From Germany to Iraq One Yazidi Family's War on Islamic State

A Yazidi family from Iraq had finally found peace in Germany, but now the father has headed back to fight Islamic State and the son is waging his own war at home. Although they've both become heroes in the community, their story may not have a happy ending.

When Paruar Bako wants to take his father's Mercedes station wagon for a drive, a phone rings somewhere on a mountain in northern Iraq. Paruar's father, Ali Bako, is on the other end of the line. He briefly sets aside his Kalashnikov to attend to the business of his family, 3,200 kilometers (1,990 miles) away, in the northwestern German city of Oldenburg.

"Babo, may I take the car?" Paruar Bako asks quietly in Kurdish. "Please, just today."

Ali Bako doesn't like Paruar to drive his Mercedes. But he allows his son to take the car just this once, adding that he must drive carefully and shouldn't stay out too late.

Ever since Paruar's father went to war to fight against Islamic State , his family only interacts with his voice. War permitting, he calls twice a day: once in the morning and again in the evening. Ali Bako is a good fighter, and he is a strict father.

Paruar is sitting on a heavy, brown velvet sofa in the family's living room. He sets the phone down on the coffee table in front of him, as though he just completed a rather unpleasant task. "Give me the key," he snaps at his younger brother Schino.

Watfa, their mother, sits silently next to them -- she prefers not to get involved when her children argue. She has five sons and, now that her husband is at war, plenty of worries. The heater is broken, the telephone isn't working properly and the grass needs mowing. Watfa waves the remote at the television and flips through the channels, from Al Jazeera to Kurdistan TV.

Paruar has his laptop open in front of him and is posting a video to Facebook. The 21 year old is fighting against Islamic State like his father, but with a different weapon: social media.

He writes a couple of lines, deletes them and tries again: "There is a shortage of food and clothing. There is hardly any fuel and gas. They are making blankets out of plastic wrapping from US-dropped aid bundles. IS is only a few KM away. Take a look yourselves. Support. Share. Share. Share." The post gets 482 likes.

Videos from Iraq

A student of business law at the University of Osnabrück, Paruar travelled through Iraq during the recent semester break, documenting everything with his smartphone. He saw people fleeing in fear from the Islamic State terrorists and accompanied Kurdish fighters to the Sinjar Mountains, where his father is now fighting.

Paruar shows his brother Schino the videos he shot in Iraq, which he has carefully organized into various files. They show children desperate from thirst, women who have been raped and wounded fighters.

Schino asks: "You totally lost weight. Wasn't there anything to eat on the mountain?"
"Just dry bread and cheese."
"Was it cold?"
"At night."
"Did you see the IS?"
"Only heard them. Their shooting."

Above the brothers' heads, a picture of Mullah Mustafa Barsani hangs on the living room wall, a symbolic figure in the Kurdish independence movement in Iraq. Their parents took the gold-framed image of their hero with them when they were forced to flee their homeland in 1994.

Now, they live with their children in Oldenburg, in Lower Saxony. The Bakos are Kurdish Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq  and a group that has long been persecuted and condemned as "devil worshippers." Yet their religion knows no devil or hell. They believe in reincarnation and angels, but not in prophets. They have faith, but no Bible or Koran, just an oral tradition handed down across centuries. Under the Ottomans, they were persecuted as a secret society and the oppression has never really stopped.

When he still lived in Iraq, Ali Bako was a communist. He refused military conscription, then became a freedom fighter, withdrawing into the Sinjar Mountains, a Yazidi holy site. Ali fought against his then opponent, Saddam Hussein, for 10 long years.

He first took up arms at the end of the 1980s, after Saddam sent his soldiers into the Kurdish villages of northern Iraq. It was the beginning of a genocide that would ultimately cost the lives of 100,000 Kurds, many of whom were killed by chemical weapons. The operation was called Anfal -- which means "the spoils (of war)" and refers to the eighth sura of the Koran.

Looking for Peace

That's when Ali Bako lost his first family. When he was away on the battlefield, Saddam's forces attacked his home village, killing his wife and children. A total of 27 people from his family were buried alive.

He himself was taken prisoner, locked away in Baghdad and set to be hanged. But he managed to escape. One of his comrades took him home to his village near the northern Iraq city of Dohuk, which is where he met Watfa, who was a few years younger. She told him he stank, and then washed his shirt for him.

