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. 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.
Noura’s days there had a pleasant rhythm. 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. 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.
She graduated in 2012, a chatty, determined 15-year-old with a wave of brown hair, ready for her life to begin. 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. Hatimiye was a conservative community just outside the city of Sinjar, where women generally married young and soon had children. Noura was expected to do the same. Besides, her family already relied on her. 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.
For a little over two years, that was how it was. Then ISIS advanced on the Sinjar region, bringing death and horror with them. 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. 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. Bored and lonely, she thought often of home, of friends, and of the quiet normalcy of her schooldays.
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. She never found much. 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. Their faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism and Abrahamic religions with ancient nature worship. 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.
One of Noura’s old neighbors would occasionally manage to phone an Arab from the area who was living under the militants. 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. She remembered him from school: a nice, polite boy.
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. She was overjoyed too until she saw the footage of the ruined old town, the burned-out houses, the mass graves. She cried at that and could not watch anymore. She searched again for news about Hatimiye and again found none. ISIS had not gone far and controlled the plains where her village lay.
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. But the area was badly damaged, without basic services, and it was still not safe. ISIS usually left behind bombs when they retreated, designed to kill whoever trod there next. And anywhere there had been fighting, were rockets or shells that had fallen without detonating though might yet.
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.
So the Salahs stayed in Dohuk, and Noura passed another year growing ever more tired of housework. She decided she would get a job, although she’d never had one before and wasn’t quite sure where to start.
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. 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.
So one bright autumn morning she traveled to Mosul for open interviews. Shamal was there, too, as were hundreds of others hoping for steady work and an $800 per month salary.
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. She remembered him as a nice, polite boy too, with a loud and ready laugh. 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. 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.
Neither of Nishwan’s friends got jobs, but he, Noura, and Shamal did. 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.
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. 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.
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. There was an olive grove to the northwest, wheat fields around, and then miles of scrubland where the cows and sheep grazed. There was running water and, theoretically, power too, though the villagers also relied on diesel generators that rattled on around dusk.
Nishwan had lived near the middle of those 46 houses, a big building by Hatimiye standards, with a view in every direction. Noura’s family was a couple of houses over, just beside Shamal’s uncle, Hussain Borgas, who was the mukhtar. Shamal himself lived in the very south of the village, slightly away from the rest.
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. 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. Everyone in Hatimiye had friends or family there: he a married sister, Noura a grandmother, all of them cousins.
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. Yazidism’s insular orthodoxies discouraged spending too much time with outsiders, but Nishwan and the others in Hatimiye did not always follow that.
There is a term in Yazidi custom: kreef. It refers to a man invited to hold the son of another during the circumcision ritual, creating a blood bond between two families. Kreefs are often Yazidi, but can be from different creeds, including Islam. The Yazidis of Hatimiye and Kocho had many among the Arabs.
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. The worst came in August 2007. Suicide bombers in cars and a fuel tanker blew themselves up in two towns not far from Sinjar, killing 796 people.
Violence rarely touched Hatimiye, though. Nishwan started school in 2000, Shamal the following year, and the boys were almost always together after that.
Noura was another two years behind, an impassable gap at that age. Nishwan was already class leader then, not always getting the best grades, but forever the best behaved and with perfect attendance.
“In all of my time at school,” he would boast long afterward. “I had only two days of absence. 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. He did not go back to college after that.
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. Everyone stayed indoors as much as they could during the day and slept on the roofs at night.
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. At first, they just sounded like another faction of Sunni extremists. 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 they were not like the other insurgents. Strengthened by pillaged weapons and an increasingly unstoppable reputation, they routed the Iraqi army and overran nearly a third of the country, even Mosul. 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. His followers began to target any non-Sunnis who had not yet fled, reserving a special hatred for Yazidis.
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. Mostly, people believed them and stayed where they were.
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.
A few Yazidis in outlying villages tried to fight, hoping at least to cover their families’ escape. They were soon dead. 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.
The ISIS force was relatively small; commanders seemed keen to avoid the possibility of organized resistance. 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. Hatimiye, and with it Kocho, was cut off before anyone there realized what was happening. One family tried to run, the rest locked their doors and waited as dawn broke to stifling quiet and distant gunfire.
