Behind the story: NYT’s Rukmini Callimachi on covering ISIS sex slaves

M., who was kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery and raped repeatedly by fighters with the Islamic State, wept as she prepared to leave for Germany in January under a resettlement program. Photo by Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.

Understand what it means when Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times, says her work on the Islamic State’s enslavement of the Yazidis is “truly one of the saddest veins of reporting that I’ve ever done.”

Callimachi has written about a fair number of life’s horrors, from Hurricane Katrina to Al-Qaida to rape in Congo. Now, however, she is rightly famous for her coverage and analysis of ISIS. As Isaac Chotiner wrote last year, “no reporter has done more to explain and expose the group than The New York Times’s Rukmini Callimachi.”

Her work is deeply reported, economically written, and terrifying in its understatedness. And perhaps nothing better ecompasses those qualities than last March’s 2,500-word page-one dispatch, “To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control.” It’s the story of the lengths ISIS took to theologically justify their enslavement and rape of M. (her identity was understandably obscured) and dozens of other Yazidis.

What follows is another installment of Behind the Story, in which we’re given a peek behind the curtain of how a story was conceived, reported, written, and edited—as told to CJR by the author, Rukmini Callimachi.

In late 2014, I had dinner with Matthew Barber, a remarkable researcher at the University of Chicago. He’s the de facto expert on the Yazidi community. He told me there were repeated testimonies from both men and women that when the terror group overran Mount Sinjar, and invaded the communities where these women live, the ISIS fighters arrived with empty buses and empty open-bed trucks. First, they separated the men from the women. The men were marched off and killed in a nearby location; the women were put into the empty vehicles. That was the spark to me, because what it showed is pre-planning. They were coming to kidnap the women for the purpose of using them for sex.

Rape on a mass scale wasn’t new to me. For more than seven years, I was a correspondent and then bureau chief for the Associated Press. Mostly I was in West Africa, based in Senegal but covering a 20-country region. Congo, which was on my beat, was famously known in those years as “the rape capital of the world.” So I knew that whenever rape is used as a weapon of war, you also have large numbers of children borne out of that horrible brutality. In Congo, there were stories about women who tried to abort their children, and women forced to bear the rapist’s child.

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In 2015, I asked my editors if I could to go to Sinjar. By the time I pitched the story of the rape of Yazidi women, it had already been reported on ad nauseum by pretty much every news outlet, including my own. My first trip, in May and June, involved dozens of interviews to ascertain the level of the systematic enslavement and rape of these women. “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape” was the result.

 

Rukmini Callimachi

Rukmini Callimachi


On my first couple of trips to Iraq, I interviewed Yazidi women.
They described being raped on the order of once a day, by whoever their owner was, and then being sold off. The majority of the women had passed through four or five men before they managed to escape. These were women in their teens and 20s—biologically at the peak of their fertility—and yet, curiously, there was not a single pregnancy that I could ascertain.

I called Boston University’s Dr. Kecia Ali, the de facto expert on slavery in early Islam. Kecia guided me through the corpus of literature in Islamic jurisprudence regarding the rules governing how one can have a female slave. One of the injunctions is that the male owner must ascertain that, as they say in literature, her womb is empty, and that she is not with child at the moment that he purchases.

Islamic jurisprudence advocates a period of abstinence. The new slave owner cannot rape a woman for a period of time that may be one lunar cycle or more. The point is, there’s a period of abstinence that is supposed to follow the sale of these women, at least according to this corpus.

Kecia asked if ISIS checked for pregnancy. I didn’t think to ask the girls and the women, Is there a period of abstinence between when you are sold from one person to the next? Within the Yazidi community, there were rumors that women had had abortions en masse, and that, because this was such a shameful thing, they’d been hidden. I didn’t buy that, because the women I’d met had been quite open with me—they shared some humiliating, horrible things that happened to them—and they hadn’t mentioned it. It didn’t follow that they would describe the horrific way in which they’d been raped, but not mention getting pregnant or having an abortion.

I pitched a third trip back. I returned to the same women I’d interviewed for the first story, and then added perhaps two dozen additional interviews. Women began talking to me: about the aggressive birth control they were given; the injections that made them infertile for about three months; being forced to ingest pills; being forcibly taken to clinics to give urine and blood samples to determine pregnancy.

The women also mentioned cases where ISIS fighters either weren’t aware of the injunction or didn’t care about it. In between being enslaved by two different men, they were taken to a clinic and forced to give a urine sample. But from the second to the third man, there was no such step.

It’s not easy to find rape victims to interview. Some attempts didn’t pan out. In more than one instance, Yazidi activists sent me to the house of a victim. And the woman, out of respect for that activist, let us into the home, only for us to realize after 20 minutes that she really didn’t want to be interviewed. We had to pick up our stuff and leave. That is a difficult decision to make if you’re on a mercenary deadline. Luckily I wasn’t.

