Only Cry for the Living Excerpt


October, 2016

I waved at the young children scattered along the roadside selling water bottles and vegetables, fluttering their little fingers to draw our attention as we drove by. We churned through the serpentine streets past the sunburned shepherds herding their flocks and the cement dwellings with mats hanging from the rooftops until we came to an abandoned, decaying structure where torn sheets served as walls and clothes hung to dry from a strip of thin wire tied to a flimsy pole.

In these ravaged villages, it was far too common to see Yazidis seeking shelter wherever possible. These were the ones who could not even make it to the relative safety of a displacement camp. Behind those ripped sheets, salvaged from a UNHCR set-up somewhere, were extraordinary survivors. A crippled man with a cane, dressed all in white with a traditional red and white scarf tied around his head — called the shma’ag — hobbled barefoot across the dirt floor to welcome us.

His name was Murad, and he seemed far older than his seventy years. Deep wrinkles lined his forehead; his thick grey moustache curved into a permanent frown. But most jarring of all, Murad heaved with exhaustion, tired with what the world had handed him. He sat on his iron bed frame, and I sat beside him on the floor, folding myself in between the cardboard boxes stuffed with canned tomatoes and paper towels and blocks of bread rolls so stale that they looked as hard as rocks. The room was dank, fuming with unwashed flesh and despair.

Slowly but willingly, Murad started to patch together what had happened to him on August 3, 2014 — the morning that ISIS changed the Yazidis forever. It had started like any other searing summer day in their town of Telekasa, just outside of Sinjar.

He was heading down the road around 8:00 A.M., pushing his disabled, wheelchair-bound wife, Guly, to gather food when the jihadists blocked their way.

“They were yelling, yelling that we must convert then and there or be killed. People were getting killed,” Murad said, his eyes closed as if to carefully collect his thoughts and reflect on his intense pain. “There were women and children all around me. For the sake of the women and children, I converted. I didn’t want them to see another person slaughtered.”

Many of the disabled hadn’t made it. Many tried to flee, he stressed. But they didn’t make it. Trucks rolled up. A sinking feeling hit Murad and he wept inside, not knowing where he would be taken but recognizing that it could be his last ride in this life. His chilling description of that moment later reminded me of a letter acquired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, written by Wilma Grunwald hours before she was sent to her death in the gas chambers.

The famous trucks are here now, and we are waiting for it to begin. Take care of my golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Have a great life; we must board the trucks now. Into eternity. Yours, Wilma.

Murad, his wife, and other Yazidis, too, had been thrown into trucks and taken to a village for forty days of starvation, torture, and fear. Then they were moved to Tel Afar where thousands more prisoners were being held in squalor. After three months, the couple was hauled to Mosul and held in what Murad called a factory of sorts. There, alongside one another, they prepared — readying themselves to die.

“We didn’t know when they were going to take us out and end us. One day they just pulled six people out and executed them in front of us,” Murad went on, mimicking pulling a trigger. “Pistol to the back of the head. They said it was because these people had planned to run away.”

It was in the gun gesture that I noticed Murad was partially missing two fingers from his right hand. “It was all terrible conditions. They didn’t feed us. My friends died around me,” he continued, clutching his right leg. “I lost my leg. I cannot feel my leg.”

When the first winter in captivity came and ISIS did not give them blankets or clothes, Yazidis dropped dead from the cold and the hunger that sent them into fits of anguish, their muscles eating away at themselves. The whole time, Murad said, babies were being separated from their mothers and murdered in front of them.

“They are savages; they have no faith. Anyone with faith would not take a small baby and kill [it],” he cried. “They were killing babies like they were killing sheep.” Murad told me that all he could think about — all that got him through the darkest of days — were thoughts of his family. He had four sons and six daughters, all between fourteen and thirty-five years old. Three of them were actually his grandchildren, but he called them his own. Some are still missing. He thought of them playing in the sunshine and sleeping under stars, and he remembered what it felt like to hold their milky little hands and how he wanted to hold them just once more.

A young woman, perilously thin and bedecked in a light purple scarf, entered the room and sat beside me, drawing her legs to her chest and rolling onto the floor like a baby in the womb. She seemed flighty, terrified, and curious all at once. After a few minutes of listening, her face fell, and she flounced out again.

“I am sorry for her,” Murad said. “Her mind has gone somewhere else.”

I learned that she was his eldest daughter. She had been held as a sex slave and was rescued just weeks before. The young woman felt ashamed for what she had gone through, Murad said — ashamed even though she was the victim. Those who made it through that first frigid winter were separated into two groups. The disabled were tossed into trucks and the rest dredged back to confinement in Tel Afar. Murad considered himself lucky to have been dumped at the Kurdish border.

