In the Field With Yazidi Fighters, Tales of Genocide at ISIS’s Hands and More Conflict to Come
SINJAR, IRAQ—On a Sunday afternoon in mid-August under the baking Iraqi sun, 980 Yazidi soldiers marched in formation at a military camp south of Sinjar mountain. Graduation music blared from loudspeakers as several dozen seated Yazidi elders applauded. After a month of training, the Yazidi soldiers were now official members of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), bringing the total number of Yazidis in the PMF to 1,350.
Just a few kilometers behind the graduation procession was Sinjar mountain. Three years ago many of these Yazidi PMF recruits escaped to the mountain as ISIS overran their towns. These were the darkest days for the Yazidi people.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 3, 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, launched a pre-planned and systematic campaign of forced conversion, massacres and sexual enslavement against the Yazidi community of Sinjar, which the UN has described as an ongoing genocide. Yazidis practice a pre-Islamic monotheistic religion that ISIS equates with devil worship. Under ISIS doctrine, Yazidi men must be killed and their women kidnapped into sexual slavery and forcibly converted.
The onslaught sent tens of thousands of Yazidis fleeing to the mountain, where they were trapped for days. The recruits recalled in detail the hunger and thirst they experienced while trapped there. The dusty mountainous terrain was their refuge, but for some of their family members it became a tomb. Nonetheless, the rugged mountains saved the Yazidi people in their darkest hour.
The atrocities carried out against the Yazidis by ISIS received enormous international media coverage at the time, but for some reason, the cameras turned away when the PMF units liberated some 40 percent of Sinjar from ISIS earlier this year. Launched in the beginning of May, the PMF offensive was swift and devastatingly effective. By June, the PMF managed to expel ISIS from all of south Sinjar.
Yazidi men flocked to the PMF during and after the liberation. Hundreds of them defected from Kurdish-run outfits like the Peshmerga and PKK. Many of the new graduates participated in the recent operation to expel ISIS from Tal Afar, where hundreds of Yazidi women had been taken to be sold into slavery. But the battle is far from over.
With ISIS cornered and its territory shrinking, a new conflict is emerging, with the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad jockeying for control over Sinjar. The KRG wants Sinjar as part of a Kurdish state and Baghdad wants it for security purposes. Given its proximity to the Iraqi border with Syria, Sinjar is seen as crucial to safeguarding the border from ISIS or any future Sunni insurgency that might replace it.
Joining the PMF is a huge risk for Yazidis. KRG intelligence, called Asayish, has responded to the formation of the Yazidi PMF by kicking out the displaced families of Yazidi men who join, raising the question: why are so many Yazidis willing to risk being kicked out of Kurdistan to join the PMF?
I spent a week with the Yazidi PMF in newly liberated south Sinjar in August. I learned that many Yazidis joined the PMF because they are desperate to protect and hold their towns and rescue members of their families who were taken captive by ISIS. As a result they’re eager to work with whatever group is willing to help them. They also want to gain local control over administering their areas and they see an alliance with the central government in Baghdad as offering the best chance for that. There is also the fact that Yazidis loathe the Peshmerga, blaming them for a betrayal of historic proportions. When ISIS attacked the Yazidis in 2014, the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia retreated from Sinjar, leaving the Yazidis defenseless against the militants. Three years later, they’re fed up with what they describe as extreme repression at the hands of the KRG.
Ghost towns and crime scenes
In 1975, when Saddam Hussein initiated his campaign of arabization, Yazidi villages on Sinjar mountain were destroyed by the government and rebuilt in the plains north and south of the mountain in what are called collective towns. Many of the collective towns have a Yazidi name (Yazidis speak a dialect of Kurdish) and an Arabic name that the Ba’athist government imposed.
I was guided through each of the collective towns in south Sinjar by Yazidi locals who walked me through what happened when ISIS invaded. Each neighborhood felt like a massive crime scene in desperate need of examination by forensic units. In Tal Ezeir (the Arabic name is Qahtaniyah), I saw ISIS prisons for Yazidi women and girls where women’s clothing—bras, underwear, colorful dresses and piles of shoes—littered the floor. In Gir Zerek (Arabic name is Adnaniyah) I saw the trenches where heroic Yazidi men held off ISIS for several hours until they ran out of ammunition, buying time for countless families to flee. In the town of Kojo, the site of the largest known ISIS massacre of Yazidis, I saw mass graves believed to hold the corpses of an estimated 400 Yazidi men and boys who were killed by ISIS on August 15 before the women and children were hauled off to prisons in Tal Afar. Everywhere I went, I found stacks of photocopied Yazidi identification cards in former ISIS headquarters.
