Youssef Boudlal / Reuters / Landov

Yazidis languish on Sinjar mountaintop ‘with almost no help’

As winter approaches, religious minority in Iraq’s Kurdistan region confronts increasing danger under siege

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the humanitarian crisis the Yazidis of northern Iraq are facing.

LALISH, Iraqi Kurdistan — On the morning after Kurdistan’s first winter rainstorm, the stone floors of this sacred town were still wet and cold. “Take off your shoes,” ordered Luqman Mahmud, a Yazidi working at the group’s sacred pilgrimage site. The gutters had overflowed with rain, flooding a temple area crowded with tarps and makeshift shelters. Barefoot women washed dishes and dirty clothes, as children played around them, splashing grayish water onto streaks of mud atop holy ground.

A woman’s howl echoed from the entryway. Deep inside the temple, 60-year-old Laleh Murad was bent over, heaving with sobs. “My son …” she cried, touching both hands to her heart, her stomach, then wringing them in the air. Her niece finished the sentence for her: “… was killed there and her daughter captured. [They are] my cousins. We are from Sinjar.” Murad rocked back and forth, beating her chest. Mahmud stepped forward, taking her hand. The family stood silently around her.

An ancient religious minority concentrated in northern Iraq, the Yazidis drew international attention in August when  Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters trapped them on Mount Sinjar, threatening to massacre thousands of people because of their beliefs. More than 200,000 Yazidis fled their villages, walking through the mountains without food or water, watching the weakest die. After more than a week, U.S. airstrikes repelled ISIL, allowing Kurdish forces to evacuate the Yazidis through a Kurdish-controlled part of Syria to Iraq’s Kurdistan region — and signaling the beginning of direct U.S. military action against ISIL positions. The U.N. has described the ISIL assault as attempted genocide.

Now Iraq’s evacuated Yazidis are an internally displaced people, filling the streets, schools, churches and unfinished buildings of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan. Half a million displaced Yazidis are in the Dohuk governorate with insufficient food, water and winter supplies. The temple of Lalish used to host just one family, Mahmud said, the temple guardians who oversee maintenance, welcome visitors and light 365 candles every night. Now some 500 families are living in tents around the temple, praying for protection against the dropping temperatures, for their women and children under ISIL enslavement and for the Yazidis fighting on the front line just 13 miles away.

That front line is on Sinjar. Less than three months after the initial airstrikes, the mountain is back under siege. Some 3,000 civilians remain trapped on Sinjar, those who either were unable or unwilling to leave. They are living in abandoned houses and camps spread across 40 miles of mountain territory, with no open road to safety.

Consoled by Luqman Mahmud and her niece, Laleh Murad cries after her son was killed and daughter enslaved.
Alice Su

ISIL fighters renewed attacks on Sinjar on Monday, taking two Yazidi villages and advancing on the mountain under the cover of stormy weather that prevented airstrikes. They drove the Sinjar Protection Force, a mix of about 2,000 peshmerga, PKK and YPK forces, in addition to Yazidi volunteers, up the mountain in retreat.

Peshmerga reinforcements arrived on Wednesday morning with some weapons and troops, according to Yazidi fighters on the mountain. But the roads remain controlled by ISIL, with Kurdish soldiers and civilians in dire need of military and humanitarian assistance.

“The people have stayed on this mountain for two months with almost no help,” said Saad Babir, a volunteer doctor who flew in via helicopter from Dohuk. His medical team — two doctors and one nurse — are in Sinjar for 10 days, trying to treat the civilians’ illnesses and fighters’ injuries. “We have about 400 young children without any milk,” he told Al Jazeera. “There are no shoes. There are no clothes. Every day we have at least a hundred people suffering from many diseases — hypertension, diabetes, diarrhea, injuries and cold.”

Sheikh Jindo, a Yazidi serving in the Sinjar Protection Force, said that until Wednesday, the forces had not received military aid for 20 days. “We need weapons,” he said. “There are airstrikes, but they are weak and slow. They are not stopping the advances.”

The situation is desperate, Jindo said. “We need help, any kind of help, humanitarian or military or international. The families are living in camps flooded with water, and ISIS is coming. They cannot leave the mountain without protection.”

