The Yazidis, victims of "the biggest case of enslavement this century", say the world has let them downby James Harkin / March 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
Like every other Yazidi living in the shadow of Mount Sinjar, Nada’s catastrophe began on 3rd August last year. In just a few hours, Islamic State (IS) militants took control of the whole Sinjar area of northern Iraq. In the space of a week, more than 500 Yazidis were said to have been killed, and 40,000 had fled up the mountain, with the help of Kurdish fighters. After a series of United States airstrikes, President Barack Obama made a speech on 14th August declaring the siege of Sinjar over. The following day, the inhabitants of Nada’s village of Kocho were given a final ultimatum by the men from IS.
“You have to change your religion,” the fighters told the people in the village. Even though they were terrified, the villagers refused. Some time later, the fighters came back and reassured the villagers that they would be treated like Christians; in IS’s medieval interpretation of the Koran, Christians are permitted to pay a tax and abide by a series of arcane restrictions in return for protection. “Don’t worry”, they said. “You can take your cars and come to a school near the village. You will be protected.”
It wasn’t true. As would shortly become clear in their online magazine Dabiq, IS had already declared the Yazidis to be devil-worshippers—adherents of a creed “so deviant from the truth” that they would have to be converted to Islam or taken as slaves. Nada and other villagers were transferred to a school outside the village and informed that anyone who converted to Islam could return to live in Kocho. Once again, no one said yes. “We believe in God too. You have your religion and we have ours.” The villagers were made to empty their belongings into three bags, including all their gold, and were split into groups of males and females. The men and boys were taken away. Nada doesn’t know where they went. The women were taken to an “institute” in a nearby village called Solakh. A few hours later they came back with the order that the women were to be divided into three groups: girls, women with children and older women or grandmothers. “They said the mothers should go to the second floor of the institute, with their children.”
Listen to James Harkin tell the story of his journey to Mount Sinjar:
Perhaps in deference to the IS’s codes of propriety, many of the women wore headscarves to hide their faces, but they were told to remove them. “They wanted to see our faces to see nice girls to take to their friends,” she says. Her brother has two children and Nada, thinking that mothers might stand more of a chance of evading the attentions of their abductors, took one and said, “I’m married and this is my child.” It worked—the mothers got to stay at the institute. One night, however, “they came again and wanted to take girls or women.” One of the IS fighters didn’t believe her story: “You are not married, why are you here?” But the child, only four years old, piped up and said: “This is my mother.” The fighter’s suspicions were allayed. The next day, at midnight, they were taken to a nearby city, Tal Afar, an IS stronghold, where they stayed in a school for two weeks. “In every classroom there were 50 or 60 women,” Nada remembers. “The rooms were very small; we couldn’t sleep.” The food was terrible too—just a small portion of poor quality cheese and bread, and for dinner one potato or an egg. Most of the IS fighters weren’t wearing balaclavas so she could see their faces clearly. Nada didn’t know them, but thinks they were local Arabs from Tal Afar. According to various sources, between 3,000 and 5,000 Yazidis are still missing, while the UN reports that as many as 1,500 may have been forced into sex slavery. Amnesty International, in a December report based on many interviews, cites “hundreds (possibly thousands) of Yazidi women who had been forcibly married, sold, or given as ‘gifts’ to IS fighters.” The Times has said this is “thought to be the biggest case of enslavement this century.”
There are around a million Yazidis living across the world. Half of them live in the city and villages around Mount Sinjar. The vast majority speak a local Kurdish dialect called Kurmanji, and call the area “Shingal.” Theirs is an ancient religion, a hybrid of Christianity and Zoroastrianism which nurtures beliefs about the rehabilitation of a fallen angel who assumes the form of a peacock. Like the followers of other esoteric faiths in the region which fuse traditional religion and folk beliefs, they have long been objects of suspicion and persecution. One tribal elder told me that the Yazidis keep a list of pogroms and massacres visited upon them—they were the victims of 72 massacres in the 18th and 19th centuries alone.