There isn’t much for Yazidis to return to in south Sinjar. ISIS fighters left one human wasteland after another in their wake. Many of the houses, especially the Yazidi homes, are in ruins. Those that remain intact have been stripped to the bone—even the doors and windows are missing. These towns were extremely underdeveloped from the start. They’re connected by unpaved roads. In some cases there are no roads at all, so getting from one town to another requires a bumpy ride in a 4×4 that can cruise through desert sand.
The towns have yet to be cleared of explosives and there are still ISIS tunnels that need to be sealed. At the Yazidi PMF headquarters in Tal Qasab, I met two young men from Basra, a city in southern Iraq. They were sent over by the Iraqi government for a couple days to train Yazidi PMF recruits in how to neutralize booby traps, IEDs and unexploded ordnance. One of the men was missing his left index finger. He cracked a joke about it: “At least it was a finger and not a leg…or something even more irreplaceable,” he said, pointing between his legs.
The upside is the PMF has handed over control of the towns to local Yazidi PMF. Yazidis from the area man the checkpoints and provide security in their former neighborhoods using equipment and training provided by the PMF.
That said, south Sinjar is not fit for civilian return. There are no services, schools or hospitals, just Yazidi PMF. Unfortunately, some families have no choice but to move back in.
Punishing genocide survivors
Marwan Kamala El Sheikh, a Yazidi PMF soldier, got a call from his family in Dohuk two days before my visit. His family was told by the Asayish that they have one week to gather their things and leave Dohuk or they will be forcibly removed from the area and their belongings dumped in the street. This was retribution for Marwan joining the PMF.
Marwan is from Gir Zerek, a mixed Kurdish Sunni and Yazidi town in south Sinjar. ISIS bulldozed, bombed and burned down most of the Yazidi homes here, including his. He was scrambling to find a place for his family to sleep upon their return. Standing in front of his almost entirely destroyed home, he huffed, “The Peshmerga is ISIS.”
Marwan Kamala El Sheikh stands outside of his ruined home in Gir Zerek wondering where his family will live after the KRG force them out of Dohuk becuase he joined the PMF.
“What Kurdistan is doing is a disaster and it’s against international law,” said Yazidi PMF leader Murad Sheikh Kaloo at his office in Baghdad. “It’s not a crime to join the PMF. I contacted those responsible for human rights in the US embassy in Baghdad and the U.N. and international organizations and they have done nothing to help us.”
Before ISIS overran Sinjar, Murad was a businessman who ran a trade company out of Baghdad and Mosul. As events unfolded in August 2014, Murad became a consultant for the PMF, trying to rally support for Yazidis trapped in Sinjar. Today he oversees the entire Yazidi PMF. As a result of his involvement in the PMF, his daughter, who was attending the American university in Erbil, was kicked out.
“As the Yazidi community, we have not received enough help, not from the Iraqi government or the international community,” said Murad. “The only person standing with us is Hajj Mahdi. On Aug. 6, 2014, he was the one who coordinated with the PKK and the Yazidis to open the border so they could evacuate out of Sinjar. He personally saved over 300,000 Yazidis trapped on that mountain. The Americans and the governments around the world didn’t do anything, they just watched the massacres happen. Our gratitude goes to the PMF and Abu Mahdi [Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraqi military commander of the PMF]. and [Iraq’s leading Shia cleric] Seyid Sistani.”
Western- and Gulf-funded media often depict the PMF as a collection of ultra-sectarian Shiite militias that answer to Iran. Yazidi soldiers laughed around the lunch table when I asked them their thoughts on this description of the PMF. One of them pointed to a carton of yogurt that said “Made in Iran,” and joked, “The Americans are right! We are Iranian-backed!” This elicited more laughter. Another pulled out a box of juice that said, “Made in Turkey.” More hearty laughter echoed through the room.
While the 110,000-strong PMF is indeed majority Shia, as is the population of Iraq, Iran does not control it. On the contrary, the PMF is a state-approved coalition of paramilitaries that more closely resemble a national army than militias. Late last year, the PMF was integrated into the Iraqi military structure by the Iraqi parliament and now falls under the authority of the Iraqi prime minister. The PMF serves Iraqi security interests which happen to align with Iran in the fight against ISIS.
“The PMF was actually created because of the ISIS invasion of Iraq,” points out Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English literature and Oriental studies at the University of Tehran. “It wasn’t as if the Iranians initiated a program in the country with some sinister motive. If it wasn’t for ISIS Iran would’ve never thought of being involved in Iraq in such a way,” he said.
“When I was in Mosul I went to areas completely controlled by Sunni PMF. There are areas controlled by Yazidi PMF and Christian PMF. Iranians helped organize and train people in order to save the country. Without the PMF, Iraq would’ve fallen to ISIS. The Iraqi army, thanks to the Americans, was not in a position to defend the country,” he added.