I first met M. at the facility where women who were released by ISIS register with the Kurdish government to receive medical benefits including medical care.
We probably spent an hour and a half together. But she was a bit uncomfortable, because she was there to get services and felt I was holding her up. So we made an appointment to meet her at her home, where we spent another two hours together.

The majority of women were interviewed individually. With sisters, I was able to interview them together. With children, however, I wanted to have a family member present because of the ethical considerations.

There’d been a Daily Beast article written in 2015 by an activist that took aim at the waves of reporters that had basically beached on the sands of these refugee camps and traipsed into people’s homes to interview rape victims. I was bothered that the writer made absolutely no distinction between Iraqi media, which acted in a sensationalist fashion, and established newsrooms, which overall acted ethically. Anyway, there were concerns about women saying they didn’t give consent for their faces to be shown, or images to be shown of them. And there were concerns about how you treat child rape victims. You can certainly make the case that a child cannot give consent.

What we did is the next best thing: A family member could decide if the child could talk on the record. Then we did the interview in the presence of that family member, with the child’s identity masked.

Women and girls were not jumping up and down to be interviewed. Yazidi activists wanted me to interview them, so as to highlight the atrocities, but this was never an eager conversation to have. There was an agreement that this was something very important for them to say. I mention that because if somebody is trying to inflate something, you would expect they would clamor to speak to a reporter.

How did I know they were telling the truth? I asked Human Rights Watch that question. They were very sure the interviews they’d gotten were genuine. There’s very little paper trail, but what you have is a multiplicity of accounts that say the same thing. In many instances, these women were often held in the same facilities. So I’d interview women in different refugee camps, on different days, and both would say they’d been taken to Badoosh prison on the outskirts of Mosul. And they’d both remember how many women were being held here, and the man with a certain beard making a register of the women. Different day, same details.

With great difficulty I found a woman who was pregnant, which she’d be at the time of her capture. That was one of the hardest interviews. She didn’t want to be interviewed in her refugee camp because she didn’t want to draw attention to a reporter coming into her tent. She came with her husband, which created a different dynamic.

My process with all these women is to show up at the refugee camp after having called ahead and asked for an appointment. I’d start the interview in the tent with sometimes 10, 20 people sitting around, having tea. Then I would explain to the family what I’m about to do, without going into detail. I say, Look, I’m here to document the abuse that women face, and I think this is an important story. I don’t think people in America and the rest of the world are fully apprised of what’s happened. Then I thank them for their hospitality, and ask if it would be possible to be alone with the girl because I, as a woman, would like to ask her some personal questions. And at that point it’s just me, my translator, and the girl.

It was important for me that both the family and the victim were on board with the interview. The girl lives with her family, and if she speaks without their consent and they find out, it could cause friction, and I wanted my interviews to be carbon-neutral, meaning I did not want my presence to cause any further strain for her. At the same time, I didn’t want families making decisions for the girls. So once I was alone with her, I repeated to her that this was her choice. And I made clear she could say no, and that I would not be offended. Several women did say no once they were alone with me, and at that point you have to just walk away.

In this instance, this young woman came to my hotel with her husband, and she wanted him to be present during the whole thing. This is still a pretty closed society where issues of sexual honor are very important, and it was remarkable that she was willing to trust me in front of her husband with the stories of rape. This was one of the hardest interviews to get. It only happened because a senior female Yazidi community leader called her and vouched for me.

Being a woman was helpful. I say that with caution, because some of the most revealing and sensitive stories on rape have been done by my male colleagues: Jeffrey Gettleman on male rape in eastern Congo and Adam Nossiter on the rapes inside of a soccer stadium in Guinea, for example. Both stories put important issues on the map. But I could get these girls to open up by telling them, Somebody very close to me, in my own family, was gang-raped as a teenager. I was raised with her story. I’d tell them they should not suffer any shame for what happened to them. It was not their fault. I tried to make it clear to them that what they’re about to describe is something quite personal to me, given my family’s history, and I do not come at this with some morose curiosity.

My translator in all of these instances was a Yazidi man from one of the hardest hit villages on Sinjar Mountain. ISIS not only overran his village and kidnapped its people, but they also systematically dynamited the most beautiful homes so the Yazidi community could not return even after it was liberated. Even though he was male, my translator had so much credibility inside the Yazidi community, and so much compassion for these women, that it actually helped me.

This was particularly important, given how taboo the issue of pregnancy is in their society. When you approach Yazidis and ask about pregnancy—the ultimate example of a Yazidi woman consummating a relationship, even if it’s against her will—it’s touchy. I had to explain why I was writing about this. I said that ISIS had shown a level of planning, and they were using scripture to justify their actions. They were open to those arguments. It helped, too, that I had the backing of Yazidi leaders.

 

 

Of course I push sources to go on the record. This is one of the inherent paradoxes in rape reporting. At The New York Times, as at most reputable news organizations, there is an enormous push to do everything on the record. We even have a relatively new policy where anonymous sources can no longer go straight into the copy. They must be vetted by the masthead.

