Guley can see her village from Mount Sinjar. It isn’t far – a short drive down twisting roads into the dusty plains below – but beyond reach, and for almost two years she’s been unable to return.
Her family was among the hundreds of thousands who fled as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) swept across northern Iraq’s Sinjar region in August 2014 and captured the town of the same name.
Civilians rarely escape the group’s notorious cruelty, but as members of the ancient Yazidi religious minority, they had particular reason to fear. ISIL considers the sect heretical “devil worshippers” to be either captured, converted, or executed.
ISIL came in the early hours of August 3, a large force strengthened by weaponry plundered from the Iraqi army, and a reputation as unstoppable killers. They advanced swiftly through the darkness and encountered little resistance.
By morning Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the area had retreated in disarray, leaving civilians unprotected. In the panic that followed, Guley gathered her five daughters and three sons then made a dash for the mountain’s jagged ridge.
Many weren’t quick or lucky enough to follow. ISIL slaughtered entire villages, killing at least 5,000 Yazidi men and boys and abducting as many as 7,000 women and girls as sex slaves. It was a methodical campaign of murder, rape, and slavery that UN investigators said in June amounted to genocide.
More than 40,000 people traced Guley’s route to high ground, but it offered little sanctuary. Without supplies or shelter in the intense summer heat, starvation and dehydration killed dozens. ISIL continued to advance on the desperate group, almost completely encircling them as poorly equipped local men fought a rear-guard action to block the road and save their families.
The plight of Sinjar’s Yazidis became global news. American, British, Australian and Iraqi aircraft dropped aid, while US jets began bombing ISIL positions in an attempt to halt the onslaught and avert a humanitarian disaster. Guerrilla fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate the YPG, meanwhile, broke through ISIL lines to open a safe passage from the mountain.
Help came too late for Guley’s youngest child, a girl. She died on the hillside for want of food and water and was buried there.
Today the mother of seven remains. Thousands of others do too in a sprawling mass of tents made or amended with old tarps, carpets, blankets, wood and corrugated iron in the valleys below the peak. Outside many are in the vehicles their owners escaped in: ubiquitous Opel saloons, rusted tractors, and battered mopeds. Others still litter the steep road leading up from the town’s northern edge, abandoned when they could go no further.
Guley told her story outside a toy-strewn tent, bare feet planted in the dirt as a warm breeze plucked strands of her henna-dyed hair from beneath a black headscarf. Two strikingly blonde toddlers hid among the folds of her floral patterned purple dress, while older children played nearby. She wasn’t sure where they’d next get food from, but despite the hardship, was determined not to stray far from her former home.
“We cannot go back, but we will stay here,” she said twirling the silver rings on her finger. “It is our land and it is better for us than anything else.”
Sinjar town is now free, at least in name. A Peshmerga-led offensive backed by American air support retook it last November to widespread celebration. But it’s badly damaged and ISIL fighters are still close, so for now many of its former residents live where they fled.
While garrisoned largely by the Peshmerga and therefore under Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) control, Sinjar remains technically within Baghdad’s mandate, so is isolated and accessible only by a road that runs along the Syrian border a few hundred metres from mounds of earth shoring up Sykes-Picot.
The flags fluttering above a series of bases and checkpoints lining the route signal the different groups that hold power here. The KRG’s sun-centred tricolour alternates with the PKK’s red star pennant and the golden wing insignia of its Yazidi offshoot, the YBS.
Livelihoods are hard to come by on the mountain. Young boys tend small herds of goats and sheep grazing in the dry scrub or picking through piles of rubbish. A few fields are cultivated and sporadic breezeblock shops sell fruit and vegetables alongside, soap and cans of warm soda. One man now repairs ancient engine parts in a mechanic’s shop made partly from a UN tent.
It’s hard to see a future. Near the top of a mountain, a group of youths in a mix of traditional clothing and football strips crowded around a sturdy pool table in a wood framed tent floored with baked mud and cigarette butts.
