In August of 2014, the Islamic State invaded Sinjar, a town in the northwest of Iraq that for many years had been home to 40,000 Yazidis. The militants tore through the region, murdering thousands and kidnapping many more women and children in a genocide of the Yazidis whose culture and faith combines elements of Christianity and Islam with one that traces its history back to ancient Mesopotamia. Yazda, a Yazidi advocacy organisation estimates that 85% of the Yazidi population has been displaced by conflict in Iraq.
Around 7,000 women were forced into sexual slavery by IS, with over 3,000 women unaccounted for. Those women who have returned go to Lalish. In a narrow valley in northern Iraq, this sacred village is “a beautiful island of peace”, photographer Marcio Pimenta tells me. Women head there on a pilgrimage to be reborn. In Lalish they are baptised back into the Yazidi faith in a rite that is a response to the trauma inflicted on their community.
Marcio was one of the first photographers allowed to attend a ceremony in Lalish which features in his new photography book Yazidi that documents the return of the Yazidi people to their everyday lives. In the book, Marcio follows one woman called Turkia as she reintegrates, and he describes the intimate ritual to me:
“At the entrance, she kisses the supporting marbles. Then a large room opens, full of vibrantly coloured fabrics called parys. She ties knots in the fabrics while saying a prayer. Then through a narrow passage to find the holy fountain called Zamzam. There Turkia washes her face with the holy waters. ‘I am Yazidi again.’ she says.”
Turkia was sold by Isis over fifteen times before managing to escape by cutting her gums with a blade and feigning cancer. Once ill, a woman is worthless to a militant and so her family were able to buy her back for a large sum. Despite the unfathomable hardships these women have been through, Marcio says he has never seen such dignity from a group of people before.
“It caught my attention how these women were able to reinvent themselves during a very sad chapter. The revival of Yazidi women and the ability to abandon dogmas is an important paradigm shift for this community,” He tells me.
Six years on from the genocide why publish the book now? “The Yazidi people had a lot of attention from the media, at the time. But after, they were forgotten. So I think it’s necessary to have a strong document,” Marcio explains, “I chose to publish pictures from the frontline, the everyday life and the magical moments too.”
Originally from Brazil, Marcio spent a month with Yazidi families to create the book. The relationship Marcio had with his hosts has created a book teeming with emotion and character which he tells me is as much theirs as his. “I made a book about a culture completely different from mine, that comes with risk,” he tells me, “but the Yazidis were very kind and helpful. It was a magical, incredible connection.”