Lâm Duc Hiên is a child of the Mekong. Born in Laos in 1966, he had to flee the country in 1975. He then spent two years in refugee camps in Thailand. In 1977, he arrived in France where he experienced the transit camps and red tape and attempted to (re)build his life. Art provided a means to channel the energy that consumed him while photography gave him a better understanding of the suffering of others. In 1990, he crossed paths with humanitarian workers, which was the beginning of a long companionship, from Équilibre to Médecins du Monde, from Romania to Rwanda, from the cause of children to the cause of women victims of violence. But his native country and childhood river always called him back: in 2009, he published the images (with words by Philippe Franchini) from his 4,200 km boat-hitchhiking trip along the Mekong to meet people living on the banks of this mythical river that flows through Thailand, Cambodia, China and, of course, Laos (Mékong, histoires d’hommes, Chêne). He has received several awards for his work, most notably the Leica Prize, the Grand Prix Européen de la Ville de Vevey in 1995 and first prize at the World Press Photo Awards in 2001 for his portraits published in Gens d’Irak. It was to Iraq that he returned.

Since 2014, he has been based in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which he knows well, having worked there for the first time in 1991. He returned often before deciding to settle there in 2014 to find Kurds that he had known and photographed in 1991: “I found quite a few of them: a village chief, former Peshmergas… some even became vice-president and president of Kurdistan”. He is preparing a book – to be published in 2022 – about his thirty years of strong ties with this autonomous region at the heart of the conflicts in the Near and Middle East.

In the course of this work, Lâm Duc Hiên met Ghazwan (14), Madiha (16) and Hadnan (12), three Yazidi siblings living in the Rwanga camp. They had been kidnapped and held separately, in Raqqa, Mosul and Tal Afar respectively, by the armed group of the Islamic State. “Through the rescue of Ghazwan, and of his brother and sister, I came to realise what had been happening, and what is still happening, to children captured by Daesh. I also became aware of Yazidi family solidarity and learned of the role played by the Kurdish government in rescuing the prisoners of Daesh. The collection of testimonials was spread over more than two years, between 2018 and 2020”. It is the story of this story that we tell here.

Photographs © Lâm Duc Hiên/Agence VU
Text and captions Leslie Lepers, with Lâm Duc Hiên

Photo at the top: Summer 2020: Madiha (16), Ghazwan (14) and Hadnan(12) talk to their little brother Barzan on WhatsApp. The youngest sibling was then still being held in Ankara, Turkey.

Meeting Ghazwan

November 2019. I was in the Yazidi refugee camp in Rwanga. I was there to take portraits of old and revered Yazidis who were gathered in the prefab which they had converted into a space for their ritual teas and discussions. As I was working, I noticed one boy who was watching me particularly attentively. At one point, he said: “Hello Sir. Bonjour, comment ça va?” Surprised to hear him speaking French, I asked him where he had learned it: “I went to France with a French humanitarian organisation. I saw the Eiffel Tower, I went on a boat that floated on the water. We ate ice cream, France is very beautiful! And then they brought us back here to the camp!”

Ghazwan, 14, in the Yazidi refugee camp in Rwanga, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Rwanga refugee camp is a camp much like many others that I have seen in the course of my work as a photographer and in my life more generally… It is formed of rows of shacks, stifling in summer, cold in winter, covered in dust or mud depending on the season, but always sad and dreadful. Chatting with the boy, I discovered that his name was Ghazwan, that he had been here for two years, that he had an older sister called Madiha and that they both lived with their uncle, Omar Ibrahim Khalaf. Naturally, Ghazwan dreamed of only one thing: leaving the camp. Just like me, forty years ago, all I could think about was running away from the camp in Thailand. I recognised myself in this bright, cheeky and curious little boy. As he was looking at my Leica, thoughtful, questioning, with a twinkle in his eye, I suggested that he could help me.

Ghazwan didn’t need to be asked twice. He instantly picked up my rucksack and followed me, proud and happy. He was patient. As I was adjusting the lighting, I entrusted him with my camera, which he handled with great care. During the shots, he stood close to me, observing my every move. A sense of proximity and complicity naturally developed.

He told me about his capture by the Islamic State (Daesh). It was six years ago – he was only 8. The group took him to Raqqa, in Syria, the city that the Islamic State had just conquered and was going to make the capital of its self-proclaimed “caliphate”. Above all, it was about to become hell on earth.

Ghazwan’s story can be read on his old-before-his-time face. At 14, he already has wrinkles. He remembers that with a group of Daesh fighters, he learned to speak Arabic, to clean weapons, to drive. He read the Koran, prayed with his jailers: “I became a Muslim. I believed them when they said that we had to kill the unbelievers,” he said, with a kind of mechanical smile. “They taught me to shoot, to kill ducks and cats. One time, they gave me a knife and told me to kill an American prisoner. It was to get me used to the idea of killing, like with the cat. They told me to scare him with the knife. I was forced to do it. The next day, the food was better.” That day, Ghazwan wasn’t forced to perform the most extreme of acts – to murder a human being –, but it was the fate of young boys captured by Daesh to become radicalised jihadists as quickly as possible.

