With Ash on Their Faces



“This is an intelligent and perceptive book about one of the great tragedies of our age. It is also an inspiring story of resistance and survival that everybody should read.” —Patrick Cockburn

“The best kind of humanist journalism: lucid, transparent, grimly realistic.… (N)o book has covered it better.” —Ryan Boyd, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Contemporary testimony [grounded in a] wealth of historical context ... an urgently necessary chronicle of the Yazidi genocide.” —Times Literary Supplement

“Woven through with heart-breaking, terrifying accounts of its survivors, and demanding an understanding of their community’s historical persecution, Otten’s searing chronicle of ISIS’ genocide of the Yezidis is compelling and devastatingly necessary.”
—Sareta Ashraph, former Analyst, UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria

“There are two constants in the modern history of genocides: they are recognized too late and their victims, particularly if they are women, are presented as passive sufferers. Cathy Otten’s important and morally urgent book tells the story of an ongoing crime and a history of strength and resistance. Told with great care but with neither sentiment nor sensationalism, With Ash on Their Faces, needs to be read by all those who care about justice—and by those too occupied with global power to care.” —Lyndsey Stonebridge, author of The Judicial Imagination

“Otten tells the Yezidis’ remarkable story with a deft and detailed hand in this revealing account of suffering, endurance and survival. An essential read for anyone interested in the plight and resilience of one of Iraq’s most persecuted minorities.” —Anthony Loyd

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About the Book

ISIS’s genocidal attack on the Yezidi population in northern Iraq in 2014 brought the world’s attention to the small faith that numbers less than one million worldwide. That summer ISIS massacred Yezidi men and enslaved women and children. More than one hundred thousand Yezidis were besieged on Sinjar Mountain. The US began airstrikes to roll back ISIS, citing a duty to save the Yezidis, but the genocide is still ongoing.

The headlines have moved on but thousands of Yezidi women and children remain in captivity, and many more are still displaced. Sinjar is now free from ISIS but the Yezidi homeland is at the centre of growing tensions amongst the city’s liberators, making returning home for the Yezidis almost impossible.

The mass abduction of Yezidi women and children is here conveyed with extraordinary intensity in the first-hand reporting of a young journalist who has been based in Iraqi Kurdistan for the past four years, covering the war with ISIS and its impact on the people of the country.

Otten tells the story of the ISIS attacks, the mass enslavements of Yezidi women and the fallout from the disaster. She challenges common perceptions of Yezidi female victimhood by focusing on stories of resistance passed down by generations.

Yezidi women describe how, in the recent conflict, they followed the tradition of their ancestors who, a century ago during persecutions at the fall of the Ottoman empire, put ash on their faces to make themselves unattractive and try to avoid being raped.

Today, over 3,000 Yezidi women and girls remain in the Caliphate where they are bought and sold, and passed between fighters as chattel. But many other have escaped or been released. Otten bases her book on interviews with these survivors, as well as those who smuggled them to safety, painstakingly piecing together their accounts of enslavement. Their deeply moving personal narratives bring alive a human tragedy.

Cover illustration by MOLLY CRABAPPLE
256 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-08-8 • E-book 978-1-682191-09-5

About the Author

cathy otten author photo

Photo © Alice Martins
Cathy Otten is a British writer and journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan. She writes for a range of publications including the Independent, Newsweek, BBC, TIME, Vogue, Politico, Monocle, the Guardian and the Telegraph. She is a regular commentator on TV and radio, talking about Iraq and the war with ISIS.

Read an Excerpt

A car carrying “Leila” drew close to her family’s home in a camp for displaced Yezidis in northern Iraq. Her female relatives, dressed in black and brown shawls, sat around the sides of the room chatting in quiet voices. Next to the door was a small kitchen unit and, beneath it, a pile of black sandals to be slipped on before the women went outside onto the muddy roads of the camp.

It was mid-afternoon on an early spring day, just after a rainstorm, and outside the air was fresh and mountain-bruised. I asked the women where they were from. “Kojo,” one of them gave me.

A few moments later everyone turned toward the door. They had heard car wheels crunching on the gravel outside. Leila entered the room and collapsed into an older woman’s arms. They began to cry. A small girl with pigtails ran in behind her, looking bewildered.

Leila wore a cream headscarf, a long black skirt, and a denim coat that was too big for her. Her face was red and scrunched up with tears washing her cheeks. The women wailed as she was carried into the room clutching her grandmother’s breast. Everyone was crying now and the grandmother began to sing.

The relief that Leila and the small girl had returned was tangible. But in the grandmother’s mournful song there was also a lament for the women still held captive, and deep grief for the men from their village who had been murdered in their village.


Leila sank into a corner of the room surrounded by a dozen members of her extended family who were gathering to receive her, women with olive skin and tired eyes. Each woman bent down to touch Leila and kiss her cheeks, welcoming her back. Her grandmother continued to sing.

Leila had been kidnapped a year and a half previously, taken from Kojo, a village below Sinjar Mountain. Her captors took her across two countries and then kept her locked in a house more than three hundred miles away, before she was able to escape.

She had been enslaved by ISIS, the militant jihadi group that captured large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 and embarked on a policy of exterminating the Yezidi religion, killing its men and taking its women into slavery because of the tenets of their interpretation of Islam. The genocide is still ongoing and has only partially been revealed.