“Life is hard there’s nothing here,” said Zeydan, a sparse-moustached teenager slouched on a block of metal chairs lifted from a waiting room. “But we can’t go back,” interjected a friend. “There are [ISIL] mortars every day.”
There isn’t much to go back to. Liberation was desperately costly and Sinjar itself is now between 60 percent and 80 percent destroyed, KRG officials say. Parts of the northern old town and market district were hit hardest in the fighting and are little more than piles of stone and shattered concrete studded with twisted rebar.
Even buildings in less devastated quarters are blackened, battle scarred or half collapsed. Looters have stripped them of anything of value; doors, windows and even kitchen cabinets.
About 200 ISIL members from Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Turkey were based here, the local Kurdish security forces, known as asayish, say. Signs of their occupation are still visible; spray-painted flags adorn walls, documents are scattered outside buildings used as offices, and entrances to tunnels where fighters holed up open out of the rubble. One begins in the corner of the ruined market area and contains patterned mattresses and pillows alongside small hi-fi speakers.
Some buildings reek of death. Human remains are strewn around inside one. “Daesh” said an asayish member spitting towards a withered hand emerging from a bundle of winter jackets, and a shinbone clinging with flesh encased in a woollen sock.
ISIL left behind IEDs too, and in large numbers. A bomb disposal unit operating in the town have removed several tonnes of TNT, they said, but still have work to do.
The fighters didn’t retreat far andstill hold a string of villages just 4.5km south of Sinjar’s outskirts. From there, they regularly target the town with mortars and rocket fire. Some days all is quiet. On others a dozen land. The attacks are haphazard but have been lethal.
A police officer was killed recently and two others injured in a separate attack, asayish Major Mohammed Amin said, adding that some of the rockets were thought to have contained locally manufactured chemical agents.
“Sinjar is still the front line between the KRG and ISIL… The area is still not so safe and ISIL are not so far,” Amin said, perched on a floral blanket-covered bed in the office turned sleeping quarters his men set up in a largely undamaged house.
Like many asayish members, he’s from Sinjar and took part in the fight to liberate it. He was here, too, when ISIL first came and vividly remembers the confusion and alarm.
“We just heard that people were fleeing their villages and going to the mountain,” he said drawing on a slim cigarette and raising his voice over the sporadic rattling of a bulky air conditioning unit cranked in an open window. “It’s still like a nightmare… I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
The town is largely controlled by Peshmerga and asayish, but PKK-related factions have a significant presence too. They also took part in the offensive to retake the town and played a pivotal role, commanders say, although the official KRG line denies their involvement.
Tensions between the two have been mounting in recent months. But in the town at least, the guerrillas seem to largely keep to static positions, occasionally exchanging a nod or wave with KRG forces as they pass.
To the southeast is a front-line position held by Peshmerga forces rotated in from Erbil. It’s static and dug in, but regular ISIL shelling has become part of the day’s cadence. “This is the time for mortars,” one fighter said gesturing at the sunset on a recent evening. “They come now and in the morning”.
The attacks are hard to counter, he adds, as ISIL employs truck-mounted weapons that move into position, fire, then quickly relocate.
The group also launches sporadic suicide strikes with armoured, explosive-packed vehicles, one of which left a large blackened crater just a few metres in front of the well-fortified Peshmerga. Key to countering them are German supplied MILAN guided missiles, and coalition air strikes, which section commander Werya Ziarati said both saved “a great number of lives”.
Nevertheless, over a hurried dinner of rice and beans just after dusk, he complained that his men are short on weapons, ammunition and equipment.
The front extends westward a little way out of town, large berms cutting through unkempt fields filled with birdsong. The grass grows long, golden and dry here. Larks flit from clump to clump above patches of purple flowers, and where the soil has eroded, piles of rags and human bones.
These are mass graves. At this spot, ISIL shot Yazidi victims then bulldozed the bodies into pits. Winter floods have since washed away topsoil, exposing the remains, scraps of clothing and whatever possessions those who died here were carrying; a rusted cigarette lighter, some prayer beads, a traditional head scarf. There’s a pile of shell casings too, ejected from the guns that killed them.
