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UNCOVERING: Heroes of Sundance-winning documentary stole children

Photo: SVT Play

The internationally acclaimed SVT (Swedish Television) documentary ”Sabaya” tells the story of two men saving Yazidi women who were enslaved by ISIS from Syria’s al-Hol camp.

Kvartal can now reveal that the film’s protagonists forced several of those women to be separated from their children, promising they would later be reunited. Instead, the children were offered for sale to ISIS.

– They tricked us, they took us to their homes, and then they took our children from us, one of the women says.

– The movie is significantly based on a falsehood, states Peter Galbraith, former US ambassador.

A previously unknown audio recording shows that director Hogir Hirori was told one of the protagonists treated the women ”worse than ISIS”.

Read the second part of Kvartal’s Sabaya investigation.

Av Ludde  Hellberg | 26 maj 2022
Ludde Hellberg är Kvartals vd.
ProfilLästid 11 min Skärmläsarvänlig
I korthet
In late January of this year, Sabaya received a Swedish Guldbagge award in the category ”Best documentary”. A year before that, it won Best Director at the internationally prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary class, and it has received several other international awards. A large amount of the film’s financing came from Swedish taxpayers’ money, both through financial support from the Swedish Film Institute and through being co-produced with SVT, the Swedish public service television company.

Sabaya was directed by Swedish-Kurdish Hogir Hirorir and depicts the struggle of two Yazidi men to rescue kidnapped Yazidi women from the infamous al-Hol camp in Syria, where around 60 000 people are housed, mostly ISIS supporters and their families.

Thousands of Yazidi girls were kidnapped and taken as sex slaves by ISIS from 2014 onwards. Many of them, not least the women who had children with ISIS terrorists, still live in the Kurdish-controlled al-Hol camp. According to the film, these are the girls and women who Mahmud and Ziyad, the two male protagonists, are risking their own lives to save. 

”With only a mobile phone and a gun, Mahmud, Ziyad, and their group risk their lives to try to save Yazidi women and girls who are being held captive by ISIS”, the film’s description reads.

”Reality is enough on its own.”

In addition to Swedish and international awards, critics lauded Sabaya for its bold documentary storytelling. Last autumn, a review in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter stated that the film ”avoids all kinds of heroizing and sensationalism. The reality is enough on its own.”

The rescue operations of the protagonists Mahmud and Ziyad are run through the Yazidi Home Center, described in the film’s promotional material as a non-profit organization that focuses on freeing the young Yazidi women and giving them support once they have been brought to safety. In the Home Center’s offices, the protagonists conduct classic detective work. They collect information from their female infiltrators in the al-Hol camp and sort through pictures of missing girls. When the film won an award at the Sundance festival, director Hogir Hirori turned the spotlight onto protagonists Mahmud and Ziyad for their essential work.
– They are the real heroes, Hogir Hirori said, dedicating the award to the Yazidi Home Center. 

Last September, The New York Times published an article about Sabaya that received much attention internationally. Several sources told the newspaper that director Hogir Hirori had not obtained consent from the traumatized Yazidi women regarding their participation in the film. This report led to some showings of the film being canceled but did not, as we have seen, stop the Swedish Guldbagge jury from giving the film an award a few months later.

Forced the women to separate from their children

After a thorough investigation, Kvartal can now reveal damning, hitherto unknown information about Sabaya. The protagonists of the documentary:

  • Took several women from the camp against their will.
  • Forced several of the women to to give up their children.
  • Tricked several of the women into giving up their children by falsely promising they would be reunited later on.
  • Kept women who refused to leave their children under house arrest for up to two years.
  • Offered the women’s children for sale to the Islamic State.

Kvartal can verify these claims through consistent information from several independent first-hand sources. A previously unknown audio recording also shows that one of the women told director Hogir Hirori that Mahmud, one of the documentary’s protagonists, mistreated the women. In the telephone call between Hirori and the woman, recorded in 2021, she says:

– People will think Mahmud brings Yazidi girls back, and that’s true, but Mahmud treated them worse than ISIS did.

Hogir Hirori answers that he did not know what Mahmud had done and would have done things differently if he had known.

– I wouldn’t have used it at all [editor’s note: the filmed material with Mahmud] or avoided it. I was not aware of these things, Hogir Hirori says on the recording, where he tries to convince the woman to give written consent to participate in the documentary, several months after the film premiered.