In 2007, a choreographed series of truck bombs planted by al-Qaeda in Iraq killed hundreds of people in the Sinjar area. The most recent attack on the Yazidis began during the morning of 3rd August. As IS fighters took control of the area, Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who were supposed to be protecting them disappeared. And as word spread about the brutality of their new masters, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled to the slopes of Mount Sinjar and a corridor which had been established by a Kurdish Syrian militia to ferry them to safety. Many were too late. Almost all the Yazidis I met in the Mount Sinjar region and elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan knew someone who had been kidnapped. Some had lost contact with entire branches of their extended family. A few had been able to keep in touch with family members by mobile phone, at least in the beginning. They discovered that they were being held in nearby Tal Afar, in Mosul or in longstanding IS enclaves over the border in northern Syria.
Others I spoke to remained in the dark. One man had been contacted by someone claiming to represent IS in Syria demanding $20,000 for his sister’s release. He had no way of knowing if the offer was genuine. In Arbat, at a refugee camp so waterlogged that moats had formed around some of the tents, a young man called Salah Hassan told me that 16 members of his family were still missing: his parents, his brother, his sister and her four children, and his two brothers with three children each. “Our thinking has stopped. We don’t know what to do. We are fluctuating between hope and despair,” he said.
So is Nada. Like tens of thousands of other Yazidi refugees, she eventually fetched up in Duhok, a Kurdish Iraqi city a few hours’ drive from Sinjar. I make contact with her through a volunteer team of Yazidi men and women who are working on the crisis. When I ask her age she tells me that she thinks she was born in 1986—at that time, no one in her village paid much attention to the years. She won’t let me use her real name, because she believes the rest of her family—her mother, father, three sisters and four brothers—are still in IS hands. She hasn’t heard anything from her parents, but has been able to talk to her sisters twice on a mobile phone.
“A 25 year old I met in Duhok said: ‘No one gives a fuck about Sinjar. It was let go.'”
We sit in a classroom for two hours and she patiently recounts her story in as much detail as she can muster. To the best of her knowledge one sister is in Mosul and two are in Tal Afar. The youngest is only 13. None of them, she thinks, has thus far been mistreated. But what about the girls who were taken away? At the beginning she wasn’t sure of their fate, but now she thinks she knows. “They are torturing them, they are doing everything to them.” An Amnesty International report published in December found evidence of systematic rape and sexual violence among women and girls kidnapped by IS, some of whom of have apparently been “sold” or forcibly married to its supporters.
In Duhok, refugees like Nada are introduced to a steady stream of visitors from the media and human rights organisations in the hope of raising awareness about the catastrophe that has befallen her peple. It is unclear, however, whether this activity is benefiting ordinary Yazidis. Almost every Yazidi I interviewed was afraid to talk on the record about who he or she blames for their situation, for fear of jeopardising the assistance they receive from the Kurdish Regional Government and incurring the wrath of its ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). But all felt utterly betrayed. For one thing, they claim that the hard work of evacuating Yazidis was done not by regular troops but by local resistance units, together with an irregular Kurdish militia from Syria. One young man who stayed behind told me he saw a convoy of 190 Peshmerga vehicles with heavy machine guns being escorted to safety by only two carloads of Kurdish Syrian fighters.
A 25 year old I met in Duhok said: “No one gives a fuck about Sinjar. It was let go.” He recalled a friend taking a call from a young man who had stayed behind to fight and hearing him plead that he was running out of bread. He paused at the memory and wept for several minutes, before apologising for making a fuss. “I didn’t really suffer at all,” he said. “But here are some people whose whole families have been killed or kidnapped. And if that is being used just so that some people could get attention, power and media…” The sentence trailed off. “We are a minority culture, persecuted and prosecuted by everyone. Everyone now wants to leave. There are Shingalis who have left for Germany and who have spoken out, but no one, or very few, can speak out here.”
Three hundred kilometres southeast of Duhok, in the city of Sulaymaniyah, I visited one Yazidi who has been speaking out. A methodical man in late middle age, Qasim works as a judge. When I asked him how many people live around Mount Sinjar, he went to another room and came back with a dog-eared population record showing that 439,500 people lived there in 1977. Nowadays, he spends a good deal of time taking testimony from people like Nada, and the rest begging international forces for aid and support. He chooses his words carefully but has no qualms about calling the events of 3rd August a genocide. He blames the KDP for letting it happen. “The KDP was in control there; if anyone is to blame it is them.” That hasn’t stopped them, however, from using the issue to court international support. “When political parties interfere they cover the truth,” Qasim says. “They are exploiting the Yazidi issue to get help from the US.”
