A year after ISIL attack, Yazidis 'will never forget'

Iraq's Yazidis are still struggling to recover after ISIL killed or abducted thousands in Sinjar last August.

    A year after ISIL attack, Yazidis 'will never forget'
    A woman buys fruits and vegetables at a roadside shop in the Esyan refugee camp for internally displaced Yazidis [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

    Dohuk, Iraq - As the sun sank below the mountains of northern Iraq, 25-year-old Noora recounted fleeing Sinjar with her family last August as fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) advanced.

    Noora, who spoke under a pseudonym and now lives in the Shreya refugee camp in northern Iraq, witnessed ISIL fighters massacre Yazidi men and saw her brothers taken captive before her eyes, she told Al Jazeera. Then the fighters captured her and took her to Badush prison near Mosul, where she said approximately 4,000 other Yazidi girls were held.

    "Everyone who fled that day saw someone killed or had someone close to them taken," Noora said. "We will never forget. It will be in our memories until the day we die. No Yazidi can ever forget this day."

    In the UN-issued tent she shares with her extended family, Noora nodded towards her infant niece, with whom she escaped ISIL territory in May. "Not even the children will forget," she said.

    Eyad, second from left, a refugee from Sinjar who worked with a local smuggler to ensure the release of Noora from ISIL captivity [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]
    Less than one month after Mosul fell to ISIL, its fighters advanced on the predominantly Yazidi region of Sinjar in northern Iraq on August 3, 2014. According to Yazidi rights group Yazda, about 3,000 Yazidi men were killed, and more than 5,000 others, mostly women and children, remain in ISIL captivity after being abducted by the group.

    Mahira, 26, who was also abducted by ISIL while fleeing from Sinjar, escaped eight months and 12 days later. She told Al Jazeera that even after escaping her captors, whom she said were Bosnian nationals, recovery could only begin after being reunited with her parents. Their whereabouts remain unknown. "I thought when I escaped, I would see my parents' faces," Mahira said at a centre for ISIL escapees in Dohuk. "Instead, I still see the faces of my captors."

    Noora, whose brothers are still held by ISIL in Iraq, does not believe that the community as a whole can recover from the collective trauma of August 3 until families are reunited and those still in captivity are rescued. 

    In their shared tent at Shreya camp, Noora's cousin Eyad passed around a picture on his phone of a neighbour from Sinjar who was still in ISIL captivity. The picture, which was acquired by a local smuggler, was one of many circulated among ISIL fighters before they auctioned off Yazidis. In the picture, Eyad's neighbour's hair has been dyed, and she is wearing a thick layer of make-up.

    "I don't think the Yazidis have any future, because I don't believe this will ever end," Noora said, staring at the phone.

    Due to a lack of space and overcrowding inside the camps, some displaced Yazidis live in semi-built houses and structures in the valleys outside the camps [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

    Layla Lahdo Khader, a 23-year-old Yazidi from Sinjar, narrowly avoided being captured by ISIL last August. Khader, who joined Wadi, an Iraqi-German NGO, the following October and spent the past 10 months meeting with Yazidis in 16 camps across Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, described the community as "collectively traumatised".

    "It's not only the women and girls who have been in ISIL hands whose lives have been shocked," Khader said. "ISIL overturned everyone's lives and took away our futures. No one in the camps feels that they are living their own lives. After what happened, Yazidis haven't been able to trust, and they have no reason to believe they are safe any more."

    In the leafy calm of the Yazidi temples in Lalish, the spiritual home of the Yazidi community, priest Baba Chawesh told Al Jazeera that "as a spiritual leader, there's nothing I can tell my people we don't already know. If I tell them the war will end, it can as easily become worse. I can't promise Yazidis our situation will get better."

    Baba Chawesh, a senior Yazidi religious figure, is one of seven priests who reside in Lalish [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

    August 3, the date marking the Yazidi community's exodus from Sinjar, will be marked each year with a religious ceremony in Lalish. Baba Chawesh said the date is already immortalised on the Yazidis' religious calendar.

    In UN-run camps for internally displaced persons visited by Al Jazeera, plaques commemorating Yazidi displacement and massacres describe August 3 as the beginning of a Yazidi genocide. "We Yazidis are imploring the international community to recognise what is happening to us as a genocide," said Baba Chawesh, "but no one hears us. The goal of ISIL was not to fragment our community to camps throughout Iraq or to countries abroad. The goal was to wipe us out."

    While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and international NGOs scrambled to provide emergency assistance to Yazidis fleeing ISIL in Lalish, Baba Chawesh galvanised nearby Kurdish and Yazidi villages to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the 1,000 Yazidis who sought refuge at the temples.

    "Had Kurdistan united in the way it did to help Yazidis in Lalish who fled Sinjar, it would never have fallen to ISIL," Baba Chawesh said.

    In the leafy calm of the Yazidi temples in Lalish, the spiritual home of the Yazidi community, visitors and pilgrims are required to walk barefoot [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

    Kovan Hasan Jundi, 27, whose family has been responsible for the preservation of the temples in Lalish for generations, believes that the Kurdish and Iraqi political leadership failed in their responsibility to protect the community.

    "The political leadership in Iraq and Kurdistan needs to ensure the rights of the Yazidi people. Our community needs greater representation in the Kurdish government," Jundi told Al Jazeera. "It may be that the KRG needs to arm Yazidis to ensure our protection and ISIL's expulsion from Sinjar."

    This July, more than 75 girls who escaped ISIL captivity and their family members gathered in Lalish, before travelling to Germany to receive psychological treatment unavailable in Iraq's Kurdish region. More than 450 members of the Yazidi community have travelled to Germany, where they are offered two-year residency permits.

    Khader does not believe those leaving for Germany will have a reason to return to Iraq. Lamenting that the most fragile members of the community are leaving, she was consoled by the fact that they will have the opportunity to start over. "Before, when we were in Sinjar, if anyone left the community for the US or for Germany, for instance, it was a tremendous loss. It was as if we would never see the person again - like they had already died," she said.

    "But after this happened to the Yazidis, we feel happy for whoever is leaving. They are leaving for a new life. No one would take their children. No one will abuse them. It's not safe for Yazidis to stay here."

    Follow Jonathan Brown on Twitter: @jonathaneebrown

    Follow Andrea DiCenzo on Twitter: @hellodicenzo

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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