The Girl Who Beat Isis is a factual retelling of Farida Khalaf's horrific story based on a series of interviews Andrea Hoffman conducted with her in a refugee camp in Iraq. It is one of the most difficult and upsetting books I have ever read. It is also one of the most important.
The book begins in 2014, Farida lives in a small village in northern Iraq with her parents and four brothers. As Kurdish Yazidis they maintain friendly and commercial relations with neighbouring Muslim Arabs but it's still an uneasy relationship, mostly due to a religious misunderstanding that has meant Yazidis are believed to be devil worshippers. However, life for Farida is good. Although her father has taught her how to use a Kalashnikov in case she ever needs to help defend her family, it seems that as she enters her final year of school, and with a gift for Mathematics, a bright future is assured. She hopes to train to become a Maths teacher but in 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh, or more usually in western countries, Isis) were just beginning their reign of terror. As Isis soldiers pour into Iraq from neighbouring Syria, Farida and her family are at first convinced the Iraqi army and then the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) will successfully push them back over the border. That swiftly proves to be a false hope and when Isis comes to Farida's village they are ruthlessly and terrifyingly efficient in gaining control. After refusing to convert to Islam, the men in the village are removed from the camp, the gunfire heard moments later an ominous suggestion as to their probable fate. Then all the older girls and young women - including Farida - are taken away from their families too. What follows is a horrific account of the abuse, both sexual and physical endured at the hands of Isis soldiers by young girls like Farida and her friend, Evin who is taken alongside her. They become sex slaves, sold alongside scores of other women and girls at brutal, dehumanising markets. Despite being bought and sold several times, being raped by her successive 'owners' and enduring vicious beatings, Farida continues to resist as best as she can, eventually managing to escape into the Syrian desert with a small group of other Yazidi girls.
The Girl Who Beat Isis is the book that makes the statistics become personal. Only recently human rights lawyer Amal Clooney spoke about the Yazidi genocide. Since 2014 over 5,000 Yazidis have been killed, 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women been abducted, and approximately 500,000 Yazidi civilians are now refugees. Farida's story is a graphic account of what these people are being subjected to, the violence and oppression are starkly described here. Her courage in resisting her captors and surviving despite the worst atrocities is remarkable. It reminds us that despite all the political discourse about refugees, at the heart of this war are ordinary people whose lives have been changed forever and who deserve our every assistance.
This will not be a book you enjoy, it will make you angry, it will make you cry, it will make you sick to your very core. And that is why you need to read it.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.
The Girl Who Beat Isis is published in the UK by Square Peg, an imprint of Vintage Publishing.