At one grave, Ala Qandil, an asayish member with a permanent burgundy beret and wraparound sunglasses retrieved a limb bone from further down the hill and gently placed it with the rest. About 40 people are buried here, he said, part of a mixed group who were cut off as they tried to reach the mountain from a village near his own. The young women and children were taken captive, the men and elderly women slaughtered.
There are two other such graves within 100 metres and several others nearby, although it remains too dangerous for forensics teams to excavate them. At least 50 sites containing three or more bodies are known to exist around Sinjar, estimated Andrew Slater, who supervises the documentation of ISIL atrocities with US-based Yazidi NGO Yazda, and more will inevitably be found when villages to Sinjar’s south are finally retaken.
Yazidi families are beginning to return to villages north of Mount Sinjar, but the damage and still significant security risks mean that just 20-30 families have gone back to the southern side and the town itself. Besma, an older woman, came directly following liberation from a camp near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Zakho. She’s determined to stay even though life is far from safe.
“There are rockets and bombing, the children are afraid and crying,” she said. Most of all, she wants electricity to be restored, streetlights would help alleviate her constant fears of a night-time ISIL infiltration.
Merza, a middle-aged father in a pressed shirt and chinos, lives a few ruined streets away. He too decided to defy the danger. “It is our home, it is always better than a camp,” he said scratching greying stubble and adding while the town needs services, his priority is freeing his many relatives being held by ISIL.
The women, he said, were taken to the group’s Syrian capital of Raqqa and the children to Iraq’s Tal Afar, about 50km from Sinjar. He added that escapees told him an 11-year-old girl on his wife’s side had been raped by a large group of men. He’s expressionless as he describes the reports. For Sinjar’s Yazidis, the most horrifying atrocities have become routine.
A boom broke the morning calm, echoing off the ruined buildings. No one glanced up, even the children. “Probably an air strike,” someone muttered as smoke began to rise a few kilometres away.
But Merza has little faith in military progress against ISIL, largely due to inter-factional squabbles within the central government in Baghdad and political differences between it and the KRG.
“We don’t care who looks after us, we just want someone to protect us, if not Iraq, even Israel… I wish they would push a bit further and to the next villages,” he said.
In a well-defended headquarters at the north of the town, Sinjar regional asayish commander Lieutenant-Colonel Qasm Simo sat behind a neat, L-shaped desk overlooked by a portrait of KRG President Masoud Barzani and explained his struggle with the same issues.
“From November until now there is no big difference in Sinjar, but that’s not what we want and it’s not as the people want,” he said, dealing with a constant stream of subordinates delivering messages and files. “They don’t want to come if there’s any threat on their lives and while ISIL are so close, there is a threat, [and] there is no water, no roads, no electricity, no schools, no hospitals, there is nothing.”
Simo, with his cropped hair, cleft chin and neat moustache, has an obvious military bearing. He was in nearby Snuny when ISIL took Sinjar and stayed on the mountain until its liberation, he said, picking up one of his two gold-cased iPhones and proudly displaying a picture of him with a full beard from his time there.
He’s originally from Khocho, a nearby village where ISIL massacred the entire male population of 400 or so and abducted about 1,000, according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). It remains under ISIL control along with many other Yazidi villages.
Now, he said, he awaits orders to move on them. That’s unlikely to come soon. In the regional capital of Erbil, the KRG’s head of foreign relations Falah Mustafah said the repeatedly delayed offensive to retake Iraq’s second city of Mosul from ISIL has held up progress outside Sinjar too.
“There were areas that President Brazani and the Peshmerga wanted to liberate [south of Sinjar], but they [the US-led coalition] told us they wanted to do it in one go with the Mosul operation.”
Even once ISIL are driven to a safe distance, rebuilding will be difficult and costly. The KRG has little to give. Two years of war have cost lives and resources, while it now shelters almost 1.8 million displaced Iraqis and refugees from neighbouring Syria, placing its resources under significant strain. Plummeting oil prices have severely dented the region’s only major source of revenue.
