The Beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail – available on Amazon (or your local independent bookshop)
I discovered this book while browsing my local library’s catalogue for beekeeping books. Yet it is not a book about beekeeping at all.
Instead Dunya Mikhail tells us about the ongoing work of Abdullah, a beekeeper who courageously uses his business contacts to save Yazidi women of Iraq who have been stolen by Daesh (Isis). He says:
“With the money I made selling honey in Iraq and Syria I was able to help save women captives. […] I cultivated a hive of transporters and smugglers from both sexes to help save our queens, the ones Daeshis call sabaya, sex slaves. We worked like in a beehive, with extreme care and well-planned initiatives.”
With Abdullah’s help, Mikhail – who is an Iraqi poet and academic now living in the US – has gathered together first-person accounts from Yazidi men and women of their experiences with Isis.
Warning: this is a non-fiction book which contains many heartbreaking narratives, so please do not read any further on in this post if you do not feel emotionally up to hearing about the events which have occurred.
The stories the Yazidi recount within the book follow a similar pattern. They flee Isis troops, who pursue them across the country. They leave their homes in a hurried panic, leaving behind their animals and possessions, abandoning everything they ever knew and had worked for. Families with small children and pregnant women flee on foot or donkey across high mountaintops or countryside terrain, where they are inevitably overtaken.
Once captured, the men, women and elderly are separated. Elderly people are thrown into a pit, along with any small children that refuse to leave their grandparents. There they are buried alive. Younger men are lined up in rows and shot in trenches or buses. Not shot in the head, but multiple places across the body, and then left to die, lying on top of each other bleeding to death.
The young women and small children that are left suffer possibly the worst fate. Now grieving, since they have lost all their male or elderly family members in a matter of minutes, they are taken off to be sold at market to the highest bidders. Once sold, the women and children will spend long, gruelling days doing housework or making rockets for their new owners. If their work is not considered good enough, they are savagely beaten. They may or may not receive food; if they do it is only rice. At night, the women – and girls as young as ten too – are raped, sometimes by multiple men. Even being heavily pregnant or just having given birth does not spare them this torture.
Abdullah the beekeeper is one of their few chances of escape. The odds are against them, as their phones are taken away by Isis, they often don’t speak fluent Arabic and they may only have the non-Islamic clothes they were wearing when captured. If they do manage to slip out or break down a door, suspicious eyes watch them and may report them as fugitives. Asking to use a phone in a local business is risky as the owner may demand money or simply turn them in. If, somehow, they manage to get through to a relative or friend who is still alive, who can then contact someone like Abdullah, they may have some hope of making it out. Alternatively many of Abdullah’s rescues are arranged in advance after he manages to identify where a captured woman is living.
There are some photos in the books of those who made it – and those who didn’t. One of the hardest to see was that of three little boys wrapped in sheets. Their mother, Maha, had escaped along with her twelve year old daughter – who helped her carry her three sons, aged three months, eighteen months and three years. She stopped to ask a shopkeeper for directions to a bus station, but her poor Arabic made the shopkeeper suspicious and he reported her. Her ‘owner’, an Isis hospital director, took them back home and poisoned the three little boys, who died in agony as he beat their mother and sister “with all his strength”. The tiny bodies of the dead boys were wrapped in sheets and thrown out in the garden – the photo shows only their still little faces emerging from their shrouds, finally at peace. A neighbour who witnessed Maha transfixed next to their bodies finally helped her and her daughter escape – but she cried to Abdullah, “What good is it that I survived? I wish I had died there with them. I wish they had buried me in that garden.”
What can any of us do to help the survivors who have lost so much? One option might be giving to a charity like War Child, which is running a Yazidi appeal, or Doctors without Borders, which provides medical aid to communities around the world, including Iraq.
And reading the book and/or recommending it to others helps spread the word, so that these stories are shared.