The pain of the Yazidi people in a psychologist’s experience

Berivan Zinzal told ANF of her work and emotional visits to Yazidi people leaving in camps in Kurdistan.

Four years have passed since the massacre carried out by the DAESH mercenaries against the Yazidi people in Shengal. Since then survivors have settled in many camps set up in South Kurdistan, northern Iraq, trying to cope with the suffering and trauma they have experienced.

Kurdish psychologist Berivan Zinzal visited the Yazidi children and people many times in these camps and talked to ANF about her feelings and experience.

Berivan Zinzal explained how she decided to go and visit Yazidi people in the camps in South Kurdistan and then to offer them therapy and psychological support.

“It began with a call from my friend who rang me late one night, and said to me: ‘Berivan, I can’t sleep, I saw a child in the camp. Come here, please’. My friend sent me the video of this child she had ‘seen’ and then I couldn’t sleep. The child in the video was 5. He had been abducted by DAESH when he was two and a half years old, and had been trained for the next two and a half years. He was aggressive, angry, did not speak any language except Arabic, had forgotten Kurdish and could not communicate with his mother.

When he saw a toy, a doll, he was shouting Allah-u Akbar, and then would tear the toy’s head away from the body.

Our purpose was to see the child closely and try to lead him into a healing and normalization process.

If I hadn’t gone, but I would have been faced with a lifelong questioning of myself”.

Berivan Zinzal continued:

"I was embarrassed for what I was wearing when I entered the camp, it was winter, it was cold, I was ashamed of the coat I had on me. So I took off my coat before I got out of the car because I thought I had to be one of them if I wanted to develop a healthy and intimate relationship and to be admitted into their circle.

They wanted to see some documents proving that I was a psychologist. Because they would not talk to anyone coming to the camp, they had lost confidence in people because of the traumas they had to endure.

They even thought that I could be a suicide bomber. I managed to win their trust and the first time that grabbed my attention was that apart from dark brown and black clothes young girls were not wearing any other colour. It was impossible to see their hair.

I asked why that was and I got this answer: “Berivan, this is our mourning. When one loses a close relative, we cover our hair, we wear dark clothes. Please do not perceive this as being a legacy we have from DAESH, this is how we mourn.”

Apart from this, almost every child had a picture on their neck, worn as if it was a necklace. All the photos were of men. They were the photos of a father, a brother.

Another and most affecting situation was that most of the women had their wrists cut. Some of the cuts were still open and inflamed; I regret having to say that some of these women had tried this method of suicide a few times. Because they were repeatedly sold in slave markets and subjected to gang rape’’.

Berivan Zinzal also said:

“There were some 17,000 people in the camp and the majority were women and children. The place I spent most of my time was a 16-17 tent city, just next to the camp, where there was only one man, not counting the boys.

He was a peshmerga fighter and lived in the village of Solax in Shengal. Two days before the genocide, he had gone to Zakho. He was married with his uncle's daughter. The couple had three daughters. The family had been reunited two years later, but his wife could not come to terms with the magnitude of what had happened to them. She had been sold many times. No matter how she would try to come to terms with the events, she would not even talk. We went through a great deal of work and got some results after our fourth session. I was very touched to learn she had twin babies when I got my second trip to the camp. I love these twins like my own twins Zin and Zal.

The souls of these people have been deeply wounded. They have insecurity, fear, sleep problems, and skepticism. They must get rehabilitation by expert teams.

Yes, what has happened cannot be accepted but there must be a window opened to the hope of other colours being out there. 

I would like to underline that you do not need to be a doctor to go and visit these camps. Your conscience and your love are enough to offer to those children and women”.

"I accompanied some families when they wanted to visit relatives and I had the opportunity to visit several different camps”, said Zinzal who continued as follows:

“When they came together, they cried for at least half an hour and talked about what they had been through. I witnessed the same situations and emotions in the various camps, I once again experienced in person that the pain was the same everywhere and that the pain was not alleviated by time. The only different place was Shengal.

When I went to Shengal I experienced a great fear as well as pain. People were talking that what happened in 2014 could happen again and they were keeping vigil in the camp even. They had warned us not to go there before we did, saying it was not secure. However, a very old woman wanted to see Shengal once more before she died, and it was her insistence that convinced us to go there”.

Zinzal told the following as to her communication with children and the difficulties she faced:

“Despite the fact that a single child made me go there, most of the children were suffering the same trauma. All of them were carrying traces of DAESH and none of them was aware of it. According to them, everyone was free to commit violence against anyone, which resulted in violent fights and even injuries in the camp. While trying to communicate with the boy I had seen in the video, he suddenly attacked me. My efforts to calm him down remained inconclusive and he eventually bit my arm, leaving a scar.

At first, children were unresponsive. So I sang songs and played erbane (a traditional percussion instrument), and made plays. During the course of time, they started to accompany me and I eventually saw them happy doing this. We were making necklaces and earrings with the beads I had taken there, I was cutting their nails, combing their hair. I separated a room for them to play there when the weather was hot or cold. I filled the room with toys that we had collected in an event in Istanbul.

It was easier for me to get in contact with girls as the boys were more aggressive. The reason for this is that the girls had been sent to Quran courses while the boys had been trained barbarically and this training -I am afraid- included ignoring and harming women. The boys repeatedly pulled my hair, saying it was a sin to not cover my head. When I tried to tell them things, they would react even more because most of them didn’t understand Kurdish. Over time, we solved many problems and achieved good results.

Before getting in touch with children, I was talking to their mothers and getting detailed information so I could prepare a roadmap accordingly. Knowing what they had been through, and what problems they were living, made my communication with them easier and helped me work better.”

Kurdish psychologist Berivan Zinzal ended her words with:

“The second time I went to the camp, I had the chance to meet a director from Sweden. After a conversation, he told me that he wanted to follow our works and suggested placing cameras everywhere and making a documentary from our therapy sessions. In the future, you will have the opportunity to watch most of these things I have talked about. Still, watching things is not the same as being there among and with them inside. My return was quite difficult for me. There is a general perception that psychologists must be strong. However, being a psychologist doesn’t mean being devoid of feelings. There were times when I didn’t eat or sleep for days. I was listening to them silently to keep them going but I would often go aside and cry my heart out afterwards.

Later I noticed that we were a very big family, cooking and laughing together, and we were now trusting each other. On Mother’s Day, they presented one of their traditional clothes to me, saying I was a daughter of theirs. That was a moment I will never forget in my life. I am glad I went there, saw them and touched their still open and bleeding wounds. Please go there. People with great hearts will be waiting for you. Go there and see how a smile of yours will become a unique happiness in return.”