Sabaya: How collective power emerged from the horrors of Syria's Al-Hawl camp

Sabaya: a hauntingly revealing documentary filmed in Syria's Al-Hawl camp
4 min read
20 August, 2021

When it comes to conflict stories and the Middle East, mainstream cinema has a frustratingly long habit of positioning Western saviours as the heroes. In fact, a couple of years before Swedish-Kurdish filmmaker Hogir Hirori presented his latest documentary, Sabaya, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, an American film with the same title was greenlit to do just that.

While that planned Zoe Saldana-led “fact-based thriller” sounds like another excuse to high five the US for their involvement in Iraqi affairs, Hirori’s 90-minute offering highlights the compassion, determination and heroism within the Kurdish-Yazidi community to protect, rescue and fight for their own.

The story centres on Mahmud, a volunteer with the Yazidi Home Center who has made it his mission to help locate and rescue some of the estimated 7,000 girls and women who had been ripped from their families, forced to convert to Islam and serve as sex slaves by the so-called Islamic State group (IS/ISIS) after the 2014 genocide against the Yazidis near Sinjar in Northern Iraq.

 Sabaya is a devastating record of courage and a Yazidi saviour narrative worthy of global attention

These Yazidi women’s identities were stripped away and replaced with the label “sabaya” by their captors, with both male and female IS supporters enforcing their brutally oppressive treatment.

Embedded with Mahmud’s group of volunteers, Hirori trains a close camera eye, sometimes open and other times hidden, on their everyday efforts to find the stolen daughters, sisters, wives and mothers in the dangerous al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria.

The film says the camp is home to 72,000 IS supporters, with many of the “sabaya” forcibly hidden under burqas and niqabs in the overflowing sea of tents flooding the desert landscape near the Syrian-Iraqi border.

But the rescuers use this clothing dilemma to their advantage as it allows their female infiltrators, former sabaya themselves, to covertly return to the camp in order to find and feed information back on lost Yazidi women.

It’s a highly risky strategy, one that often sees Mahmud struggling to reach his spies via WhatsApp calls because of poor internet reception.

As a protagonist Mahmud is an admirable man of few words; he dresses more like a school teacher, in gingham shirts and slacks than the leader of a covert ops team but it’s clear his work has taken its toll on family life.

In one scene, Mahmud is sat on a cushion in the courtyard of his home where his wife Siham admonishes him for not being home for three months. A moment later he’s on the phone asking the whereabouts of a target: “I just need to know if she is alive or if they have killed her.”

Hirori portrays Mahmud and his team as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The filmmaker is in the thick of several early morning armed raids to find the missing women in the lawless camp where the threat of being killed is at every turn. At one point, after rescuing a Yazidi woman called Leila, they are tailed and shot at while driving to safety.

Despite unimaginable horrors, Sabaya is a film about how humanity can rise from the ashes [Lolav Media/Ginestra Film]
Despite unimaginable horrors, Sabaya is a film about how humanity can rise from the ashes [Lolav Media/Ginestra Film]

The camera goes back and forth between her, Mahmud, his colleague behind the wheel Ziyad and the headlights coming through the back window. She’s crying, begging them to not let her be recaptured; Ziyad, completely relaxed, tells her to “calm down and breathe.” None of these scenes are heightened for dramatic effect with music or sharp cuts; these scenes don’t need the thrills of Hollywood editing to make these heroic acts taking place any less gripping.

The filmmaker juxtaposes these tense rescue sequences with more tranquil events at Mahmud’s home where the rescued women are taken before being returned to Sinjar. Birds singing and the exuberant sounds of children playing give these moments a safe haven quality even as Hirori gives space for various women to acclimatise to their freedom while sharing snippets from their harrowing ordeals. One woman says a captured female IS supporter had “beat us with a broomstick so hard it broke.” Another woman, returning to Al-Hawt to be an infiltrator, explained she had been sold as a slave to Islamic State group fighters from Sweden and Tunisia before she was freed.

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These women might have been liberated, but it’s clear many are still being kept hostage by the trauma of seeing family members murdered, forced assimilation and both sexual and physical abuse. “Five years in captivity,” says Leila. “Now I am alone,” after revealing her entire family was killed when she was kidnapped.

But this is a story as much about the resilient, collective power of this community as it is the tragic horror that continues to fuel their fight for justice and freedom. It stands up against For Sama and Collective for its brilliant unvarnished, on-the-ground storytelling of real-life heroes facing mammoth odds.

Sabaya is a devastating record of courage and a Yazidi saviour narrative worthy of global attention.

Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.

Follow her here: @HannaFlint