A Yazidi Father's Nightmare

2015-07-05-1436116943-3749760-Hadi.jpg Photo: Alfred Yaghobzadeh

Hadi, Yazidi and from Sinjar spent a whole day introducing us to Yazidi women who had suffered the atrocities committed by ISIS (Daesh). We arrived at the hotel, feeling emotionally drained, numb and in shock from what we'd learned. But nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to hear next as Hadi told us his story.

During the day there had been no mention of it. He'd been so composed, calm and quiet.

Clean-shaven with a short moustache and receding hair neatly parted to one side, Hadi was well groomed and wore khaki pants, a beige polo and leather jacket.

A former journalist, he sat anxiously on the edge of the beige leather sofa with fists clenched as he prepared to share his story. The rest of us, four men and one other female, were all ears.

Piercing sadness and sorrow beamed through Hadi's demeanour. His brown eyes were expressive, close-set, slightly bloodshot and exhausted from sleepless nights and tears. His small mouth and thin lips smiled but it soon became clear he was masking something deeper.

On 3 August 2014, Hadi and his family were brutally forced out of Sinjar by Daesh. Having heard that Daesh were heading their way, Hadi went home to save his family. He scrambled his nine months pregnant wife, six children and frail parents into the car, squashed but desperate to leave. His two eldest daughters had already left with a neighbour.

Swerving along the roads, cars were packed with people fleeing for safety, as Daesh closed in around them, shooting everything in sight. They dodged bullets but witnessed horrific scenes, including a road strewn with dead bodies for miles. Caught in the firing line, innocent civilians had merely been trying to escape, running for their lives. Hadi described the guilt he felt for not being able to stop. But he needed to get his family to safety.

Surrounded by Daesh there was nowhere to go except Mount Sinjar. With no road access they abandoned their car and climbed for eight hours with only two litres of water, a few cucumbers and some dry bread. Thousands of others were fleeing the same nightmare.

The ordeal wasn't over when they reached the top. Daesh were firing bullets, mortars and rockets from a distance below. The mountain provided no cover or shade from the direct sunlight and fifty degree heat. The exposed dry open terrain was unbearable but they had no choice. Those lucky enough to drive up the mountain from the other side were stuck in rows, cars rammed, overloaded with people.

Hadi described the dire conditions, children, young old all hungry, dehydrated, sun burnt and exhausted. The fear of death kept them all going. Mount Sinjar is vast; reaching the other side takes at least 10 days on foot.

His family walked for days but the energy to continue and supplies diminished slowly. Hadi was forced to make a heart breaking decision, to let some of his family members go, not knowing if he would ever see them again. His mother was a priority, she had one kidney, so the lack of water, heat and dehydration would kill her if not rescued. He stopped a car to take her to the other side, the car was already crammed with people. He lay his mother straight on top of them, head to toe from one passenger door to the other. With a heavy heart, he watched the car drive away.

Still sitting in the same position telling his story, Hadi stopped smiling. His eyes filled with tears.

With a slight break in his voice, he described how his next priority was even harder. He needed to let go of his children. He decided to keep the youngest (four years old) in the fear of him dying in front of the others. He couldn't bring himself to stop a car but knew he had to and begged the driver to take the five older children. He had no idea if he would ever see them again.

Hadi stopped and couldn't continue. This unimaginable feeling of helplessness would be enough to break any parent.

Left with his heavily pregnant wife, frail father and hungry son, they continued to walk in the blistering heat. Starving, thirsty and exhausted his son cried, he wanted and needed food and water. They only had one cucumber left and still a long way to walk. Hadi kneeled down, gave his son the cucumber but held his hand and told him not to eat it.

Hadi broke down in tears, his smile vanished, and hands covering his face, words unable to come out he tried to explain why he did this to his son.

His son, like many other children on the mountain, was on the verge of dying from hunger and he wanted his son to keep it for the last moment. A heart breaking decision but one he had to make. He carried his son and continued walking.

On the way, they stopped for a teenage boy lying on the ground, gasping for breath, dehydrated. Filling a bottle cap with water to drip water into his mouth, the water trickled down from the side of his mouth. But it was too late, and he was dying. Hadi described how many people on the mountain died the same way.

After a few days of walking, his next priority was his frail father who had given up, urging the family to continue without him. Refusing to leave without him, Hadi looked around to find a car, most had left and there were hardly any. Then, by complete chance he saw one approaching. He stopped the car to convince the driver, but it wasn't as easy as before. Everyone was running out of supplies and they had nothing to offer.

Tears streamed down his cheeks as Hadi let it all out: the anger, sadness, frustration and emptiness. He held out his index finger while sobbing, struggled to get his words out and finally said: "I exchanged my father for one litre of water and said goodbye not knowing if I would see him again". The protector of the family was bought to complete state of helplessness, as a son, a father and husband.

Miraculously, Hadi, his wife and son reached safety after 10 days, exhausted, dehydrated and starving but relieved to be alive. Amongst the crowds of people, they spent two hours looking for family members, grateful and delighted they reunited with all except their two daughters. After a fruitless search, they had no choice but to leave. The family were then relocated to a camp in Kurdistan in September 2014, where his wife gave birth to a boy named Kaniwar (meaning where is home). Hadi led the opening ceremony for Rwanga Community (3000 residential homes for displaced people), his speech was dedicated to all those displaced by the current conflict.

When we asked if he ever found his daughters, tears rolled down his face. Words couldn't come out. He didn't want to say it, couldn't bring himself to. Quietly, with a broken voice, he said "There are only two places they can be. One; dead in the row of bodies we witnessed when fleeing Sinjar, or two; they are under Daesh control".

His eyes tell the story of his soul and his smile tries to hide it. Hadi still hopes to find his daughters one day.