The international media has been culpable, too. Reporters have often complicated efforts to have the women released. The testimony of some women who have escaped IS has been reported in articles about “sex slavery hell,” and the grotesque competition to find women who have suffered the worst of it has created problems of its own. Khidher Domle, the volunteer coordinator who introduced me to Nada, complained that in one case a television channel had published the picture of a woman who still has 13 family members in the hands of IS. “I know what they will do.” In another recent case, he said, some locals who had helped a woman to escape were tortured after a report had identified who they were. Qasim told me that this traffic in human misery has “become a business, a trade. People both local and international are exploiting this for their own interest to accomplish their goals.”
Most Yazidis I spoke to echoed these complaints. In their telling, Kurdish Iraq is a dysfunctional state in which the visible levers of state power don’t work. A complex patronage system controlled by just a few major families works to the disadvantage of those who, like most ordinary Yazidis, are left out. After IS’s lightning conquest of Mosul in June, many said, it was obvious that Sinjar would be next. But locals were assured by the security forces that everything was under control. And some told me that they were even prevented from leaving in large numbers so as not to cause mass panic. Matthew Barber, an academic at the University of Chicago who has been working on the Yazidi issue for some years, told me: “The Yazidis feel used and abandoned. Many are afraid to speak out about their experiences and fears. No Yazidi reaches a high-profile role in the government without being favoured by the KDP. They have no political representation in the Kurdish or Iraqi governments that they believe legitimately speaks on their behalf.”
Qasim’s interest in all this, however, is deeply personal: 22 members of his own family are still missing, including his sister. After dinner, he lays out a map of the entire area on a table, explaining which areas are still under the control of IS and what might be done to get the kidnapped back. He can’t say that the American aid and support wasn’t helpful, but it wasn’t enough: they dropped food only in one place and didn’t notice the thousands who were still living on different areas of the mountain. When I ask what became of the kidnapped men, he shuffles off again and comes back with a folder of photographs of the ritual slaughter of young men and tribal elders who refused to convert, most of them culled from IS’s own media outlets. The most gruesome images were taken in Nada’s village, Kocho.
Nada stayed at the abandoned Shia village near Tal Afar for several months, and it was she and some of the other women who hatched a plan to escape. She and her niece used to keep track of the movements of the IS fighters as they moved around the village. “There were a lot of IS members there,” she says, “and they had two checkpoints—at the front of the village and at the back. Then they took away one of the checkpoints, leaving only one.” The women saw their chance. Their mobile phones had been confiscated but Nada had secretly held onto hers. When the guards came searching for mobiles she hid it in a piece of bread and gave it to a child to pretend to eat. For 20 days, a friendly Yazidi voice on the phone badgered her to escape to the relative safety of Mount Sinjar, where other Yazidis had begun to congregate, but she wasn’t taken with the idea. “I don’t know the area,” she told him. “How am I supposed to get back to the mountain?” He set out a route, while some of the other women kept an eye on the movements of the guards.
One night, eight women and eight children left, borrowing box-cutters from their prison to cut cables and fences as they fled. The first hurdle they encountered was a gulley a metre deep and filled with water. Nada stayed in the water until everyone else—the children and the older women—were safely across. On the first night, she remembers walking up hills and along valleys for 10 hours. Seeing yet another valley in the distance in the early morning, the group lost heart and everyone slept where they were. From then on, they travelled only at night. During the day they hunkered down in the vegetation and collected items to use as camouflage. In the evening they’d begin walking again. The instructions from the voice on the mobile phone were clear: if you see a car, hide, and don’t hide together—spread out to increase the chances of some of you getting away. Before long they were down to two bottles of water and Nada’s mobile phone was running out of power.
Eventually she lost patience and called the Yazidi man. “Just tell me how to get to the mountain, and then turn on a light and stay in the same place.”
