The Reluctant Bomb Technicians of Sinjar

ISIS saw that as idolatry, which could not be allowed to exist within their caliphate, and had marked the Yazidis for slavery, forcible conversion, or death. The EOD men were wiry, with beards or stubble, and smoked as often as they could. They would be designated “high-risk searchers.” The remaining six were IED disposal (IEDD) operators, all Arabs from the Mosul area, who were a little older and had been part of Iraqi army bomb disposal units before. As she moved forward on her own, she saw the shape of an old man lying there, unmoving and stiff — surely dead. They would begin, the G4S team leaders told them, by clearing Hatimiye. Parts of it are now lived in again, and shops selling basic goods have opened on a couple of thoroughfares along with a few little restaurants. The women scratched themselves, covered their faces in dirt, said that they were older than they were or that they were married and had children — anything that might make them less appealing. There was an olive grove to the northwest, wheat fields around, and then miles of scrubland where the cows and sheep grazed. In that case, the switch could be a pressure plate hidden on a path. In November 2015, Noura watched on television as a force led by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters retook Sinjar, pushing down from the mountain range that gave the city its name as American airstrikes roared in, then celebrating with gunfire and triumphant V signs. He opened it and saw a man holding a Kalashnikov and dressed in black, like the corpses on Facebook. At around 9:00 a.m., her group was out of sight of the plains and following a rocky ridge eastward. She was overjoyed too until she saw the footage of the ruined old town, the burned-out houses, the mass graves. They were bussed out to an abandoned high school in the Assyrian town of Bartella, which had been retaken from ISIS more than two years earlier but was still sparsely populated and partly ruined. So was her sister-in-law, who had fallen in the dark. Women and girls, including Nishwan’s sister, who was then pregnant, were taken upstairs. The men returned to their families with instructions — when ISIS made their expected afternoon visit, courtyards should be being washed, errands being run, and a light shining in every house, with the generators working if there was no power. Hatimiye was a conservative community just outside the city of Sinjar, where women generally married young and soon had children. Families often sold everything they had to pay those ransoms — land, homes, valuables — then borrowed more money still. There were people inside, Sinjaris who had fled there a week before and knew that Hatimiye had been surrounded. The Mukhtar asked them for their phones — turned off — which he dumped in a donkey’s saddlebag. Most of the team shrugged or smiled when they heard, happy only to be starting to work. Shamal and Nishwan’s place was on a muddy road near the city center, Noura’s a few streets over, close to an unexcavated mass grave. They all knew how far voices traveled in the desert at night, and they were all scared. A basic IED consists of a switch with a power source wired to a small amount of energetic explosives known as an initiator, then a larger main explosive charge, usually all held in a container of some sort. The team moved on, and Noura’s wait was over. On July 4, 2014, in the city’s al-Nuri mosque, ISIS’s gray-bearded leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself leader of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. ISIS usually left behind bombs when they retreated, designed to kill whoever trod there next. “We left all of our relatives behind,” she said to them. They learned, too, about the various conventional munitions they might encounter and how dangerous it was to handle unexploded examples. Nishwan dashed off first, heading back to Hatimiye to be with his family. Traces of the panicked flight of 2014 remain, rags of clothes trampled into the verge, wrecked and abandoned cars littering the ravine below. Satisfied, Abu Hamza and his men withdrew to positions overlooking the village. Nishwan kept up a patter of jokes, showing anyone available his latest pictures of Nidar and occasionally breaking off to speak to his wife on the phone. Shamal’s heart was a more manageable speed by then, and Noura was so busy helping her family that she barely had time to be worried. There was running water and, theoretically, power too, though the villagers also relied on diesel generators that rattled on around dusk. One night, a member of the team’s administrative staff leaned toward me. “Or you’ll vomit it back up and finish the rest of our water too.”
