Sabaya means girl, but under ISIS sabaya refers to the women and girls raped and used as slaves. They are trafficked and sold and brutalised. When ISIS invaded the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq, in the Sinjar province near the border with Syria, they slaughtered boys and men, abducted and raped girls and women, and did their best to eradicate the Yazidi as a people.
This is the fight back. Sabaya follows the Yazidi Home Centre as they track down and recover trafficked Yazidi girls. It is incredibly dangerous.
5 years on from the ISIS invasion, Kurdish forces have managed to bring them under control. Many are being held in a prison facility, and the rest are in the Al-Hol camp. Like any defeated side, who rush to hide the family silver when the army is at the gates, ISIS started to hide the Yazidi girls they had took, seeing each one as money they could use, something to be sold.
Enter the volunteers at the Yazidi Home Centre, Mahmud, Ziyad, Siham, Zahra, and countless women who go undercover in the Al-Hol camp. These undercover agents must go into ISIS-controlled territory, pretend to be ISIS supporters, and relay back to Mahmud and Ziyad any information they can glean about Yazidi girls stashed around the camp.
The nerve of these folk is unreal. They are not an army. They are not going out there in a tank or with a SWAT team as back-up. Mahmud is a middle-aged man with a handgun. Most of the women working undercover are freed sabaya working to save their sisters. Any of them would be killed without hesitation if caught.
It is a real testament to the bravery of these women, to have endured so much, and be able to face down that fear, and return to one of the most dangerous places in the world. And the dedication of people like Mahmud, who has his wifi router tied up to a car battery to ensure these women can always reach him.
And yet that awe mingles with the mundane. This vital work often just looks like an idle man glued to his phone. As a recently freed girl sobs in the back bedroom, Mahmud’s wee boy skites around the floor on a pillow. Siham feeds the chickens, then takes the girl’s chadors and niqabs out back and burns them in a cleansing bonfire.
The tone of the film can change dramatically from scene to scene, emphasising the precariousness of the relative safety the Yazidi Home Centre. In one scene it can be of Siham and Zahra nurturing liberated women to recovery with gentle familial affection, and in the next a phone call to Mahmud means everyone piling into the van to run a midnight raid in the camp, kicking their way into tents and pressing traffickers into revealing the whereabouts of their victims, and making a dash home with a found survivor under pursuit and gunfire from ISIS.
Each life saved feels like a victory. A woman freed. A loved one returned. And a part of the attempted genocide of the Yazidi thwarted.