Peshmerga and public servants haven’t been paid for months, Mustafah said, and his government is struggling to cope. As if to emphasise his point, the power suddenly cut out, plunging his office into darkness as assistants scrambled to light the room with their smartphone screens.
Sinjar requires security and basic services, he continued. “They need electricity, they need water, they need education, they need healthcare… For the Yazidis who have suffered the most, at least we can do something to help them and prepare the ground for them to come back.” But the $10.2m his government has attempted to raise from the international community to provide this has not been forthcoming.
Little international help makes it through to Sinjar now. On the mountain, Gelal, a sunburnt shopkeeper who presides over a dark, dirt-floored tent stocked with dusty packets of crisps and off brand toiletries, said they’re in need of just about everything. “There’s not enough aid, we need food, we need water,” he explained, fretfully stroking his clipped moustache.
There isn’t much in the way of healthcare either, and no schools. The most obvious NGO presence is a small group of Barzani Charity Foundation tents; clean, white and conspicuous among the rest. Yazda also provide support. So do the PKK.
Midway down the mountainside is a small medical centre guarded by a moustachioed YBS fighter in a camouflage outfit. Inside, a grey-haired doctor in a checked shirt who gave her name as Medya attended to a waiting room full of patients. She’s German but speaks fluent Kurdish and her medicine bottle-covered desk faces a wall dominated by a portrait of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. A flag of his face emerges from a pen holder on her desk, a smaller poster of him in a casual jumper is pinned behind her and she fiddled with a passport photo sized headshot as she spoke.
The town itself is considered too risky an environment for most aid groups to operate. As a result, the only regular foreign aid presence is an unlikely one: a group of American Mennonites working for a small organisation named Plain Compassion Crisis. Chad Martin, an affable former concreter in his early 20s from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who’s been working with refugees in Iraq since early 2015, leads them.
His skin, where it emerges from a work-stained T-shirt and loose stonewash jeans, is burned a uniform terracotta, and as he makes his way through the city in a battered white pickup, fighters and civilians call out the nickname “Suoro!” – meaning “red” in Kurdish” – that his complexion has earned him.
His team consists of two other men, two women and a small dog that barks furiously when visitors knock on their metal door, then runs joyfully into the road when it’s opened to seek attention from asayish members slumped on dusty arm chairs in the street.
The group cleans still viable houses then replaces blown out windows with locally cut glass and empty entrances with plastic doors. They’ve completed about 60 houses so far, and replaced glass in 170 more, Martin said. Those they’ve completed are marked with a green spray painted number in western numerals.
It’s something, but for Simo, not nearly enough. “You see those Americans and they are doing some very, very small things,” he said shaking his head. “Thank you for them, but they are doing nothing when you compare with what these organisations usually are.”
Sinjar’s residents are also suffering because of its disputed status within Iraq and strained relations between the different groups operating there. Yazidi factions want greater autonomy and PKK influence is growing, but the KRG controls access to the territory from Iraqi Kurdistan, and therefore dominates the region.
Locals, as well as aid groups, complain of goods, including food, fuel and medicine being blocked at entry checkpoints. It’s seemingly arbitrary, and not official policy, but is further hindering local reconstruction and return efforts. Some even fear it could lead to inter-Yazidi conflict as locals take sides.
Meanwhile, international efforts and attention have shifted to the battles to retake other ISIL-held territory in Iraq and Syria, including Fallujah and eventually Mosul.
Sinjaris, however, feel far from liberated and even those living within sight of their homes are resigned to staying put for some time yet. “This is our land, if we are killed here, at least we are killed on what is ours, not in Syria, not in KRG,” said Kemal, a former farmer who took up arms in 2014 to defend those stranded on the mountain against ISIL.
He’s proud of the role he played then, but feels powerless to do anything more. “Of course we can see our houses from the top of the hill, but from there is ISIL and we can’t go any further. It’s out of our hands, so what can we do,” he asks rhetorically. “We just stay, we stay and wait.”