I could’ve pushed these girls to go on the record. Some are innocent village girls who don’t know what The New York Times is. If I had used my power of argumentation, I could have gotten many of them on the record. But I recognized that would be detrimental to them. So we just had to agree that we would obscure their identity, and the Times had no problem with that. It’s a category of reporting where you can actually cause somebody real harm by identifying them.

I did not use the tape recorder for much of it. In every instance, the girl would talk, the translator would translate slowly, and I would take detailed notes. Then, before I even got to my hotel, I would type it up in my car so it was as fresh as possible. You’ll notice in the story there is a lot of paraphrase. That’s what happens with translation; you’re sometimes not completely sure if the grammar is exactly what she said, so it’s best not to use quotes.

When was the reporting over? I don’t know how to answer that. It was all done during 2015. The first trip was in May. Then there were a couple of other trips to Iraq, with reporting trips to Syria for another story in between. The reporting process lasted weeks and weeks. Every one of these interviews took an hour to several hours. There was travel to and from their refugee camp, which was an hour to two from my hotel. At most, I could usually do three of these a day. So it was really time consuming. Thankfully, The New York Times invests in such extensive work. The interviewing stopped when the attributes became repetitive. I wanted to get the repetition, to be able to say, This many people described x.

I wrote the story in late 2015. The writing process was probably two weeks. At the time, it felt like a long time because my DNA is still as a wire reporter. Whenever I take more than a day to write something I feel strangely ashamed and self-conscious.

For me, writing is about images. You’re relaying a scene to somebody who cannot be there. Straight quotes won’t do that, and a straight description—She had brown eyes and whatever hair—won’t either.

I always look for touchstone moments and images that speak to what happened. So for example, M. described the box of birth control pills. She didn’t have it with her and didn’t know the brand. So my fixer went to the pharmacy and, because there weren’t many brands of birth control sold in the region, he bought them all. He came back with several boxes, and we went back to her and she said, This is it.

Writing is very difficult for me. I have writer’s block a lot. The funny thing is, when you’re a wire reporter and you’re just covering breaking news, that’s easy. There’s no expectation of filing something artistic. You’re just getting out the news, right? You have so much material to metabolize. So that becomes kind of mechanical, and there’s only so many ways to write it.

With the deeper narratives, I tend to get lost in the writing. I’ll come home and I’ll just be in a funk. In my own state I don’t even realize why I’m in a funk, and my husband will say, Is your story going well? He knows how tortured I am when I am not able to write a piece properly.

I emphasized M. and began the piece with her because her story was typical. I hashed out the various themes that I wanted to touch—the aggressive use of birth control was one. So M’s story of being forced to ingest these mysterious pills, and her explanation from the ISIS fighter of what they were, was really important.

I knew that the first scene’s overdriving image needed to be the dread this woman felt at the rape, and the conflicting emotions later when she realized she was protected from the worst thing that could happen: falling pregnant by her rapist. Of course, that doesn’t happen in one sentence, but over several paragraphs.

The section on the religious basis for rape angered some people. I got a pretty angry email from a Muslim woman who told me I should have consulted Muslims about this. Which of course I did. There’s a knee-jerk reaction where people in the community feel embarrassed about certain scripture. My answer to that is: Slavery exists in the Bible, right? We know in the history of our own country, Christian scripture was used both to advocate for the freeing of slaves and to argue for the enslavement of black people.

My editor has been Doug Schorzman. He was really instrumental because when I pitched the story there was significant pushback from other elements in the newsroom. This is a story that has already been done. We know about the Yazidi rape victims; what are you going to say that’s new? Doug is the father of two young girls. I’m not sure he would describe himself this way, but I see him as a feminist. He really had my back and rallied for me to do this piece.

In my opinion, the draft I filed wasn’t that different from what ran. It was just shorter. I end up turning in things that are a bit too long.

I tend to fight. I think I’ve been a pain in the butt for some editors. Because writing is so hard for me, when I find a formulation that I love—moments of inspiration usually happen when I’m going on a run; I’ll have an ah ha! moment—it’s painful when editors cut that very thing. I know that the editing is obviously a very important step in what we do. It’s why The New York Times is what it is. So I am trying my best to push less and to be less attached to the specific phrasing.

I don’t editorialize. Sometimes people ask why I don’t condemn ISIS. Why don’t I say this is terrible? I’m like, Are you kidding me? Why would I need to say that, when it is so transparently terrible, right? It’s so obviously horrible and what do I, Rukmini, this writer from America, have to add by saying, This is awful? I think that gets in the way of the narrative.

Twice after I came back from Iraq, I did talks about the Yazidi slavery; one in Italy, another on Long Island. Because I’ve been so close to it, and I’ve been doing these interviews over and over again, I somehow forgot just how awful this is. In Italy, where I had a translator, I saw that look of horror on people’s faces. This happened at Stony Brook University, too. I think people were just catatonic after I described these women’s stories. I realized, this is probably too heavy. But I write about this because I want people to know.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.