On the 6th anniversary of the ISIS genocide of Yazidis: A personal look back

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

My first memories of ISIS crimes were in the summer of 2014 when the group first began to flood social media of images of mass murder. It was a chaotic summer because I was in Jerusalem at the time and there was a conflict beginning with Hamas in Gaza. It was only later that I understood the genocide that was unfolding. It was clear after the massacre at Camp Speicher and the expulsion of Christians from Mosul, that this group was going beyond what similarIslamic groups had done.

The genocide of Yazidis hit me hard. It was so jarring to think that the mass murder of this minority group in Iraq, and selling people into slavery, could be done out in the open, without massive and immediate international intervention. Instead Yazidis living peacefully in and around Sinjar mountain awoke in August 2014 to their villages being surrounded and overrun and those who were supposed to defend the area fleeing in the face of powerful columns of ISIS armored vehicles. How had this happened? How could people be rounded up and machine-gunned openly, on social media, without more being done to save them.

Some was done to save them, but mostly by other poor and vulnerable communities, such as Kurdish fighters from the YPG and some brave Iraqi pilots. Too little and too late the US did intervene and eventually build a large anti-ISIS Coalition. By the time the US Coalition was emerging hundreds of thousands had fled, thousands had been murdered and women and children sold into horrific slavery. ISIS openly sold slaves using modern technology and it bragged about it on social media. It took years for social media giants to close the accounts.

I can’t recall precisely when I decided it was time to go to northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region to document the war against ISIS, but it was in the spring of 2015 when I made contacts and planned the trip. Journalists were being executed by ISIS and the organization had only been barely beaten back from Kobani in Syria. It was still in Ramadi, near Baghdad, potent and powerful. 

It’s impossible to do justice to this story and this anniversary. Every year I try and every year the words don’t come. I want to write with flowing words but I can’t. The memories are vivid and the stories of families separated, mass graves, bones lying on the ground, are always there with me, but I find it difficult to communicate them. This is yet another attempt, not to tell the story anew, but as I saw it back then. 

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Yazidi kids playing at Lalish

The first time I met Yazidis was in Lalish in June 2015. They were survivors of the genocide. a few women and children huddled among the shrines. Lalish is a temple complex in the mountain. It is accessed by a road that curves up through fields marked by companies looking for oil. There is an old Saddam-era fort here, a square building with strongpoints at each corner. It was a police fort. Lalish itself is not a large place, it is more a series of temples among the trees and hills. These have traditional carvings, like a snake, and the cones on top of the buildings that mark Yazidi temples. We toured it with a Yazidi man and said hello to the children and women. I said I’d come back to document the crimes against Yazidis. Opportunity came in November 2015 when Kurdish Peshmerga fighters overran Sinjar city.

Here is what I remember. I began the story like this, from the killing fields of Sinjar. I have left this story exactly as I wrote it at Queen Alia airport in 2015. Parts of this text were later published. some parts found their way into my book.

A genocide before our eyes

In 2014 Islamic State kidnapped and killed thousands of people in an attempt exterminate the Yazidi people. I travelled to the center of the killing fields and to the refugee camps where 300,000 cannot go home to document their suffering and found parallels with the Holocaust and other genocides.

The two bullet casings are already beginning to rust.  Sheikh Nasser Pasha plucks them from the ground.  “Look, one is from an AK-47, one from an American M-4.”  The casings are strewn on the ground atop a small long mound of dirt with a few bits of white sticks on it.  It would appear unremarkable if one were walking by it.  A closer look reveals the white objects are pieces of human bone; arms, legs, and a single human skull.  Nasser plucks up the skull and points to a half circle at the base where the bullet entered. “When they had shot the Yazidi people here they covered the bodies with dirt from a bulldozer.”  That was last August.  Then the rains came, and then dogs, he says.  They dug up the human remains, the bones dried in the sun.

Here lies one of the seventeen mass graves found so far, south of Shingal mountain in Kurdistan, Iraq.  The Yazidi leaders like Nasser expect to find more than twenty more based on testimony from survivors and intelligence work by security officials.  Many of the graves lie beyond the frontlines, in areas still controlled by Islamic State.  When the order will come the Kurdish forces who have liberated these areas, along with thousands of Yazidi men and women who have joined them, will take back the Yazidi villages and unearth the full extent of the crime.

