Kabartu Camp, Duhok – By 10am, it is already nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104F) in a displacement camp in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Fawziya Choko, 20, walks across the sprawling Kabartu Camp where she has grown up.
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The delicate, dark-haired young woman was 11 when the sound of gunfire startled her awake on August 3, 2014, in the village of Siba Sheikh Khidir.
That was the day nine years ago the genocidal campaign ISIL (ISIS) launched against the Yazidi community in the Sinjar region reached them.
Fawziya, her mother and her siblings have been displaced since.
‘Looking over our shoulders the whole time’
She remembers gripping her blanket in panic, paralysed. She, her mother and her seven siblings were taken to her uncle’s house in the nearby village of Hayale, while her father, Choko, stayed behind to defend their home with other male neighbours. They never saw him again.
Her family initially hoped he had been captured along with some 6,000 Yazidis – more than 2,700 of whom are still missing, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
But Choko was most likely killed that day, which is all it took ISIL to conquer Sinjar, following their capture of Samarra, Tikrit, and Mosul two months earlier. Estimates vary, but at least 5,000 people – mostly men and elderly people – were shot or beheaded. There are more than 80 mass graves across Sinjar, still being excavated.
Hours after arriving at her uncle’s, ISIL fighters entered the home and gave the family a two-hour ultimatum: Convert to Islam or be taken. In the chaos, and against the odds, they managed to flee to the mountains.
“There were 30 of us crammed into one car,” she says. “We couldn’t even breathe. We drove as fast as we could, looking over our shoulders the whole time.”
At one point, they abandoned the vehicle and walked. “We were tired and scared and hungry,” she says, describing seven days in the mountains that she cannot forget. “My mother forbade us from using any light at night, scared the fighters would see us.”
She was also terrified for her father. “I knew enough at such a young age already to understand that we would not see him again,” she adds, dark eyes shining.
Fawziya has not returned to Sinjar, but her older brothers did after ISIL was defeated, finding their home destroyed. “After everything our community has gone through, how can we live there again,” she asks.
‘Justice is important’
Fawziya attends the camp’s one high school, which teaches some 1,200 students in three shifts, a 20-minute walk from her tent.
At home – five small canvas tents Delal, 48, and her eight children share – Fawziya helps her mother cook and tries to keep the space clean. “The boys don’t help so much, but we watch films together and sometimes we go for picnics around the area or in Duhok.”
“It’s not comfortable here,” Fawziya says. “The [federal] government pays us $150 per month,” she adds, which just covers the family’s basic food costs. Her eldest brother Ammar, 30, works as a barber in the camp, helping support the family.
The psychological scars cut deep as children come of age to an uncertain future. “Everyone is missing family members, everyone has a story of what ISIL did, and so many people are suffering in the camp, especially those who cannot afford to pay for generators for electricity and air conditioning.”
Temperatures veer between extremes. “When it’s cold and wet, water gets inside [the tent],” she says. “But in the summer, the water system here is very bad. We get deliveries [of water] only once a week.” Fires recently burned several homes to the ground in a nearby camp.
Floral fabric hangs inside the tent, marking off sections. As the third-eldest, Fawziya is grateful to have her own space where she can study for her upcoming final exams in August.
“I’d like to study law if I can go to Australia or somewhere abroad,” she says thoughtfully. “Justice is important, I want to help my people here who are suffering.”
‘The conflict hasn’t stopped in Sinjar’
About 400,000 Yazidis fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq, and some 300,000 remain there, UNHCR says. Four months into their displacement, Fawziya’s family was able to move from Duhok to Kabartu Camp, half an hour’s drive southwest.
Some 10,000 IDPs call the rows of canvas tents home, says Farhad Ahmed, assistant director of Kabartu. Many of these IDPs, Fawziya says as the sun beats down, have left the camps over the past two years; some returning to Sinjar while “maybe 60 percent” moved to informal settlements nearby.
They work on farms, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and sunflowers in return for being able to stay on the land: private agreements with landowners that keep most in crowded, achingly hot tents that swelter in the blistering sun, but offer a sense of greater independence.
Six years after ISIL’s defeat, 80 percent of the six million Iraqis who fled between 2014 and 2017 have returned, but the one million who remain displaced include Kabartu residents who are afraid to go back.
“We are scared of the [Turkish] air raids, and we feel like we have no control,” Fawziya says. “The conflict hasn’t stopped in Sinjar; everyone is fighting for the area.”
Successive Iraqi governments have failed to rebuild Sinjar despite promises. It remains mired in complex political power play with competing mayors and actors, including Iraqi security forces, Kurdish groups, and Turkish, Iranian-backed and Yazidi militias.
“Yazidis displaced by Da’esh [ISIL] deserve dignified solutions to their plight,” Jean-Nicholas Beuze, UNHCR representative in Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
“Return … will only be possible once security and law enforcement, basic services and livelihoods opportunities will be achieved – this is what the Yazidi families tell us repeatedly, including their demand on justice: accountability for the perpetrators, compensation for the survivors and guarantee that they will not be subjected to such heinous acts in the future.”
As humanitarian funding dwindles, the federal government is pushing for returns to Sinjar, which, the IDPs say, is unsafe and impossible to settle in without financial means.
“Some camp residents feel pressure to return to Sinjar,” Fawziya says. “But we don’t want to, we are still scared.”
The Yazidi [Female] Survivors Law
Fawziya, like many in the camp, is unaware of legislation passed two years ago to give reparation to survivors of ISIL crimes, including women and girls who were subjected to sexual violence and child survivors who were abducted before the age of 18; some of whom were forced to fight.
While no official number for these children exists, an estimated 20,000 children were abducted or mistreated in some capacity. Others, born of rape and unwelcome by the community, are growing up in orphanages.
On March 1, 2021, Iraq’s parliament passed the Yazidi [Female] Survivors Law (YSL), promising reparations to Yazidi women and survivors from other ethnoreligious groups – like the Shabak, Christian and Turkmen communities – as well as financial, medical and psychological support, land, housing, education, and a 2 percent quota in public sector employment. Campaigners say there have been issues in the way the YSL has been implemented to date.
The online application process for reparations was launched only in early September 2022 and it took about six months for the General Directorate for Survivors’ Affairs to disburse the first monthly payments.
By June, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Ahmed Jasim al-Asad said1,670 requests had been submitted, approvals given to 485 women and 353 children, and that the YSL was getting 25 billion Iraqi dinars ($19m) in the new budget.
But this is a fraction of those needing support, and implementation is slow, especially with an eleventh-hour requirement that survivors file criminal complaints over what happened to them and submit investigation documents to support their YSL applications.
“Compensation, rehabilitation … memorialisation, genocide recognition … returning those who were kidnapped and criminal justice are just some of the measures … survivors, their families and communities expect Iraqi authorities to deliver,” says Wansa Shamoon, spokesperson for the Coalition for Just Reparations (C4JR), an alliance of Iraqi NGOs calling for comprehensive reparations.
According to C4JR, successful applicants receive a fixed minimum salary of 800,000 Iraqi dinars ($600).
While Fawziya likely doesn’t meet the conditions for YSL, her 25-year-old relative Hadia, who has lived with the family since escaping ISIL captivity in 2017, likely would. But Hadia is not sure she wants to apply – instead, she is hoping to be settled in Australia under a UN scheme.
“I want to leave too,” Fawziya says. “Iraq is not safe, anywhere will be better.”
She often wonders what happened to the children she used to play with in Sinjar. “Some of them were killed for sure, others may have left the country, and the rest could be in camps, like me, wondering what the future holds.”