About The Author
In August 2014, Farida Khalaf, like any ordinary teenage girl, was enjoying the summer holidays before her last year at school. But Farida lived in the mountains of northern Iraq - and what happened next was unimaginable. Her village was an ISIS target. ISIS jihadists murdered the men and boys, including her father and brother, before taking Farida and the other women prisoner. Together with Middle East expert Andrea Hoffman, she has told the story of what happened to her after she was captured: the beatings, the rapes, the markets where ISIS sold women like cattle, and Farida's realisation that the more resistant she became, the harder it was for her captors to continue their atrocities against her. So she struggled, she bit, she kicked, she accused her captors of going against their religion, until, one day, the door to her room was left unlocked. She took her chance and, with five younger girls in her charge, fled into the Syrian desert.
Middle East expert Dr Andrea C Hoffmann is the co-author of The Voice of Freedom, the memoir by Ensaf Haidar, wife of Saudi blogger and activist Raif Badawi who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and shared the 2015 PEN Pinter Prize with British poet and journalist James Fenton. She lives in Berlin working as an author and a journalist for Focus magazine. She specializes in the Middle East and the situation of women in Muslim countries.
Photo of Andrea Hoffmann © Evelin Frerk
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Andrea about how she came to meet Farida, the shame and stigma Farida feels about what happened to her, and making a new life in Germany. You can also read the Prologue to the book here.
Questions & Answers
How did you come to hear about Farida's inspiring story ?
I met Farida in a Iraqi refugee camp, where I went as a journalist in order to cover the catastrophe that the Yazidis had gone through. The situation of women and girls was especially tangent for me. It raised my interest beyond journalistic coverage. I felt that it was necessary to tell their stories. Farida is just an example of what has happened to so many of them. Not to forget these crimes is the least we can do for them, that is why I felt it was my duty to write at least one of them down.
Tell us how Farida managed to escape her captors and why you think she was able to lead these girls to freedom?
Farida is a very strong girl. She never gives up even in the worst circumstances you could imagine. So it was sort of natural for her character to be leading the other girls and spur them on to escape. She is also very bright and a mathematical genius, that is why she could work out all the details of their rescue-plan. Of course it was not easy. She had to try more than once - but in the end she was able to lead the six girls out of the camp in the middle of the night. They ran with bare feet through the ISIS camp and right into the Syrian desert.
In the book you describe the mental torture, as well as the physical these girls endure, was it difficult to write such violent passages?
It was indeed very challenging to write this book from a mental point of view. To write a story down means that you have to relive it in your mind - and that is what I did: I was with Farida during these four month and I suffered with her. It was very hard to be in that world of injustice and violence at my writing desk and then go back to my normal daily live, meet my friends etc. All of a sudden that would seem strange to me. Why, I would ask myself, was I allowed to be living in such peaceful surroundings, while Farida was not? How could life be so unjust for some of us? At night I would dream about what had happened to Farida. During that process I was literally wandering in between worlds.
How did the mental stigma of Farida's torture and captivity impact her life and relationships with her family and community?
The whole Yazidi community is traumatized, but the women and girls that were taken captive have an even harder time to reintegrate into their families and society. Their suffering does not end when they are released. Because of their education which includes a very strict moral code, they feel ashamed and guilty about what has happened to them. It is the same with Farida: although she realizes that she was the victim of those crimes she cannot help but feel ashamed. Although nobody will talk to her and openly blame her she still really struggles with the stigma.
Do you still keep in touch with Farida and if so how is Farida and what is she doing now?
Yes I do. She lives in Germany, now, trying to reinvent her life. She is going to school and is very busy learning German right now. She is making great progress. Her mother and her three younger brothers came with her and they all share a tiny flat. The family is happy that they could get out of Iraq but they are still struggling to adapt to the German way of life, which is quite alien to them. They do not know yet for how long they will be allowed to stay in Germany so it is hard to make plans for the future. Also, the whole family is still mourning for Farida's father and her oldest brother who did not survive.
Do you feel hopeful in the recent developments in Iraq concerning ISIS?
It does make me happy to hear that some of the territory that ISIS took was recaptured by the Iraqi army. But I am not over-optimistic. I think it will be a long and difficult process for Iraqis to be able to get back to normal. The different sectarian factions have to learn how to trust each other, again. After all that has happened that will not be easy. I am especially concerned about the Sunni tribal leaders: many of them hate the Shia military and militias that have 'liberated' them and may decide to switch sides, again. We can only hope that the newly established 'peace' in some of the liberated areas like Falludja will last. In the Kurdish region the situation is a little more stable. But for the Yazidis it will always remain very difficult to trust their neighbours as they have been persecuted by Muslims throughout history.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am busy with a book about Boko Haram. It struck me when I discovered that at exactly the same time that ISIS took the Yazidi towns in Sinjar, this African terror group which is a formal ally of ISIS invaded large part of Northern Nigeria and without us even taking notice in Europe. Just like the Yazidis, Christian girls were abducted and taken into sexual slavery - not just the Chibok schoolgirls, thousands of them were forced to 'marry' members of the sect.
What do you hope to achieve through your writing and journalistic work ?
I care about human rights. Farida and other women's stories are important and need to be heard. It is my pleasure to assist them raising their voices.
Available Titles By This Author
Farida Khalaf; Andrea C. Hoffmann
Andrea C. Hoffmann; Ensaf Haidar
Past Events for this Author