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Yazidi temple at Lalish

The Yazidi are a religious minority in Iraq whose ancient religion is indigenous to this area.  Their holy shrines, with tapered stone cones atop them, dot the landscape.  The Yazidi religion is complex and secretive.  Even though it was a holiday for them on December 18th many of those I spoke with did not want to divulge its exact details.  “We are celebrating a kind of hajj”, they said, in which people visit holy shrines.  Due to centuries of persecution by varying Islamic regimes they are reticent to go into detail. Yazidis live in a large area that stretches from the Syrian border through the Nineveh plains around Mosul to the foothills of the mountains of Kurdistan. This is a diverse countryside, with many Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs.  It is also a heartland of ancient civilizations.  At the center of the Yazidi district is a long mountain with craggy approaches called Shingal in Kurdish and Sinjar in Arabic.  Below the mountain to the south lies Shingal city, and around the city numerous Yazidi villages.  North of the mountain there are also Yazidi villages and beyond them Arab towns along the Syrian border.  Shingal town itself was inhabited mostly by Arabs and some Kurds before the war last year.  The Yazidi describe a history of persecution numbering what they describe as 73 genocides in the past.  But memories of persecution fade and people don’t expect genocide will befall them, say Yazidis I spoke with.They trusted their neighbors before last year. Now the mass killings in 2014 are being remembered as the 74th genocide to befall them.

Yazidis and Kurds in this region all look back to August 3rd 2014 as a date that changed everything.  In just one day ISIS, well-armed with thousands of hummvees captured from the Iraqi army, rolled across Kurdish checkpoints, scattering what resistance there was, and captured a huge swath of territory in northern Iraq. Then the massacres of civilian Yazidis began, and the selling of women and children.

Islamic State gained its power in Syria in 2013, growing from an obscure small extremist Sunni Islamist group, to control large swaths of territory.  In June of 2014 its forces arrived on the Iraqi border and soon its supporters in the Sunni Arab towns such as Ramadi, Tikrit, Falluja and Mosul were raising its trademark black flag. At first it was thought this would be yet another in a series of Sunni uprisings against the Shia-dominated Baghdad government of Nuri al-Maliki.  Kurds, who would eventually turn the tide against ISIS here and who see the Yazidi genocide as a crime against Kurdistan, initially thought ISIS would move on Baghdad and not threaten them.

Sectarian killings and the rise of Sunni and Shia militias, targeting each other’s religious sites, had been common in Iraq after the US invasion of 2003. Yazidis had also been targeted before by Sunni extremists, including a massive bombing in 2007 in which hundreds were killed in eastern Shingal district.  When ISIS came to Mosul in June it had ordered the non-Muslim minorities, consisting mostly of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, to convert to Islam or leave.  Christian houses were marked with an ’N’ for ‘Nusiriyah’, the Arabic term for Christians.  Tens of thousands of Christians fled to Kurdish areas such as Erbil as refugees.

In retrospect that should have been a foreshadowing of worse to come. In July ISIS carried out a massacre of Shia Iraqi army cadets they had captured at Camp Speicher.  They proudly published videos of men being machine gunned, or their throats slit and thrown in a river.  As with genocides and mass-killings in the past, such as those of Armenians, the Holocaust or Rwanda, the build-up to systematic slaughter and ethnic-cleansing comes in stages.  Now it is clear the expulsion of Christians and killing of Shia was a prelude to the attack on Yazidis.

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A mass grave where ISIS murdered Yazidis near Sinjar

It is here that I decided to tell the story of the drive into Sinjar. This journey had actually begun days earlier in Erbil and a drive down to Kirkuk where I had interviewed the police chief and gone to the frontlines in the hills overlooking the plains before Hawija. There, the Peshmerga of Hussein Yazdanpanah and Kemal Kirkuki were arrayed against ISIS. I prepared myself for Sinjar through that frontline. Then I had to get up early in the morning to take a taxi to Dohuk to meet my friend Vagar who would drive into Sinjar. It would take all day.

