Sinjar, Iraq – Jedo Silo, 40, is back in his hometown of Sinjar for the first time since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) captured the town from Kurdish forces last year.
Last week, Kurdish forces were able to retake Sinjar from ISIL, prompting some former residents of the Yazidi-majority town to return. ISIL accuses Yazidis of being “devil worshippers”, and has massacred and enslaved Yazidis in areas under its control. The religious minority has been subjected to persecution and massacres throughout its history.
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Although Silo was able to return to Sinjar, his homecoming is bittersweet. Silo’s shop has been partially burned. It is one of the many buildings here that were damaged or destroyed upon ISIL’s takeover, or as a result of the battle to retake the town.
“We came here hoping there was something left of our house and stores,” Silo said. “ISIL and their local supporters either have burned down places or looted everything worth something.”
Columns of smoke still swirl into the sky, caused by occasional explosions or the burning of houses.
In addition to the destruction and pillaging, returnees have to be extremely cautious about booby traps and mined roads. Many streets are still covered in rubble, electric cables, and wires used in improvised explosive devices planted by ISIL.
We're very happy to be back in our land. But security is not guaranteed yet and there are no services right now, so people will not return immediately.
Kurdish de-mining teams are clearing streets and buildings of explosives. One truck carried away dozens of cylindrical handmade explosive containers that ISIL had left behind.
Meanwhile, the flags of rival Kurdish and Yazidi groups compete for attention in the devastated town.
The two major factions are the Peshmerga, Kurdish forces loyal to Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its major parties; and forces operating under the command of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The offensive to retake Sinjar began on November 12, when, according to Kurdish security council sources, around 7,500 Kurdish Peshmerga troops advanced on the town from the west, east and north.
This figure also included Yazidi forces within KRG Peshmerga ranks.
There were also hundreds of PKK and Yazidi forces who participated in the offensive on their own initiative as they were not part of the official plan set and implemented by the Peshmerga and US-led coalition.
Assisted by the US-led coalition’s air strikes, the Peshmerga breached ISIL’s defences in just a day and laid siege to the city.
ISIL retreated, and by the next day, Kurdish forces were in control of Sinjar.
“My unit of around 300 Peshmerga troops attacked from the eastern side of Sinjar,” said Colonel Abdurrahman Hussein. “In some areas where we fought, PKK fought as well, but in some areas it was just us who fought.”
Hussein added that ISIL did not put up as much resistance as they had expected, and that the Peshmerga could have advanced farther south towards the ISIL-held town of Baaj, if they had received orders to do so.
The PKK and its local Yazidi allies also played an important role. PKK has had forward outposts at the northern entrance of the town for almost a year.
“Our unit fought here inside the city, and some of our comrades were killed or injured,” said Dawud Elias, a Yazidi fighter with the Sinjar Resistance Units, an offshoot of the PKK.
“We were fighting inside the town early morning around six or seven o’clock. We even seized an ISIL Humvee vehicle. This is a matter of personal honour for us as Yazidis to fight here.”
But the mood in Sinjar is tense. On November 14, the day after Sinjar was retaken, a group of Peshmerga and PKK fighters argued loudly over hanging their flags in a central roundabout.
Finally, they agreed that PKK and its affiliated Yazidi flags would stay on a pole in the centre of the roundabout, while the Peshmerga planted their flags on the fence around the circle, and hung a huge Kurdistan flag just across the street.
Meanwhile, many Yazidis in the town are still in shock at how some of their neighbours betrayed them and joined ISIL.
In response, some Yazidis have been looting the abandoned homes of local Muslim families, mostly Sunni Arabs. Hazim, who would not reveal his family name for security reasons, along with three relatives had collected several household appliances, including air conditioners, a refrigerator, and a washing machine in the yard of their home.
“When Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIL] came here, their local … supporters from the city and nearby villages joined them and looted our homes,” Hazim claimed, pointing to the empty interior of his home. “Where did all my furniture go? We are just taking back what they took from us.”
But Zaidan Himo, 35, a Yazidi resident of Sinjar who has returned like many others to inspect the town, shook his head in response to the looting. “This is a shame. Where are you taking this?” he asked a couple of young men driving away with furniture in their truck. They smiled and waved as they sped away, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.
Although some Sinjar residents have returned to check out their properties, it does not appear likely that all of the tens of thousands of displaced Yazidis will return any time soon.
ISIL has been expelled, but the town’s southern outskirts are still within the reach of mortar rockets fired from villages still under the armed group’s control.
ISIL is believed to be present just five or six kilometres south of Sinjar.
“We’re very happy to be back in our land. But security is not guaranteed yet and there are no services right now, so people will not return immediately,” said Rashid Haji, a 44-year-old Yazidi fighter.
His family of five lives in a camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraq’s Duhok province, near the border with Turkey.
Haji said he lost 44 relatives during ISIL’s offensive last year. “We hope Daesh will not return here again,” he said. “But this is not the first time Yazidis were massacred.”