Grief prevails despite victory as Yazidis mourn loved ones
With a pistol hanging from his belt, Dilkash Murad walks into his own house on the eastern side of Sinjar, an Iraqi town that was occupied by the terrorist group Daesh last year.
The ceiling is covered in smoke caused by repetitive battle fires and the furniture is gone, all stolen except for a few kitchen utensils scattered across the floor. Even some of the doors are gone.
“You see what has happened to my house,” says 27-year-old Murad, an Iraqi citizen of the Yazidi minority. “Nothing worth a [dime] is left,” he adds. Murad returned to Sinjar from Zakho, a town near the border with Turkey to inspect his house. This is the first time he is back in his hometown in over a year.
Sinjar was wrestled back from Daesh in November in an operation led by Kurdish militants known as the Peshmerga. Much of the town is now destroyed due to heavy fighting. Angered and disappointed, Murad lights a cigarette and drives across town to visit friends in Nasr neighborhood. But once he arrived there, he was shocked.
His friends had packed a pickup truck with furniture looted from a house they claimed belonged to a local Arab imam affiliated with Daesh. The truck contained, among other things, a fridge, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and carpets. The two men, who did not want to be identified, said they had taken furniture from other homes too.
“How can you take someone else’s stuff,” Murad asks.
“Well, who took ours?” retorts one of his friends as he fastened a thick rope around the truck to secure the furniture in place.
Like other Yazidis, Murad is angered by Daesh and its local supporters for the tragedy they brought upon the religious minority, since Aug. 2014, the day the terrorist group took over Sinjar.
One of Murad’s sisters was held captive by Daesh for months before she was rescued by an underground network. She is now in Germany for therapy along with tens of other Yazidi women who were abducted by the militant group. Still, Murad manages to maintain his cool in such a chaotic climate.
“I don’t loot,” Murad says confidently. “If they did something bad, I won’t do the same. I don’t want to take anybody’s stuff.”
Operation “Malak Tauss Anger”
In Sinjar, Hassan Salih, 45, and his friend Darwish chanting “hola hol Tauss Malak,” can be heard from a distance. The men were rejoicing the victory on the day Daesh was expelled from the town. The chant is a tribute to the chief guardian angel in Yazidi religion known as “Tauss Malak” or “Peacock Angel.”
“This is our feast,” explains Salih whose red turban, piercing blue eyes and trimmed mustache gave him a distinct sense of style amid the rubble and muddy roads around him. “Right now, I can’t be happier.”
Salih is a member of one of the 13 Yazidi units fighting with Kurdistan’s Peshmerga.
Yazidis follow a faith believed to be older than Islam and Christianity. Practiced mostly in upper Mesopotamia and as far as Caucasus, Yazidi is a monotheistic religion that shares elements with Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Daesh considers the minority to be “devil-worshippers.”
Befitting the sense of rage Yazidis feel toward Daesh, the operation to take Sinjar back from the extremist group was codenamed “Malak Tauss Anger.”
The offensive was launched on Nov. 12, after weeks of anticipation, as the Peshmerga charged toward Sinjar. As many as 7,500 Peshmerga troops, including Yazidi fighters incorporated into their ranks in recent months, took part in the operation, according to Kurdish officials.
Within a day and a half, Daesh’s pockets of resistance in and around Sinjar collapsed and the town fell to Kurdish and Yazidi fighters. The United States-led coalition played a pivotal role in forcing Daesh out through their relentless airstrikes that started before the offensive.
Speakig passionately about the offensive, Salih says his fellow Yazidi fighters and himself were motivated by a sense of duty. Salih’s uncle and 18 other relatives remain missing since Daesh’s attack in August.
“Our unit entered Sinjar at around 9 a.m. [on Nov. 13] and we came to die or to triumph,” he says. “There was some fighting but far less than we expected.”
In a central square in Sinjar, Ronahi, a 25 year-old Yazidi fighter, sips tea with fellow fighters. Her sun-burned face and cracked skin testify to the harsh times she has been through fighting for Sinjar.
She is proud to have been part of the battle to retake Sinjar. As sun rays appeared over the horizon on Nov. 12, her Malak Tauss Unit moved out of their forward base at the northern entrance of Sinjar.
“We fought and killed some of them [Daesh],” she says with a shy smile. “Frankly, we were expecting a tough resistance… We thought blood would flow in the streets, but they [Daesh] didn’t fight much.”
For many Yazidis taking part in the fight, it was a matter of honor and pride. Ronahi says several of her female friends went missing after Daesh took over last year.
“I joined the fight to liberate our sacred land and avenge our loved ones,” she says.
Kurdish rivalries complicate the scene
As happy as the fighters might be because of the swift and decisive victory, rivalries among disparate forces in Sinjar have resulted in a tumultuous atmosphere. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), whose Peshmerga forces were the major driver of the operation, has been locked in a struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) over who would control Sinjar and influence the Yazidi community.
