Yazidis long for home as Sinjar operation stalls
Political differences between Kurdish parties have indefinitely postponed efforts to retake the area from ISIL.
Sinjar, Iraq – As political bickering stalls operations to retake Sinjar from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, displaced Yazidis fear it could still be a long time before they are able to return home.
“Life is very difficult, and we [need] support to liberate our town,” Xatem Omer, a 37-year-old mother of five, told Al Jazeera from a camp for internally displaced Iraqis outside of Sinjar. “We thought before the winter the coalition and Kurdish forces would liberate our city, but they did nothing. No one cares about us.”
Kurdish forces initially hoped to retake Sinjar before the winter, to ensure members of the Yazidi religious minority – whose community suffered massive displacement, killings, and enslavement at the hands of ISIL – could return home during the harshest season.
The Kurds now control around 20 percent of Sinjar, but civilians cannot yet return as operations have stalled due to political tensions between Kurdish parties over control of the region.
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After the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rescued thousands of Yazidis last year on Mount Sinjar by creating a corridor through the Syrian border, a group of Yazidi fighters created a militia allied with the PKK in northwestern Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who withdrew from Sinjar in August, have been blamed for not protecting the Yazidis. They are now competing for control of the Sinjar region with the PKK, which is planning to establish a permanent presence in Sinjar. These political differences between the Kurdish parties have led to an indefinite postponement in operations to retake the area from ISIL.
“The PKK makes a problem for the Sinjar operation, and the operation was cancelled because we want to avoid a civil war,” Qassim Shesho, a Yazidi Peshmerga commander, told Al Jazeera.
In the town of Sinone in the Sinjar region, a new KDP mayor was recently appointed by the president of Iraq’s Kurdish region. But the PKK says the KDP cannot rule the Yazidis any more in light of the Peshmerga’s withdrawal last year.
“They need self-administration and to rule by themselves,” Rodi, a PKK member, told Al Jazeera. “They need to protect themselves.”
Local Yazidis, meanwhile, are sick of the political squabbling and simply want to be safe again from the threat of ISIL.
Many houses in Sinjar have been destroyed by air strikes or occupied by Kurdish fighters.
“There is a lot of destruction in the city. The life in these tents would be same as in the city,” said Omer, whose husband joined a Shia militia to make a living.
Sinjar resident Sanaa Haji, 16, said she is eager to return home, despite the damage to her family’s home.
“We wish to go back as soon as possible. We miss home, and we suffered for over a year,” Haji told Al Jazeera. “My father went to our house and there were a lot of holes in the walls. They exploded houses nearby … and there are Peshmerga in our house.”
Between US-led coalition jets patrolling the skies and ISIL fighters firing mortars into Sinjar, it is not safe to walk around the town during the day. At night, ISIL fighters hold off firing mortars, for fear that it could prompt coalition air strikes.
In addition to firing mortars, ISIL fighters have also attacked Kurdish positions, leading to heavy air strikes that shake the ground.
“Daesh [ISIL] is attacking us 200 metres from here,” Heval Qurtaya, a young Kurdish fighter, told Al Jazeera on a recent day, while taking cover in a partially destroyed building amid the sounds of gunfire. “For three days, they have been trying to attack us here.”
Major Anter Khalaf Doko, a Yazidi Peshmerga fighter, expressed hope that the operation to retake Sinjar would get under way soon.
“Hopefully, we will start the operation soon, together with all PKK, Peshmerga, and Yazidi forces,” Doko told Al Jazeera.
In the area north of Sinjar, which is completely controlled by Kurdish forces, many civilians are still wary of returning, saying they do not trust Peshmerga forces after their withdrawal last year. In addition, there is a lack of services, jobs and educational opportunities.
“Apart from electricity, there is almost nothing here and no school. Children cannot go to school,” Sinone resident Saad Hamo, 31, told Al Jazeera. “There are also no hospitals and they have to go all the way to Zakho [in the northern part of Iraq’s Kurdish region] for injections.”
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Hassan Ahmed, a 27-year-old engineer who works with an NGO in Sinjar, said many Yazidis have already fled to European countries.
“People are very sad after their family members were killed. My own brother was killed at the hands of ISIL,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera, noting most people would not return until ISIL-controlled cities near Sinjar were liberated. “They will never return until Tal Afar, Mosul, and the Syrian border are secured.”
Some Yazidis are calling for a non-Kurdish force to protect them in the future, fearing a new armed group could arise after the defeat of ISIL.
“When ISIL is finished, we wish that an international protection force would come to Sinjar,” Shesho said. “Without international protection, I don’t think people would come back.”
Heval Welat, a fighter whose village of Siba Sheikh Khidir is still in the hands of ISIL, said he remains hopeful that the group can be defeated and Sinjar liberated.
“I would like to return to my village because it’s my land, and I spent all my life there,” he said. “If I would return, I would first kiss this land.”