Captured, Then Reunited: Finding Hope after Life Under ISIS

22 December 2018

Dohuk, Iraq

The cook with his daughter.
The cook with his daughter.

The cook: we met him in Sinjar, just a couple months after Sinjar had been liberated. We were in the Peshmerga headquarters, meeting with a local commander. It was our second day there, after having spent previous months on the front lines and with the internally displaced people (IDPs) on the mountain. The previous night we had arrived late, but not too late, to interview Nezar, a Yezidi man whose wife and two children had been kidnapped by ISIS. That day, as we sat in the commander’s office, an older balding man with a mustache and a face full of gentleness and dignity, served us tea. We soon learned that his whole family, his wife and four children, had been kidnapped by ISIS. Now, he was working as a cook for this Peshmerga headquarters. His name is Khodeda, but from then on we knew him only as “the Cook.”

Dave relates his meeting with the cook: “In January 2016 we met with Peshmerga military leaders in their new headquarters in Sinjar. An older man with sad eyes but a smiling face came up to me as I waited for the meeting to start and handed me a hot cup of sweet tea. I asked Shaheen, our Yezidi interpreter, what the man’s story was. The old man told us, ‘My children and wife were captured by ISIS and I cannot get them back. My heart is hurt. I am very sad and am desperate to find a way to help them.’

I choked up and held his hand. ‘I am so sorry. Can I pray?’ I asked.

‘Yes please,’ he replied.

‘Dear Lord Jesus, please help this man’s family be freed, please help him find a way. Please guide us on how we can help,’ I prayed.

I hugged him tightly and he thanked me. We looked at each other, eye-to-eye, and I promised to help any way I could and we would never forget his family. When they were free we would also help them in any way needed.

I saw the cook many times after that during the battle against ISIS and each time we hugged and I told him we were with him and would help as much as we could. My son Peter would hug him and the cook would lovingly pat Peter’s head as tears came to his eyes. ‘Thank you for praying, thank you for caring, thank you for being with us,’ he would say.”

Over the years, we prayed for him. We shared his story, as much as we could without endangering his family. The liberation of Sinjar was going to be just the beginning of our – and the world’s – realization of the extent of ISIS atrocities. It was also part of the beginning of the fight to defeat ISIS and retake the land they had overrun in 2014. We became caught up in that conflict, first with the Peshmerga in Kurdistan, then with the Iraqi Army in Mosul. We went to Syria as well, visiting Kobani, Membij, Raqqa, Hassaka, and Dier ez-Zor as ISIS was also defeated there. They are now pushed into a last pocket of desert east of Deir ez-Zor near the Iraq border.

It would turn out that our journey had nearly paralleled one of the Cook’s daughter’s, Marteen. In June of 2018, the Cook got a call from a YPG source in Syria that a girl with the same name as his daughter had been found in Hol IDP camp, east of Hassaka. Was she his daughter? She was with an ISIS family, with her face fully covered, and no photos were available. The name was right, but they told him she didn’t speak Kurdish, only Arabic. He didn’t know – his daughter surely spoke Kurdish. Did he want to meet her? He couldn’t be sure it was his daughter, but thought even if she wasn’t his daughter, he could help whatever child this was escape from ISIS, escape from a Syrian IDP camp, and love her and raise her like his own child. He had no others at the moment.

So they made the plan to meet at an unofficial border crossing on the Iraq-Syrian border. He was there on time; the YPG truck pulled up and a tall, slim girl stepped out, saw him – and ran to him. She cried as she hugged him, and called him ‘father.’ It was his Marteen after all. Four years had passed since he last saw her: she no longer spoke Kurdish; she was taller, of course, than when he’d last seen her as an 8-year-old; and she carried a weight of experiences he could never share. But she was home.

Now home is a refugee camp outside of Dohuk, northern Iraq. He stays inside the camp while she stays with his brother’s family in the little village on the edge of the camp – they decided this would be better because there are cousins her age and they can go to school together.

She told us the outlines of her story: she was kidnapped together with her family and they were immediately brought to Syria – the border was right there. They were later transferred to al Qayyarah, in Iraq south of Mosul, then back up to Tel Afar. There, five months after their initial capture, the family was separated. That was the last she saw of her three brothers and sisters and her mother. She was sent to the family of an ISIS fighter, first in Kocho Village, site of an infamous massacre; then they moved to Mosul. But, as the Iraqi Army closed in on the city, they left.

She had gradually become a part of this family but now they fled to Turkey, handing her off to another family in Raqqa. The new family did not like her much, she said, and one day she escaped. Alone in the capital of the so-called caliphate, site of some of the worst atrocities committed by ISIS and closely patrolled by ISIS police, she could not remember her father’s phone number and had no other person to help. She was ten years old. She went back to her captors.

As Raqqa became the next locus of the fighting to defeat ISIS, she moved as the family moved, east to Dier ez-Zor, to Hajin, and eventually to Hol IDP camp – less than 100 km from her home. The men were all fighting and their families had come to these camps and joined the local IDP population. There a YPG member identified her as a Yezidi and found out her name. They tracked down her father, made contact – and Marteen was rescued, restored to her father. Now she is in school again, with aspirations to be an engineer. She avidly watches cartoons after four years of no television. She is re-learning Kurdish after four years of not being allowed to speak it – she was beaten if caught speaking her own language. Today, she is wearing a Minnie Mouse shirt with leggings, after four years of being totally covered with only her eyes showing.

This October the cook called Dave on the phone when we were in Iraq on a mission and told me the good news that his daughter was free.

“I wanted you to know what happened and we are so happy. Thank you for praying and trying,” he said.

We told him we would help him and his family and we sent funds to assist them. For all this, we thank God and all those who prayed for the cook and his family and as ISIS gets weaker and weaker we pray the rest of the family is freed too.

In the meantime, the Cook has had little news from the rest of his family. About nine months ago, he says, another, older, daughter called him from Abu Kamal, east of Dier ez-Zor. She had been working in the hospital there when the city came under attack by the coalition. Another woman, an ISIS wife from Baghdad, was working with her. When the hospital was bombed, she escaped with help from this woman, to a nearby abandoned house. She called her father from there and said she thought she would be able to escape and come home. Then he heard nothing for eight months. About a month ago she called again. This time she said she was in Idlib. Her captor was a member of Jabhat al-Nusra. And that was the last he’s heard.

The Cook still seems a man of gentleness and dignity; he is also still a man evidently carrying a heavy weight of sorrow. But he no longer carries it alone. His daughter Marteen now shares it with him, along with the weight of her own experiences – yet, she also has a spontaneous laugh, a grin that is close to the surface and a hope for the future. Please pray for this family and for a full restoration.