A 600-strong Yazidi militia force has been fighting back against ISIL at Iraq’s Mount Sinjar.
Lalish, Iraq – Hala Rasho Hamo and her five children stood in the stone-paved courtyard of Lalish Temple along with hundreds of other Yazidis, eagerly awaiting sundown to mark the advent of their new year.
But the mood this week was far from festive. The disaster brought upon the Yazidi community since last summer – when fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked the ethno-religious minority, along with Christians, Sunni Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq – has left them with little reason to engage in the elaborate, joyous celebrations of years past.
“We did not paint eggs or hang red tulips on our doors this year,” said Hamo, 30, as she stood with her children at the Yazidis’ holiest site in the world, Lalish. “Our heart is in pain. We came here to pray to God and [Yazidi saint] Sheikh Adi to end our misery and bring back our women and children.”
ISIL killed one of Hamo’s cousins and took his wife and five children. Hamo and her family, meanwhile, escaped their home in Sinjar in northwestern Iraq for the safety of Dohuk in northern Iraqi Kurdistan.
The new year’s feast is typically the biggest celebration in the Yazidi community. Every year, thousands of Yazidis from across Iraq and the world head to Lalish to celebrate the occasion. But this year, the number was conspicuously low, speaking to the state of tragedy and hardship the community is experiencing. Many of the celebrations held in previous years were cancelled.
The few hundred people who gathered rushed through the dimly lit halls of the temple to pray, drink from a spring of holy water and pay tribute to Sheikh Adi by kissing a piece of colourful cloth wrapped around his approximately two-cubic-metre tombstone.
Yazidis believe Lalish is the centre of the universe and say it was the only spot on earth saved during biblical floods. It is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains covered with oak trees. The temple complex is dotted with 12 cone-shaped domes, marking the shrines of Yazidi saints.
In one back room, young Yazidis throw a piece of green cloth on a protruding part of a wall as they make wishes. If the cloth falls on the bulge, according to Yazidi beliefs, it means the wish will come true.
In previous years, couples often longed for a baby, or younger men and women wished they would reach their dream lovers and marry. This year, things are different.
“My wish was to return home, for our women to be freed from [ISIL],” said Viyan, a 20-year-old woman from Bashiqa as she succeeded on her third try in throwing the cloth atop the bulge. A refugee from a small town near Mosul, which is currently under ISIL’s control, she now lives in one of the numerous rooms in the temple complex crammed with displaced Yazidis.
ISIL is believed to have abducted as many as 3,000 Yazidi women and girls, forcing many into marriage or sex slavery.
“Our life is very difficult here. It’s even difficult to sleep sometimes because it’s so crowded and noisy,” Viyan told Al Jazeera. “But we are still lucky. We are here, not in their [ISIL’s] hands.”
As the sun set over the rain-washed mountains surrounding Lalish, the Yazidis, young and old, men and women, set off to light candles or wicks soaked in cooking oil, and chanted religious verses. Many stood on the walls and roofs of the temple, and others in the yard where the floor was covered with oil. Custom requires that those present at the celebration remain barefoot.
Just before the ritual began, Aishan Shaabo, 50, sat silently in a corner of the temple, watching the crowd move by. Her family of nine comes from Dugre, a small settlement built by the former regime of Saddam Hussein, where many Yazidis were forcibly relocated. No one in her immediate family was caught by ISIL.
“This feast used to be so nice in the past,” Shaabo said sadly. “This year, we did nothing; we did not even eat sweets.”
The catastrophe that ISIL unleashed on the community has instilled both a strong sense of Yazidi identity and a deep sense of helplessness.
When ISIL fighters invaded Sinjar and other Yazidi-populated areas last August, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who had been protecting the area put up little resistance. Hundreds of Yazidi men were massacred by ISIL, and thousands of women and children were taken away.
Like many other children in Kurdish Iraq these days, Hamo’s son, 10-year-old Balzam Garis, wears a military uniform with a Kurdish flag on it and an insignia that carries three stars, the rank of a captain. It is a way of expressing support for the fight against ISIL.
Garis misses his friends and schoolmates in Sinjar, noting he does not know all their fates. He is currently enrolled as a fourth grader at a school in Badre, a town in Dohuk province in northern Iraq.
“I want to go back to my school in Sinjar. I want to see my friends and teachers again,” Garis said. “The feast is not as pleasant as it used to be.”
Follow Mohammed Salih on Twitter: @MohammedASalih