In December 2017, after more than three years of bloody combat operations, Iraq announced to the world that its forces had driven the Daesh militant groups out of all territories. The border with Syria was also, it said, secured. Still, some three million Iraqis remained displaced. Most of the captured regions had been destroyed so badly that rebuilding continues to be a daunting prospect. Daesh insurgent networks (or “sleeper cells”) are an ongoing threat. Meanwhile, the Kurds continue their struggle to gain an independent state. Even now, a simple Google news search yields very recent results describing the deaths of Iraqis or Daesh militants in places like Mosul and Kirkuk.
Dunya Mikhail’s account, The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, covers the 2014 to 2016 period, beginning with the genocidal massacre at Sinjar and neighboring towns. This involved Daesh moving in swiftly and systematically to capture all the towns and villages around the mountain, kill thousands of Yazidis who refused to convert, rape and enslave girls and women, and train young boys to become radicalized killers. It was all carefully planned and justified, particularly in ISIS/Daesh publications, as a religious act. As thousands of Yazidis left behind their ancestral lands and homes to attempt escape with the help of smugglers or just their own sheer grit, the Obama administration conducted airstrikes and local Kurdish Peshmerga, PKK, and YPG forces periodically attacked or withdrew as their limited resources allowed.
The word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin after World War II. Its etymology stems from “genos” (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and “-cide” (Latin for killing). But the roots of all genocide — all systems of oppression, really — lie in identity politics. The Yazidis are a Kurdish tribal minority and their monotheistic religious beliefs and practices date as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. From before the time of the Ottoman Empire, they have been the target of forced conversions. One of the primary reasons is that their key holy being — the Tawûsê Melek or Peacock Angel — is seen as a fallen angel or a satan/devil figure in Islam. (See this Guardian article.)
That said, the accelerated attacks from 2014-onwards had as much to do with political strategy as religion. Daesh wanted to drive the Yazidis away and bring more Arabs to settle in the region because the latter would enable a stronger Daeshi foothold.
In this book, Dunya Mikhail does not go much into the politics, attack strategies, or even religious differences. Her focus is on the personal chronicles of families being torn apart, men and old people being brutally shot or buried alive in mass graves, young girls and women being raped repeatedly for sport and then enslaved and sold from bidder to bidder, pregnant women being gang-raped and not allowed food or water or milk for themselves or their newborns.
Having fled Iraq in 1996 due to threats from Saddam Hussein’s government for her writing, Mikhail was in the US as she wrote this book. From 2014-onwards, she has regular phone contact from her home in Michigan with an Iraqi man named Abdallah. He is the eponymous beekeeper and the connecting link across all the stories. He began saving his own family members and then, with his network of spies and ex-cigarette smugglers, turned to rescuing others. His knowledge of the terrain and his indefatigable can-do attitude enable him to obtain the resources needed to get women and children out of harm’s way. But it is his lack of fear for the personal risk he might be putting himself to that is most impressive. At least half of the stories have been produced verbatim as first-person narratives from the women themselves. The other half are relayed directly by Abdallah and he also provides insights into his rescue approaches, dangerous as that might be. He describes his work thus:
I rely upon the same skills in my new work. I cultivated a hive of drivers and smugglers from both sexes to save our queens, the ones Daeshis call “sex slaves.” And just like in a beehive we worked with extreme care and well-planned initiatives.
Reading the conversations between Abdallah and Mikhail, it is easy to see why she refers to him more than once as a modern-day Scheherazade — spinning out unbelievable, unimaginable new stories whenever they speak. Except, of course, these stories are no diversionary entertainment — they’re accounts of reality. Every single rescue narrative includes multiple threads of cruel assaults and deaths of family members and friends murdered before the helpless survivor. Every act of bravery happens in the face of such overwhelming obstacles that it is a feat for us, as readers, to comprehend how the required strength has been mustered.
Even in the simplest prose, the raw images evoked of innocent people, including babies, being assaulted and killed are searingly powerful. Relentlessly, Mikhail parades before us each senseless act of violence and horror, each survivor’s deep desperation, and each freshly unfolding tragedy. If we readers feel, halfway through the book, the need to step away and take painful gulps of air, it’s not even a fraction of the physical and mental trauma those relating their stories must have felt when forced to witness their loved ones being shot or having throats cut, or themselves being beaten, tortured, and raped (even girls as young as nine or ten). Our visceral reaction is probably nowhere close to what Mikhail must have felt listening to them share all this first-hand and then transcribing their experiences.
Finally, when Mikhail returns to Iraq after some two decades after her own escape, she goes to the camps to meet some of the rescued women and children. She takes pictures with them but is not able to ask them more questions. The young children’s eyes haunt her with their otherworldly stare from having seen things no child should . Read an excerpt about this return visit here.
Structurally, this book is a mix of reportage, memoir, and poetry. Mikhail keeps the reportage free from sentiment. Even the memoir sections about her own past experiences in Iraq are relayed from a somewhat cool distance. But her verses show her personal emotional landscape as she tries to wrap her head around what is happening, what might come next for each survivor, and what survival even means “when the calamity survives along with you.”
Our girls, our girls, confined in chains,
dragging the world along behind them.
Some of them fall to the ground in the water in the dirt in the air on the ground,
leaving the world without meaning, like a clock with only a long hand.
Who’s left in the village?
Toward the end of the book, Mikhail recalls a popular Kurdish song, Daffodil, Daffodil, that she knew while growing up in Baghdad. She writes:
But this particular information I’m now reading about the daffodil gives me hope: one of this flower’s secrets is that even though it shrinks away when strong rains fall, once the sun shines it blooms back again. “Jinda,” as they say in Kurdish, meaning “coming back to life again.” Maybe Kurdistan is a daffodil that has only wilted temporarily, only temporarily.
At the Yazidi holy place, Lalish, she asks whether they still light 365 lanterns to welcome the New Year. She is told they still maintain the lantern ritual because it gives people a sense of hope, but all the related celebratory music ceremonies are not being observed until people return to their homes.
Sadly, in our chaotic times of Brexit, the US travel ban attempts by the Trump administration, and the Rohingya massacres, it seems like hope has dwindled to a new low as the resistance toward refugees and displaced people has reached unforeseen highs. Cathy Otten describes this as “cold violence” in a similar book released last year (With Ash on Their Faces):
Around the world, a broader kind of cold violence continues. It’s the violence of indignity, of forgetting, of carelessness and of not listening. It’s there in the way politicians talk about refugees, and in the way the stateless are sometimes written about and photographed by the western media. It’s there in the fear of outsiders. It’s there in the way humans dismiss other humans as less worthy of protection or care.
This is why, with the Yazidi genocide, there have been several recent attempts, through books like this one, along with humanitarian and legal efforts, to reduce the apathy and help bring about stability and justice. Writers like Mikhail and Otten, in particular, are trying to bear public witness because, as Bertolt Brecht wrote in his poem ‘When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain’:
When crimes begin to pile up, they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable, the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.
Immediately after the Jewish Holocaust, it was common practice to blame all Germans for what had happened. Over time, the blame shifted to the Nazis specifically. Eventually, the burden of blame fell squarely on Hitler. But genocides of this order of magnitude are never the handiwork of a single person, of course. And their reverberations are felt across the entire world for decades to come. With each such merciless genocide, it is not only some unknown, distant people in some unknown, distant region of the world who are destroyed at some odd point in time, but our collective humanity that undergoes an irretrievable measure of extinction. A book like this reminds us of this hard truth about the worst aspects of human nature.