Chapter 1: On Mussolini’s Island 1 On Mussolini’s Island
Leros, August 2016
When I look back to that summer on the tiny Greek island of Leros, to the derelict mental asylum littered with pigeon droppings and rusting iron bedsteads, where I first met the Yazidis, I still see the girl’s eyes, so deep and troubled and pleading.
She is thrusting her phone at me to show me a video. I can see an iron cage with perhaps a dozen young women inside and Arabic men crowded around jeering, Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. At first, I don’t understand. The women look petrified. Then the men step back, flames engulf the cage, there are screams, and the video ends.
“That is my sister,” says the girl. “They are burning virgins alive.”
Everything seems to stop and spin. It is a vision of Hell. I don’t know if the sound in my head is the sea outside or blood rushing to my ears. Sun is pouring through a hole in the roof and sweat is running down our faces. A small Yazidi child is trailing through the rubble and broken glass and downed rafters, singing to herself, a waif of a thing with strands of hair stuck to her cheek like fronds. She is getting closer and closer to a large crater in the floorboards until, in panic, I yank her away. Her mother, resting against a stone wall next to the girl whose sister was burned alive, stares blankly ahead. What has happened to these people?
I want to get out of that asylum with its barred windows and stained walls. Before coming here I’d watched an old documentary called Island of Outcasts and images crowd into my head from that film of shaven-headed men and women, some of them naked and chained to their beds, limbs jerking at strange angles, others in shapeless smocks, crammed on the floor of a room staring into the camera.
Through the window’s bars, I can see down below, row upon row of white prefab containers surrounded by wire concertina fence, and beyond that the Aegean Sea, jarring in its deep blue perfection.
The camp where these Yazidis are living is more than a thousand miles from their homeland under the tall sacred mountain between Iraq and Syria on which they believe Noah’s Ark came to rest.
I had never before met Yazidis. Their religion is one of the world’s most ancient but, like most people, the first I had heard of them was at the end of summer in 2014 when I saw the pictures of thousands of Yazidis trapped on that mountain where they had fled convoy after convoy of black-clad ISIS fighters intent on exterminating them.
In the ruins of that asylum that sweltering August day, one after another came forward from the shadows to tell me their stories, stories that shook my very core, were worse than anything I had heard in three decades as a foreign correspondent.
Broken people, the women with thin wavy bodies and long purplish hair framing faces drained of light, it seemed to me they were neither living nor dead. All had lost parents, brothers, sisters. In whispery voices like wafts of wind, they told of their beloved homeland of Sinjar, which they pronounced as Shingal, and the mountain of the same name which they thought would give sanctuary but where many perished of hunger and thirst. They told of a small town called Kocho, which ISIS had kept under siege for thirteen days then slaughtered all the men and older women and captured the virgins. And of the Galaxy Cinema, on the east bank of the Tigris River, where girls—some of them their sisters—were divided into ugly and beautiful then paraded to ISIS fighters in a market to be bought as their sex slaves.
The mother of the little girl who almost walked into the hole was from Kocho. She was thirty-five, her name was Asma Bashar, and her voice was staccato like a machine gun. The others called her Asma Loco because they said she had lost her mind. She told me that forty members of her family had been slaughtered, including her mother, father, and brothers. Four sisters and twelve nieces had been taken as sex slaves. “I have no one left but one sister who managed to escape from captivity and is now in Germany,” she said. “I take pills to try and blot out what happened.”
A younger woman who until then had stood still as a portrait against the cracked blue wall started speaking. “I am twenty but I feel more than forty,” she said. Her name was Ayesha and she told me her parents and brothers were killed in Kocho. “I saw my grandmother die, I saw children die, and now I just remember bad things. Four of my friends were sold for just twenty euros.”
She had managed to flee to the mountain with her husband then they had somehow made their way across war-torn Syria into Turkey. There they had paid $5,000 to people smugglers to cross the Aegean to Greece, making several abortive attempts in patched-up overcrowded dinghies before finally landing on the island.
“After all this we find we are still not free,” she said. She held out her left wrist. Raised red scars crisscross the pale skin like angry worms. “I tried to kill myself with a knife.” She shrugged. The last time had been just two weeks earlier.