A short time later, they were in love and Ali got married for a second time. Watfa gave birth to their first son Jamal in a pick-up on a gravel road. Paruar was born at home and Watfa was pregnant with Schino when they fled Iraq via Syria to Turkey and from there to Germany. They applied for asylum and ultimately became German citizens. Two more sons were born in Oldenburg.

In Germany, Ali worked as a taxi driver and was able to buy a house for his family -- 165 square meters (1,775 square feet) of peace, located in a cul-de-sac. Their white-brick home with its 1970s-era kitchen is located in a quiet part of Oldenburg with little traffic, carefully trimmed hedges and green fences. It has a garage, geraniums in the front yard and a well-tended lawn. A German flag flies in the neighbor's yard next door. In the backyard, the Bakos grow tomatoes, hot peppers, squash and mint. Germany in the front, Iraq in the back: This is where Paruar Bako grew up.

Ali and Watfa wanted their children to grow up without being persecuted for being Kurdish and without having to fight in the mountains. They were sent to kindergartens and to German schools: It was a time of peace for the Bako family. Their oldest son fell in love with his cousin Salma during a visit in Iraq and brought her back to Oldenburg with him. The couple and their two sons also live in the family home. Ali and Watfa's youngest son became a boxing champion in northern Germany and Paruar became the first Bako to study at a German university.

In the evenings, Ali Bako would type his life story into a laptop, writing about the time he spent up in the mountains, his life as a freedom fighter and about his first family that had been murdered. His files are saved on four flash drives, carefully labeled with golden numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4. USB therapy. Ali didn't think he would ever have to take up arms again.

Until August 3 of this year. It was that Sunday evening when images from northern Iraq began spreading across the globe. The jihadists from Islamic State had launched an offensive against the city of Sinjar and the Kurdish forces had fled -- along with more than 100,000 civilians. The extremists drove Christians and Yazidis out of their villages, raped their women and slit the throats of the men or murdered them execution style with shots to the backs of their heads. Kurdistan TV brought images from the homeland into the Bako family's Oldenburg living room.

Ali would sit on the brown velvet sofa smoking. He stopped eating. When the television was off, he would surf the Web for more information. Schino even went so far as to destroy the modem in an effort to get his father to stop. But he didn't. "My people," his father kept repeating, before crying.

There are only about 800,000 Yazidis in the world, and the largest community of exiles is in Germany -- about 100,000 Yazidis live in Celle, Bremen, Bad Oeynhausen and Oldenburg.

'You Aren't Going'

Paruar knows many of the Yazidis living in Oldenburg and many of them know him as well. People in the community refer to him as the "lawyer without a briefcase" and his mother is proud of him for doing what he can for the community. Even as a child, Paruar was a helpful sort, accompanying his mother to various German offices and agencies to assist her with the language and fill out forms. He figured Germany out relatively quickly and is a good spokesman, a person who always wants to know what is going on and who enjoys feeling important.

When the images of the refugees began filling the Bakos' living room Paruar wanted to help -- which meant travelling to the region. But his father forbade it: "You aren't going," Ali said. Paruar didn't ask twice.

Months earlier, though, he had booked a summer vacation to Spain for a bit of relaxation, and it provided the perfect opportunity for him to disappear for a time. Paruar spent a couple of days partying on the beach near Barcelona before flying onwards to Greece and from there to the Turkish border town of Diyarbakir. An Iraqi friend picked him up there and Paruar drove with him through Syria to Iraq, a country that he had only visited periodically on vacations with his family. He had never been allowed to go out at night in Iraq because it was so dangerous.

During his trip to the region this summer, Paruar saw women walking barefoot through refugee camps looking for their children. He saw fighters, killed by gunfire, lying in deserted construction sites. One time, he watched as a car blew up in front of him. He also went into the mountains. One night, a cat attacked a chicken and flashlights went on all around -- the people thought Islamic State had arrived.

Meanwhile, his father had travelled from Oldenburg to Erbil. Paruar knew where he was staying, and one day, as his father sat in a room with other men discussing strategy, the door suddenly opened to reveal Paruar. It was a moment Paruar says he had been extremely anxious about. Ali stood up, went to his son and said they would talk about it later. Then, Paruar showed him the videos he had shot during his travels -- and stayed.

For a few days, he watched his father fight. Ali Bako had joined a unit armed with Kalashnikovs that had been tasked with protecting the remaining villagers from Islamic State fighters. Most of the men in the unit were older, experienced fighters, and many came in from Germany. Some brought along sons and nephews.

