Vicken Cheterian

Who remembers the Yazidis?

Yazidis feel wounded and betrayed. They were attacked by their neighbouring Arab tribes, abandoned to their fate by the Kurdish Peshmerga, and forgotten by the rest of “international community.” A religion, civilization and a unique way of life that survived for centuries, will it survive ISIS genocide?

On the marge of Khanki, away from the official camp that already houses 2’908 families, or 16’611 people, we entered a tent as its inhabitants were washing the ground. They were living even outside a refugee camps, lacking even the most trivial of services. On the canvas next to the entrance it was written by hand “Ya khowdi, wa ya malek tawoos” and next to it the fateful date: 3/8/2014.

On that day, in the early hours of August 3, 2014, ISIS fighters armed with heavy weapons after they conquered Mosul two months earlier, coming from Ba’aj attacked the Yazidi villages of Girzarek and Siba Sheikh Khidir. Peshmerga forces received orders from Erbil and withdrew. They did not evacuate the Yazidi civilian population, leaving them defenceless, at the mercy of ISIS. Local Yazidi resistance armed with light weapons collapsed after four hours; they did not have enough ammunition, nor heavy arms to resists against jihadi armored vehicles. In a few hours ISIS entered the town of Sinjar. The local population in panic escaped to the mountain. ISIS captured those who could not escape: men were forced to convert to Islam; those who refused were killed on the spot. More than 35 mass graves have been found this far. ISIS revived open sex slave markets, a tradition that had disappeared from the region since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Over 5240 women and girls were captured and sold as slaves.

In the tent, we are sitting face to face to a woman who narrated her ordeal. She could be 45 years old, but a life of hard work under the Iraqi sun made her skin look older. Next to her there was her daughter with an infant on her lap, and her two sons, 11 and 14 years old. They lived in the village of Kojo, to the south of Mount Sinjar. “Back than we had normal lives,” she started narrating her story, “we were satisfied.” When ISIS attacked her village on the early hours of August 3, one of her daughters got killed, while she with her daughter Nisrin and 2 of her teenage sons, with dozens of other family members, were taken hostage. The jihadis forced them to convert to Islam, and to read the Quran. When an old woman refused, she was shot and killed at the spot. Yet, converting did not protect them from the worse of suffering.

“The first group that attacked Kojo were local Arabs”, she continued, “They separated women from men, and took us to Sinjar city. They mistreated us, left us without food for ten days. Then, they separated us to small groups of 10-15, and one of them started selling us to others, and sent us to different places.” She was taken to Mosul for a month, and then moved to Tel A’far for another month, before yet again being sold and sent to Raqqa where she was kept as a slave for yet another month. She was often kept at ISIS military headquarters, one of the worst places to be kept as a hostage, being at risk of mistreatment and abuse by large number of jihadi militants passing through. When she resisted to their treatment, one of her captives hit her head by the butt of a rifle; she was bleeding for a month. She still has pains and memory gaps. She needs treatment and medication for which she does not have financial means. The difficulty to narrate her suffering to strangers while sitting with her three children who shared her ordeal was visible by discreetly expressions of pain on her beautiful face. “They treated us better in Raqqa, she said, “they gave us food to eat and proper water to drink.” She managed to escape thanks to the assistance of a Syrian woman. Her sons also managed to escape with another group of women. But 30 members of her family are still hostages with ISIS jihadis, including a 10 year nephew from whom they had news two weeks ago: she shows us on her mobile phone ISIS propaganda photo in which the young boy is holding an old Kalashnikov rifle that looks huge next to him, while his other hand points a finger upwards, the jihadi sign of tawheed – or unity of the creator. He is one of the Yazidi captive boys that ISIS is training as killers.

By the time we finish our conversation the ground has been dried. It is extremely hot under the tent.

Sends his family to the sea in December

“All Yazidis want to leave, in a generation none will be left in Iraq,” told me Falah a pharmacist, and now a refugee in his own country. He receives us in their newly built house of bare walls. We sit on the ground and women in the other part of the house hidden behind a curtain prepare food; Yazidi hospitality does not stop even when they are refugees. His little daughter of hardly two years is crying; he was away working during the day, Falah recounts, and each time he is away she cries. He has another daughter who is three years old, who is now away. Her 25 year old wife took her and left with three of Falah’s brothers – 16, 12 and 10 years old - on December 22, 2015, crossing Turkey and taking the risk to sail across the Aegean Sea in the winter season. They are now safe in a German refugee camps. They made it, although there are weekly victims of the risky voyage. Why did he let her family go to such a risky journey in the winter, I asked? “Because we heard that the corridor for refugees was going to be closed, we thought it was our chance.” Then, why didn’t he join his wife and daughter? “Because I did not have enough money to take all my family, including my aging parents. Now I am working to earn some money and join them.”

It is difficult to understand how people take the risk of crossing a sea on fragile boast at the height of winter. The only way is to measure it with the degree of their desperation, and the lack of hope that the future can bring a better day.

For Falah, ISIS is only one part of a bigger problem, which is long term and systematic discrimination against, and violent repression of Yazidis out of religious motivation. “We are a drop in a sea of Muslims which wants to suffocate us,” he said. Ali, originally from Durkeré and now living in Dohuk, said: “We could never imagine something like this could happen. In 2003 (during the American invasion) many Sunni Turkmen from Tel A’far which was a Baathist stronghold, found refuge in Sinjar, and we received them. From ISIS perspective, the Sharia that they follow, Yazidis do not own a holly book, therefore they have the right to kill the men and rape the women.”

Hajji Mirza is from Tel Azar. Now, he and his family live under a tent in Khanki camp. “For 20 years I worked as construction worker in Tikrit. For 15 years I did the same in Kurdistan. We did not ask for government positions, we did not protest, all what we want is to continue our way of life. In spite of all that they keep killing us.”

In the village of Duguré, where heavy fighting took place, before its defeat and withdrawal ISIS exploded 417 houses. On the wall of one of them, evidently inhabited by the jihadi fighters, there is a graffiti saying: “Ya ‘abdat al-shaytan, bildabh’ ji’nakom” (Oh worshippers of the devil, we came to you with massacre.” But if one judges by their acts, by forceful conversions, by the assassination of women who are older than 55 years old and therefore cannot be used as sex-slaves, by kidnapping girls as young as 9 years old, selling them, raping them, destroying the villages of the poorest of the poor in Iraq, destroying their places of worship… isn’t it evident who is the embodiment of Satan himself?

Yazidis feel wounded and betrayed. They were attacked by their neighbouring Arab tribes, abandoned to their fate by the Kurdish Peshmerga, and forgotten by the rest of “international community.” A religion, civilization and a unique way of life that survived for centuries, will it survive ISIS genocide? Many, like Falah, are pessimistic. They think Yazidis will seek refuge in lands far away from their historic lands and temples. But Ali says that Yazidis have also been victim of massacres and forced conversions many times before: “Yazidis call the 2014 events as faraman, a term that comes from the late 19th century Ottoman massacres of religious minorities. In previous farmans, Yazidis who had converted remained Muslim. This time they returned to their Yazidi religion as soon as it was possible.”