A few days after I met Nada, I tried to make the journey to Sinjar Mountain myself, via Duhok. At the final checkpoint of the Kurdish Regional Government, however, I was turned back. It was too dangerous, I was told. But the locals insisted otherwise and in the end I found another way in, taking an illegal and highly circuitous two-day road trip through northern Syria. The city of Sinjar remains a war zone, but the mountain, a natural fortress of ice and stone, is now quite safe and is patrolled by friendly guerrillas. Between 7,000 and 10,000 Yazidis live there in tented camps.
When I arrived, the mountain peak was thick with snow. On the lower slopes, all-enveloping mud made moving around difficult. But the mood was one of stubborn defiance and everyone I met was happy to give me his or her full name. An elder who introduced himself as Uncle Bapir told me: “You have to understand the relationship between our religion and the mountain. Shingal is the Yazidi mountain. If all of us gave it up, we could not talk about it as a centre for Yazidis.” His own son and his nephew had been killed a month before when they left the mountain to look for food. Of the 14 people who’d gathered in his tent, almost everyone had lost someone close or else had seen them kidnapped. Almost all their remaining children, some of them teenage girls, were fighting with “Shingal Protection Units” which had been established to protect the mountain and nearby villages. The only outsiders who’d help them, Uncle Bapir said, were the PKK, the pan-Kurdish guerrilla outfit which, because of its long war against Turkey, remains on US and European terror lists. “Others have just been fighting in the media.”
Many Yazidis I met in the towns and cities of Kurdish Iraq wanted nothing more than to leave the country. In Duhok, a taxi driver, his eyes watering from a problem with his tear ducts, had had enough. “Iraq is now over”, he said. “Allemagne![Germany!]” It was clear that he was desperate to get out. It’s easy for this sense of betrayal to boil over into a fury against Arabs or Muslims in general. In the town of Khanke, a young refugee who had suffered 15 mock executions at the hands of IS and 29 of whose relatives were still missing, told me that he would never go back—he’d be recognised by local Arabs who had thrown in their lot with IS. “There is no life for us anymore in Iraq,” he said. If they did go back, his friend added, they would kill all the Arabs for what they had done.
On the mountain, however, the mood was more constructive. Earlier that day, an owlish man in his fifties called Saeed Hassan told me that the Yazidis had held a press conference with the intention of wresting back control of the issue from outsiders; but hardly any journalists were able to make it. “It’s sad to say it,” he said, “but the massacre might be a chance for us to know how to protect ourselves.” When I mentioned Obama’s speech on 14th August declaring the siege of Mount Sinjar over, he scoffed. It was true as far as it went, he said, but the battle for the wider area had barely begun. He had a point. It was on the day after Obama’s speech that the men from IS arrived to take Nada and her relatives from Kocho. “If Obama said he solved the Yazidi problem,” said Hassan, “then he participated in the massacre. And he is dealing with us as an enemy.”
The road that Nada and the others took on the way to Mount Sinjar turned out to be the wrong one. It took them perilously close to Tal Afar, but the bright light now coming from their friend on the mountain kept them on the right path. With hardly any water for the children, however, their situation was becoming desperate. One morning they approached an Arab man and asked him for help. It was a dangerous gambit—there was an IS base nearby. Nada’s sim card wouldn’t work in his phone but, despite being terrified of IS, the Arab brought them biscuits and water and he and his family guided them closer to the bottom of the mountain. As a token of their gratitude, some of the women gave him their rings. The mountain was about three hours’ walk away, but the Arabs didn’t know the route. After walking for eight hours Nada and some of the others couldn’t take it anymore.
Half of the group went ahead with the Arabs, while Nada and the rest stayed behind. Their friends on the mountain were doing their best to find them, but the Sinjar mountain range is 70 km long and often shrouded in mist. One morning they came upon a village they assumed was under the control of IS, but by now Nada didn’t care anymore. They saw a pick-up truck near the village which they suspected might have been booby-trapped by IS. Nada told everyone else to move away from the car while she lifted the bonnet in order to siphon water from the radiator to give to the children. The village was entirely empty, and they found food and water there, and a phone charger. Nada called for help. By this time, she had begun to fear that the rest of the group had been captured by IS again but, to her great relief, she was told that they’d made it to the top of the mountain. Before long she and the others were there too. Everyone else in her family is still missing.
James Harkin reported from Iraq with support from The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. His book “The Hunting Season,” about the Islamic State, will be published in November