In saying this, director Hogir Hirori distances himself from a vital part of his highly awarded documentary – which he dedicated to Mahmud and Ziyad at the Yazidi Home Center on stage at the Sundance festival.

SVT: ”Have to review the new information.”

Axel Arnö, commissioning editor at SVT and responsible editor for Sabaya, has been sent Kvartal’s investigation to read before publication.

– This is the first time I’ve come across this information, and I have to ask to get back to you when I have analyzed it, Arnö says.

At the moment, Arnö is not prepared to say what this might mean for the film.

– I don’t want to speculate about that. I’m aware that there has been criticism of the film, and I need to review this new information before making any judgment on it and deciding if it should lead to us taking any action.

It should, shouldn’t it?
– Maybe, but I can’t say right at this moment.

The only glimpse the film audience gets of what the women and their children are subjected to is a scene that shows one of the women crying at handing over her young son, while seemingly kind and understanding women at the Home Center tell her,”it’s only temporary”. Apart from this scene, none of the circumstances listed above are mentioned on in the 91-minute-documentary, even though the director claims to have filmed it on location during six trips over 1,5 years, making it likely he was aware of the actions of his protagonists.

”They took our children from us.”

Kvartal has interviewed one of the women who was taken from the al-Hol camp by the protagonists of Sabaya. Today, she lives in an undisclosed location in the same region. Over a shaky phone line, she tells us about the promises Mahmud and Ziyad made to her and the other women.

– They took us to the camp administration and said they wanted to take us out of the camp and they wanted to take care of our children. They tricked us, they took us into their homes, and then they took our children from us, the woman says.

– We tried to get to see our children after that, but they refused to let us.

Did you and the other women want to stay in the al-Hol camp?
– It’s not about us wanting to stay. The camp was a tough place to live, we were terrified, and we were alone, but we wanted to keep our children – that’s why we wanted to stay, not because we wanted to be in the camp.

So you did not want to be saved by Mahmud and Ziyad?
  No, because of our children, we did not want to leave.

And they said you would get to keep your children?
– Yes.

A former US ambassador organized the reunion

Former American ambassador Peter Galbraith was in Syria and Iraq during the filming of Sabaya, and he reunited some twenty Yazidi women with their stolen children. He has a long standing working relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government and was instrumental in uncovering the truth about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gassing his own Kurdish citizens in the city of Halabja in 1988.

Galbraith has held many diplomatic positions in the Middle East and Central Asia, among them as Deputy Special Representative for the United Nations in Afghanistan. Last autumn, he was interviewed by The New York Times for their article detailing how director Hogir Hirori had not obtained consent from all the women featured in Sabaya. However, says Galbraith to Kvartal, the newspaper missed the main problem with the documentary:

– The most critical issue, and I tried to convince The New York Times of this, was that the film misrepresented what [the protagonists] were doing. In many cases, they did not enter the camp to save these girls; they went in and took their children from them, says Galbraith.

– These girls could have gone to the camp administration and said,”I’m Yazidi,” and they would have been let out. [The women] knew this. But they were actually hiding in the camp because they wanted to keep their children. 

Kept under house arrest for two years

Within the Yazidi clan structure, only those children who have two Yazidi parents are seen as Yazidi. Peter Galbraith says that the film’s protagonists forced many of the women to leave the al-Hol camp with their children and then took the children from them.

– The mothers and their children were taken from the al-Hol camp, and then the children were taken from them and placed in an orphanage run by Kurds in north-eastern Syria. This orphanage was practically full of the children of these Yazidi girls who had been raped, Galbraith tells Kvartal.

– Some mothers outright refused, and they were held in a kind of house arrest [editor’s note: in the Yazidi Home Center] for two years.

Using his contacts in the Kurdistan Regional Government, Galbraith managed to reunite around twenty of the Yazidi women with their children. This reunion was reported in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Swedish Radio’s Ekot. Still, none of these media outlets mentioned that the people who had taken the children from the women in the first place were the protagonists of the award winning documentary Sabaya.

”Bloodline needs to be pure.”

What Peter Galbraith tells us is corroborated by an international journalist who also spent time in and outside the al-Hol camp during the time when Sabaya was filmed. The journalist, who wishes to retain anonymity due to requirements from their employer, also says that the film’s protagonists were forcing the women to leave the camp and be separated from their children.

