Snuny, Iraq – By a deserted road near the base of Mount Sinjar, Jamal Murd searched through the pockets of the remains of the dead for traces of his father.
As Murd, a 35-year-old member of the minority Yazidi religion from the town of Khanasoor, searched through a makeshift dirt grave – the remains of a massacre believed to have been committed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters as they attacked Yazidi towns around Sinjar – he uncovered his uncle’s diabetes medication. He recognised his uncle’s clothes. And then he put his hand into the pocket of a dead man.
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“I found a key in his pocket,” Murd told Al Jazeera. “I took [the key] to my house in Khanasoor. It worked in the front door. I tried the kitchen door and that worked too.”
That is when Murd realised the dead man was his father, who disappeared months earlier while fleeing from ISIL. His body was found just last week, part of a pit of 36 uncovered bodies discovered by a roaming shepherd behind an abandoned chicken factory after Iraqi Kurdish forces regained control of the route to the mountain.
Denouncing them as devil-worshippers, ISIL massacred hundreds of Yazidis and captured thousands more as the group tore through Iraq last summer. But as Kurdish fighters have started to reclaim some Yazidi towns and homeowners have begun to return, the full scope of the ISIL slaughter is only now being unearthed.
Another mass grave was discovered last week in the town of Zummar, 60km northwest of Mosul, which the Peshmerga reclaimed from ISIL last October. The grave contained the bodies of more than 16 Yazidis.
We still need to classify the bones and see which came from which body and to know the cause of death. We are working on it because there are so many bodies.
Qassim Simo, the head of the Kurdish security forces in the town of Snuny, close to where Murd’s father was found, believes more mass graves will likely emerge as more territory is won back. So far, eight mass graves have been discovered, but “we can’t be sure [how many more there are] because part of Sinjar is still under the control of ISIL”, Simo said.
The massacre in Snuny is believed to have taken place in early August, after family members last spoke to the victims as they tried to flee. Forensic experts say it is too early to confirm the victims’ cause of death. The bodies include those of two women and two children, Simo told Al Jazeera.
“We found clothes, skulls and shoes. We couldn’t recognise their faces; there were just bones and ID cards,” he said.
Doctors from the forensic medical team in Kurdish Dohuk descended on the area to collect the bodies, along with a human rights delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government, sent to investigate ISIL’s crimes against Yazidis.
“We still need to classify the bones and see which came from which body and to know the cause of death,” said Dr Hawar Muhammed, the director of the forensic medical centre in Dohuk. “We are working on it because there are so many bodies.”
In Snuny, layers of graffiti tell the story of ISIL’s rampage. On one wall, the words “Long live the Islamic State, death to the Peshmerga” have been scrawled over, but remain visible.
Most of the residents of this area have yet to return, but some have come back to guard their homes. On February 5, ISIL fired mortars at Hardan village, 32km east of Snuny, but no one was injured.
“It is just to show they are there,” Simo said, noting there are enough Kurdish troops to keep the town safe.
At the roundabout in the centre of the town, Khalaf Qijo, 48, sells oranges, lemons and cigarettes to passing Kurdish fighters. He came back to Snuny as soon as it was liberated, but found his home burned to the ground and is staying with a cousin.
“I came back to work and make a living for my family who live in a camp in Zakho [Iraqi Kurdistan],” Qijo said, noting the lack of electricity has prevented many from returning. “I hope to bring my family back.”
After fleeing the ISIL onslaught last August, tens of thousands of Yazidis took shelter in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now, as they are returning home to find the brutal evidence of ISIL’s massacres, many have accused their Arab neighbours of siding with the group – a charge many Arabs deny. The tensions have erupted in fights between villagers, Simo said, and there have been reports of reprisal attacks by Yazidis against Arabs in Sinjar.
Al Jazeera recently reported that Yazidi militias had attacked the Arab village of Buhanaya, killing many of its residents, setting houses on fire and terrorising women and children. Another report on January 27 said that the same Yazidi militia had also abducted Arab women.
Last week, Ali Savhan, 25, discovered the body of his father in the mass grave in Snuny. As he spoke to Al Jazeera, the road where he stood was empty and in the field behind him, a farmhouse lay in a heap of rubble.
“First we found bones and clothes,” Savhan said, noting his father disappeared in early August while trying to help other Yazidis escape Khanasoor. “We searched his pockets and I found his things: two pictures of him, his ID card, his gold ring and $3,300.”
Savhan acknowledges that the events of last summer have sewn distrust within the community, noting: “Those who did this are not human.”