Whilst he was being held by Daesh, his uncle Omar did not give up: with the help of the Kurdish secret services, he searched for his missing family members. He told me: “We discovered Daesh’s commercial sites where slaves were put up for sale. A year after he was captured, we found Ghazwan’s photo on one of these sites. Under his photo was written ‘Boy for sale’.” Omar continued: “The family had to scrape together 11,000 dollars to pay the fees and the smugglers who took risks to save the child and bring him back on 29 July 2016.” Omar remembers the day as if it were yesterday: “A few months later, Nechirvan Barzani, the current Kurdish president, paid us back.” This is how the extraction of captives of Daesh is organised and financed by professional smugglers supervised by the Kurdish secret services.

Hadnan’s return

A year later, in 2017, Omar managed to recover Hadnan, Ghazwan’s younger brother. This time, things happened differently: “The Iraqi army had told us that they were detaining a Turkoman Daesh family and their child.” The child remembered his Yazidi name: Hadnan. He spoke only Turkmen and Arabic and could only say one thing about his father, “lalo”, which means deaf-mute in Yazidi. Omar immediately understood that it was the son of his brother, Ibrahim, who was deaf-mute. A single word spoken by the child enabled him to get back to his uncle, but Ibrahim, his father, remains missing to this day.

Ghazwan, 14 (on the left) and Hadnan, his brother younger by two years.

Omar continued: “Hadnan didn’t recognise me when I went to pick him up. He had long hair, couldn’t speak a word of our language and cried when he asked for his (not real) Turkoman parents.” The secret service agents had to give Omar 100,000 Iraqi dinar to buy presents and treats to coax the frightened child. It was 22 August 2017. Omar remembers that date too. Since then, Hadnan has finally remembered his brother Ghazwan and his sister Madiha, and he is progressing well with Yazidi, a variant of the Kurdish language.

Madiha, the big sister

Hadnan doesn’t remember much about his captivity, but his sister Madiha remembers everything. The Daesh pickups full of radicalised fighters arrived at Tal Qasab, her village, at the very beginning of August 2014. Apart from Omar, the entire Khalaf family was captured: the father Ibrahim, the mother Afaf, their new-born Barzan, their sons, Hadnan and Ghazwan, and Madiha, their eldest daughter, who was 10 years old at the time. For the Daesh jihadists, Yazidis are worse than unbelievers: they are considered to be idolatrous.

Madiha, 16, in the refugee camp in Rwanga, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Five years later, in her uncle Omar’s prefab, Madiha, 16, said: “When they arrived in the village, they collected all the phones and weapons. Then they separated the men and the women.” Madiha and her family were eventually put in a house: “We were looking after a family of cattle that had been abandoned by other Yazidis. The girls knew what was in store for them. They did everything they could to be dirty, to look like girls, not women. I was 10 years old, but I was growing up. We tried to escape with a smuggler, but Daesh saw what was going on.”

She then lost track of her family: “My father was taken away and I never saw him again. A bit later, I was separated from my mother and my three brothers. I never saw my mother again either. They took me with other girls, who were between 9 and 10 years old. They told us that they were going to buy us nice clothes. Do you know why?” Her anger shows. “I’ll tell you – to sell us!”

Madiha was bought and sold six times. Including by men old enough to be her grandfather: “How could men that age treat us like that?” She remembers the names of these men, from whom she tried to hide her growing femininity, and of the women who beat her after promising to treat her like their own child. She was told: “The unbelievers want to call you Madiha but in truth, you are Sarah, then Hadzer or Sumaia,” depending on her owners… “I believed them.”

Fatima, a Turkish woman from Bursa , who lived in Iraq and was married to a member of Daesh, was unable to have a child. She had already “obtained” a 5-year-old Yazidi child. Madiha was furious: “This woman promised that she would treat me like her daughter. Like other Daesh women, she liked weapons: she wanted to teach me to use them. It was tough. One day, I told her that there was no oil left in the kitchen. She accused me of wanting to pour it over her, kicked me and locked me up. If I made a mistake reading the Koran, she would hit my fingers with a stick. My hands were covered in blood. Daesh women are monsters.”

Ghazwan, 14 (back to camera, on the left), Hadnan, 12, and their older sister Madiha, 16.

Later on, Fatima sold Madiha to a rich Turkish family who had two houses in Istanbul. Faced with the advancing Peshmergas , the family tried to flee to Turkey with all of their slaves: “The bombs started falling. I was injured in the shoulder, not too badly. I had a belt of explosives on. Daesh had ordered us to detonate a big bomb. We had to connect the cables to a car battery… When the Peshmergas arrived, we all surrendered and gave them our weapons.”

