Kurdish and Yazidi fighters succeeded in expelling ISIL from Sinjar last week, but the town is in ruins.
Duhok Khanke camp, Iraq – As news of the invading Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces arrived in Tel Zark, Saeed Hibo told his family that they should leave and take refuge at the nearby Mount Sinjar to the north.
A sense of panic spread quickly that afternoon – August 2, 2014 – as Saeed and a couple of hundred other Yazidi men took their weapons and rushed to the front line. Until just a short while before, the line had been manned by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but they had retreated in the face of the ISIL assault.
Saeed and his Yazidi neighbours fought into the early hours of the next day but they were outgunned and outmanned, and their resistance seemed doomed to failure.
Saeed’s brother, 68-year-old Mahma Hibo, remembers the events of that day well. “When the Daesh [ISIL] guys overran the Yazidi defences, my brother was shot in one eye and a couple of bullets hit his stomach as well,” he recalls.
At dawn, with the sun rising over the vast plains in that northwestern corner of the country, the retreating Yazidi men carried Saeed to the nearby village of Tel Qasab, where Mahma, his brother, was living.
Mahma rushed to get him to the hospital in the nearby town of Sinjar but was forced to turn back when they were just halfway there. Scores of frightened, fleeing Yazidis told him that ISIL fighters had occupied the hospital building. Less than half an hour later, Saeed died.
A living memory
Mahma, who now lives in a discoloured canvas tent in the Khanke camp for the internally displaced near the city of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan, remembers his brother often.
Sitting on a thin mattress on the hard, concrete floor, he says: “He liked to tell jokes and make people happy.”
The two brothers were born to different mothers as their father had married twice and fathered 15 children. Mahma was four years older than Saeed, but they were very close.
Growing up surrounded by hardship and poverty didn’t prevent them from having fun.
“We were born in Sinjar and because we were a big family, we played a lot together,” says Mahma.
But they sometimes clashed. “I was bigger than him, so we sometimes fought and I would beat him,” says Mahma with a smile. “But he always respected me and never fought back.”
Saeed spent most of his life working as a day labourer. At the age of 11, when he was in the fourth grade, he dropped out of school to take up work. In the last decade of his life, he had rented some land in the nearby Arab-dominated town of Rabia, which he cultivated, splitting the crops half-and-half with the landlord.
During the Yazidi new year, the entire family would visit the holy temple of Lalish, a few hours north of Sinjar. Saeed’s family of seven now live in a camp for internally displaced Yazidis not far from Lalish, in northern Duhok province.
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Noura Khalaf, Mahma’s wife, gently shakes her head as she remembers her brother-in-law.
“He was poor,” she says. “But he was generous. Just a couple of months before he died he came to our home in Tel Qasab and brought us meat.”
A few days before the ISIL attack on Sinjar, the family was celebrating. One of Saeed and Mahma’s younger brothers was getting married.
“We danced for hours and he was very happy,” says Mahma’s 14-year old son, Ayman. “We all held hands and danced together.”
As he looks at photographs of his brother, Mahma’s eyes fill with tears. One of his favourite memories of him, he says, is of the day they went together to ask for the hand in marriage of Saeed’s future wife.
“Along with my father, we went to ask for the hand of our cousin for him,” Mahma says, tears slowly beginning to run down his wrinkled face. “He later came and hugged me and kissed my eyes.”
Two of Mahma’s own sons have disappeared since ISIL’s occupation of the Sinjar area last year. The family has not heard from them and suspect that they were executed along with the hundreds of other Yazidi men who have been killed by ISIL.
“He was a very brave man,” says Mahma of his brother. “He sacrificed himself to protect others like us and became a martyr.”