The War in Oldenburg

Two decades ago, the men left their homes to save their families. Now they are returning to their homeland to save their people. Back home, in the Yazidi communities in Germany, they are called "lions." When Paruar walks through Oldenburg, people say: "There goes the son of the lion."

Back home in Germany the Son of the Lion now spends much of his time monitoring the phones in the living room. One of them, the Iraqi phone, works via the Internet and when it rings, Kurdistan TV is turned down because it's usually Babo calling.

The other telephone is the family's landline, and it rings all the time. Yazidi women call from Hamburg, wanting to adopt children, and Germans call wanting to send aid to Iraq. Paruar gives them addresses and the names of contact people and calls local politicians and lawyers. He speaks at a rapid clip.

An unexpected call on the Iraqi phone prompts Paruar to tell his sister-in-law to quickly take his two small nephews out of the room. He closes the door, grabs a pen and paper and switches the phone to loudspeaker. "I'm listening," he says.

A man's voice says: "They beheaded my son and took away my wife and daughter. I don't know where to look. Help us Paruar, you have to find them."

Paruar takes note of the names so he can pass them along to the fighters at the front. He says: "I can't promise anything." He speaks like a politician.

His mother Watfa has tears in her eyes, which she wipes away with her hand. "Paruar," she says, "please apologize to people for your poor Kurdish."
"I speak good Kurdish."
"I'm a better judge of that. Just apologize, that is the polite thing to do."

Yazidi Orphans

Paruar opens his laptop, logs onto Facebook and posts a video of the call, taken by his friend Haitham. It gets 760 likes.

He and Haitham continue clicking through Facebook, viewing gruesome photos of the disembodied heads of Islamic State fighters or of a young mother who blew herself up. "Man, that's courageous," he says. "All for her people, how tragic."

They surf onward, reading the new comments posted beneath Paruar's videos. "I hope that someday you will represent the Kurdish people in parliament," reads one. "Mahatma Gandhi style," says another. "Paruar Bako for president." "He is an honorable man!!"

His mother is at the stove cooking a rice and meat dish and listening in. "Paruar," she says, "you are neglecting your studies." Then she adds: "Boys, you need to shave. You look like Salafists. Sorry, but I don't like it." Since the Islamists began murdering Yazidis, Paruar has begun shaving frequently. He also has his eyebrows plucked and rids his cheeks of whiskers using fire, under the theory that will grow back slower that way.

His mom serves food as he talks about his new plan to bring Yazidi orphans to Germany. He says he has asked an Iraqi professor to collect the names and details of children who have lost their parents and has also written to the German government and is waiting for a reply. But Paruar doesn't want to wait, there's no time, he says. He wants to start building a bridge between Kurdistan and Germany and has even found lawyers to help him register a new non-profit.

"What do you want to call it?" Haitham asks. "Bako e.V.?"
"Something like 'Save a Life', or something similar."
"Paruar, don't forget to emphasize that Yazidi children can only be adopted by Yazidis."
"If there aren't enough Yazidi families, I have no problem if the kids end up in other families."
"If the kid can't be placed in a Yazidi family, then they should be sent back. Otherwise, your whole plan is a waste of time. Even you are only permitted to marry a Yazidi woman."
"Do you want the kids to be destroyed there?"
"They are proud enough not to convert. They are running away from Muslims and you want to save them and then place them in Muslim families? They would rather choose death. I promise you."
"Give me a kiss, brother, and relax. I love you. I'll do things as you say. Let's go chill."

'You Can't Mix Blood'

They close the laptop, climb into Babo's Mercedes and drive to a bar called La Shisha, which belongs to a Kurdish Yazidi in Oldenburg. They sit down on large pillows, smoke shishas filled with grape-mint tobacco and drink Jack and Cokes. Since Paruar has returned from Iraq, everybody wants to shake his hand and tell him how proud they are of him. Some hug him while others cry. One even kisses his hand out of respect. "Paruar," some have told him, "you're more famous than Goethe and Kafka."

Young men also approach Paruar to tell him that they have quit their jobs and are soon heading to Iraq to join the battle against Islamic State. Should the Yazidis ever be wiped out, they say, they would deeply regret not having done their part to prevent it.

It is a fear that has accompanied them for centuries, and that is now palpable once again. The younger Yazidis in Germany have come to understand the rules passed down by their parents -- yazidis must remain among themselves, only marry other Yazidis and have several children, ideally five to seven.

