THEY tried to kill everything in our town. Civilians, places of worship, and even our beloved olive trees. In their wake, ISIS left everything for dead.
In 2014, I became an internally displaced person, after ISIS attacked northern Iraq, including my hometown Bashiqa "the town of olive trees" as it was commonly known, and where people of different faiths and beliefs had lived in harmony and peace for centuries. With nothing more than the clothes on our backs, hundreds of thousands of us fled our homes leaving everything behind.
It took three years - after the Iraqi army liberated the area — before I could return to my hometown of Bashiqa again, this time with my camera in hand. At first sight of the town, I was shocked by the level of destruction. Looted and burnt homes and destroyed property lay all around me.
The Islamic State militiamen had even burned and destroyed the town’s prized olive trees, knowing full well their importance for the Yazidi community. ISIS had inflicted their scorched earth policy to ensure the destruction of our lives — lives a world apart from their radical ideology.
Not a single Yazidi place of worship, Christian church or Muslim mosque was left unscathed while public infrastructure like schools or health centers laid decimated by retreating ISIS fighters.
When people began to gradually return to Bashiqa, they were devastated emotionally by what they saw. Everything laid in ruins or was destroyed. But their hope never died and they strength within to rebuild their homes and lives.
They organised themselves with community networks and through social media. Soon, craftsmen, volunteers, painters, journalists, wealthy people, engineers, constructions workers, soldiers and even social media activists volunteered to rebuild lives, homes and our community, paving the way and giving hope to the families now returning from years in displacement camps.
Craftsmen rebuilt homes, while young people volunteered to clean the streets, repainted schools, and worked to erase the ISIS slogans that once scarred the public buildings and edifices of the town. At the same time, soldiers arrived to clear the area of unexploded improvised devices and landmines.
We watered the olive tree left for dead and they too came back to life and began to thrive, becoming a symbol of hope that residents yearned. It was as through Nature, God was sending us a message: an enduring hope what was important in life and we should focus on that. What we had to do was to set our minds on the positive and rebuild. Nature has teachings, for those who are open to seeing it.
Local activists organized festivals during the Yazidi religious holidays to celebrate the rebirth of the town, sending a clear message of hope to returning residents that the process of rebuilding was stronger than ever.
I was born in 1987. My country was already in a brutal war with our neighbor Iran, a bloody and protracted conflict lasting eight years.
Then in 1990, Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, a military intervention which would result in a seven month-long brutal occupation of that country and the subsequent invasion by the United States, an onslaught that would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis and devastate the lives of millions more.
This was the country I was born into. My life, as well as my country, has been scarred by war and hopelessness. Since I was a child I felt upset and angry at my country, and believed that life in the west must be paradise. I thought how unlucky I had been to have born in such a country. On top of that, I was Yazidi, a minority scorned by the Iraqi society, with limited prospects for a better future.
A brief encounter in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul when I was 17 years old changed my thinking, however. Returning home from school one day, I came across a man selling books in the street. Curious, I began randomly flipping through the pages of a photography book he was selling and found myself mesmerised by what I saw. So many images, so many faces; each with its own story to tell.
As I continued looking through the book, I came across a quote in the middle of the page. "God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers,” it read.
As I reread that line, I was intrigued by its meaning. Subconsciously, I began to feel a deep sense of purpose and to understand why I had been born where I had been born. My birthplace predestined my very being.
From that point on, rather than look at Iraq negatively, I decided to embrace it. My country was who I was. The sounds, the faces, the images – the very essence of its people.
I have always believed that life always tries to reach you and help you achieve your goals, but you have to be open to it and accept and listen to its messages. Those words were a message.
From that day on, I decided to document the return of my people and the uplifting efforts they undertook to rebuild their lives.
As a Yazidi, becoming a displaced person and part of a humanitarian crisis which I never anticipated made me rethink my life. I had two options: either be cowered by the bad that happened to me or do something useful and positive using my skills.
I found strength proactively taking the photos and writing stories of resilience in my community. These are stories that are world apart from the usual picture of Iraq in the International media — that of war, turmoil, crisis, and destruction.
The journey of the Yazidis as they return to their homes, many of whom have lost everything, is a remarkable source of strength and resilience that I have no doubt will inspire others. They are survivors.
And so am I.