Even after that, the old man could not get up, and they had to leave him behind as well. “I need the weapons of the village,” the man said. Its whitewashed walls and wooden desks were the beginning and end of formal education for nearly all of the children in the northern Iraqi village, including Noura Salah, who attended from the time she was six through the end of ninth grade. But in the early hours of August 3, when groups of ISIS fighters loaded into pickups and advanced on Sinjar from Mosul, Tal Afar, and across the Syrian border, the Peshmerga instead retreated in disarray without firing a shot or issuing an evacuation order. Strengthened by pillaged weapons and an increasingly unstoppable reputation, they routed the Iraqi army and overran nearly a third of the country, even Mosul. ¤
In October last year, I traveled to meet the EOD team, driving out from Mosul and into the Sinjar mountains, where some displaced Yazidis still live in tents and shacks by the side of the Saddam-era road. There were three months of what felt to them like military-style training conducted by a Maltese firm and British security contractor G4S. She remembered him from school: a nice, polite boy. “Stop,” she told him. No one I spoke to planned to return to the plains. Noura gave him a half full bottle and he drained it down. But Noura felt as if she would burst, suddenly overwhelmed with fantasies of walking into her house and finding everything just as she had left it. Among them, although Noura did not know it, was another of Hatimiye’s sons: Nishwan Khalaf, who had been three years ahead of her in school and close with Shamal. Nishwan had lived near the middle of those 46 houses, a big building by Hatimiye standards, with a view in every direction. It was a certificate issued on September 27, 2006, by the Ministry of Education, the personal details completed in blue ink, a passport-style picture of a young and slightly concerned-looking boy glued to the top left corner. Nails, ball bearings, screws, or glass are often added to create projectiles. The old man must have been left behind by his family. The people of Hatimiye had heard by then of a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that had appeared in the south of the country earlier in the year. One of the men risked taking a photo of the newcomers on his phone. Yazidism’s insular orthodoxies discouraged spending too much time with outsiders, but Nishwan and the others in Hatimiye did not always follow that. ISIS men from Iraq and Syria bought them anyway, for a few hundred dollars, or perhaps a little more for the youngest, and separated them from their families and everything else that they had known. “We are making the decision,” the mukhtar told them. The thought of being close to bombs still worried Noura, but she was pleased and surprised to see Nishwan alongside Shamal. One for a funeral and one for a wedding.”
Shamal went on to study accounting in Mosul until one day, militants stopped a busload of Yazidi students on their way into the city, beheaded two, and shot 10 others. But Noura’s family wanted to move back to Hatimiye and so did Shamal’s, so the team made sure that those houses were safe too. Hatimiye, and with it Kocho, was cut off before anyone there realized what was happening. She still recognized it, though, and as she worked, her schooldays returned to her. Men, along with any boy old enough to have underarm hair, were kept on the ground floor. The Sinjar region, though, was controlled by the Kurdish regional government and its Peshmerga fighters, who had a formidable reputation and had promised to protect the Yazidis. That last bit made Nishwan feel embarrassed. His followers began to target any non-Sunnis who had not yet fled, reserving a special hatred for Yazidis. But it also hurls out fragments of casing and any included shrapnel (along with anything else that happens to be in the vicinity, like soil, sand, and gravel), killing people outright or causing devastating soft tissue injuries. Sometimes they would see the lights of a car or truck moving along a road in the distance and would throw themselves down hard in the grass and dust until it had disappeared. There were 46 concrete or mud brick houses, built around a horseshoe-shaped tarmac road and a series of tire-worn tracks leading off it. Visitors, though, might not have found much to tell it apart from the settlements dotted across the plains that stretch arid and dusty from Mosul all the way to the Syrian border. That sounded horribly dangerous to Noura, but as she thought more about it, she realized it might help solve two of her problems at once — income for her family and, perhaps, eventually, a chance to go back to Hatimiye. Beyond it lie the villages like Hatimiye and grid towns of unpainted concrete houses in various degrees of destruction — nothing but rubble or virtually untouched, depending on whether ISIS had decided to fight to defend them or just retreated. In the evenings, the men changed into tracksuits or shorts and sat in their yard behind breezeblock walls to smoke argileh and talk. The emir was polite and respectful but insisted that the villagers turn their weapons over. FEBRUARY 13, 2021

THE SCHOOL IN HATIMIYE WAS a simple rectangular building consisting of small classrooms, an office for the principal, and a hallway with double doors that opened onto the concrete playground. Bored and lonely, she thought often of home, of friends, and of the quiet normalcy of her schooldays. Violence rarely touched Hatimiye, though. “This is our service to you,” they told the villagers. “Go and collect them.”
