Barakat comes from the plains of Khana Soor, flanking the northern side of Mount Shingal which turns red, white, and blue with flowers in the spring, their scent sweetening the air. He had a small bookstore, grew cucumbers, found love, and started raising two daughters. It was a normal life, he says wistfully.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Barakat and his brother served as Arabic interpreters with U.S. forces. Working with Americans made them targets for terrorist groups, which is why they used code names to protect their identities. “We wanted to help rescue Iraq from that bad situation,” says Barakat, “but unfortunately it’s become worse.”
In August 2014, Barakat got word that ISIS was attacking the southern region of Shingal (Sinjar in Arabic). He and his brother prepared their AK-47s, determined to defend Khana Soor from jihadists. But soon it became clear that the battle couldn’t be won. Just as the family was sitting down to breakfast, a person from a nearby village came tearing through Khana Soor with a warning that ISIS had heavy machine guns, armored trucks, and Humvees.
While thousands of Yezidis ran to the mountainside where they waited for rescue without food or water, Barakat and his family piled into their cars and drove toward the Kurdistan Region. He says they passed through Arab villages where people were shooting at them.
Barakat’s car broke down, and they climbed into an ice cream truck carrying some 40 other people. A drive that typically took two hours stretched on for 12 hours. They spent the next month living in an ice cream factory in Duhok.
“We lost everything,” he says — musical instruments, laptops, photographs. He remembers that in the chaotic moments before he fled, he had opened the cage door to release his pet doves, wanting them to have a chance at survival. After Shingal was liberated and he returned to survey the damage, he found one of the birds floating lifelessly in a fountain.
Barakat still says he is lucky. More than 3,000 Yezidi women and children, persecuted for their religious beliefs, remain enslaved by ISIS. Bones, hair, and clothing bleached in the sun give way to mass graves in Shingal still being discovered.
“Home” for Barakat now means an unfinished structure near Mosul, shared with seven other families. Coalition jets roar in the distance, and sometimes airstrikes nearby rattle the dishes in the kitchen. Barakat has a few chickens in the yard and a small plot of land where cucumbers and sunflowers grow.
After two years of being displaced, he is not optimistic about returning to Khana Soor. “People are afraid of the next genocide,” he says, adding that the attack by ISIS became the Yezidis’ 74th genocide. The 73rd, which Al Qaeda orchestrated through synchronized truck bombs in 2007, killed more than 500 people.
“Always when I’m feeling sad, I’m just playing music to forget myself,” says Barakat. He says he has committed more than 250 folk songs to memory. That way, they can’t be destroyed in the next genocide.