Given that the Peshmerga forces in the area abandoned their positions during Daesh’s onslaught last year, some in the Yazidi community have developed a resentment toward the KDP. The KDP is led by Massoud Barzani, who has been serving as president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region for the past decade, but whose tenure is now being challenged by other major Kurdish forces.
Each side is trying to assert itself as the dominant force on the ground but the Peshmerga’s superiority in terms of numbers and weapons might grant them the major role.
Justice in waiting
Around 150 kilometers north of Sinjar, far from the battlefield, four women in a camp for displaced Yazidis in Khanke, in northern Iraq, recall what seems like a past life in their village of Solakh in eastern Sinjar.
They share pain inflicted upon them by Daesh. Between the four, 22 family members have gone missing. Their wait for the return of their loved ones is essentially a hope for miracles.
Solakh was cleared of Daesh in the recent offensive but for those women, who spent eight months in Daesh’s captivity, nothing has changed.
Hazara Khalaf’s husband and son were taken by Daesh fighters on a hot summer day when the group desecrated the tranquility of their village.
“Our hearts are burning,” says Khalaf, 40, as her eyes well up and her voice begins to shake. “No words can capture our grief. May God prevent this misery from happening to others.”
Solakh residents were freighted when they saw Daesh’s black banners on the vehicles approaching their village on Aug. 3, 2014.
As soon as the dust settled and gunmen jumped out of the vehicles, the terrified villagers recognized some of the invading men as residents from nearby villages.
There was a sense of shock but also hope that the presence of those neighbors might mean nothing bad will happen.
Ore Khudeda, Hazara’s mother, went towards a man she believed to be their leader.
“I knelt and grabbed his feet,” the 70-year-old woman recalled with a deep sigh. “I said ‘we will give you whatever you want. Take our houses, cattle, cars, money… whatever you want. But please do not make our children orphans’.”
“Don’t worry,” Daesh’s commander assured her.
In no time, however, Khudeda and other fellow villagers started screaming and crying.
The fighters organized women and children into one group separating them from the men. Each group was herded into separate buses.
Khudeda and other women and children were taken to Talafar, a town halfway between Sinjar and the city of Mosul, Daesh’s major stronghold in Iraq. They never saw or heard from the men again.
Being moved from one place to another every once in a while, the four women and some of their family members ended up in a village working as servants on farms belonging to Daesh members.
After eight months in captivity, one clear April night with the help of a smuggler, the four women escaped along with a group of 32 others. The journey by foot took three days across the vast and historic plains of western Nineveh. At night, the horrified Yazidis would walk and during daytime would hide amid tall wheat and barley fields. The children were fed sleeping pills so they wouldn’t make noise or attract unwanted attention. On the third night, they reached Kurdish Peshmerga positions near Sinune, a small town by the western foot of Mount Sinjar, the only sanctuary for the Yazidis during Daesh assaults.
“It was like we were born again,” says Hadya whose facial wrinkles betray the fact that she is only 28 years old. She gave birth to a baby eight months after she was captured by Daesh. Her husband, Hassan, never saw his son. His fate is unknown till today.
“I don’t want my home back. I don’t want my possessions. All I want is my husband and loved ones,” she says as her tearful eyes stare at a photo from her wedding in an album on her lap. There, in the photo, she gleams with happiness as her husband places on her wedding ring.
“I have hope that God will bring them back. Nothing is impossible for God,” she says.
The sense of despair and suffering is pervasive in the little tent complex where these women live. They might be out of Daesh’s hands and their village freed at the long last, but the scars they bear are deep. Several other women here have been taken to the city of Sulaimaniya, in the southeastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, for therapy.
The women here are reluctant to speak about the details of their ordeal under Daesh.
“Ah, let them bury us all here. What do we have to go back to,” says Zarif Ido, 55, as her melancholic voice gradually fades.
Her daughter and three of her children are still in Daesh’s hands.
“This is all decided by God. This is our fate. Nothing happens without God’s will,” Ido adds.
“We became prisoners twice: once with Daesh and now here alone and away from our loved ones,” she says.
“Isn’t it strange that we’re still alive?” interjects Khudeda as she stares at the floor of the tent. “Isn’t it strange that we can still breathe?”
The tent falls into silence.
Back in Sinjar, proof of Daesh’s atrocities are unfolding. On the southern side of the town, by a former technical school, a mass grave was discovered. Local sources estimate as many as 70 Yazidis were buried there.
A few bare bones, strands of long hair and a female sandal attest that the victims might be either totally or mostly women, local authorities believe.
“These are some of our mothers and sisters interned into the earth here,” says Ghazi Barakat, a Yazidi returnee from Europe who has volunteered with the Peshmerga. He then stoically adds: “My heart is burning as I see these scenes. They’ve left us forever.”
