Risking Life and Limb to Save Trafficked Women

Hogir Hirori's new documentary, 'Sabaya,' infiltrates a notorious refugee camp where women are bought and sold.

TRIGGER WARNING: Descriptions of human trafficking and sexual violence.


Every now and again, the hellish refugee camp in northeastern Syria called Al-Hol makes international news. In 2019, it was when Hoda Muthana, an American-born woman who’d joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, which the United Nations has designated as a terrorist organization), was there and did a series of media interviews recanting her earlier strident beliefs and saying she badly wanted to return to the United States. The Trump administration rejected her appeal, followed by a U.S. federal judge who said she was not an American citizen. 

What often doesn’t make headlines: The numbers of Yazidi women at Al-Hol who, years after being raped by ISIL members, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to ISIL men, live hidden in the camp — hidden by ISIL loyalists under the dark women’s clothing that covers virtually their entire body, and hidden by ISIL loyalists from potential Yazidi rescuers, who have to act on tips and their own sleuthing to bring out the women from the camp, and also have to brave violent camp elements who’ve vowed to prevent any rescue efforts.

Hogir Hirori’s new documentary, Sabaya, which opens tonight at the Roxie Theatre, brings us right into Al-Hol — right into the lives of two men who attempt to rescue as many Yazidi girls and women as possible, and right into the lives of those very girls and women. “Sabaya” is the name for Yazidi sex slaves, and Sabaya takes that label as the jumping-off point for a narrative that’s stunning for its insider’s view of Yazidi life at Al-Hol. In 2014, ISIL tried to create what it called an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and even through a coalition of forces defeated them in 2019, Sabaya shows how troubling their presence still is — not just in Al-Hol and the surrounding areas, but in the lives of Yazidi girls and women who were subjected to their brutal beliefs and practices. 

Hirori risked his life to make Sabaya, but that risk put him in the same place as the people he filmed, including Yazidi women who infiltrate the camp, and the film’s main rescuers: Mahmud and Ziyad, who run the Yazidi Home Center, which is a combination operations center, halfway house for rescued Yazidi girls and women, and day-to-day home for Mahmud and his family. The first scene in Sabaya shows Mahmud and his young son living at the Yazidi Home Center like any family does in the world — except that Mahmud tucks a gun into his pants before going on the dusty road to Al-Hol with Hirori in the back seat. 

Hirori, who now resides in Sweden, grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Yazidi have lived for centuries. He fled from there in 1999, at a time when the region was still facing great uncertainty, and he has since returned to make a trio of documentaries about wartime in the region, Sabaya being his latest and riskiest. 

“Every time it was time to go back to (Syria and) fim another round (of Sabaya), I was really worried and stressed at the danger I was going to face,” Hirori says from Sweden in a Zoom interview with SF Weekly, speaking in Swedish that an interpreter translated. “After a few days, the stress of it and the worry disappeared because it’s just a part of everyday life down there. But with that said, anything could happen at any time. While filming I had headphones on and I was looking into my camera, and I was always worried about being shot from behind.”

When Hirori entered Al-Hol with Mahmud and Zayid, he walked with men who were essentially bodyguards. But to film without raising detection, he would wear the same all-covering black attire as the camp’s women — and viewers see in several scenes what life in Al-Hol is like through Hirori’s niqab-like fabric. Al-Hol is a camp for the families of ISIL members, so we see walkways filled with women and children. The sprawling camp, which the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces controls, holds tens of thousands of people — including Iraqi women loyal to ISIL who sell the Yazidi girls and women like any other camp commodity, and who lie repeatedly to Mahmud when he confronts them with evidence of their criminality. 

“The first time I went into the Al-Hol camp to film, I brought a camera — it was a big camera — and I set up a tripod to film and started filming, and right at that moment, a person in front of me, about 10 meters in front, was stabbed, right through his body with a big knife,” Hirori says. “And I realized that I was creating a lot of suspicion and attracting attention when I had my camera visible.”

At one point, ISIL loyalists seem to be chasing Mahmud and his team’s car, with Hirori in it. Shots are fired. “That was one time that I felt that these could be the last moments of my life,” Hirori says. “But it was really important for me to document what was going on and I felt that, ‘OK, if I survive, then I have incredible material that I get to take with me. And if I die, then I lose both myself and the material.’” 