Leros had always been an island of outcasts—a leper colony, an internment camp for political prisoners, and an asylum for so-called “untreatables.” In 2015 it became one of many Greek islands that was swamped by refugees, fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
It was the refugee crisis that had brought me as a journalist to the island. Leros was one of five Greek islands that had been declared “hot spots” after the European Union struck a deal with Turkey in 2016, paying them 3 billion euros to stop any new arrivals crossing the Aegean. Ten thousand refugees left stranded on the islands were concentrated in these five processing centers but the process was so slow they were in effect island prisons. I’d been to others in Lesbos, Chios, and Kos and witnessed the uneasy juxtaposition of these desperate refugees fenced in camps, stadiums, and former factories, so preyed on by sex-traffickers that women wore diapers at night in order not to have to leave their tents, while nearby carefree vacationers were enjoying the sun, sea, and moussaka washed down by ouzo.
Leros was different. I’d never been anywhere quite like it. It had the blinding white fishing villages of higgledy-piggledy houses, windmills, tavernas, and sparkling blue seas typical of the Greek islands. But its main town, Lakki, was a study in Stalinist art deco, all wide avenues and sharp-angled villas in stark concrete, with a colonnaded cinema, a circular marketplace, a school that resembled an agricultural silo, a minimalist clock tower, as well as buildings that looked like a UFO and an old-fashioned transistor radio. It was like stumbling across a forgotten film set.
The island had once been central to Mussolini’s plans to create a second Roman Empire. Leros, along with all the Dodecanese, had been seized from the Ottoman Turks in 1912, becoming part of an Italian colonial empire that included Libya, Somalia, and Eritrea. When Mussolini took power in the 1920s, he decided its deep natural harbor made the ideal naval base from which to establish control over the entire eastern Mediterranean. So he sent in naval forces and administrators, as well as architects, to plan a modern city in the fascist style the Italians call razionalismo.
After Italy was defeated in the Second World War, control of the islands passed to Greece, and Lakki (or Portolago as the Italians had called it) was largely abandoned. When the colonels later seized power in Greece in 1967, they used Mussolini’s naval barracks to lock up political prisoners, then as a place to banish the mentally ill. Thousands of patients were shipped from the mainland and kept in medieval conditions until this was exposed in the press and the 1990 documentary I had seen, which prompted outrage across the EU and led to the asylum’s closure in 1997. Then came the refugees.
Living in containers in the shadow of the derelict asylum
To get to the refugee camp I drove past a series of abandoned brick buildings and rusted ambulances. A few people came out to stare including a wild-eyed man pushing a wheelbarrow and waving a fist—some patients had remained.
It was an eerie place for a camp. Inside were about seven hundred Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis, a third of whom were children. There were around a hundred Yazidis. These refugees made up 10 percent of the population of the small island.
Up close the white containers turned out to be ISO containers designed for transporting food, now turned into homes, with lines of laundry strung between them and old men crouched outside playing improvised backgammon with bottle tops. Conditions were not bad compared to some camps I had visited but, as its administrator Yiannis Hrisafitis pointed out, “This wasn’t their dream.” They were not allowed to leave the island and so were stranded in limbo while EU countries failed to agree on who would take them. Meanwhile they had nothing to do, nothing to think about but their terrible memories, and no hope for the future.
I wandered between the laundry lines followed by a small boy clutching a large teddy bear, who ran away when I tried to speak to him. A gaggle of Syrian women sat on a bed smoking, their faces deeply lined. The local hospital had told me that there were regular suicide attempts.
The camp was surrounded by a double fence topped with whorls of razor wire like a prison. “It’s to stop those from outside coming in,” explained Yiannis. “Maybe somebody wants to steal children or young women or buy organs or sell drugs.”
The Yazidi section had another fence around it to make a camp within a camp. Yiannis explained that a couple of weeks before my visit the Yazidis had been attacked by other refugees, Sunni Muslims, who denounced them as devil worshippers just as ISIS had done, so he had cordoned them off for their own protection. They had gone to the asylum to talk to me because they considered it safer.
I noticed the Yazidis all had red-and-white cords twisted around their wrists. When I asked what these signified, they explained that the white symbolized the peace they yearned for, and the red the blood of their people killed in previous genocides—by Muslims, Persians, Mongols, Ottomans, Iraqis… all their neighbors. They told me the latest genocide, by ISIS, was the seventy-fourth. There had been so much violence against Yazidis that they had a word for attempted extermination—ferman—long before its English equivalent, genocide, which was coined only in 1944 by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin.
Ayesha, whose parents and brothers were killed by ISIS
“Here is like a prison, everyone fighting each other,” said Ayesha, the very still girl who seemed to have stepped out of a painting. “We have nothing left, no money, we spent everything to get here and the world does not care about us.”
On my last day on the island the Yazidis told me of a secret village in Germany where they said more than a thousand of the girls kept as sex slaves were being sheltered after having escaped or been rescued. I was intrigued.