Locals show up occasionally at the site to personally witness the remnants of the atrocity. Some wipe their tears. Others look fixated and motionless. And some walk around the big hole where the bodies are covered and kneel down to stare at the unearthed bones.
Then out of nowhere comes the whistle of a Daesh-fired mortar rocket disrupting the solemn mood and sending those around to take cover for their lives. Everyone falls to the ground at the spot they are. And the suffocated sound of the explosion is heard perhaps less than a kilometer away. Some smirk, some look angry and a couple mumble curses. Soon, most leave and drive back into the town where they will be safe from the reach of the terrorists’ rockets.
“We want our land back, neighbors out”
From Mount Sinjar, Haji Haso, 65, gazes at his town of Siba Sheikh Khidir in the faraway distance.
Despite two massive offensives by Kurdish and Yazidi forces since late last year, Haso says around a dozen other Yazidi towns and villages are still under Daesh’s control.
Haso was part of a group of Yazidi men who put up an ad-hoc resistance in the face of invading Daesh militants hoping to buy time for the civilians to flee. Many did in fact manage to escape to nearby Mount Sinjar but not everyone was as fortunate on that blistering summer day.
Haso says around 400 people from his town, including many friends and neighbors with their families fell victims to Daesh. Their fate remains unknown.
Many Yazidis are furious with their Muslim neighbors, especially local Sunni Arab tribesmen who joined the terrorist assailants.
“How can you trust someone who takes your women, home and everything,” asks Haso with an angry voice coarsened by years of heavy smoking. “If someone does that to you, will you consider them friends or enemies?”
Daesh’s brutality has deeply hurt the Yazidis’ sense of dignity and pride. If the group meant to pit neighbor against neighbor here in Sinjar region, it succeeded.
Over the past year, some Yazidi fighters have opted for crude justice, attacking some Arab villages in Sinjar region, killing residents and burning the homes of those they say collaborated with Daesh.
“It’s about honor,” says Haso as he points in the direction of his town. “That was all ours… We want our land back and those who destroyed our lives must leave. All of them.”
He then pauses for a moment as he lights a cigarette.
“There were good people and bad people among them,” he says, referring to his past Muslim neighbors.
Some moments later, Haso throws down his cigarette and as he steps on it, he tells his nephew to drive back to Sinune at the other side of Mount Sinjar. He starts the engine and their old red pickup truck snakes through the spiraling road up the mountain.
Sinjar still uninhabitable
Qassim Shamo, 38, is standing in front of a relative’s house with a number of other fellow fighters. Like many Yazidis here, he took up arms and joined the fight against Daesh.
The town he has returned to is largely in ruins. The streets are covered in rubble. Cables from electric posts and wires used by Daesh to plant mines, are still intact in some areas.
The man contemplates the idea of bringing back his family of seven, currently in one of the numerous camps for displaced Yazidis in Kurdistan, to Sinjar and reopen his small shop.
“I’d love to return here again,” says Shamo, who lost 29 people from his extended family following Daesh’s attacks. “But how can they live here now?”
Daesh’s rockets still reach the southern perimeters of Sinjar. Having experienced the terrorist group’s brutality, Yazidis are not prepared to take the risk of moving back yet.
Add to that the fact that there are no public services, the city is uninhabitable. Apart from fighters and civilians returning to check on their property, or in some cases looting, there are no signs of life.
The militants are believed to have booby-trapped many houses here, another reason why many are afraid to go back to their homes.
Without a push southward toward the town of Baaj and securing the rest of Yazidi areas still under Daesh control, Sinjar will not see its residents return.
Daesh has proven a formidable enemy. In some cases, a number of its militants managed to hide in different locations in Sinjar either to carry out ambushes or because they did not have an opportunity to flee.
In Domiz village, south of Sinjar, a Daesh fighter was discovered on Nov. 14, almost 24 hours after the Peshmerga troops had entered the place.
He was hiding in a house as a group of Peshmerga were clearing the area in a house-to-house search. While the Peshmerga fighters were having lunch on one sunny day, one person shouted “there is a Daesh guy over there.” Many Peshmerga picked up their guns and rushed toward the house. In the ensuing back and forth between him and the few Peshmerga fighters inside, the terrorist was hit by a hand grenade while hiding under the staircase. At one point, the Peshmerga left the house as one of them shouted “he’s a suicide bomber.” Then they went in again. A short while later, the severely injured Daesh militant was carried away by four Peshmerga fighters amid cheering from the rest. A few moments later, he died.
Back inside Sinjar, Shamo and his fellow fighters hold up their fingers as a victory sign for passing-by vehicles carrying different groups of fighters. A sense of jubilation is in the air for now, but so is a deep concern about what might unfold in the future.
“We have outlived 74 genocide campaigns,” says Shamo repeating a commonly-held belief among Yazidis. “Now, we have to learn that to survive on this land, we will have to keep our guns on us from now on.”
The sun fades out in the horizon amid a haze of dust and smoke as Shamo and his friends stand guard.