Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.
KURSI, Iraq –– It’s been 15 months since the Islamic State was beaten back from the northern reaches of Sinjar Mountain, and still 13-year-old Mustafa Saada won’t speak.
Traumatized by his family’s close brush with the jihadis, he hasn’t uttered a word since the genocide of his people started. Saada hails from the Yazidi population, a people native to northern Mesopotamia that practice a pre-Abrahamic faith, who are thought to have made up about two-thirds of the Sinjar area’s prewar population of half a million. With many of his school friends among those dumped in the shallow mass graves that begin less than half a mile beyond his family’s tobacco fields, neither he nor his younger brother can bring themselves to stray beyond their mountaintop village.
For Haji Saada, Mustafa’s father, the hurt and terror also remain raw. Twenty-two of his siblings and cousins were cut down as they dashed from the lowland plains toward the relative safety of the mountain. So overwhelming is Haji’s guilt at having survived that he says he sometimes wishes he had shared their fate.
“Living here is just a reminder of everything that’s happened to us,” he said. “It sometimes feels like we’re living in a land of ghosts.”
Ever since Islamic State fighters launched an assault on the isolated Yazidi heartlands along the Syrian border on Aug. 3, 2014, this beleaguered ethno-religious group has been mired in a nightmare with no end. At least 5,000 Yazidis were killed and up to 7,000 of their women abducted for use as slaves, according to the United Nations. While the Islamic State’s siege on Sinjar Mountain was broken with the liberation of Sinjar city in November, some communities were so entirely flattened that returning residents have had a tough time even locating their homes.
Though the jihadis are no longer marauding through their villages, the Yazidis have found it difficult to rebuild their shattered homeland. Several thousand Yazidis continue to languish in primitive conditions atop Sinjar Mountain, unable to repair the damage done by the jihadis’ scorched-earth tactics as they retreated. For that, they blame mounting tensions between the rival forces that remain, who are now competing both for control of this slice of Iraq and for the credit of defeating the Islamic State.
This new conflict — between Kurdish groups and the Iraqi central government — has convinced many Yazidis that their homeland is doomed to jump from one conflict to another. Some have given up hope of rebuilding their lives in an environment that they feel will be forever tainted by trauma.
“How can you try and move on when we’re still digging up the bodies of our relatives?” asked Kamal Shingaly, a farmer whose village of Gurmis was wrecked and many of its inhabitants killed in the fighting. He’s since decided to seek asylum in Germany.
A new war?
The Islamic State had scarcely been evicted from Sinjar before local Yazidis found themselves enmeshed in the makings of a new power struggle.
On the eve of the assault on Sinjar city, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkey-based Marxist insurgent group deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga almost came to blows after the Peshmerga allegedly closed off a border crossing to prevent the PKK from bringing their armored vehicles over from Syria. Tensions flared again in February, after troops from Erbil had tried to dismantle a PKK checkpoint on the highway east of Sinjar Mountain.
The war against the Islamic State has raised the stakes of the rivalry between these groups, both of which see themselves as the standard-bearer for the Kurdish cause and subscribe to competing ideologies. The Iraqi Kurds see Sinjar as their turf, and seemingly resent the PKK’s presence and popularity among many Yazidis, after the group came to the rescue of those stranded on the mountain in 2014. Such is their mutual antipathy that even soldiers admit that inter-Kurdish competition has hindered the fight against the jihadis.
“This isn’t good for our people. It’s hurting us,” said Khalil Khalaf, a Peshmerga officer charged with guarding Sinjar city’s central grain silo.
Some Yazidis have called for Western peacekeepers to assume control in the hope of keeping a lid on the tensions. “We’re just pawns in this game and don’t trust anyone,” said Mahmoud Hamad, when we met in the waterlogged tent encampment atop Sinjar Mountain in which he’s lived for over 18 months. “This is why we want international forces.”
In the absence of foreign boots on the ground, however, local Sinjaris have had no course but to adapt to the dangers of a petty cold war.