On the afternoon of August 4, there was a banging at Shamal’s door. He opened it and saw a man holding a Kalashnikov and dressed in black, like the corpses on Facebook. “I need the weapons of the village,” the man said. “Go and collect them.”
Shamal, 19, and not really a man yet, told the fighter that only his uncle, the mukhtar, could order that. A little while later, Nishwan saw around a dozen armed men in white SUVs and Toyota pickups pull up at the mukhtar’s guesthouse. There was an older man in the second truck with a long graying beard. That was Abu Hamza, the local ISIS emir. Among the others were Arabs from nearby villages that Hatimiye people had known as kreefs. Their neighbors, they realized, had betrayed them and guided the militants to their homes.
Mukhtar Borgas called a meeting, and most of the older Hatimiye men joined, including Nishwan’s father. One of the men risked taking a photo of the newcomers on his phone. In it, Abu Hamza sits cross-legged on a mattress with his back to the wall and fighters on each side.
The emir was polite and respectful but insisted that the villagers turn their weapons over. Borgas eventually agreed. 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.
Satisfied, Abu Hamza and his men withdrew to positions overlooking the village. They returned the next day to see the mukhtar around the same time, bringing a medic with them and a tank of fresh water. “This is our service to you,” they told the villagers. They came again the day after that. 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. She watched them arrive and saw them file into Borgas’s guest room followed by the Hatimiye elders.
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. Inside the mukhtar’s house, other fighters were delivering an ultimatum: “You have three days,” they told the Hatimiyens. “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. But Borgas told the villagers to stay where they were and make no attempt to escape.
The deadline would expire at midnight on August 9. That morning, the mukhtar summoned a man from each house. 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.
A group of fighters came at the usual time and found Hatimiye lively and bright. “We are making the decision,” the mukhtar told them. “Everything will be fine in the morning.” The fighters left, apparently untroubled.
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.
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. 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. They helped sick and elderly members of the community onto the trucks and drove off as night fell, engines barely over an idle.
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. Nearly everyone else assembled again at the mukhtar’s, crowding in so that there was no space at all. They would make for the mountains, he told them. But they could not follow the roads, where ISIS had checkpoints, and they had to avoid Sinjar too. That meant a journey of at least 15 miles across rough ground.
The Mukhtar asked them for their phones — turned off — which he dumped in a donkey’s saddlebag. He told young mothers to put duct tape over the mouths of their babies, making only a tiny hole for them to breathe. And he had weapons distributed to about 50 of the fittest men, who would form a kind of advance guard.
They moved off to the edge of the village at 8:00 p.m. in groups, each laden with their own cargo. Noura carried 15 plastic soft drink bottles filled with water. She walked with a dozen others, including her parents, her aunt, and her sister-in-law.
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. His father led their donkey, loaded with their possessions, and the rest of his family followed.
Shamal was with the residents of the three houses closest to him. 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. If there was fighting, he was to run forward and resupply them.
Each saw glimpses of the others in the nearby gloom but said nothing. They all knew how far voices traveled in the desert at night, and they were all scared. Shamal could feel his heart beat horribly fast in his chest and kept expecting ISIS men to spring out of the darkness.
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. 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.
After a few miles, they split into two. 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. 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.
It took them all around eight hours to reach the first outcrops of the Sinjar mountains. They snatched some rest there, but the sky was starting to lighten, and soon each group was clambering up through scrub and pale rock. The morning was hot, and the black clothes they had worn to conceal themselves grew suffocating and highlighted them against the parched slopes.
Noura’s family dragged behind. Her aunt and mother were limping. So was her sister-in-law, who had fallen in the dark. Sometimes Noura would go ahead, drop her bottles, and come running back to help them.
At around 9:00 a.m., her group was out of sight of the plains and following a rocky ridge eastward. It was exposed up there and already nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Noura spotted a large tree and told her parents that they would take a rest under it. As she moved forward on her own, she saw the shape of an old man lying there, unmoving and stiff — surely dead. 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.
The old man must have been left behind by his family. He was too weak to move and too thirsty even to talk. He mouthed “water” over and over and made a weak drinking motion. Noura gave him a half full bottle and he drained it down. “Stop,” she told him. “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. Noura hated that they could not help more. Soon, all of their water was finished anyway, and they strung out slowly under the sun with no choice but to keep moving.