“I don’t care if I die or not. But we must save the families,” Babir said. “The women and children are very, very afraid.”

The aid helicopters that arrived on Wednesday morning could take only 20 people, he said. They carried four injured fighters and 16 escaped women to Dohuk. The women were just a few of the thousands of Yazidi females who have been enslaved and sold after being captured, according to personal accounts, human rights groups’ reports and ISIL’s own boasting. The women still trapped on Sinjar risk the same fate.

‘The people have stayed in this mountain for two months with almost no help. We have about 400 young children without any milk. There are no shoes. There are no clothes.’

Saad Babir

a doctor at Mount Sinjar

While ISIL has committed brutal human rights violations against religious minorities and civilians across the region, Yazidis have suffered particular targeting for their beliefs. ISIL is only the latest in centuries of persecutors that have tried to exterminate Yazidis for being “devil worshippers,” Mahmud said. “There are 73 massacres in our history,” he said, pointing out a temple plaque with an inscription about resilience. Muslims have always persecuted Yazidis, he said. “The problem is not with Yazidi philosophy.”

Asmat Tahseen Sayid, the son of the Yazidi community’s 91-year-old prince, explained his religion’s key beliefs. There is no heaven or hell in Yazidism, he said, but reincarnation based on moral performance. “Men are reincarnated in better form if they were pure — if they respected God, Malak Taus and the other angels,” Sayid said.

Yazidis believe in seven angels, one for each color of the rainbow. When God created the angels, Sayid said, he told them, “Worship no one but me.” Forty thousand years later, God created Adam and commanded the angels to worship him. Six angels complied, the Yazidis believe, but one didn’t: Malak Taus, the peacock angel, the most beautiful of them all. Muslims have another name for him, Sayid said: Shaytan — Satan, the devil.

This story drives both Yazidi faith and conflict with Muslims, Sayid said. “We believe God’s word was fulfilled the first time he said it. Islam believes there was more later on,” he said. Yazidis do not venerate the Prophet Muhammad. “Our fathers told us that Islam has always attacked us for hundreds of years,” Sayid said. “ISIL is threatening the whole region, but they hate us especially. This is not something new.”

Refugees from Sinjar in the Khanke camp outside Dohuk. Yazidis are asking for stronger military action against ISIL to prevent further catastrophe.
Alice Su

But the Yazidi-Muslim clash is only one way of seeing the conflict. In Atrush, a military base several miles from Lalish where peshmerga are training Yazidi volunteers, soldiers debated if the problem was ethnic, religious or political. Sinjar is a Kurdish battle, not a Yazidi one, the base commander said.

“This is our land,” the commander said vehemently. “All our people are Kurds. Don’t say Yazidis, Christians, Shia, Sunni — if they’re here, they are Kurds.” Kurdistan is democratic because it sees religion as secondary to Kurdish nationality, he added, not a marker of sectarian divide. “All religions here are Kurds. All Kurds are peshmerga. All peshmerga are Kurds. The YPK [People's Protection Units] and PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] are all peshmerga too. We fight together and include everyone. That’s democracy.” The commander’s one exception was Arabs. “No. They are not Kurds.”

One soldier at the base disagreed. The issue is not that Yazidis can’t live with Muslims or that Arabs can’t live with Kurds, he said, but that Kurdistan cannot live with Iraq. “We tell Baghdad that we are brothers. They say, ‘No, you are Kurds,’” he said. Yazidi suffering is part of a greater Kurdish struggle for independence, he said, one that will end only when Kurdistan is its own state. “The problem is that we are Kurds but the international community insists we are Iraqis. We’re not.”

Ibrahim Rasho, 60, a displaced Yazidi from Sinjar now living in Atrush, interrupted the peshmerga fighter. Kurds have faced at least five genocidal attacks in his lifetime, he said, counting through a list of Baathist campaigns. “Enough talk,” he said. “Just send us weapons so we can save Sinjar. Give me a gun, and I will go right now.” Winter is coming, he said, and his family is living in a house without windows or doors. With ISIL closing in, he begged for decisive action again as Sinjar is surrounded. “Enough! Tell the world to help. Just let us be human. That’s enough.”

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