho's men should assemble in the school with their families—even the sick and elderly. They shouldn't bring their belongings, only their ID's. At 4p.m. the whole village would go to Sinjar mountain, to safety.

Kocho's Mukhtar wanted the best for his people, so he helped gather them all at the school, just as Abu Hamza asked. Kichi and every one of Kocho's residents complied. Again, Kichi explained that they would follow their leader anywhere. He needed me to understand––to explain the inexplicable––betraying his sense of self-doubt about the tiny moments he'd mistakenly perceived he had any agency at all.

ISIS separated the men and women as they entered the school––each group stood on one side of the atrium of the building they were so familiar with, the hub of their community. Their mobile phones were taken, and the ISIS fighters pulled out bags marked with their insignia that they placed the villagers' gold and valuables in. They even took the earrings from the ears of the women.

Abu Hamza stood between them. "If you join Islam, you can stay here." He announced. They didn't want to leave their religion; nobody raised their hand. "Then you can't stay. We'll take you to the mountain." Abu Hamza barked, enraged––then he left. Another ISIS Emir arrived. He spoke in Kurmanji Kurdish with an accent peculiar to Sulaymaniyah, lulling Kichi in a false sense of security. He spoke Kurdish like them. He would help. They would be safe. He repeated Abu Hamza's statement: Anyone unwilling to convert would go to Sinjar, and safety.

Pick-up trucks began to appear at the doors to the school. The men went first. Nobody wanted to leave their village and their homes, but they trusted the Mukhtar and the Kurdish-speaking man. Everyone raced to be the first to pile onto the pick-ups.

Kichi was on the back of one of the trucks as it headed down one the small roads out of town and stopped in a nearby field. There, the men were ordered off the back of the truck onto their stomachs on the ground. Then, ten ISIS fighters shot them with machine guns. A man with a pistol checked for signs of life; if someone moved or breathed, he shot them again.

When the gunmen left, Kichi crawled out from beneath the bodies of his family and friends. Unwilling to believe he'd survived, he checked his body for injuries, shocked to find he'd not been hit. Then he ran for his life through the fields before the militants returned to bury the dead….

This is Part Two of a serialized long-form article published in newsletter form. Subsequent installments will arrive in your inbox over the next twelve days during the fifth anniversary of the genocide in Kocho. Not a subscriber? Subscribe Now.

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.