Sulaimania, Iraq – Kneeling on the ground, a Yazidi elder picks up a stone. Drawing lines in the sand, he demonstrates how ISIL fighters entered Sunun, a small town in Sinjar, two years ago.
“They came from four directions,” he gestures. “They had tanks, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and everything. All we had were simple old weapons. And there was only one road left for us to take, and that road led to the mountains. We took our rifles, our women and children, and we ran.”
The Yazidi elder, who asked not to be named, said it began with a terrifying phone call a little past midnight from one of the 24 nearby villages that had been overtaken by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in August 2014.
“They told me, ‘We have been betrayed’. The Peshmerga have all gone. Nobody is coming to help us, run to the mountains,” he says, adding that the Iraqi army had left two months before.
They fought for several hours from their positions in the mountains, until they ran out of ammunition.
“It’s not that [ISIL] came in large numbers,” he recalls. “The opposite; there were just a few hundred of them, maybe 500 men, but what made them stronger were the local tribes who joined them.”
The rest of the story – now called the Sinjar Massacre – is now well known. Some 50,000 Yazidi Kurds fled to the Sinjar Mountains. They were stranded there for days before the United States waged air strikes and they could be rescued with the help of Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey. It was August, and scorching hot.
Some 70 children reportedly died of starvation and dehydration. Many of those who did not make it to the mountains were either killed or taken captive by ISIL, including more than 3,000 children. As many as 7,000 women were abducted.
This Yazidi elder is now a teacher at one of the makeshift schools at the Ashti camp for internally displaced persons (IDP), 45km north of the Iraqi city of Sulaimania, which is under Kurdish regional jurisdiction. Spread over 305 hectares and surrounded by mist-covered mountains, Ashti camp is the temporary home of 2,800 internally displaced families (or more than 14,000 individuals). According to the local NGO Kurdistan Save the Children (KSC), more than 8,000 are children.
The Ashti camp is divided mostly between Yazidi Kurds and Arabs – from Anbar, Salahuddin, Sinjar, Shingal, Fallujah and Mosul.
Tensions between the two groups in the camp have some fearing that reconciliation in the region will be long and complicated. It is clear that the trauma from this conflict will not be easily overcome, especially in such tight living conditions. There is fear, anger and so far almost no social interaction between the Arabs and Yazidi Kurds.
“The Yazidi children are more traumatised than the others, and they stick together,” explained Nawras Mahmoud, a KSC representative. “They are more reluctant to mix, and the adults are not helping. They themselves have a negative influence on the children.”
Some Arabs deride Yazidi Kurds as “devil worshippers“, while Yazidis are known as a close-knit exclusive ethno-religious group that shuns interaction with “outsiders”.
In a country ripped at the seams by war, political settlements alone will not bring about reconciliation between antagonistic ethnic and religious groups – even if the war were to end tomorrow. For many dealing with the hundreds of thousands of IDPs fleeing the battle zones across Iraq, the reconciliation work must begin in the camps, among the people, to ensure future peaceful cohabitation.
At one point, Mahmoud says, all of the Yazidi children suddenly dropped out of school.
“We reached out to the influencers in the Yazidi community – their leaders – as well as the sheikhs of the Arab communities and asked them to persuade the adults in their communities not to discuss these issues in front of their children – for them not to refer to each other in derogatory terms, at least not in front of the children,” she says.
KSC, a UNICEF partner, is implementing “child-friendly” areas in five camps. These involve the schools, sports activities and art workshops for internally displaced children.
One of the teachers for the KSC-run schools is Mohamed al-Alwan, 43, an Arab displaced from Salahuddin. He has been at Ashti camp since January 2014.
“ISIL entered the city and we were suddenly cut off from everything,” he recalls. “We had no telephone, no gas, no food. We had to gather roots to cook or else we would have starved.”
Then the Shia militias arrived and there was fighting between ISIL and the militias, he says.
Alwan remained in the city for five months, before he was finally able to flee with his wife and 13 children. He says it was not too difficult to escape, “because ISIL was too busy fighting the Shia militias, and the population was so large that it was hard to control the outflow”.
The tensions between the Yazidis and the Arabs in the camp were very high in the beginning, Alwan says.
“It was challenging to deal with. But we are teaching the children that we are friends, we are part of the same country, and we make an effort to mix them up in activities so they are forced to interact.”
Shirine Qassem, a 43-year-old Yazidi Kurdish mother of nine from Sinjar, is not so easily persuaded. One of her sons is a Peshmerga, and his wife was abducted by ISIL.
She remembers her village, Gerzarek, was in flames as she and her children leapt into the truck of the mukhtar (chief) and sped for the mountains.
“Our men fired their weapons until they ran out of ammunition,” she recounts. “But ISIL came in with tanks. There weren’t too many ISIL fighters, but the local tribes joined them.”
Qassem recalls seeing her next-door neighbour joining the ISIL fighters.
“My neighbour was an Arab and they betrayed us and started fighting against us. We used to celebrate weddings and have parties together. Then the next day they put their hand into ISIL’s hand. How can I ever move back there again? How can I trust them again?”
Months after the siege of Sinjar, Amnesty International reported that members of a Yezidi militia attacked two Arab villages in reprisal. They killed 21 civilians, including elderly men and women and children, and injured several others. The gunmen also abducted some 40 residents, 17 of whom are still missing and feared dead.
Qassem says that she would like her children to attend school, but she claims they are afraid because many of their classmates would be Arabs.
The Yazidi elder interjects: “But we don’t have a problem with Arabs. These people here in the camp were not living in our area. These people are like us, chased away from their homes in Salahuddin, Diyala, Anbar. They were not the ones who did this to us.”