Book Review: With Ash on their Faces by Cathy Otten

Book Name: With Ash on their Faces

Author: Cathy Otten

Publisher: Fingerprint

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 5/5

Book Blurb: Isis’s genocidal attack on the yezidi population of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 brought the world’s attention to followers of a faith with a long history of persecution. Large Numbers of men were executed, while thousands of yezidi women were taken to the Islamic state to be sold as chattel for ISIS fighters. The headlines have moved on, but many yezidi women and children remain in captivity. Their mass abduction is here conveyed with extraordinary intensity by the first-hand reporting of a young journalist who has worked in Iraqi Kurdistan for four years. Based on extensive interviews with survivors, as well as those who smuggled them to safety, with Ash on their faces presents a unique and profoundly moving account of the privations and resistance of those enslaved by a monstrous regime.

Review: Cathy Otten’s ‘With Ash on their Faces’ is an in-depth and moving account of the atrocities committed on the Yezidi people during the ISIS occupation of Iraq and Syria.

Cathy Otten reported from Iraqi Kurdistan and unlike some other authors, was present on the ground and her account is full of personal stories of Yezidi women and the aftermath.

“In Yezidi culture, as in much of the Middle East, a man’s honor is linked to the chastity of his close female relatives.”

The problem in Iraq started with the US-initiated war. In the aftermath, the west installed a puppet parliament that favored the Shia community. This antagonized the Sunnis who soon found themselves out of favor and without any prospects in a new Iraq. This perhaps laid the seeds for the emergence of ISIS that found willing supporters who had no work and wanted a piece of the new country. The sectarian conflict spilled over to Syria but the Yezidi community bore the major brunt. ISIS was okay with the people of the book such as the Christians who were allowed to live but the Yezidis were either killed or forced to live as sex slaves.

Cathy offers a detailed account of Yezidi women and how they did not manage to lose spirit even in the face of rape and torture.

“The promise of sexual slavery is used as a sweetener when recruiting disaffected young men to ISIS, while, at the same time, stories about sex and violence in the media…”

The book intermingles personalized accounts with a detailed history of the political landscape and offers a non-biased account of the war against ISIS. It also discusses in detail the reasons behind the retreat of the Peshmerga which is considered as a primary reason for the genocide on Yezidis. A Yezidi woman Leila finally finds freedom after risking her life to run away from ISIS. Anything is better than living a life under the ISIS where she was sold repeatedly to various owners as a slave.

The book gets its title from the practice of Yezidi women who rubbed ash of their faces so they would appear less appealing to the advancing ISIS warriors. Women were forced to lose their virginities to any Yezidi man who was present since non-virgins were not as appealing to the ISIS. The accounts here are horrid but this is an important book that documents the hardships faced by a religious minority.

The account is holistic and impartial. It does not shy away from frankly dissecting the political failures of the Iraq war and the mistakes committed during the ISIS war.

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