Purely as a work of cinema, Sabaya is a tension-filled drama that has all the elements of unforgettable storytelling. From the start, we wonder if the film’s central protagonists (Mahmud and Ziyad) can rescue the girls and women they vow to get from Al-Hol. From the beginning, we see the protagonists’ extended lives (Mahmud’s wife, Siham, and his mom, Zahra, do their best to support everyone), which humanizes the protagonists’ struggles even more. And from the beginning, we meet the Yazidi girls and women — first through photos that Mahmud and Ziyad have at the Yazidi Home Center and on their phones, then in person, where we hear them talk about their suffering and their fears for the future. We also meet imprisoned ISIL members, one of whom talks matter-of-factly about his Yazidi wife, and says that ISIL changed her Yazidi name, Dilsoz, to Khadija and also Ahzrah. That prisoner looks into Hirori’s camera with eyes that suggest a level of guilt and ignorance, but also a level of arrogance that even prison and his own physical troubles don’t diminish.

“The worst thing about that particular scene when I was listening to him talk about his Yazidi wife was when he mentioned the name,” Hirori says, “because I realized that I know who she is. I had met her sister a few days earlier. And I’d seen her picture in Mahmud’s poster. So that affected me a lot emotionally. And I really wanted us to find her after that. and when we eventually did I was really happy. I knew that this girl and her mother had been kidnaped together. And also two of her sisters had been in captivity. The two sisters have since been saved. But the mother — nobody knows where she is.”

Hirori is not Yazidi himself, but he grew up in Duhok with many Yazidis, so that’s what compelled him to take on the Sabaya film project. Hirori became a filmmaker in Sweden after relinquishing his dream in Iraqi Kurdistan to be a cellist. “During my whole childhood I experienced war and unrest and chaos,” he says. “The situation was always hard. And life was hard. And we were always told that it was going to get better someday. That things were going to be easier and things were going to be resolved. But it never did. I played classical music; I used to play the cello. And I had big dreams of being a world famous cellist who would travel the world and perform on big stages. So I decided to leave. The journey took three months and I took each day day by day and each country I had no papers, no passport, nothing. I just had to leave. The city I grew up in, Duhok, is a very multicultural city. It has people who are Muslim, who are Christian, who are Yazidi. And we all go to school together and live together. So when I saw this happening to the Yazidis in modern times, it greatly affected me. These are people just like my neighbors, and my classmates. Nobody is different because they have another religion. And they shouldn’t be treated differently. These were people just like me. I had many friends and classmates who were yazidi. I was really shocked that this could happen in modern times.” 

In 2018, the Nobel committee awarded that year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who survived her ISIL capture, and Congolese doctor and activist Denis Mukwege, who pioneered a practice that treats women raped in wartime. The brutal subjugation of women in wartime is an ongoing global phenomenon. ISIL captured tens of thousands of Yazidi girls and women. Sabaya spotlights the war that Yazidis and their advocates are still fighting in Syria and Iraq, letting us see the Yazidis’ humanity that ISIL so willfully tried to destroy. Besides Mahmud and Ziyad, Sabaya let us see former Yazidi sex slaves who brave everything to enter Al-Hol posing as ISIL supporters, disguised as Hirori was when he filmed through the cover of all-black women’s covering. Reporting what they can about inside information, these women communicate with Mahmud by phone — and also risk their lives. In Sabaya, the Yazidi are more than just references in a media story. 

“For me,” Hirori says, “the reporting of what was happening was so de-humanizing. People were becoming numbers. It was reported as if a specific number of people died. Or were hurt. And I wanted to really get close to people and tell their personal stories. and let other people get to know them as people, not just numbers — and to report things in a different way than it’s usually done in Western reporting. But the most important thing for me through my films is to show the real consequences of war and the way it affects people. And the way it affects whole societies and the lasting consequences of war.”

Sabaya screens at the Roxie, Saturday, Aug. 7, 7 p.m.; and Tuesday, Aug. 10, 6:30 pm. 3117 16th St., S.F. $8-$13; 415-863-1087, Roxie.com.

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