The long read: When Isis rounded up Yazidi women and girls in Iraq to use as slaves, the captives drew on their collective memory of past oppressions and a powerful will to survive
The day before Isis came was a holiday in Sinjar district, northern Iraq. Yazidis gathered to celebrate the end of a fasting period. It was 2 August 2014. Harvested wheat fields stood short and stubbly under the shadowless sun. People slaughtered sheep and gathered with their relatives to celebrate the holiday, handing out sweets and exchanging news and gossip. In the past, they would have invited their Muslim neighbours to join the celebrations, but more recently a distance had grown between them, leading the villagers to keep mostly to their own.
The atmosphere was restless and the temperature peaked above 40C (104F). The top of Mount Sinjar, just north of the town of Sinjar itself, appeared to be shimmering in the heat, and the people living below mostly avoided travelling until after the sun had set, when the streets were filled with neighbours trading fearful rumours, and men patrolling with guns.
At dusk, unfamiliar vehicles started to appear. The lights of the cars could be seen moving in the desert beyond the outlying villages. A sense of foreboding grew as darkness fell. The Yazidi men took their guns and set out to check the horizon beyond the wheat fields, peering toward the villages.
On their return, they gathered in Sinjar town centre in small, tense groups. Convoys of cars, kicking up dust in the distance, had appeared two months before, just before the city of Mosul the capital of Nineveh province, of which Sinjar is a part fell to Islamic State (Isis). Mosul is 120km (75 miles) east of Sinjar, and its capture was quickly followed by the fall of other towns. Four divisions of the Iraqi army collapsed, including the third division, which was based around Sinjar and included many Yazidis. The area was almost completely defenceless.
When they seized Mosul, Isis freed the Sunni Muslims from the citys Badoush prison and executed 600 Shia prisoners. The group plundered weapons and equipment from Iraqi army bases. Soldiers scattered their uniforms, and half a million civilians fled north and east. Within a week, a third of Iraq was under Isis control. Sinjar district, with a population of around 300,000, was surrounded. Only a thin strip of contested road remained, linking them to the relative safety of the Iraqi Kurdistan in the north but the journey was dangerous.
The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq is semi-autonomous, and guarded by the peshmerga, who now had to defend the four Kurdish provinces against Isis. Peshmerga means those who face death, and the word is heavy with the historical import of the Kurdish struggle against oppression. In the south-east of the region, on the Iranian border, part of the peshmerga clashed with Isis, but near Sinjar, an uneasy stillness hung in the air like a tension headache that comes before a storm.
Leila is from a family of Yazidi farmers and shepherds. She is small with a pale, girlish face, even though she is 25, and gives off a kind, practical air. She has two younger sisters and three older brothers. As a child she worked on the family farm with her brothers, and after a spate of sheep thefts on their ranch, they decided to move closer to Kojo, a village below Mount Sinjar.
Leilas brothers had joined the peshmerga after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. On 2 August 2014, their colleagues in nearby Siba Sheikheder came under attack from Isis and called for help. Siba Sheikheder, south of Sinjar, is the closest Yazidi town to the Syrian border, a collection of a few hundred squat buildings. By mid-morning on 3 August 2014, the peshmerga stationed in Kojo had fled. In the confusion, Leilas family and around 100 others decided to run, but most people stayed, unsure what was going to happen to them.
Leilas younger sister was living in Siba Sheikheder with her new husband, and phoned home to her parents that morning: Were running Isis is coming, she said. Leila and her family drove north to Sinjar, leaving her uncle at home to guard the house. Arriving in Sinjar, they realised the town was already under attack and its people were fleeing. Gathering together in a patch of scrubland outside Sinjar, they phoned her uncle. He told them the area was surrounded and Isis would not let anyone leave.