I tried to avoid the political issues that were percolating in the area at the time. The Peshmerga who liberated Sinjar in November 2015 were not the only liberators. The YPG and their affiliates, linked to the PKK and locally recruited Yazidi groups, had been the ones to hold on against ISIS in August 2014. There was controversy about the Peshmerga withdrawal in the early hours of August 3. There were different narratives. I was not there to sort these narratives out. My guides were friends of the Peshmerga and the forces I stayed with were Peshmerga men who were de-mining the area. 

The road to hell

The road into Shingal retraces the path of ISIS attacks in reverse.  From the Kurdistan region which is run by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), one drives northwest of the city of Duhok.  The cold, muddy landscape is sprinkled with a dusting of green grass and the road is clogged with Turkish trucks driving back and forth from Turkey.  Much of Kurdistan’s trade uses this road. It is also home to one of the largest Yazidi refugee camps housing some 20,000 people in white tents.  Soud Msto a Yazidi activist who runs one of the many Yazidi camps says there are still 400,000 Yazidi refugees in this area. “The people would like to return, but there are many factors, if there will be de-mining of the area, services and security.”

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Refugee camp on the way to the Tigris river

After crossing the Tigris river the road climbs to a small intersection overlooking an endless plain.  This was the furthest point that ISIS penetrated during its August offensive.  Today the checkpoint is manned by Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers, clad in green came with AK-47s slung over their backs.  Peshmerga is a term meaning ‘those who face death’ and was coined to describe the Kurdish fighters struggling for independence from Iraq and Iran since the 1940s. Today these peshmerga have thrown ISIS out of the areas it conquered in 2014, liberating one after another of Yazidi villages.

One of the only villages north of Shingal mountain in which some residents have returned to is Snune.  This was a sizable market town at the center of a large district.  The government had invested in the area, building new street lights adorned with gold flowers and drooping lamps at the top.  It had a stately central boulevard.  Now it is all hulks of buildings, abandoned, and mostly deserted.  Only the street lamps remain intact. Some men sell vegetables and fruits on the side of the road.  Here and there are a few women and children.

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A checkpoint manned by members of the Rojava Peshmerga near Rabiah

When I arrived in the town the men selling fruits gathered around to listen and intently describe their experience.  A shopkeeper named Adar, wearing a long black coat and with a broad smile, says he fled on the 3rd of August.  “We knew what they will do, they had killed people in Mosul. We came back a year ago on December 17th when peshmerga liberated this area.”  But many families could not return due to lack of basic services such as schools and a hospital.  “They live in Zakho, Duhok, Syria or Turkey.”  The people of Snune had warning from over the mountain in Shingal. After they fled many of them signed on to fight with the peshmerga, and some joined a communist guerrilla force run by the PKK, a Kurdish political from Turkey. “We had no training before,” says another man. They were completely unprepared.  “We lost ten people here.  It’s like a genocide, they killed thousands on the other side of the mountain in places like Kocho village.” Adar points across the street where some men are unloading a truck.  “They beheaded my uncle there.  Later when we came back we took his body to a cemetery two hours from here to be buried.”

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Destroyed houses on the way to Snune

The men are preparing for the holiday on December 18, but they argue among each other over whether one should celebrate this traditionally festive time or not.  “Some want to celebrate due to the liberation, others say we cannot,” says a man named Hussein.  “We don’t receive anything here, we don’t have a generator for electricity often and use lamps.”  The men agree they cannot speak of a future life here.  “We are surrounded by Arabs who joined ISIS, we are afraid of them.”  They say that before ISIS they didn’t have issues with their neighbors, but now they want to be part of Kurdistan, protected by the peshmerga.  But they can’t have a normal life in a military zone, with checkpoints every ten kilometers.  It’s obvious what he means, almost all those shopping at the market are men in fatigues, some Yazidi and other Kurdish Muslims, but all peshmerga.  “We are asking the international community to free the kidnapped girls and women, and recognize the genocide.  Many people fled to Europe and are dying at sea and the international community will not help them either.”

The men, whose lives have been plunged into pre-modern times, heating themselves by open fires by the side of the road and using lamps for light, say they are not leaders of the community.  “Someone is dealing with this genocide issue, intellectuals and others.”

