The familiar face of Rana Behnam
I was in my classroom, setting up for the start of the new school year, which would begin the following week, when I took a quick break and checked my phone. After checking a couple of texts and a quick scroll through my Facebook feed, I saw her face. It looked familiar, so I scrolled back to take a closer look. I couldn’t quite place it but when I noticed it was a picture posted ADFA’s Nuri Kino, I read further and realized where I had seen this face before! The next thing I thought to do was send the picture to my friend and film producer, Jordan, with the comment “Is this the kidnapped woman whose family we interviewed in Erbil?!” And then, before he could even respond, I got a message from my trusted friend Sheelan, an activist in Erbil that took us to this woman’s family! Sheelan simply wrote, “Good and happy news…the kidnapped Christian woman [was] released today!” And it was confirmed, the woman I recognized was Ranna, the girl whose mother and brother we met and spoke to on the very first day that we arrived in Erbil for the journey that lead to the making of the documentary film “Our Last Stand.”
Of course we were all happy to hear the news, but more than that I felt complete and utter shock. After three years of barely any word of her whereabouts, she was actually released?! We all heard about girls like Ranna who were kidnapped and never heard from again. Because these stories are not new to our people whose scars are still healing from genocide of just a generation ago, our minds immediately jumped to the gruesome images that fought for a spot in our imagination about the daily horrors inflicted on these poor souls at the hands of their captors. And after three long years of captivity, many would argue that it was better to be dead than live at the mercy of those familiar animals. It was hard to imagine that these women would ever survive such an ordeal, let alone be released and make it back to their loved ones!!
My mind wandered back to that first day in Erbil. I pulled out my journal and flipped to July 5th, the day we met and interviewed several displaced families in Ankawa, Erbil. This was the day that Sheelan asked us if we’d like to speak with Ranna’s mother and brother. She told us that she had been working with this family to help find their 30 year old daughter who had been abducted on August 22, 2014. They were hiding in their home in the village of Qaraqosh after ISIS militants had invaded and given them the ultimatum to convert, flee, or die. Rana’s husband had refused to leave and instead, sent his wife Ranna with the rest of her family that decided to join the mass exodus out of the village. On their way out of Qaraqosh amidst the chaos of cars making their way to safety, their car was stopped by ISIS militants who proceeded to search the vehicle and strip them of their valuables. What happened next would change their lives forever. The militants rounded everyone up and then separated families into male and female groups. Despite their cries and pleas, several women, about twenty or so, were then dragged into a mini-van and driven away, not be heard from for the next three years. Not knowing what to do, the families froze. How could they just get back in their cars? Should they chase after the van? But the militants made all the decisions for them, forcing them back into their vehicles and back onto the road that lead them far away from the only place they ever called home. With just the clothes on their backs and whatever the militants had spared them, the rest of the family members had no other choice but to continue on the journey they had begun to find safety for whomever was left. Erbil would become their home for the next few years, but it was also the place where they would mourn the loss of their abducted family members.
As soon as I met her elderly mother, I was flooded with emotion. Beginning the interview was difficult because, honestly, I already knew the answers to the heart wrenching questions I was planning to ask. I found it difficult to evoke these memories of pain from her mother and didn’t want to ask this poor woman questions that would force her to relive that horrible night when she saw her daughter dragged away by those monsters. I started the interview anyway, stumbling over my words as I mixed phrases from Arabic, English and my western Assyrian dialect together. Her mother was sad, and sort of in a dark daze. At that point in time, it had been a year since the kidnapping, and the family was constantly speaking to people, trying to follow leads, and negotiate with various agents, all in a desperate attempt to get their daughter back. Her mother just kept asking Sheelan if she had any updates about her daughter’s whereabouts. I’d go on to ask another question, and her poor mother would circle around and ask Sheelan again, “Why did you come here? Did you find her yet?”
When we were preparing to film the family, Sheelan warned that we could only record their voices, not their faces. These were terms set by the family who were afraid to reveal their identity on camera. Her brother, who was reluctant to speak to us at first, finally felt comfortable enough to share some of the details of the event, and eventually everything about that fateful night was revealed as the cameras captured the retelling. He told us that after his sister was taken, he dialed her cell phone number and one of the ISIS captors answered. That militant told the family to talk to the government in Bagdad to trade one of their women in Bagdad in exchange for one of the Christian woman, then they said they wanted a ransom. But when they called back, no one answered. After some time, Ranna’s family was able to contact someone they knew that was still in Mosul, the place where they thought Ranna and the other women had been taken. That contact said he’d make some inquiries on their behalf for an $800 fee, and so it went, from one fake lead to another, until the family spent thousands of dollars in ransom and fees, all to no avail.
When we said goodbye to that family, I really did not feel hopeful. After everything they had described, it was hard to imagine that their daughter was even still alive.
Jordan and I traveled on to meet and record many more similar stories in more parts of Iraq, and then in Syria. Once we were back home in the states, the task of transcribing all the footage began, consequently causing me to relive the experiences through the view of my camera lens. Experiencing the journey the second time around was even more touching because here, at home, I had more time to process all the things I had just seen and heard. I had more time to reflect on each and every single story and courageous person that I met. And as you can imagine, once I started reflecting, once I allowed everything to really sink in, the reality hit me hard and the tears that I fought to hold back throughout my trip could no longer be withheld.
I selfishly stopped asking Sheelan for regular updates on the situation in Iraq and about the people we met because I never got the answers I wanted to hear. There were little spurts of progress here and there that ultimately left me feeling deceived. First, the news of the liberation of our villages in the Nineveh Plain earlier this year, which was temporarily uplifting and boosted moral but the gloom resurfaced when we saw pictures of the destruction and devastation that ISIS left behind. And today, the news of Ranna’s release and miraculous return to her village provides another glimmer of hope. I watched the clips of her village people welcoming her home with music and dancing in the streets. But what will happen tomorrow when people ask her about the last three years of her life? How will she cope with the trauma of this unimaginable experience?
We try to remain hopeful as we encourage and support these courageous families that are slowly beginning to return to their villages and resume their “normal” lives, but deep down, the overwhelming burden of rebuilding atop piles of rubble and painful memories that have consumed our homeland looms like a dark cloud over all of us.
A Demand For Action
Photo: Allen Kakony, Iraq