Since the war began, Paruar says, he has been taking a greater interest in religion. He takes a drag from his shisha and talks about why Yazidis are not allowed to shower on Wednesdays and that you must be born into the religion, there is no way to convert. He says that, while you can sleep with non-Yazidis, you may not have children with them. "You can't mix blood. If you do, you aren't a Yazidi anymore," he says.

One of his friends says: "If you fall in love, there isn't much you can do. It may sound harsh, but you can't get married. We have to obey these rules, now more than ever." They talk about their castes the way other people their age speak of pop groups: sheikhs, pirs and murids. Paruar explains that you are only allowed to marry within your own caste. But he and his friends are lucky, he continues. They are murids, the lowest caste, but also the largest. When they meet girls, the first question focuses on what caste they are from. If they refuse to answer, the boys ask their mothers once they get back home. Yazidi families in Germany are often familiar with one other and their mothers usually know.

"South Park" is showing on the bar's television and they occasionally glance up at the screen, but then they go back to talking about their religion as though it were an elite golf club that places great emphasis on etiquette and doesn't accept new members. "Familiar, tolerant, warm and closed," is how Paruar describes it.

On the Wrong Track

But now he has to return to the living room to take care of some things. As a hero, he can't allow himself to slow down. Plus, this new life is much better than the one he left behind -- when he was a minor, he completed 400 hours of community service for petty thievery. Back then he had some questionable non-Yazidi friends, who smoked and drank, and a German girlfriend. He was on the wrong track.

But since he returned from Iraq, everything has changed. He speaks at Yazidi community centers and meets parliamentarians from Iraq. At demonstrations, he'll grab the microphone and cry: "I was just in Iraq. Our people are bleeding to death!" A video of one such protest got 1,471 likes after he posted it to Facebook.

"There is nothing keeping us from taking to the streets," he writes. "We all die when we are alive." The post receives 464 likes.

"Paruar, be careful. The Salafists now know your face. I'm worried about you," writes a girl he doesn't know. "I think it's nice you are thinking of me," he responds. Since the war began, a lot of girls have been writing him and his friend total has spiked to 14,000. He has begun carrying a knife around his neck.

Paruar and Haitham read online that Kobani is burning. Meanwhile, Yazidis have occupied the airport in Bremen. In Brussels, Kurds have forced their way into European Parliament. In Celle, Salafists and Yazidis are doing battle in the streets. "We have to go to Celle," Paruar says.

His mother hears the word "Salafists" and storms into the room. "Paruar, you may not go out. Salafists have no God and no respect for the police. They aren't people, they are animals," she says.
"Yes, Ms. Bako."
"You are doing everything behind my back. If you go, I'm calling the police."
"Yeah, I get it. We'll see."
"Paruar, if you go, I swear, I'm calling Babo."

Surrounded

Watfa has been sleeping poorly for days. When her husband calls, he rarely has time to talk for more than a couple of minutes. And today, he hasn't called at all. Kurdistan TV is on and she turns up the volume. "I have to see where Islamic State is," she says. She wants everything to stop. Her children are going to demonstrations every night and her husband is up in the mountain in Iraq. "Why are these bacteria doing this? Why are they killing people in Kobani? They're all Muslims like they are!" Then, she says: "This Islamic State is nothing but shitty bacteria."

It has all become too much for her. Her once-peaceful home is now full of war.

Suddenly, the Iraqi telephone rings and she knows immediately that it is her husband. Up on the mountain, Ali Bako is taking a break from the fighting and he tells his wife that Islamic State has just taken three villages and that they are only a few kilometers away, he can hear their gunfire. He says they are worse than Mussolini or Saddam. Watfa's husband then complains that he has run out of cigarettes and has begun smoking Iraqi tobacco, that his asthma has returned, that he has had to walk a lot in the last several hours and that his back is bothering him. The terrorists, he goes on, have now blocked all access roads to the mountains. They are surrounded.

The chat lasts just a couple of minutes, after which Watfa sets down the phone and slumps onto the sofa next to her son. For a moment, the living room is completely silent.

It is Paruar who breaks it: "Someday, the phone is going to ring and someone is going to tell us that our father is dead. Perhaps soon, mama. Babo isn't coming back, you need to prepare for that. If it comes to that, you shouldn't be sad, he's already almost 60, what else does he have to do? We will say that he died for his people."