The drive over Shingal mountain at night is interrupted only by several illuminated posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish PKK leader.  Out in the darkness are thousands of Yazidi refugees, huddled in tents, a year and a half after they fled.  There are no electric lights.  At the top of the mountain stands a model of a truck with a large double-barreled machine gun on the back. The truck and plaque next to it are new.  It commemorates the truck that fought off ISIS during their rapid advance on August 3, and the Yazidi commander Qasim Dorbu, who stood at this location. Driving down the road is like a descent into tragedy.  Burned cars, ghostly in the night, and a truck upended, line the road.  Clothes the Yazidis discarded on their terrified flight to the hills, are still here a year and a half later.  This is a present absence, a feeling that these events took place and are sill taking place, rather than part of history.  A open crime scene.

In the morning, after a night sleeping with a Kurdish peshmerga de-mining team, we travel into the abandoned city.  The de-mining team, which works with rudimentary equipment to clear ISIS booby-traps, IEDs and TNT laced in houses and tunnels, is a reminder of what the Yazidi say when they want security and cannot return.  Major Adel Sleman says he is de-mining 100 places a day, when the operation will end is unclear.

Before the war Shingal city itself was a diverse city of Arabs and Yazidis. There were Shi’ites and Sunnis here too.  Now it is entirely abandoned.  Most of it is in total ruins, houses blown up from coalition airstrikes, or by ISIS. Shops owned by Yazidi were marked ‘Yazidi’ in graffiti by ISIS and then burned.  The appointed mayor, who is Yazidi lives in a tent next to the destroyed municipality building.  It is Kurdish ‘flag day’ and Kurdish flags are everywhere.  Here and there black Shia flag flap in the wind, marking a house that is owned by a member of the Shia minority.

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Sinjar city, a Yazidi man sells items from a shop, one of the only returnees.

Across from the mayor’s office several Yazidi men have opened small shops.  They sell foodstuffs to the peshmerga and also some beer and Ouzo.  “I am from Tell Qaser, and I fled to the mountain until the city was liberated,” says 22-year old Niswan Zalud. His family lives in a large refugee camp called Kevar 2.  “I chose to stay here and come back, we sleep in the shop.”   On August 3rd he took his family from their village and passed through Shingal city.  “We never thought this will happen and they will do this crime, we didn’t have weapons to defend ourselves.”  Like others he describes the perpetrators.  “It was Arabs from our region that did these crimes.”  He says some of the residents of Shingal put up ISIS flags before August 3rd. The Iraqi army had abandoned the region and when it was clear the Kurdish peshmerga and  local Yazidi men could not defend the people, he walked 9 hours into the mountains to safety.  “My father and brothers were with me but my uncle’s daughter was kidnapped by ISIS who sold her and she is in Raqqa.”  Another of his relatives was killed by the extremists.  “766 people from my village were killed or captured by ISIS.”  Many of the women he says are in alive and kept as slaves, forcibly married to ISIS fighters or others.  “We want to return to our village but there is no interest to go back without freeing the women.  I don’t think they will all be free, some of them were sold and taken to Saudi Arabia.”

But Zalud describes how his uncle’s daughter had a child with the ISIS fighter who purchased her.  Later the fighter was killed in an airstrike by the coalition but his relative is still a prisoner.  He hopes that someone will take pity on her and help her escape.  He says that although they want revenge for the abuses “we don’t want to do to them and their women what they did, peshmerga liberated Snune and we could have done what we want, but we just want revenge against the men who did this.”   He is pessimistic that people will come back.  So many have been killed and they recall what happened here.  “Many have gone to Europe, they have no taste to live here again.”

He says that they have sought to identify the people in the mass graves that have been found, but that because dogs and animals got at the victims and the rain washed bones away, he doesn’t know if it will be possible.  “There is someone who kept a book and list of the names, but I was not involved in that.”  Zalud fought in the mountains against ISIS and he describes at one point on August that they were able to rebury the bodies of 16 people murdered in the Suleh area east of Shingal.

He is disappointed that the coalition and the Peshmerga have not liberated more areas and Yazidi villages, saying many people thought that these areas would have been re-conquered last year.  “The help from the international community was not enough, the clothes we received were old.”  Like many others he fears for security and says he wishes he had a better AK-47.  “The one’s provided us are old and barely handle thirty rounds before failing.”  Across the road someone has written in Kurdish that there will be coexistence in the future.  Zulud doesn’t think so.