The Peshmerga and PKK have strung up roadblocks at regular intervals and sometimes don’t let each other or local residents pass. Keen to stamp its authority on the district, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administered Sinjar before the Islamic State’s emergence and claims it as part of Kurdistan, has seemingly done its best to freeze out Baghdad’s security forces by depriving them of electricity through a cold, wet winter.
“We’d have died without generators!” exclaimed Shamoo Ali, a logistics officer in the Iraqi police based in Khanasor, a mostly Yazidi town to the north of Sinjar Mountain. He’s charged with providing for colleagues’ needs — but with the Kurds obstructing the passage of many goods, he says his colleagues, most of whom are recruited locally, sometimes have to survive off the goodwill of their families.
The few thousand Yazidis who outlasted the siege on the mountain have also had to deal what they say is wide-scale looting from Iraqi Kurdish troops, who are ostensibly there to protect them. Half a dozen interviewees accused the Peshmerga of filching whatever Islamic State fighters hadn’t already stolen, particularly electrical transformers and copper piping. Driving east of Sinjar city, two Peshmerga pickups (seen by Foreign Policy) looked to be stocking up on domestic goods, including an ice cream freezer, from a shuttered Yazidi shop.
“They think they can just take what they want,” said Heval Sirwan, a fighter with the YBS, a Yazidi militia affiliated with the PKK. “If we catch them, though, there will be trouble.”
Until the Islamic State emerged, the Sinjar area had avoided many of the sectarian disputes that have haunted Mosul and other parts of Nineveh governorate, in which Sinjar is located. But today it is hard to see how this brutally fragmented region’s awkward patchwork of religions and ethnicities can be pieced back together.
Yazidis, Kurds, and Shia Muslims alike charge local Sunni Arabs with happily embracing the jihadis. For this reason, they insist, none of them will be allowed back. “The trust is gone,” said Kamal Shingaly, the Yazidi looking to move to Germany. With all three of Sinjar city’s churches in ruins, it also seems unlikely that much of the Christian community will ever return.
For the Yazidis, though, it’s the Kurds who preoccupy their thoughts. The Peshmerga’s swift retreat from Sinjar as the Islamic State approached in the summer of 2014 left the Yazidis exposed and defenseless. After being ordered to remain in their homes even as Kurdish troops were beating a hasty retreat, many say they’ll carry the anger at their abandonment to the grave.
“The reaction has been so severe that most Yazidis now want nothing to do with Kurdistan. They no longer want to identify as Kurds,” said Matthew Barber, Iraq executive director for Yazda, a charity that provides aid and lobbies for Yazidis. “They feel the Kurds have forfeited the right to rule them when they left them to genocide and to be enslaved.”
A minority of Yazidis who are affiliated with the political party of KRG President Masoud Barzani defend the Peshmerga, saying it was outgunned and would have been massacred had it stood its ground and fought the Islamic State two years ago. “They just didn’t have that kind of strength,” said Saadoon Rasho, a member of the KRG-appointed Sinjar District Council.
But for most of his co-religionists, the events of the past few years have all but shattered their confidence in the key political players. “We’re caught between two governments, neither of which likes us or helps us,” said Shamoo Ali, the Yazidi Iraqi policeman. “Only the PKK helped us, and no government likes them!”
In mid-March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said what Yazidis have insisted all along: The Islamic State’s actions against their people, Christians, and Shia Muslims constitute a genocide.
So far, 35 mass graves containing at least 1,000 bodies have been uncovered, according to Yazda, which anticipates the discovery of many more. An additional 300,000 Yazidis continue to languish in refugee camps in Kurdistan.
To many Sinjaris, return simply isn’t possible with so many relics of their suffering still scattered across the landscape. From the central grain silo in Sinjar, where Islamic State fighters systematically raped Yazidi women, leaving their clothes strewn across the ground, to bombed-out primary schools, the signs of savagery are everywhere.
But to many others, Sinjar’s unique spiritual appeal and geography, which shielded them from centuries of Ottoman attempts to kill them or convert them to Islam, will draw them back, regardless of the landscape’s many reminders of trauma.
“There have always been genocides of the Yazidi people, and the mountain has always been there for us,” Mahmoud Hamad tells me atop Sinjar Mountain. “No one could ever push us off it. We know now for certain that no one ever will.”