The PMF is indeed multi-ethnic and transcends sectarian lines, counting some 30,000 Sunnis, 3,000 Turkmen, 2,000 Shabak, 1,000 Christians and now 1,350 Yazidis in its ranks. As the country’s most effective fighting force against ISIS, the PMF, whether intentionally or not, has come to be seen as a protector of Iraq’s minorities, which explains why so many members of minority groups, like the Yazidis, have joined it.
It was, after all, the PMF’s success in routing ISIS from south Sinjar that prompted several hundred Yazidis to enlist. Some came from as far as Germany, like 25-year-old Khudr Walateh, who is from northern Sinjar. He and his family, now scattered between Germany and IDP camps in Dohuk, escaped to the mountain when ISIS attacked. They suffered for days from thirst and starvation in the extreme summer heat. “First, we are defending our country in the name of Iraq,” said Khudr when asked why he left the comforts of Germany for a war zone. “Second, we as minorities need to defend our land and our people, and the PMF is the only one helping us do that.”
Growing Yazidi preference for the PMF is also a result of built-up resentment toward the KRG, due in large part to the extreme repression Yazidis have experienced at the hands of the Kurdish Democratic Party.
Kurdish repression of Yazidis
There are two main political parties in the KRG: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which is associated with Sulaymaniyah and led by the Talabani family, and the larger and more powerful Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which is associated with the Barzani family and based in Erbil.
After the removal of Saddam Hussein, the KRG wooed Yazidis into its fold through a system of patronage that benefits Yazidi leaders who show loyalty to the Kurdish project. They punished detractors with intimidation, arbitrary arrests and even torture.
Nonetheless, prior to August 2014, most Yazidis were loyal to the KRG and saw themselves as part of the Kurdish project. That all changed after the genocide.
Since 2014, KRG repression against the Yazidi community has intensified. Today, Yazidis detest the KDP for the way it has treated them. Most Yazidis displaced from Sinjar live in camps for the internally displaced in Dohuk, a KDP stronghold. They are at the mercy of the KDP, which conditions aid and good treatment on loyalty to the party, according to Yazidis I spoke to. Yazidis who complain about conditions in the camps are threatened. Yazidis also believe the KDP is protecting Sunni Kurds who collaborated with ISIS by giving them refuge in Kurdistan.
Even Yazidi organizations trying to help survivors are shut down if they don’t align with the KDP.
One such group is called Campaign of 1000 Dinar. This organization was run by Yazidi youths who raised money from the community to help Yazidis in need, including girls who survived ISIS, poor students, orphans and families of Yazidis who died fighting ISIS. I met two of the Yazidi survivors who were helped by the campaign—two sisters from Tal Ezeir who escaped from ISIS captivity. Everyone in their family had been killed except for their uncle. But their uncle disowned them because they had been raped. Campaign of 1000 Dinar swept into action, raising money for the girls and helping them secure asylum in Germany, where both are now in college. Tragically, the campaign was shut down and outlawed by the KRG intelligence, or Asayish, after one of its members was photographed holding the flag of another political party.
“They want all Yazidis to be dependent on KDP,” said one former member of Campaign of 1000 Dinar. He asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the KDP. The former members of this campaign are still the most active Yazidis in Dohuk, such as Nasser Kret, who runs a volunteer NGO called the Ezidi Millennium Organization for Development, among many other projects, said the former member.
Those who take up arms against ISIS with any group that isn’t the Peshmerga face even harsher repercussions. Still, nothing has turned Yazidis against the KDP more than the Peshmerga’s retreat from Sinjar when ISIS attacked.
Betrayal at dawn, and a heroic sacrifice
When Mosul fell to ISIS in June 2014, the Peshmerga and KDP leader Masoud Barzani assured the Yazidis that they would protect them from ISIS. However, as ISIS moved in on Sinjar in August 2014, the Peshmerga suddenly retreated, leaving the Yazidis defenseless. This was disastrous for the Yazidis living southwest of the mountain; their towns were the first to be swarmed by ISIS with fighters from Baaj, a Sunni stronghold on the outskirts of Mosul.
As word spread of ISIS’ attacks on Siba Sheikh Khider (Arabic name: al Jazeera) and Gir Zerek (Arabic name: Adnaniyah)—Yazidi collective towns on the southwest side of the mountain that were the first to come under ISIS fire—tens of thousands of Yazidis from towns further north began fleeing to Sinjar mountain by car and on foot, slogging through windswept desert terrain in the punishing summer heat. Many were barefoot, with nothing but the clothing on their backs. Not everyone survived. Small children and the elderly died by the hundreds. Others were shot by ISIS members who were hunting fleeing Yazidi civilians, often with the help of the Yazidis’ Sunni neighbors, who Yazidis say turned on them overnight.