Shamal, 19, and not really a man yet, told the fighter that only his uncle, the mukhtar, could order that. Shamal showered and carefully applied handfuls of wet-look hair gel, while Noura packed for a trip to Dohuk and a cousin’s wedding. Then when breaks came, she and her classmates would push out through the double doors to walk arm in arm under tired trees at the playground’s edge as her older brother and the other boys roughhoused or played soccer. There, they were given uniforms of dark fatigues, khaki body armor, and army-issue desert boots. As the shift finished, they packed up their temporary base in an abandoned building and waited to load onto their buses. So one bright autumn morning she traveled to Mosul for open interviews. Every few miles, the buses slowed for a checkpoint manned by the different armed groups that controlled the area. Held in those squalid conditions and guessing what was to come, a few women committed suicide by cutting their wrists or hanging themselves with their scarves. By mid-May, it was done. All three shook hands and smiled at each other, Nishwan’s laugh as ready as ever. But they were not like the other insurgents. Whatever scattered information they passed on would make it to her family through people like Shamal Borgas, a cheery friend of her brother not much taller than her five foot three who occasionally visited the Dohuk house. Noura was another two years behind, an impassable gap at that age. If there was anything at all, it usually mentioned the atrocities committed in Sinjar, long home to the majority of the Yazidis in Iraq and in the world. The last day I spent with the team was a Thursday, the beginning of the Iraqi weekend. Intrigued, Nishwan agreed. All of the team members spoke of their lives both before and after the demarcation that was August 3 and the genocide, unprompted and with the same casualness. Around 6:30 p.m., the next phase of Mukhtar Borgas’s plan began: Families gathered small supplies of food and water, then dressed all in black because the moon would be full that night. They helped sick and elderly members of the community onto the trucks and drove off as night fell, engines barely over an idle. We really need our profession and what we do in Sinjar,” she continued, her voice breaking. Their neighbors, they realized, had betrayed them and guided the militants to their homes. Her father was mute and partly deaf, while her mother, as well as the beloved aunt who lived with them and whom she also called “mama,” were both in their 60s. One would be a hut and mound of earth where teenage guerrilla fighters loitered with Kalashnikovs older than them hanging from their fingers. In an intensely patriarchal society, there weren’t many other professions open to them. At about 5:00 p.m., they saw the conical spire of Chel Mera, a shrine atop one of the mountains’ highest peaks where Yazidis assembled every April to celebrate Red Wednesday, their new year. Nishwan slung a rucksack with seven more water bottles on his back, alongside an old Kalashnikov and a pistol, neither of which he had any real experience using. Boys aged over seven but young enough to have survived the first massacre were torn from their mothers. “I lost my uncle, my grandmother, my cousins.”
The Sinjaris told her and her family about the tens of thousands of Yazidis who had been caught up on the mountains, dying of exposure while the Americans and the Iraqis airdropped hopelessly insufficient packages of food. “I had only two days of absence. That was an unusually high number, even for Sinjar. If there was fighting, he was to run forward and resupply them. On the afternoon of August 4, there was a banging at Shamal’s door. As they suffered, the young boys who were taken from them were held in camps and indoctrinated — shown videos of propaganda and beheadings, taught to use weapons and to hate their own people — turned into child soldiers, and sent to fight on deadly frontlines. By the end of 2019, the group had cleared nearly 6,200 pounds of explosive scrap and many hundreds of thousands of square feet of ground, though that was a tiny fraction of what was needed to allow safe return for most of Iraq’s displaced Yazidis. Noura’s group was deployed to clear the school of bombs. The women were passed between fighters to be raped and beaten over and over. He did not go back to college after that. Men took two pickups and cut the wires to the back and front lights, and caked mud over any part of them that might glow or reflect. Nishwan and Shamal played with their phones in the corner, but some of the women wanted to talk: about their frustration over the lack of aid given to the Sinjar region despite international pledges and about the importance of their jobs to their communities and to them personally. One family tried to run, the rest locked their doors and waited as dawn broke to stifling quiet and distant gunfire. The mountain road lurches down suddenly from the peak — 76 hairpin bends that drop 2,600 feet in just over six miles — passing imitation wood picnic tables where Sinjari families once spent their evenings if the weather was right. “If I give you something, will you buy me a gift?” she teased him. She saw her desk, her friends’ desks, the swing doors they pushed through at break times. Some of the families had moved back now, she said, including hers and Shamal’s. Task orders came through for their first operation soon afterward. Everyone in Hatimiye had friends or family there: he a married sister, Noura a grandmother, all of them cousins. Their faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism and Abrahamic religions with ancient nature worship. Most mornings, she would flick hopefully through television channels or check Facebook and local news sites to try to work out what had happened in the village. They were not killed, though. “The student, Nishwan Ahmad Khalaf,” it read, “is a student of our school. It could be an infrared sensor in the corner of a room that would pick up the slightest movement. ¤
The summer of 2014 was a hot one even by Sinjar standards, the kind of weather that parched the fields yellow and made each breath hot in the lungs. It felt like 10 or 15 times a day that she had to stop herself from crying and as she worked, she prayed that they would be finished soon. Noura’s family dragged behind. Noura stayed quiet, and when they got closer, tears pricked her eyes. Noura carried 15 plastic soft drink bottles filled with water. The UNMAS project was intended to clear public land and buildings. A local news site came and took a picture of her with Mukhtar Borgas, who visited for the occasion, as well as the area police chief, all three of them standing smiling outside her house. Sometimes they put multiple triggers on the same device, or daisy-chained bombs together so that if one was made safe, the other would go off. They took the roads first, capturing panicked and isolated groups of Yazidis who were trying to flee and shooting the men on the wayside or beheading them in front of their families. The worst came in August 2007. It was, she reflected afterward, one of the hardest things she had ever done. In the early hours of the next morning, the militants separated women of around 60 or older, took them behind one of the institute buildings, and shot them too. Step on it, and a circuit connects, detonating the explosives. Everyone stayed indoors as much as they could during the day and slept on the roofs at night. She did not wish to go back to housework. Shamal could feel his heart beat horribly fast in his chest and kept expecting ISIS men to spring out of the darkness. ISIS wanted them for something else. Shamal himself lived in the very south of the village, slightly away from the rest. It bothered Noura for a long time afterward that she could not bury them or even sprinkle a little earth over them where they lay. “My Heart” the screen lit up every time she called him. But her parents could not afford to send her on to a secondary school or vocational college away from the village, so instead, she stayed at home. From Hatimiye, they followed a wadi northwest, with the armed men 300 feet or so ahead, and moved out into the plains, keeping below the horizon as much as they could. Depending on its strength, that wave alone can rip a person to pieces, crush lungs, abdomens, and ear drums, or simply slam a body into anything around it, while the heat can burn skin, sinuses, or respiratory tracts. They murdered or kidnapped thousands of Yazidis and displaced the rest, including the Salahs, who found safety and a rented breeze-block house in Kurdish-governed Dohuk Governorate. When the Sinjaris saw Noura’s family, they ran out to embrace them, shouting greetings and thankful prayers. ISIS took the survivors to a technical institute east of Sinjar and forced them to give up their jewelry, money, and phones. Then ISIS advanced on the Sinjar region, bringing death and horror with them. They buried bombs, disguised them as rocks, and used them to booby-trap corpses. When they retreated, ISIS used large, complex IEDs to prevent civilians from resuming everyday life, placing them in power plants and electrical substations, water treatment facilities, and schools. That morning, the mukhtar summoned a man from each house. She went back downstairs in case anyone spotted her, and through a crack in the curtains, saw ISIS fighters spray-painting “Property of the Islamic State” on walls around the village. Neither of Nishwan’s friends got jobs, but he, Noura, and Shamal did. They all had plans. It refers to a man invited to hold the son of another during the circumcision ritual, creating a blood bond between two families. And he had weapons distributed to about 50 of the fittest men, who would form a kind of advance guard. The recruits moved into lodgings in Sinjar where they would sleep during the week. He finished the final exams of sixth grade … without failing in any subject.”
“His attitude is perfect, and he had no absences. Children’s smaller, fragile bodies tend to suffer the most severe wounds. Stories spread among displaced Yazidis of families who had opened their front doors for the first time in years and been torn apart by IEDs, of children who uncovered some deadly piece of ordnance while playing out in the fields and, mistaking it for a toy, picked it up and played with it until it went off. They snatched some rest there, but the sky was starting to lighten, and soon each group was clambering up through scrub and pale rock. “They say they’ve cleared it, but every time they do, something blows up,” one man told me. Nishwan’s parents had managed to buy his sister back from ISIS through a middleman after two years and four months. Theory took place inside the school classrooms, practical training in a nearby open area of dirt and gravel. After a few miles, they split into two. She remembered him as a nice, polite boy too, with a loud and ready laugh. Soon afterward, the women heard the men and boys being led away to different sites around the village and shot. It too was eventually liberated, a routine operation as government forces swept the area in 2017 after the months-long battle for Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. in groups, each laden with their own cargo. Their children shared that suffering, especially the boys who had experienced or committed violence after being indoctrinated by ISIS. It was Shamal who, toward the end of 2018, told Noura’s brother about an advertisement he had seen on Facebook: United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) was recruiting women and men to clear areas around Sinjar of explosives. But the area was badly damaged, without basic services, and it was still not safe. ¤
At 8:00 a.m. The searchers’ job would be to work out in front and report anything suspicious to the IEDD operators, who would either dismantle whatever had been found to make it safe or, if it was too dangerous to touch, blow it up. They were working out near the berm in the hot sun, watched over by a couple of the foreign G4S personnel who drew up their rosters and told them to put out cigarettes if they lit one up in a work area, which they habitually did. Some of Shamal’s friends who had joined the Iraqi army posted pictures on Facebook of dead ISIS men they had killed in clashes — longhaired, bearded, and clad in bloodied black. But Borgas told the villagers to stay where they were and make no attempt to escape. By the end of March 2019, training was over. That was how she and the rest of the Hatimiye villagers finally left — squeezed together in a flatbed across the border and then back into Iraqi Kurdistan. “It’s all lies,” said Safah Khalef, one of the searchers. Borgas eventually agreed. This would be the first time that any of the Hatimiye three had been back since they fled in 2016. He had a bag full of nuts and baby rusks, three bottles of water, and two boxes of PK machine gun bullets for the armed men in front. Nishwan, Noura, and Shamal grew up always aware of the Sunni insurgent groups that emerged in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and, like ISIS, attacked them whenever they could. A month before that, a shepherd had stepped on a mine in the same area and lost his leg. Noura’s family was a couple of houses over, just beside Shamal’s uncle, Hussain Borgas, who was the mukhtar. It cost them $17,500 USD. He was too weak to move and too thirsty even to talk. They were scared of ISIS, of the neighbors who had betrayed them, and of explosives, even in areas that the Iraqi army claimed were safe. And anywhere there had been fighting, were rockets or shells that had fallen without detonating though might yet. That was Abu Hamza, the local ISIS emir. They returned the next day to see the mukhtar around the same time, bringing a medic with them and a tank of fresh water. “I want to continue doing this even if it’s voluntary because I know that my area will need people like us,” she said just before hanging up. Noura had stayed inside until then but was curious about the militants and stationed herself on the roof where she could sneak a look at them. Women had been forced to choose between their sons and daughters and their homes. She walked with a dozen others, including her parents, her aunt, and her sister-in-law. It took them all around eight hours to reach the first outcrops of the Sinjar mountains. But whole sections remain flattened and uninhabitable, not much different from the day it was retaken, despite numerous promises from the Iraqi and Kurdish governments that it would be rebuilt. She ran back to the others hysterical and shaking, but as they walked on they saw the shape stir and, relieved, they sank down in the nearby shade. In her uncle’s place, they found a tunnel that ISIS had dug to hide from airstrikes as well as a 120mm mortar shell that, out in the open, would have a lethal explosive radius of about 200 feet. She never found much. The remains of a berm to the west marked the spot where some local men had chosen to make a doomed attempt to defend themselves. ¤
Banner image: “Kursi village in Mount Sinjar” by Avdel Amo is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. They began as they had been taught, working in groups of a dozen to search through their inspection grids and mark off safe areas with red and white tape. From his roof, Nishwan could see the five miles north to Sinjar and the great spine of the mountains rising up hard from the desert to a 4,800-foot peak. One of Noura’s old neighbors would occasionally manage to phone an Arab from the area who was living under the militants. ¤
At the end of December 2018, the new recruits that would make up the UNMAS Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team assembled in Mosul before training began. Almost anything can be turned into a trigger: switching on a light, opening a door, picking something up, or putting something down. Nishwan’s mother, father, wife, and two-month-old daughter, Nidar, were now living in an uncle’s house. A group of fighters came at the usual time and found Hatimiye lively and bright. Sometimes Noura would go ahead, drop her bottles, and come running back to help them. Half continued along a valley, and the rest, including Noura’s group, went east toward the towers and silos of the cement factory on the road to Tal Afar. Some were designed to be detonated by command: via wire or radio signal, for example, by mobile phone, or as part of a suicide belt. A few Yazidis in outlying villages tried to fight, hoping at least to cover their families’ escape. “All countries sent support, but the money didn’t reach us. They would make for the mountains, he told them. Suicide bombers in cars and a fuel tanker blew themselves up in two towns not far from Sinjar, killing 796 people. ISIS was not the first militant group to improvise their own explosive devices, but they manufactured them on an industrial scale and with terrifying sophistication. Now tall and skinny with patchy stubble, Nishwan was living in an unfinished house west of Dohuk and had recently completed a diploma in computer science while working as a day laborer. It was the last he had heard of her. They were soon dead. Nishwan started school in 2000, Shamal the following year, and the boys were almost always together after that. There were Kurdish, Turkmen, and Sunni Arab communities in the plains as well, where myths about the Yazidis — that they worshipped the devil, that they never washed — were still widely believed. Then there is the city of Sinjar. Each saw glimpses of the others in the nearby gloom but said nothing. Shamal was with the residents of the three houses closest to him. But Noura was worried too: that funding for their team would run out and they would all be laid off. Nishwan’s house had been flattened by an airstrike, he supposed because its central position and view from the roof had made it a tempting observation position for ISIS. Soon, all of their water was finished anyway, and they strung out slowly under the sun with no choice but to keep moving. At first, they just sounded like another faction of Sunni extremists. The Yazidis of Hatimiye and Kocho had many among the Arabs. She said how proud she was of her work, that whenever she found a bomb or a shell, she felt as if she were saving a life. “Everything will be fine in the morning.” The fighters left, apparently untroubled. There were more bodies as they walked, old men and women mostly, and there was no doubt that they were dead. Noura went to the roof and made up beds like she always did that time of year, laying out blankets and putting up privacy screens so that any observer would see a family preparing themselves for their evening’s rest. Survivors of IED blasts are often multiple amputees or suffer from horrific pelvic injuries, including mutilated genitals. Some of Noura’s uncle’s household were too sick even for that and could only remain where they were, with one relative volunteering to stay behind with them. A little while later, Nishwan saw around a dozen armed men in white SUVs and Toyota pickups pull up at the mukhtar’s guesthouse. Noura’s life there calcified into a limbo of housework — cleaning, laundry, chopping vegetables — and of waiting: for word of Hatimiye and a chance of return. Then he put around quiet instructions that ISIS be given only the worst ones — rusted Kalashnikovs, single-shot hunting rifles, and elderly pistols — and that the rest should be hidden along with ammunition supplies. A few days earlier, some families had gone back to a supposedly cleared village and accidentally detonated an IED that destroyed two of their vehicles. Survivors drove the 50 miles to Kurdish territory if they could, but around 40,000 reached only as far as the mountains, where they were trapped under punishing sun without shelter or supplies. One day, Fawziah Grout, who was from Sinjar and had been working in the school with Noura, walked up to Nishwan as they rested during a break. Kreefs are often