Nothing can prepare one for the level of destruction in Shingal.  Everywhere the streets are strewn with rubble, housing blown inwards, walls broken in half, pieces of trucks and vehicles.  Driving into the KDP party compound that abuts a traffic circle there is a humble that was dissected by a coalition airstrike. It’s been thrown on its roof and most of it ripped apart. There is some irony in the fact that the US and its allies had to target their own vehicles which were given to the Iraqi army and then captured by ISIS.  These vehicles gave ISIS the power to overrun this district.

One of the leaders of the KDP party here and a representative of the KRG government in this region is a man known locally as Sheikh Nasser. He is a both a political representative here and a revered Yazidi man.  In the Yazidi culture there is a strict caste system between sheikhs, pirs and murids. When ISIS attacked, Sheikh Nasser was in his village north of Shingal.  “We fought to the last bullet,” he recalls.  After the peshmerga were pushed back towards the Tigress he agreed to be helicoptered to Shingal to continue to fight with his people who had stayed behind.  “The women and children suffered a lot and there was no water and it was cold and the people were starving and terrible conditions; we couldn’t even make bread; it was not edible; there were just two helicopters that came to help and take people out. Those could not come in rain or when there were clouds.”

Nasser says the Arab neighbors of Yazidi villagers tricked the people to stay. “Just raise a white flag,” they said before coming to kill them with ISIS.  He says they had a plan to massacre the Yazidi men and take the women, but that some Turkmen, an Iraqi minority group, began killing Yazidis in Tel-Afar, and people called each other on telephone to tell them the people were being massacred. Nasser recalls being on the mountain and learning that men were lined up, shot and then buried in the mass graves.

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Mass graves, the bones and clothing of victims in December 2015

Driving out to the area of the graves, there are still ISIS flags spray-painted on some walls, scrawled over, but the unmistakable black flag is there, haunting.  Seven kilometers east of Shingal the road runs strait towards Syria framed by the beautiful mountain to the north and the plains to the west.  Houses owned by Yazidis were blown up by ISIS, but those of Arabs remain on the plains, intact and empty.  We pass the large bulldozed earthworks the peshmerga set up as frontline positions when they liberated this area in November 2015.  The mass graves are near the frontline positions.  Explosions from coalition airstrikes can be heard in the distance.  We exit Nasser’s pickup truck.  He slings his Russian-made sniper rifle over his shoulder.  Over a small berm we come to a low dry stream bed.  Here are the graves, the bones bleached white, the clothing of the people poking from the dry earth.  In one mass grave they found elderly women.  In another men and on one a young boy’s purple Emirates soccer shirt.  Even the matted hair of the murdered sticks up from the soil.  “They had this Islamist idea of superiority combined with fascism like Hitler and Mussolini; they killed them for religion and also because we speak Kurdish,” Nasser says.  ISIS massacred the people and bulldozed Yazidi shrines and burned their stores.  The idea was to completely erase these people from the plains they had inhabited for centuries, much like the Nazis sought to do.  He says it was not the first time this had happened, there had been mass killings in the past, and even in recent years Yazidi men had been murdered in Mosul.

Nasser sees the genocide as leading to a mass refugee flight from the area and resulting in many moving to Europe where they will assimilate. He knows any return will be difficult. “This city feels like a cancer.  We want this to be a historical place of memory and have a new city. We don’t want the Arabs back we can’t trust them anymore.”  He thinks the government should build a wall of security around the Yazidi areas, “like Israel has.”

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The blindfolds ISIS made victims wear, before shooting them

A long drive through the ruined city brings us to another grave east of the city.  Here men were killed.  The blindfolds used are on the surface of a small pile.  Red tape has been placed around the area that measures ten feet by thirty.  Striking to the eye are two patches from an Iraqi security forces uniform.  Nasser explains that likely these men served in a local police unit.  Nasser says that they found the ID’s of some of those killed here.  “Because of the blood nothing will grow here,” he says pointing to the area around the graves.  They have not excavated this or the other 17 graves, preferring to wait for experts and international observers to do so.  So far no one has come.