There were more bodies as they walked, old men and women mostly, and there was no doubt that they were dead. 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.
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. There were people inside, Sinjaris who had fled there a week before and knew that Hatimiye had been surrounded. When the Sinjaris saw Noura’s family, they ran out to embrace them, shouting greetings and thankful prayers. 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.
“We left all of our relatives behind,” she said to them. “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. 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. 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.
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. Men, along with any boy old enough to have underarm hair, were kept on the ground floor. Women and girls, including Nishwan’s sister, who was then pregnant, were taken upstairs. Soon afterward, the women heard the men and boys being led away to different sites around the village and shot.
ISIS took the survivors to a technical institute east of Sinjar and forced them to give up their jewelry, money, and phones. 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. Boys aged over seven but young enough to have survived the first massacre were torn from their mothers. They were not killed, though. ISIS wanted them for something else.
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. 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 were slaves now, ISIS said, spoils of war to be divided up and sold. 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.
Militants would come and choose them, examining their faces, their bodies, pulling up their gums to look at their teeth. 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. 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.
The women were passed between fighters to be raped and beaten over and over. 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.
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. The thought of being close to bombs still worried Noura, but she was pleased and surprised to see Nishwan alongside Shamal. All three shook hands and smiled at each other, Nishwan’s laugh as ready as ever.
There were 38 of them in all. 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. 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.
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. There, they were given uniforms of dark fatigues, khaki body armor, and army-issue desert boots. Noura and the other women kept their usual makeup.
There were three months of what felt to them like military-style training conducted by a Maltese firm and British security contractor G4S. Theory took place inside the school classrooms, practical training in a nearby open area of dirt and gravel.
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.
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. Nails, ball bearings, screws, or glass are often added to create projectiles.
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. 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. 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.
Survivors of IED blasts are often multiple amputees or suffer from horrific pelvic injuries, including mutilated genitals. Children’s smaller, fragile bodies tend to suffer the most severe wounds.
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. 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. Many more were victim-operated, intended to spread fear and death long after the militants had gone. In that case, the switch could be a pressure plate hidden on a path. Step on it, and a circuit connects, detonating the explosives. It could be an infrared sensor in the corner of a room that would pick up the slightest movement. Almost anything can be turned into a trigger: switching on a light, opening a door, picking something up, or putting something down.
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. But they put bombs in people’s homes too — in cupboards, in ovens, in fridges, and under sofas. They buried bombs, disguised them as rocks, and used them to booby-trap corpses.
ISIS bombmakers knew that EOD teams would eventually arrive, and they tried to kill them too. As well as placing IEDs on paths and highways, they mined verges and other possible routes of circumnavigation. 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.
The Yazidi recruits learned all that. 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. They learned, too, about the various conventional munitions they might encounter and how dangerous it was to handle unexploded examples. That last bit made Nishwan feel embarrassed. 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 wondered what he had been thinking, how he could have been so stupid.
By the end of March 2019, training was over. The recruits moved into lodgings in Sinjar where they would sleep during the week. 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. 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.
Task orders came through for their first operation soon afterward. They would begin, the G4S team leaders told them, by clearing Hatimiye. Most of the team shrugged or smiled when they heard, happy only to be starting to work. 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.
At 8:00 a.m. a few days afterward, the demining team loaded onto minibuses and drove out to Hatimiye. 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. Every few miles, the buses slowed for a checkpoint manned by the different armed groups that controlled the area. One would be a hut and mound of earth where teenage guerrilla fighters loitered with Kalashnikovs older than them hanging from their fingers. 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.
This would be the first time that any of the Hatimiye three had been back since they fled in 2016. Noura stayed quiet, and when they got closer, tears pricked her eyes. 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. 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.
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. First, they cleared the fields and the land around the main village entrances, where there were two IEDs buried. Then they edged further into Hatimiye.
The houses had all been looted, by ISIS, perhaps, or by some of the neighboring villagers. Nearly anything of any value was taken — farm equipment, fridges, furniture, even doors and window frames — and the rest strewn callously around.