Yazidi, but can be from different creeds, including Islam. They told her too how, in just the past few hours, Kurdish guerrillas had cleared a passage into Syria and brought up trucks and tractors to carry people down. There is a term in Yazidi custom: kreef. But they could not follow the roads, where ISIS had checkpoints, and they had to avoid Sinjar too. The women and girls returned home with intense PTSD, suicidal urges, and night terrors but had little access to psychoscial support. These trades had become routine as ISIS members realized that they could make far more ransoming Yazidi captives than they could selling them on to other militants. Noura’s family had bought several relatives back too. I spoke with her again by phone the following week. Nearly everyone else assembled again at the mukhtar’s, crowding in so that there was no space at all. First, they cleared the fields and the land around the main village entrances, where there were two IEDs buried. Fawziah produced a bit of paper she had found in the principal’s office, one of the few to have avoided the flames. Noura hated that they could not help more. Even from the roadside where they stopped and began to establish a base of operations, they could see some of the buildings were burned or destroyed, the vehicles all stolen, the animals long gone. The women and remaining children were transferred by bus to other holding sites — schools, prisons, a wedding hall — where they joined thousands more Yazidi women taken from across Sinjar. The ISIS force was relatively small; commanders seemed keen to avoid the possibility of organized resistance. For a little over two years, that was how it was. He mouthed “water” over and over and made a weak drinking motion. Noura listened and nodded as Safah spoke and soon after brought up Hatimiye. In it, Abu Hamza sits cross-legged on a mattress with his back to the wall and fighters on each side. He showed me his school certificate and laughed as he said he never had gotten around to buying Fawzia that promised gift. UNMAS wanted people from the Sinjar region to be involved in clearing it, so 32 were Yazidi men and women, mostly in their early 20s. And she imagined them all together again. There were 38 of them in all. Besides, her family already relied on her. Mukhtar Borgas called a meeting, and most of the older Hatimiye men joined, including Nishwan’s father. The plains were different from how Noura and the others remembered them: the fields unplowed and dotted with pieces of wreckage, the power lines down — each pole neatly folded over by an ISIS explosive charge. There were eight of them per apartment and four to a room, each with a well-stocked kitchen and in the men’s case, a selection of argileh pipes. Out in the long grass, where the desert larks nested, were six different mass graves, including one that some of the searchers had discovered three days before I arrived. So the Salahs stayed in Dohuk, and Noura passed another year growing ever more tired of housework. And she probably was. Noura spotted a large tree and told her parents that they would take a rest under it. He wondered what he had been thinking, how he could have been so stupid. Mostly, people believed them and stayed where they were. So he survived, while the militants killed almost his entire family — nine in all — and took his sister as a slave. They learned to safely find bombs — how to use metal detectors and complete visual searches, how to clear a lane into areas of possible danger then work methodically through it and double-check it all as they went. Many more were victim-operated, intended to spread fear and death long after the militants had gone. ¤
On August 15, six days after the people of Hatimiye escaped, ISIS ordered all of Kocho’s residents to assemble in the village school and split them up. She cried at that and could not watch anymore. The morning was hot, and the black clothes they had worn to conceal themselves grew suffocating and highlighted them against the parched slopes. They did so not without feeling but because it was a trauma they all shared and one they could not mourn all of the time. ISIS registered the women’s names and their ages, home villages, and marital statuses, then took pictures of them, making them remove their headscarves and ordering them to smile. They moved off to the edge of the village at 8:00 p.m. a few days afterward, the demining team loaded onto minibuses and drove out to Hatimiye. When I arrived, the demining team were working in a village that was badly damaged by fighting. She graduated in 2012, a chatty, determined 15-year-old with a wave of brown hair, ready for her life to begin. She watched them arrive and saw them file into Borgas’s guest room followed by the Hatimiye elders. The houses had all been looted, by ISIS, perhaps, or by some of the neighboring villagers. The next would be decorated with plastic flowers or colored lights and manned by the Iraqi army, with their bulky chest rigs, mustaches, and American-supplied armored vehicles. Then he