Although she is now free, Madiha has not come to terms with the trauma of her sequestration: “I couldn’t tell the Iraqi security forces that I was Yazidi. I had become a Muslim. It was an Uzbek prisoner of Daesh who said I was Yazidi. Then I was able to say it. And on 16 October 2017 I found my uncle Omar in the camp.” Omar added: “When she arrived, she smiled and jumped into my arms. She recognised me.”

Madiha’s story gave me chills. I had never imagined that such violence had been inflicted on children for so many years. I realised that she might still be hiding the worst of it.

Ghazwan, Hadnan and Madiha on a bridge in the town of Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan, during an offsite visit from the refugee camp where they live.

Little Barzan

Little by little, the family was coming back together. But after Ghazwan, Hadnan and Madiha, Barzan, the younger brother who had always been called “Little Barzan”, was still missing. He had been taken from his mother in 2014 when he was still a baby. He was found thanks to Bashar Malala Murad, a cousin of the Khalaf family who had known Little Barzan from birth. Bashar’s story is extraordinary: captured like the rest of the family, he was spared by Daesh because he converted to Islam. Like many Yazidis, Bashar spoke fluent Arabic: “So I studied the Koran, I did the five prayers, I often went to the mosque. In their eyes, I wasn’t a Yazidi unbeliever anymore, I had become one of them. I was even an imam for six months. Daesh gave me an identity card. I could travel alone as I pleased, pass checkpoints. I even got a telephone.”

This relative freedom allowed him to travel, dressed in a white djellaba and sporting the ritual beard, until an almost unbelievable coincidence occurred: “As an Imam, I met a young Turkmen woman from Iraq who had a Yazidi baby. I immediately realised that it was Little Barzan. The woman was the widow of a jihadist, but she wasn’t a bad person.”

Bashar was certain of it: Little Barzan was alive, and he knew where he was. At the same time, circumstances were in his favour to organise the escape of his own family: “I was communicating with the Yazidi Rescue Office in Iraqi Kurdistan.” An American airstrike was planned to distract the Daesh fighters: “During the attack, all of my family and several young Yazidi women escaped. We walked for five hours to the border of Iraqi Kurdistan and there the Peshmergas took us to Dohuk.” They were finally free.

It is evening time. Bashar is telling me this story in his house, in front of his family, the family that he saved. “In total, the operation cost 72,000 dollars,” he explained. I asked him who had paid for it: “Our family and friends found the money. They were reimbursed by Nechirvan, the President of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region.”

Bashar Malala Murad, a cousin of the Khalaf family. It was thanks to him that the family was able to find Little Barzan. Bashar is surrounded here by his own family, showing a picture of himself, dressed in a white djellaba and sporting the ritual beard, his imam “uniform” which enabled him to survive in the hands of Daesh.

As soon as he was free, Bashar contacted his elder cousin Omar Khalaf: he knew where Little Barzan was! They both set about trying to get the child back. Bashar had stayed in phone contact with Little Barzan’s Turkmen “mother” and knew that she had fled to Ankara, in Turkey: “She was in a very difficult situation; she couldn’t justify Little Barzan’s identity to the Turkish authorities: it was impossible for her to send him to school. Gently, little by little, I convinced her to give the boy back to his Yazidi family.” From that point on, the four siblings were able to speak to each other on WhatsApp. Little Barzan, who still went by his captive name Obeidullah, only spoke Turkish and few words of Arabic. Ghazwan and Hadnan spoke Arabic, so Madiha, who spoke both languages, translated.

To reunite them permanently, they had to convince the Turkish authorities that the 7-year-old boy, who answered to the name of Obeidullah, was actually called Barzan, that he was the brother of three Yazidi children whose parents had disappeared, victims of the jihad. Finally, after long negotiations, the siblings were recognised by the Turkish and Iraqi authorities thanks to certified genetic tests. Little Barzan, who was still living in the very comfortable home of his Turkmen “mother” in Ankara, was soon to discover life in the refugee camp in Kurdistan. But there he would find hope and, above all, the four siblings would be reunited. And with a bit of luck, their life in the camp was coming to an end. Uncle Omar and his nephews were waiting for the answer to their request to immigrate to Australia. Little Barzan asked, “are you going to Australia?” “Yes,” answered Madiha, “but after the pandemic.” The Turkmen “mother” who was following the conversation on WhatsApp was worried: “If you all go, how will I be able to see you?”

In November 2020, Little Barzan, the youngest, was reunited with his brothers and sister at the Rwanga camp. The four orphans were finally back together – under the protection of their uncle Omar.

November 2020 (left to right): Little Barzan, Hadnan, Ghazwan and Madiha, reunited at last.

Lâm Duc Hiên in June 2021, at the Contemporary Art Center of Ankara (Turkey) during the opening of his exhibition “Mother, mothers”, organised by the French Institute of Ankara, on the theme of violence against women – a work started with Médecins du Monde – France in 2008. © Lâm Jacques

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

ISBN de l’article (HTML) : 978-2-37704-847-2

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