Janda's Tale, by Peter Gaskell
Second Place in the 'The Story I Needed To Have Read' writing competition
Time stands still. Too shocked to move, all I can do is turn my head away from the glare of the sun as it rises over the mountain. In this frozen moment, at least I have forgotten how hungry I am. I can think only of this time days before, emerging from my warm bed in our village near Sinjar to get ready for school. After Felek, my teacher, encouraged me to apply, I was keen to arrive early to know if I had been accepted by Mosul University to study journalism. What chance of that now as I lie here on the bare mountain, defiled and half-naked in the cold of early morning?
They’d come for us after we had fled to Mount Sinjar where we prayed we’d be safe, sacred as it is to us Yazidi Kurds. First they shoot Felek, then the boys among my classmates. Horrified, we girls turn to run; but it isn’t a bullet they have planned for us. “My prize, and for those blue eyes,” leers the long-bearded one who has come for me, “the best price in Mosul market.” He reeks of stale over-spiced cooking as he tears off my clothes and forces me into submission. I shriek and cry till I am numb and dry of tears. Time unfreezes only when he hauls me to my feet to join his comrades dragging their captives back down the mountain.
Then gunfire again and one of them falls. The rest stop and scour the treeless but boulder-strewn landscape. There’s no-one to be seen. Two more Daesh then cry out as they drop to the ground. My spirits rise as from behind a cluster of rocks, fifty or more soldiers appear. Relief turns to astonishment as I find I am looking into the on-rushing faces of young women barely older than me and that instead of engaging battle with them, the Daesh turn and flee. While some of our rescuers give chase, others attend to the wounds of the groaning boys who have survived the shooting and give comfort to the wailing girls among us, myself included.
The eventual Kurdish liberation of Sinjar was in no small part due to these heroes who had rescued us on the mountain. They were Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, Kurdish for Women's Protection Units. By the time we have been escorted to the safety of their camp, I know I have left my childhood behind on Mount Sinjar. But I am not yet an adult and once home again, I feel confused and too ashamed to leave the house.
Daesh use rape to dishonour Kurdish culture, however illogical it seems to blame the victim for such a crime. Yet when it became clear I was pregnant, my parents didn’t disown me. My father turned his anger into revenge by joining Peshmerga to fight Daesh with my brothers while I took the only route out of limbo between the safe familiar realm of childhood and the unknown country of adulthood I had thought was still such a distance away. My mother was happy to look after my baby son Bengîn, when despite the pull of maturing maternal feelings, I joined up with YPJ.
I feared at first my life as a soldier was going to be brief; not from combat but just the training. I wasn’t fit and getting up at 5.30 every morning was abominable. But like a fledgling forced from its nest, I had to learn quickly to fly, or perish. Bonding with my good-humoured comrades, I soon adjusted. After a wakeup song standing around the kitchen table, and several glasses of black tea with breakfast of menemen (roasted tomatoes, peppers, and eggs), I was ready for the fray.
Guns though were initially a problem too. I had always loathed the sound of them being fired; just holding one felt contrary to my nature. Now I am used to handling a rifle, I’m pleased to say I am an excellent sniper; although when I took my first victim, despite the barbarity he represented, part of me was saddened to have snatched the life of another human being. That night I didn’t sleep.
One of the women whose companionship I share now has become as close to me as my family who I see just four days each month. When I go home, Rihan comes with me. Bought in Mosul slave market, she managed to escape her brutal owner only to find her family had all been murdered by Daesh. My family is now hers too.
I first met Rihan sitting on a rock with a laptop computer. “Come and look, Janda.” She shows me pictures of the bodies of our fallen comrades with their heads severed. I gasp and retch. She hands me a bullet. “Always keep this in your pocket in case you’re captured by Daesh,” she says. “A quick death will spare you worse - certain torture and humiliation.”
Six months on and our camp is under attack, shells being fired from a nearby farm building. Spreading out across the fields, we get close enough to toss a grenade through a window. The explosion is followed by silence, then surprise as surviving Daesh rush out, their guns blazing. Just one of us, Dicle, is hit before we kill them.
Collecting their guns, we are again surprised as one more emerges, long-bearded and barefoot, firing indiscriminately. He looks disorientated, doubtless the effect of drugs and we easily subdue him. I ask him in Arabic if any are still alive inside but he won’t answer, turning his head away, Daesh being forbidden to look into the face of a woman fighter. I grab his beard and pull his face toward me. For a fleeting moment, our eyes make contact. I freeze with horror, as I catch a glimpse of Bengîn in that face. He lets out a wail before a gunshot cracks the air and he crumples. I feel the same numbness as when I was violated on Mount Sinjar.
Seeing I’m in shock, Rihan runs over and takes me in her arms.
“If you were his captive, he wouldn’t have shown you mercy, Janda,” she says. “Remember Daesh believe if they are killed by a woman, their fate will not be the pleasure of 72 virgins in Paradise but Hell and damnation.”
Two days later, we leave our camp for home. Bengîn giggles as I lift him up and hug him close. Still only a teenager myself, I feel I have had as long a life since I lost my childhood as I had lived before, although that traumatic spur to my aging was less than two years ago. Now my heart trembles for fear of what I should tell Bengîn if he asks me how he came into this world.
I still haven’t told my bosom friend Rihan that she killed the father of my child.