After enduring such an onslaught at the hands of Sunni extremists, Yazidis now blame the Peshmerga for their suffering.
Captain Shukr, 37, a former Iraqi soldier, joined the PKK after the events of August 2014. In July of this year, he defected to the PMF. He will fight alongside whoever helps liberate his people, and he sees the PMF as the most capable and willing force at the moment.
“Peshmerga pulled out without a fight, so they betrayed us,” he said. “On Aug. 3, 2014, we were fighting from 2 in the morning for six hours and we didn’t realize the Peshmerga pulled out from our area. We asked, Where are you guys going? They told us, We’re going to bring support and we’ll be back. They never came back. They betrayed the Yazidis and they left us with ISIS. Anyone who couldn’t reach Sinjar mountain was killed or kidnapped by ISIS, thanks to the Peshmerga.”
Salah Hussein, 64, worked in the administration office for the Yazidis in Sinjar before joining the Yazidi PMF. “Our Sunni neighbors, they all attacked us, burned our houses and took our women. They couldn’t do that without getting help from Masoud Barzani,” he said.
Yazidi men in the frontline towns resisted for as long as they could with light weaponry (almost everyone in this rural and tribal desert had a weapon in the home). They were able to hold off ISIS for a few hours, allowing families time to flee to the mountain. Some of those who resisted say the Peshmerga told them they were only leaving temporarily to call for reinforcements, so they continued shooting at advancing ISIS fighters throughout the night. By the morning, most had run out of ammunition. When they realized that the Peshmerga was not coming back, they dug into their trenches and spent whatever ammo they had left, knowing that they would almost certainly die. Their efforts to hold off the ferocious advance, even if for just a few hours, bought time for countless families to escape. For that, they’re memorialized as heroes.
Qasim Shevan spent a year and a half fighting ISIS with his own independent militia on Sinjar mountain. His fierce refusal to align with any political party gained him the respect and admiration of all Yazidis. He said no both to the PUK and KDP Peshmerga when they tried to recruit him and he openly accuses Barzani of collaborating with ISIS. He says he saw friendly interactions and what looked like negotiations, possibly even collaboration, between ISIS fighters and the Peshmerga on several occasions in Sinjar. The fact that an independent figure like Shevan joined the PMF says a lot about the genuine support the PMF has among Yazidis.
“I didn’t join them [the Peshmerga] and follow their orders. I told them I’m Yazidi and I’m Iraqi and I’m not following Kurdistan,” he told me with great pride. “When the PMF came to liberate our areas, we volunteered with them. We went to Hajj Abu Mahdi and he told us we will do anything you want, and we told him we want to volunteer to defend our country and he gave us money, weapons and training. They provide us supply lines for the training camp and tomorrow a group of us will graduate.”
Most Yazidis suspect that Barzani’s Peshmerga made a deal with ISIS to get rid of the Yazidis for the sake of expanding Kurdistan. Whether or not this is true, part of the budding Yazidi alliance with Baghdad is based on opposition to Kurdish expansionism.
Sinjar is technically part of Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate. But it is also one of 26 “disputed territories” across northern Iraq that the Kurds claim belongs to them. According to an analysis published by Jane’s Intelligence Review, “After the Iraqi military’s retreat from the Islamic State in 2014, Kurds seized approximately 90% of these territories, including Kirkuk.” In other words, the KRG used the rise of ISIS and the chaos it stoked as an opportunity to carry out a massive land grab, increasing the territory it controls by 40 percent since 2014.
The PMF’s liberation of south Sinjar has complicated the Kurdish project. Sinjar district is now controlled by three different parties: the PMF, the Peshmerga and the PKK.
The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), an international Kurdish leftist movement with many local branches, controls a stretch of Sinjar district northwest of the mountain close to the Syrian border. The YPS is the Yazidi branch of the PKK and the YPG is the Syrian Kurdish branch. Since the conflict began the KDP has been punishing Yazidis who joined the YPS to defend their lands from ISIS.
The KDP controls the collective towns north of the mountain, which the Peshmerga liberated in December 2014. It also controls Sinjar city, which the Peshmerga liberated in November 2015. Together these areas constitute about 30 percent of Sinjar district, though it hasn’t been much of a liberation. The KDP imposed an economic blockade on Sinjar, making it difficult for Yazidis to return, rebuild or farm their land.
“Go to Mosul. After a month of liberation, you see state services again. Northern Sinjar was liberated almost three years ago and still nothing. