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Dispatches – Escape from Isis review: a story of appalling brutality, and a glimmer of hope

‘He raped me. He put his toe in honey and forced it in my mouth. Once, all six guards came into the room. Then the driver gave me to 12 men … I’m still in pain. I can’t sleep, I wake at 3am still smelling them. Their smell makes me brush my teeth more than 10 times a day to get rid of their taste. It will stay with me forever.”

Last night’s Dispatches – Escape from Isis (Channel 4) contained many horrifying stories from the Sinjar mountain region in north Iraq, an area that is a frontier with the so-called Islamic State. Last August it was the target of an Isis attack. Hundreds of Yazidi people – an Iraqi ethnic and religious minority – were killed. Isis fighters also captured 3,000 women and young girls who have been sold into slavery, abused, passed around, the spoils of an ugly war.

It’s hard to know what is more unsettling. There is the smuggled footage of Isis fighters bantering in an internet cafe about a slave auction of Yazidi women. There’s the 21-year-old woman who starts to detail her capture, only to find her memories trigger such a violent physical reaction that she has to lie down, gasping for air. How often does this happen, our narrator asks? “Today she’s had five of these attacks,” is the matter-of-fact reply.

Then there’s the blank stare as a 19-year-old steels herself to tell of the brutal gang rapes she endured. Or the woman accused of adultery in a shaky Isis propaganda video, being stoned by a group of men, including her father, the dull thud of rocks hitting her body as she curls up in a ball on the ground.

Khaleel al-Dakhi is a local lawyer who is part of an underground network who have been working to bring the women and children home. “Based on the information I have, I can say 80% were raped,” he says.

The escape part of the story provides some hope. They allow themselves to be filmed for the first time as they plan a daring rescue of 24 women, all from the same family. A phone hidden in a baby’s nappy has allowed them to keep in touch; al-Dakhi sets a meeting with one of his secret contacts inside the area, then waits.

His team drive as near as they dare to the Isis stronghold, burnt-out cars littering the side of the road, sweeping mountains in the distance. There’s an agonising wait on the border as the team scan the horizon across bright purple fields, waiting for a sign, or a phone call, fearing the worst, until finally 34 women and children walk over the hills, the last steps in a three-day hike to freedom. And then the shot of their lone guide turning around and walking back into Isis territory by himself.

It’s a gut-punching snapshot of a complicated world that leaves you reeling. We don’t learn exactly how the Yazidi women escape their captors – presumably because there are so many others that the rescuers are hoping to help by using similar means, although some more context might have helped orient us in the story – a map, say, or a sense of the distances involved. And beyond the propaganda footage and film from inside Raqqa of empty streets and vans covered with Isis edicts, there’s not much focus on the region’s politics. But what comes across more than anything is the human cost, the impact of lives devastated, the camps full of displaced people, families full of missing sisters, daughters and wives, how once more it is women who are suffering in war.

Al-Dakhi somehow maintains a stoic face, offering practical advice to another woman over the phone that never stops ringing. “We failed once because the kids started to cry. Seriously, don’t let the kids cry.”

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Veep (Sky Atlantic) may need a new name if Selena Myers manages to hang on to her new job. “We’re the first female president” she beams in the first episode of the fourth season, shaking hands as she squeezed through a crowd of senators clapping so loud, “it’s hard to hear me!” Meanwhile, in the backrooms of the White House, Dan, Mike and Amy struggle to deliver more than some “noise shaped air” for President Myers’ first speech to congress now that she has got the upgrade. Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to reign supreme in a sitcom that’s more than delivered on the early promise of its Thick Of It origins.


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