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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 3rd March 2017 > RESCUE MISSION

RESCUE MISSION

ISIS AND OTHER GROUPS ARE ERASING CENTURIES OF JEWISH HISTORY IN THE MIDDLE EAST. BUT A SMALL TEAM OF MOSTLY VOLUNTEERS ARE TRYING TO STOP THEM—EVEN IF IT MEANS RISKING THEIR LIVES
ILLUSTRATION BY NOMA BAR

On a sunny morning in February 2016, Sami Solmaz, a Kurdish filmmaker from Turkey, took a ride with Kurdish forces from the Iraqi town of Sinjar to the front lines. He spent the day filming gun battles between Kurdish fighters and the Islamic State militant group for a documentary he was making on ISIS attacks against religious minorities. That afternoon, as he was heading back to town, he heard a soldier’s voice crackle over his driver’s radio: “Be careful! ISIS is firing chlorine bombs into Sinjar.” The militant group had been launching homemade rockets filled with chemicals toward Sinjar since Kurdish forces pushed them out of the town in late 2015. Earlier in February, a chemical attack in Sinjar had left Kurdish fighters sick, and Solmaz knew it was best to stay away. The only problem: His driver’s car was in town, and so they decided to hurry back and retrieve it. “We were only there 10 minutes, but you could smell [the gas],” he tells Newsweek.

‘ISIS is not JUST trying to wipe PEOPLE OFF the face of THE EARTH by killing them. THEY ARE ALSO DESTROYING their history’

On his way out of Sinjar, Solmaz’s face began to swell and his throat started to burn as he drove toward the Iraqi city of Duhok, where he fell into a deep sleep at his sister’s apartment and awoke more than 20 hours later. When he was feeling better, he emailed Jason Guberman, the director of Digital Heritage Mapping, a nonprofit he’d been helping in New York, to apologize for slipping out of touch.

Guberman was relying on Solmaz, an atheist from a Muslim family, to document Jewish heritage sites—from synagogues and cemeteries to ruins of schools, houses and community centers Jews once used in the Middle East and North Africa. For years, his staff and a rotating cast of about a dozen interns and volunteers have been racing to create digital records of Jewish sites. The project is called Diarna, which means “our home” in Judeo-Arabic. As wars in the region destroy these sites, Guberman’s team is running out of time.

In his office by Manhattan’s Union Square, Guberman has created a “situation room” that has been stripped of cubicles and lined with marked-up maps of Yemen, Iraq, and the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus. This enables the team to prioritize the most at-risk areas, and dispatch researchers, like Solmaz, into the field when moments of peace create opportunities. To develop realistic renderings of the sites, Diarna has recruited a network of volunteer photographers and paid researchers through social media and word of mouth in countries like Yemen, Syria and Iran. Most live and work in the region, and can access dangerous areas more easily than Americans or non-Muslims.

EXODUS

The migration of Jewish people in the Middle East

In the early 1900s, nearly 1 million Jews lived across the Middle East and North Africa. But Israel’s founding in 1948 led to retaliatory violence aimed at Jews in the Arab world, prompting almost all of them to leave. In some countries, only dozens remain.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ELIZA GRAY

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RESCUE MISSION Isis is not just trying to wipe people off the face of The Earth by killing them. they are also destroying their history. Isis and other groups are erasing centuries of Jewish history in the Middle East. but a small team of mostly volunteers are trying to stop them, even if it means risking their own lives.
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