The worst killing took place in Kocho, where out of 1,400 people only 400 survived.  Nasser relates a chilling story.  “First Arabs came from another village and told them not to leave, nothing will happen.  Three days later on August 6 they came and asked for the weapons in the village and told them to cover to Islam.  The people asked for time to decide.  When they said no, they told them to come to the school and that they will send them to safety in the mountain.  They separated women, children and men and in groups of 35 they shot and killed the men.  “Two men came out of this mass of bodies who had survived and they made their way to the mountain and the KRG to bare witness to this crime,” says Nasser.

The killing was not finished.  The women who they had separated were taken to a pink building near Shingal, which was once used for technological training.  ISIS took 78 elderly women away “who could not be used for sex or sold” and shot them.  The boys they had not killed they sent to be indoctrinated by ISIS’s fanatical version of Islam.

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Qasem Sheshu

The fighter: Qasem Sheshu

This part of the account is actually told in reverse. I met Sheshu on the drive in to Sinjar. We met him in the afternoon. We had food at his compound and a long talk. By the time we left it was dark and we had to make our way over that pitch-black landscape up the mountain in the car. It was foreboding.

One of the symbols of Yazidi resistance to ISIS is a man named Qasim Sheshu.  Today he commands a Yazidi peshmerga unit of 7,500, splitting his time between his soldiers closer to the front and a holy Shrine called Sharfadin that sits just north of Mount Shingal.  The Shrine itself is a small stone enclosure with a cone rising 40 feet above it.  As people prepare for holiday a young boy poses on it in fatigues.  Some elders go in for prayers.  Down a dirt road is a compound guarded by armed men.  Inside, the yard is full of military vehicles, a pickup truck with a machine gun mount on the back and a humvee.

Sheshu is a big stocky man with a thick large mustache.  His hands are rough and meaty.  He is a living reminder of several Yazidis famous in Kurdistan for fighting against various regimes in the last 100 years.  Born in 1953, he joined the KDP, today’s ruling party of the KRG, and was a frequent target of the Saddam regime for his political activities.  His tales of fighting in the mountains, being imprisoned, and the several times the regime sought to execute him, could fill a book.  In one instance he killed a well-known deputy of Saddam’s intelligence forces from Mosul.  A constant smoker of Marlboro Golds, he enjoys telling his life story.  “I was against Saddam from the 1970s and I came back  [from exile] to this region and since then I have been fighting terrorism such as al-Qaeda, and then Daesh [ISIS] and I say they are all coming from [Saddam’s] Ba’ath party.  I had returned in 2003 and I came with my family and we came back to live here.”

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Shardadin shrine

In April of 2014 he was injured in a car accident and was in hospital in Germany when ISIS appeared on the border of Shingal.  He checked himself out and, still walking with a cane, travelled back to his home town.  “On the 3rd of August at 3:30am, someone called me and said that ISIS was attacking two districts, and we were able to hit an ISIS vehicle by mortars.”  Sheshu tried to rally fighters to resist the ISIS advance .  “We had no weapons to stand against them.  They attacked us with two brigades worth of Iraqi army weapons and vehicles they had captured and weapons from Syria.  He tried to convince the Kurdish peshmerga to defend the area but the situation was hopeless and their forces were routed quickly.  “I decided not to leave the region and we would protect Shingle, if we did not fight more Yazidis would be killed.”

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A Peshmerga soldier from the de-mining unit

There were 200,000 Yazidi refugees fleeing ISIS through the Shingal mountain and Sheshu says the stiff resistance that he and a few others put up helped saved 50-60,000 lives.  Many of these Yazidi were able to flee to safety under the protection of a corridor carved out by PKK and YPG Kurdish forces to Syria and others were rescued from the mountain. But a story that is not well known is that tens of thousands of Yazidis remained on the mountain, starving and without food or water, refusing to leave the sight of their villages in the plains below.  Even as ISIS overran all of Shingal city and moved through Snune to Rabiah, an Arab town on the Syrian border, they remained on the mountain, abandoned.

“In the beginning there were only 17 of us to defend this shrine.  We had one heavy DSHK machine gun, one sniper rifle and an RPG,” recalls Sheshu.  Like the Jewish resistance fighters who fled to the swamps and forests of Belarus, Sheshu’s force slowly grew to thousands of men.  Sixteen times he recalls ISIS tried to break through their meagre defenses.  On December 3, four months after the catastrophe had begun, peshmerga forces were able to liberate the entire area of Rabiah, Snune and link up with Mount Shingal.