folded it carefully three times, put it in his pocket, and filed it away in his bedroom when he got back that evening. “In all of my time at school,” he would boast long afterward. Shamal was there, too, as were hundreds of others hoping for steady work and an $800 per month salary. Her aunt and mother were limping. He never failed a class,” it continued, finishing with the name and signature of the school principal. After ISIS, he had visited Sinjar to help some friends move back into their houses, and they had picked up and moved mortar shells from the rubble. He had tagged along with two friends who planned to apply to UNMAS, just for the fun of a road trip, but once he was there, decided to interview too. They were slaves now, ISIS said, spoils of war to be divided up and sold. The three of them had become part of a team that would clear the land they grew up on of the death ISIS had strewn there, beginning to reclaim it for Iraq’s displaced Yazidis to one day return home. Among the others were Arabs from nearby villages that Hatimiye people had known as kreefs. It was exposed up there and already nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit. There was an older man in the second truck with a long graying beard. There had been a fire there, and the building was blackened and charred most of the way through. Working in Hatimiye, she said, had almost broken her, but recently, she had begun to feel a little better. ¤
If anyone ever asked Nishwan about Hatimiye, he would tell them it was one of the most beautiful Yazidi villages in the area, perhaps even the most beautiful of all. That meant a journey of at least 15 miles across rough ground. As well as placing IEDs on paths and highways, they mined verges and other possible routes of circumnavigation. Nishwan read it, noticing his good grades in art and music and that he barely passed science. The deadline would expire at midnight on August 9. “Do you know his story?” he said quietly glancing at Nadim Khalif, a 27-year-old senior searcher who usually spent his downtime in an AC Milan shirt. Militants would come and choose them, examining their faces, their bodies, pulling up their gums to look at their teeth. She searched again for news about Hatimiye and again found none. Then they edged further into Hatimiye. “After that, you must convert to Islam, or we will kill you.”
Earlier that summer, some of the Yazidis in Mosul and Tal Afar had converted and been murdered anyway. Noura’s days there had a pleasant rhythm. Most of the women still wore makeup, including Noura, who had on Ray-Ban–style sunglasses and fresh brown nail varnish. Noura and the other women kept their usual makeup. Nishwan was already class leader then, not always getting the best grades, but forever the best behaved and with perfect attendance. Others were not able to come home at all. Yazidi leaders decided that rape victims would be allowed back into communities, but any children born to ISIS rapists would never be accepted into communities. That, too, was made safe and removed. His father led their donkey, loaded with their possessions, and the rest of his family followed. She decided she would get a job, although she’d never had one before and wasn’t quite sure where to start.   Noura was expected to do the same. Hit the switch, and the initiator detonates the main charge, producing a flash of 1,000-degree heat and a high-pressure blast wave that moves faster than the speed of sound. “You should ask him.” It was short and devastating: Nadim was from Kocho, but when ISIS came, he was working in Iraqi Kurdistan. Other Yazidi settlements were just visible to the east, and southwest was the road to Kocho, a larger Yazidi village about 12 miles away, which he knew for its raucous wedding parties. Often, the youngest had forgotten how to speak Kurdish, their parents’ language. But they put bombs in people’s homes too — in cupboards, in ovens, in fridges, and under sofas. Two months later, his sister managed to call him from captivity and tell him what had happened to them. Inside the mukhtar’s house, other fighters were delivering an ultimatum: “You have three days,” they told the Hatimiyens. ISIS had not gone far and controlled the plains where her village lay. ISIS bombmakers knew that EOD teams would eventually arrive, and they tried to kill them too. She felt their happiness but knew the people of Kocho were still down there with ISIS and so too was the elderly household in Hatimiye. The Yazidi recruits learned all that. Nearly anything of any value was taken — farm equipment, fridges, furniture, even doors and window frames — and the rest strewn callously around. They came again the day after that. He told young mothers to put duct tape over the mouths of their babies, making only a tiny hole for them to breathe. Each morning, she would sit within whispering distance of her friends while the subjects dragged by: math, science, history, geography, household education studies for the girls — all in Arabic, even though Yazidis like them spoke Kurdish.