Being disabled rendered him and others useless to ISIS. I concluded that most likely, there was money involved in their return by smugglers somewhere along the line. Murad never referred to his captors by any of their self-styled names — ISIS, IS, Islamic State, or Da’esh. He only ever referenced them as “they.”

Murad stopped suddenly and lit a cigarette, glancing at me with a cheeky smile. “I like to smoke,” he explained. “They didn’t let me smoke for all those months.”

I laughed and told him that sometimes I liked to smoke too, so we shared a cigarette and a few moments of silence. Murad’s smoke rings hung in the warm, static air; perfect, circular puffs that persisted for longer than normal before gracefully fading away. Murad said that one day, he hoped he could return to his village to live out his final days — but only if they were guaranteed protection and if the persecution wouldn’t return. He missed everything about the life he referred to as simple but nice — a happy life of peace and quiet. Life now, in the deserted construction, was a far cry from his pre-ISIS past. They had little money, little medicine, little food.

“Look, we live under a tent,” he exclaimed. “I need surgery for my leg. We have no money. Nobody gives us anything. If we do get a little money, we spend it on medicine.” Murad pointed this out without fret, only with frankness. “The children cannot go to school. There are no jobs. We are stuck here in this unfinished building.”

I plucked up the courage to ask about his half-sliced fingers. Sometime in the seventies, during the ongoing Kurdish- Iraqi conflict in which the Kurds sought independence, Murad was captured and tossed into an Iraqi jail, labeled a Kurdish dissident, and execution orders hung over his head. His fingers were chopped off during a routine torture session. Murad was granted amnesty after the Iraq and Kurdish leaders reached some sort of political prisoner agreement.

He later worked as a food distribution agent for the government’s long-running socialist program that issued monthly food staples to Iraqis, but his disabilities forced him into early retirement, where he and his family went about their days in peace and quiet. Yet Murad was itching to get back on track and returned to detailing what happened to him under the terrorist regime.

“They were taking out girls and raping them in front of us. There are still hundreds of girls gone and we don’t know about their destiny,” Murad noted, grief snagging in his throat. “I think of them always.”

He turned to me. His enameled eyes stared straight into mine. “How can I forget?” he asked. I shook my head. I had nothing appropriate to say. He would not forget — he did not want to forget. This was what had been done to his people. Those heinous recollections would go with him to the grave.

“What is worse,” Murad said, blanching, heartsick voice dropping. “When you know them, the ones who are hurting you.” He said that the people torturing them, threatening them every single day in captivity, were faces all too familiar. “It is very difficult when someone takes your religion away from you. We were told we could not be Yazidi. It is more difficult when it is someone you know and once loved,”

Murad went on, a slight tremor again cracking his speech.

“How can we trust the Arabs again? We can’t ever trust them again. They looted us. They hurt us.”

Murad gestured for me to move into the adjoining room to see his wife, Guly. Freckles of light poked through the frayed curtain walls. On one side, an assortment of brightly colored clothes hung neatly beside a little cupboard piled with boxes of soap and cigarettes. In any other circumstance, it could have been abstract art. But in this circumstance, it was a painful admission of all they had left to call home.

Guly sat on a gaunt mattress in a white head scarf and clashing red-and-pink dress. Her glassy eyes lit up as I approached, and she smiled, her ailing body slumped forward. She motioned for me to sit in the plastic purple chair, but I chose to sit beside her on the ground. Her daughter floated beside me. We wrapped Guly in blankets to cover her legs so her exposed skin would not be seen; so she could preserve her dignity in what felt like her dwindling days.

Guly was disabled from what she referred to as a “brain attack” — a stroke — and ISIS had thrown away her wheelchair when they kidnapped her. They had no money for a new one. Her life was now relegated to sitting helplessly in that one spot on the arid earth, waiting for someone, anyone, to come.

For months, ISIS had dragged this old woman around by her neck from torture place to torture place. She recalled how the cold came and, just as Murad had said, there were no blankets or warm clothes. The frost had eaten away the feeling in one of Guly’s hands, which she now clutched and shook in despair. She cried for something she could no longer feel. It was painful to watch. I reached for her good hand and entwined my fingers in hers. It was all I could do. I did not want to ask her questions of her ordeal. I could not ask her to relive the tribulation. I wanted only to be there. Somehow.

Where was the world? The aid agencies? The do-gooders? The angels and the God? These people couldn’t even make it to an established camp. In my time abroad, stories like Murad’s and Guly’s fell into infinite binders that would be tossed away to collect dust. There was no justice. This was genocide.

“We don’t have anything,” Guly sobbed. “But we are thankful.” As I eventually motioned to leave, she kissed my hand and wouldn’t let it go. “I will pray for you in my religion. The Yazidi,” she whispered. “God sees you. God sees everybody.”