An estimated six thousand three hundred and eighty three Yezidis—mostly women and children—were enslaved and transported to ISIS prisons, military training camps, and the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were raped, beaten, sold, and locked away. By mid 2016, two thousand five hundred and ninety women and children had escaped or been smuggled out of the Caliphatei. Around three thousand Yezidis were killed, half executed in the days following the ISIS attack, with the rest left dying on Sinjar Mountain from injuries, starvation, or dehydrationii.

Some, like Leila, escaped by outsmarting the men, using methods of resistance passed down from earlier generations of Yezidi women who had endured religious persecution. Today over three thousand Yezidi women and children remain in captivity, where they’ve been since they were kidnapped in 2014, with few attempts to rescue them.

Leila’s jailer, Shakir Abdul Wahab Ahmed Zaater, was an ISIS military commander in Rutbah, Anbar province, who became notorious after being filmed executing Syrian truck drivers in 2013.

“Where were you in Syria?” a neighbor asked the small girl accompanying Leila, who I later found out was her niece. She smiled up at her but didn’t say anything.

As word of Leila’s return spread around the camp, more women arrived to see her. They wanted to ask if she had news about their own missing relatives. As the crying in the room ebbed, one woman continued to weep loudly. Leila’s grandmother told her to hush, and the women sniffed into silence. From the corner of the room, a teenage girl glanced up at me from under her black scarf, a fleeting look of relief on her face.


Leila is a Yezidi. The Yezidis are a majority-Kurdish-speaking religious group living mostly in northern Iraq and numbering less than one million worldwide. They worship a single God, believe in reincarnation, and revere the Peacock Angel, known as Melek Tawuse, as God’s representative on earth. The peacock angel was often miscast as the devil of other religions, which resulted in the Yezidis, throughout their history, being persecuted as infidels by Muslim rulers who demanded they convert.

In Iraq there are around five hundred thousand Yezidis, primarily from the Sinjar region. Sinjar is a rural area in Iraq’s Nineveh province, close to the border with Syria on the large, dry Jazira plain. Communities of Yezidis still exist in the Caucasus, but the Yezidis of Syria and Turkey have mostly all fled to neighboring countries or to Europe. In Germany, their numbers are estimated at twenty-five thousandiii.

Sinjar was retaken by Kurdish forces backed by coalition air strikes in November 2015. The cost of its liberation was its near total destruction. The majority of Yezidis are still unable to return because of the ruination, and because they fear new clashes between the Kurdish militias who retook the area from ISIS, and were at the time of writing, fighting with each other for control.

The epicenter of the Yezidi faith is in Lallish, not far from the city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Lallish is made up of a collection of temples set in a forested valley around the tomb of the Sufi mystic Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, who died in the twelfth century and is revered by Yezidis. Every Yezidi must make a pilgrimage to Lallish at least once in his or her lifetime.

Sheikh Adi was born in Lebanon but came to Baghdad and then north to Lallish where he established a Sufi order, and was said to have mystical powers. Generations after his death, his followers began to incorporate elements of older, Iranian religions into their faith, meaning they would no longer be protected as part of the wider Islamic communityiv.

Yezidis believe that God created the universe from a pearl that split on his command and gave out light and water. He created seven holy beings or angels who he put in charge of making the earth, starting with Lallish. Melek Tawuse, the Peacock Angel, became their chiefv.

The shrines in Lallish are dedicated to Sheikh Adi and his companions, real historical figures in the early years of the religion who have now become mythic. Praying to them, for modern Yezidis, cures illness and provides luck.

Yezidism is an oral religion, passed down through hymns sung by specially designated singers and the playing of holy instruments. Rather than formal ceremonies, religious practice involves visiting sacred places and kissing the walls of shrines and temples. Yezidis participate in baptism and feasts, sing hymns, and recite stories.

Some of the stories are about historical and mythical battles fought in protection of the religion. Others, told over the centuries by generations of women, detail methods of resistance to the same threats that Yezidi women face today.

“It is in our nature, we always want to survive, and then it depends on having the knowledge to be able to do that,” said Jan Kizilhan, the German-Yezidi professor of psychology and psychotherapy. “We call this trans-generational trauma … Because the Yezidis have experienced 74 genocides, this information [on how to survive] is stored in their collective memories… they know their ancestors faced the same thing.”

The stories are about suffering but also of strength. The relevance of these stories to the ISIS attacks, like the lament sung by Leila’s grandmother, may help to redefine what it means to be Yezidi and create bonds that could offer some hopevi.


iAuthor interview with Vian Dakhil, Yezidi KDP MP in the Iraqi Parliament.
iiCetorelli V, Sasson I, Shabila N, Burnham G (2017) Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: A retrospective household survey. PLoS Med 14(5): e1002297. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002297
iiiBirgül Açikyildiz, Yezidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion, I.B Tauris, pp. 33–34.
ivPhilip G. Kreyenbroek, Yezidism – Its Background, Observances and Textual Tradition, The Edwin Mellen Press (1995), p. 45.
vIbid., p. 54. Quoting from Yezidi sacred texts that may be forgeries but appear to be based on oral accounts.
During author interviews with Yezidis, I heard different versions of this story; I also heard (in Kurdish) a telling of the story on a Yezidi TV show.
viAuthor interview with Jan Kizilhan, a German-Yezidi professor of psychology and psychotherapy, who has treated many Yezidi women and helped to establish a program to bring them to Germany for treatment, spoke to me in Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in early 2016.

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