Noura’s group was deployed to clear the school of bombs. There had been a fire there, and the building was blackened and charred most of the way through. She still recognized it, though, and as she worked, her schooldays returned to her. She saw her desk, her friends’ desks, the swing doors they pushed through at break times. And she imagined them all together again.
It was, she reflected afterward, one of the hardest things she had ever done. 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.
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.
“If I give you something, will you buy me a gift?” she teased him.
Intrigued, Nishwan agreed.
Fawziah produced a bit of paper she had found in the principal’s office, one of the few to have avoided the flames.
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.
“The student, Nishwan Ahmad Khalaf,” it read, “is a student of our school. He finished the final exams of sixth grade … without failing in any subject.”
“His attitude is perfect, and he had no absences. He never failed a class,” it continued, finishing with the name and signature of the school principal.
Nishwan read it, noticing his good grades in art and music and that he barely passed science. 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.
The UNMAS project was intended to clear public land and buildings. 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. 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. That, too, was made safe and removed.
By mid-May, it was done. The team moved on, and Noura’s wait was over. 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.
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. No one I spoke to planned to return to the plains. 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. “They say they’ve cleared it, but every time they do, something blows up,” one man told me. 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. A month before that, a shepherd had stepped on a mine in the same area and lost his leg.
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. Traces of the panicked flight of 2014 remain, rags of clothes trampled into the verge, wrecked and abandoned cars littering the ravine below.
Then there is the city of Sinjar. 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. 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. 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.
When I arrived, the demining team were working in a village that was badly damaged by fighting. 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. 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. That was an unusually high number, even for Sinjar.
The EOD men were wiry, with beards or stubble, and smoked as often as they could. Most of the women still wore makeup, including Noura, who had on Ray-Ban–style sunglasses and fresh brown nail varnish. 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.
As the shift finished, they packed up their temporary base in an abandoned building and waited to load onto their buses. 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. In an intensely patriarchal society, there weren’t many other professions open to them.
“It’s all lies,” said Safah Khalef, one of the searchers. “All countries sent support, but the money didn’t reach us. We really need our profession and what we do in Sinjar,” she continued, her voice breaking.
Noura listened and nodded as Safah spoke and soon after brought up Hatimiye. Some of the families had moved back now, she said, including hers and Shamal’s. Nishwan’s mother, father, wife, and two-month-old daughter, Nidar, were now living in an uncle’s house.
In the evenings, the men changed into tracksuits or shorts and sat in their yard behind breezeblock walls to smoke argileh and talk. 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. “My Heart” the screen lit up every time she called him. He showed me his school certificate and laughed as he said he never had gotten around to buying Fawzia that promised gift.
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. 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.
One night, a member of the team’s administrative staff leaned toward me. “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. “You should ask him.” It was short and devastating: Nadim was from Kocho, but when ISIS came, he was working in Iraqi Kurdistan. So he survived, while the militants killed almost his entire family — nine in all — and took his sister as a slave. Two months later, his sister managed to call him from captivity and tell him what had happened to them. It was the last he had heard of her.
Nishwan’s parents had managed to buy his sister back from ISIS through a middleman after two years and four months. It cost them $17,500 USD. Noura’s family had bought several relatives back too. 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.
Families often sold everything they had to pay those ransoms — land, homes, valuables — then borrowed more money still. The women and girls returned home with intense PTSD, suicidal urges, and night terrors but had little access to psychoscial support. Their children shared that suffering, especially the boys who had experienced or committed violence after being indoctrinated by ISIS. Often, the youngest had forgotten how to speak Kurdish, their parents’ language. 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. Women had been forced to choose between their sons and daughters and their homes.
The last day I spent with the team was a Thursday, the beginning of the Iraqi weekend. They all had plans. Nishwan dashed off first, heading back to Hatimiye to be with his family. Shamal showered and carefully applied handfuls of wet-look hair gel, while Noura packed for a trip to Dohuk and a cousin’s wedding.
I spoke with her again by phone the following week. Working in Hatimiye, she said, had almost broken her, but recently, she had begun to feel a little better. 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. And she probably was. 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.
But Noura was worried too: that funding for their team would run out and they would all be laid off. She did not wish to go back to housework. “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.