By Suadad Al Salhy
Shieriesh Ebrahim, a 60-year-old Iraqi Yazidi woman has been spending most of her time over the past 27 months sitting in front of her small tent in Khanka Camp, 15 km west of the Iraqi border town of Duhok, praying to hear any news of her husband and her six sons who were captured by Daesh in August 2014.
“I have no option but to pray for God to bring them back safe… I don’t want anything else but to see them again,” Shieriesh tells Newsweek Middle East.
In the early morning hours of August 2, 2014, a shower of rockets rained down on Sinjar, a stronghold for Iraq’s Yazidis—a religious minority viewed by Daesh as devil worshipers.
The Peshmerga, Kurdish military fighters who were deployed in the area since 2003, abandoned their posts and withdrew without any prior warning.
Mobile phones of the residents of the Seiba Khadhar area, a host to the biggest population of Yazidis in northern Iraq, kept ringing with heralding news of Daesh killing their counterparts in nearby villages and towns.
“They (Daesh fighters) reached Al Hardan village (a few kilometers away from Sieba Khadhar); killed all [the] people there and dumped the bodies in the sewages,” Qassim Quli, a Yazidi man tells Newsweek Middle East.
A day later, Quli alongside tens of thousands of Yazidi families decided to flee the area and head to the nearby mountains, a safe haven for terrified women and children. They took advantage of the dark to mask their movement.
All the villages of Seiba Khadhar were attacked by hundreds of Daesh fighters, less than 24 hours from the Peshmerga’s withdrawal.
It is understood that Yazidi men were left behind to block the militants’ advance so their families could flee safely with enough time to reach their destination.
Shieriesh’s husband and sons were among those who were asked to stay behind and fight.
“They kept fighting for 18 hours until their ammunition ran out. We kept communicating with them via mobile phones the entire time. They told us to keep moving and moving to reach the (Iraqi-Syrian) border…one of my sons later told me that they have been captured,” Shieriesh adds.
On June 7, 2014, hundreds of masked fighters wearing black shalwar kameez (commonly worn in South Asia), and equipped with modern U.S.-made weapons, riding Japanese-made SUVs poured in from the Syrian border into Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq in terms of population.
The men were raising what later became the infamous black flag of Daesh. Tens of thousands of Iraqi security troops deserted their military barracks and fled the city, in what has become the biggest scandal in Iraq’s modern military history.
It took three days for Mosul to fall into the hands of the radical group and its supporters at the time. Other cities followed suit like domino rocks.
In Sieba Khadhar, Yazidis were following the situation with horror as they kept hearing of all the atrocities committed against the Shiite Shabak, Turkmen and Christians in surrounding areas.
But Yazidis kept thinking that they were safe as long as Sinjar was under the protection of the Kurdish government. After the dust settled on August 3, the result was that around 1,300 Yazidis, mostly men, were killed and more than 6,400 women, children and old men were captured. Nearly 360,000 others were displaced, according to the statistics issued last month by the Yazidi Affairs Department-KRG.
“Yazidis were used by the Kurdish leadership as a tool, to get the required international support,” an independent Kurdish political analyst, who declined to be named, tells Newsweek Middle East.
“The Kurdish leaders were paging to get some weapons and no one listened; now the weapons are flowing into Kurdistan from everywhere,” he adds.
Yazidis are seen by Daesh and other radical groups as polytheists who should be killed or forced to convert to Islam. Shiereish says her sons called her after they were captured to tell her that they were given 12 hours to choose between being killed or converting.
A video broadcasted in August 2014 by Daesh-linked websites showed dozens of young unarmed Yazidis forcibly reciting the Islamic declaration of faith (the Shahada) after a Daesh commander: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet.” The Shahada is a testimonial which the faithful recite after converting to Islam.
Of the 6,413 captured Yazidis, there were 2,870 males, most of them teenagers and children.
“They were taking the five to 15-year-old male children from their mothers and forcing them to attend daily religious lessons and military training,” Gholan Barakat tells Newsweek Middle East.
Barakat spent almost two years in a camp in the Daesh-held Syrian City of Raqqa as a slave alongside her 31 family members.
Among the family members, Barakat had seven grandsons who were all forced to take these lessons and trainings.
Barakat, and many of her family members, were freed six months ago after their relatives bought them from the militants.
Yazidis cooperating with international organizations and the regional government of Kurdistan have been paying tens of thousands of dollars to buy back their females from Daesh through the Syrian Kurdish brokers.
Nearly one-third, or 2,678 out of the 6,431 captured Yazidis have been freed so far.
Buying and selling the captives has become a booming trade for some Syrian Kurds over the last two years.
Iraqi-Arab society in general, and Yazidis are conservative societies that see a woman as the symbol of chastity and honor.
Thus, most of the Yazidi men have been focusing their efforts on getting back the women. Over the past two years, approximately 327 of the detained 2,870 males have been freed.
“We paid $45,000 to buy back our 22-year-old son. We sold everything we had and scrounged another amount of money to provide the required money,” says Manji Jock, a Yazidi woman.
“All sides have been focusing on buying girls to bring them back, but no one pays attention to the men or boys, and no one helped us to pay the required money,” Jock tells Newsweek Middle East. To date, she still has three nephews in captivity.
“The capturing of girls and women has a stronger effect on the international community compared with the news of men being captured,” says the Kurdish researcher.
Meanwhile, many of the displaced Yazidis have no idea about the fate of their male relatives detained by Daesh. They prefer to think that they are still alive and will return home someday.
“So many Yazidis announced their conversion to Islam to maintain their lives, so why they (husband and six sons) won’t be among them [sic]?” Shieriesh asks.
“Between me and my God, I am praying all the time to have them again,” she adds.