“We knew about the genocide,” recalls Sheshu. “It was like what Hitler did to the Jews, we couldn’t believe in this civilized world with this internet and technology that this could happen again.  They came and they killed our people and they killed kids, they killed elders, and all kinds of people.  We didn’t believe that with the eyes of the international community that they will do genocide against our most ancient religion.  They are doing that because we are not Muslim like them and our language is Kurdish.”   Sheshu places this genocide amidst the others of the past, but he notes today is even more extraordinary given the international community’s lack of action.  “There was talk in the media,” but that’s it.  He also argues the coalition airstrikes against ISIS are not designed to fully defeat it.  He says they provided coalition with information about ISIS outifitting suicide trucks with explosives and the coalition didn’t hit them.  “They don’t have eyes and ears?”

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Bones of the dead at a mass grave near Sinjar

Sheshu says the people want to return to their areas but they want security guarantees, protection and better weapons.  “Every nation has its land and we want to live and die here.”  He distinguishes the killings in 2014 from the other massacres of Yazidi, arguing one major change has been the feeling none of the Arabs in the area can be trusted.  “Only 5% didn’t support ISIS, only the Shammer tribe didn’t harm us.”  One feels the memory of the Shoah in the experience of these people, watching their own neighbors turn on them and the vast majority remain silent as they were driven from their homes, killed and women sold and raped. Sexual violence is always an element of genocide and ethnic cleansing, in the Holocaust, Rwanda and in the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Driving back over Shingal, away from the killing fields, the broken city, and the legions of armed men now guarding it, one passes the monument to the fighters and the burned out cars.  Below the summit of the mount, in the stinging cold wind, is a small caravan.  Inside a woman named Khansa Shamdin in army fatigues and a cap with a photo of KRG president Masoud Barzani gives out free medicine to Yazidis.   She is a Kurdish volunteer from Syria who was once deputy of surgery in a hospital but who fled Bashar Assad’s regime.  On the 15th of September she flew in by helicopter to help save those lives she could.  “I came here to help, day and night we supply medicine to the people, 133 one day, 152 the next,” she says.  Like others she says the international community has done little for the 16,000 people she says are living in tents throughout the mountain and who cannot go home.  “Everyone should help what they can do, and they are starving in these tends in the cold, my heart breaks for them.” Some Yazidi kids crowd around to listen.

When I first decided to go out to Shingal, I thought there would be talk of commemoration, but what is actually happening is that the true extent of this crime is only being revealed today.  According to Vian Dakhil, the 41 year old Yazidi member of Iraq’s parliament whose impassioned speech awakened the world in 2014 to the massacres, there are still 3,600 women and girls held by ISIS.  Yazidi men we spoke to say they still have contact via phone with those holding the women, and a special office of the KRG is devoted to working to free them.  In the camps and in Dohuk where survivors’ testimonies are written down, basic issues such as having women present to help with the trauma of rape victims is lacking.  One of those we spoke to who provides medical service notes that only in the most quiet way can she help the women who return who are pregnant to have an abortion.

Genocide involves sexual violence as well, and the mass rape of these women, was part of the attempt to exterminate them.  “I want recognition as a genocide.  ISIS killed the men and kidnapped the women and killed the girls and boys, and separate the kids from families from mothers and do all bad things. I think is similar to the Holocaust, it is the same.  In Holocaust because those people were Jewish, it was just because they were Yazidi and it due to religion,” says Dakhil in a phone call from Baghdad.  She hasn’t been back to Shingal, since the liberation, it is still too traumatic a place.

Soud Msto, the lawyer who helps run one of the refugee camps says he he is working towards a future commemoration. “I hope it will be commemorated but most of the mass graves have not been liberated.  It was a genocide, a million percent it was, according to human rights law it was also. I am a lawyer and we are working with the office and court here and with the KRG to get it recognized as a genocide…we and Jews are cousins, so yes it is like the Holocaust, and there are many similarities, they killed people.”

 

For the full account of my experiences during the war on ISIS read my book ‘After ISIS.’

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