– Yes, the main idea in the Yazidi community is to get these women back without their children, the journalist tells us, and goes on to explain that the male protagonists of the film were deeply involved in the religious Yazidi clan structure.

– They didn’t accept these children; you need to have a pure bloodline to be accepted in the Yazidi community, the journalist says.

The journalist further states that the protagonists went to great lengths to make sure the women were kept in isolation at the Yazidi Home Center, and prevented them from speaking to the media and others.

– They did everything to keep these women from telling their stories. They lied to us, and they tried to prevent us from filming, the journalist says, and goes on to tell us that Ziyad, one of the protagonists, openly denied the existence of many of the women.

Amnesty International has reported

The fact that the children of Yazidi women formerly enslaved by ISIS terrorists  are denied a place in the Yazidi community is well documented. It has been reported several times by international media. 

This is also clear in a 2020 Amnesty International report, where several Yazidi women who have been interviewed say they were ”pressured, coerced or even deceived into leaving their children behind”, and that the women ”were also falsely assured that they would be able to visit or reunite with their children at a later stage”. According to the report, all of the women who were interviewed said they had no contact with or access to their children. They said they felt unable to speak with their families or communities about wanting to reunite with their children due to fears for their own safety.

Offered the children for sale to ISIS

In a TV broadcast by the Canadian public service channel CBC, several Yazidi women were interviewed who had been forced to give up their children. In the feature, CBC also interviews Mahmud – one of Sabaya’s protagonists – but seemingly without knowing of his participation in a praised documentary. Mahmud tells the reporter that he has let the Islamic State buy the women’s children in exchange for information – that he has used them as ”bargaining chips” after separating them from their mothers.

Kvartal has tracked down the fixer and translator who CBC worked with for the piece, Nechirvan Mando. After going through his transcription of the CBC interviews, Mando confirms that Mahmud says that the Yazidi Home Center used to offer the children to ISIS in exchange for missing Yazidis, but that no exchanges were in fact made, and that they did it to ”trick” the Islamic State.

Confirms: The women were tricked

While working with the CBC and on other occasions, Nechirvan Mando met several of the women who were removed from the al-Hol camp by the protagonists of Sabaya. Mando confirms that Mahmud and Ziyad tricked the women into leaving their children behind, making false promises that they would be reunited with them later on.

– I know several of these mothers here in Iraq [editor’s note: where the women were sent after being separated from their children]. They have all told me that the Yazidi Home Center promised that the children would be taken to them one or two weeks later, but that it never happened. And when they say the Yazidi Home Center, they mean Mahmud, Nechirvan Mando tells us.

And you know this for sure?
– Yes, I know this because I’ve heard it directly from many of the mothers. All of them, really.

Nechirvan Mando also confirms what Peter Galbraith and the international journalist have told us. The women who refused to be separated from their children were placed under house arrest in the Yazidi Home Center.

– The women said, ’if we’re leaving, we’re leaving with our children.’ And that’s why they stayed in the Yazidi Home Center for, I think, two years, Mando says.

Former ambassador Peter Galbraith confirms that the protagonists of Sabaya promised to reunite the mothers with their children.

Was that a lie?
–Let’s say it didn’t happen. But what is clear is that they forced these girls to give up their children. And I’m using the term ”girls” because it’s essential to understand how young they really are. The oldest of these mothers was 18 when ISIS kidnaped her, and the youngest was 10, Peter Galbraith says.

– The move is significantly based on a falsehood.

Director declines interview

Kvartal has tried to contact Ziyad, one of Sabaya’s male protagonists, and given him the opportunity to comment on the content of this article. Mahmud, the other protagonist, passed away last year.

Kvartal has tried multiple times to contact Hogir Hirori, the director of Sabaya, but he declines to be interviewed. Responding to written questions about the actions of Mahmud and Ziyad, Hirori writes that Kvartal’s claims lack evidence and that ”it’s impossible for me to comment on loose allegations”.

Following that, Kvartal has given a detailed, written account of the contents of this article, offering Hogir Hirori the opportunity to comment on it, but at the time of this publication, he has not gotten back to us. In an interview with Swedish National Radio, given by Hirori after the publication of this article, he maintained that the information revealed by Kvartal is false.

Tomorrow we will publish part two of Kvartal’s Sabaya investigation, where we will show that parts of the documentary are fabricated.

Ludde Hellberg is an investigative journalist and Kvartal’s editorial staff member.

Translated from Swedish by Öyvind Vågen.

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