Memories of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority who fled their homeland in the Sinjar Mountains in northwest Iraq following an invasion by the Islamic State in August 2014, have been preserved in a newly published photo collection.
A toy, a shoe and a spoon — all of which were abandoned along the escape routes — “showed me that the Yazidis had led just an ordinary life as we do,” said Noriko Hayashi, the Tokyo-based photojournalist behind the work.
“I want to tell it to the world through these items.”
Her photos appear in “The Prayer of the Yazidis,” published by Kyoto-based Akaaka Art Publishing Inc.
Hayashi initially came to know the tragic fate of the Yazidis while staying in Turkey in 2014 on assignment for a Japanese publisher.
“I wondered what kind of people they were and what they had to say,” she said.
She started researching them, and made contact with a Yazidi family, with whom she stayed several times in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk for her photo shoots in 2015 and 2016.
During her first trip to Iraq, Hayashi captured several emotional scenes, including destroyed towns and people in tears slumped in front of the coffins of their loved ones.
“These photos have tremendous impact and directly show what happened, but they overlap with those of Syria and other conflict-ravaged areas,” Hayashi said.
“In living with them, I rather wanted to focus on what reminds us of the peaceful life of the Yazidis.”
It is estimated that 600,000 to 1 million Yazidis live around the world — many of whom practice their own religion and traditions in Iraq.
Some 5,000 Yazidis are believed to have been killed in the 2014 attacks by the Islamic State group, according to a United Nations report.
Many Yazidis have found shelter in Germany, where Hayashi also traveled several times.
She captured their daily lives there and special moments, including weddings, and cherished belongings brought to the European country.
“While (photographing) them, I was thinking what I would have brought with me if I had faced similar situations,” Hayashi said.
Her photo collection also carries testimonies of Yazidi women, who were enslaved by Islamic State and suffered sexual violence and human trafficking.
The testimonies are in Japanese, English, German and Kurdish.
The three languages other than Japanese are summaries.
When taking their photos, Hayashi would hang a white scarf, which is used by Yazidi women to cover their heads, in front of her camera so they could not be identified, as many of their relatives are still captives of the Islamic State.
A woman named Zina gave birth to a son during the escape journey, but her husband was shot to death by an Islamic State militant at the age of 21.
Zina refused to flee to Europe, telling Hayashi, “I want to stay because my husband lost his life here, and his soul is still resting in Shingal.”
A woman named Dersim said she had dreamed of being a beautician one day but is now fighting on the front lines against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
One of the two photos of Dersim shows her dressed up like a young lady, starkly contrasted with another photo of her wearing a combat jacket and brandishing a rifle.
A man named Hamo said before leaving for Germany with his wife and two sons, “Family photos taken at home are more valuable to me than anything else,” but due to fear of confiscation on the way to Europe, he decided to “set off leaving all photos behind.”
The close-range photos he left behind of his wedding ceremony and his family, together with photos of other families, are in the collection by Hayashi.
The family photos allowed her to feel empathy for the Yazidis, Hayashi said.
“I could understand the feeling of a father, who pointed a camera at his crying child or at his boy blowing out candles on a birthday cake.”
Akaaka Art Publishing Director Kimi Himeno said, “The photos by Ms. Hayashi make me think of each person (in the photo book) standing close to me, even though they live far away.
“We referred to each Yazidi person by name when Ms. Hayashi and I edited this collection so we could feature each of them as an individual, rather than reporting the whole picture of the tragedy they’re involved with.”
The new book is Hayashi’s second photo collection following “Unholy Matrimony,” which focused on “bride kidnappings” in Kyrgyzstan, in which men abduct young women for forced marriages.
In 2013 she was presented with the Visa d’or Feature Award, the top award for feature reporting, during an international photo journalism festival in France for her coverage a year earlier in the Central Asian country.
Starting her career as an intern at a local paper in Gambia, West Africa, in 2006 and financing the costs of her coverage by undertaking photo assignments from news agencies, she continues pursuing her interests, including Koreans living in Japan.
“While they are quite close to us, they still remain unknown,” said Hayashi, who also focuses attention on North Korea.
Her latest 224-page photo book costs ¥2,800 excluding tax.
Himeno said she plans to eventually distribute it overseas.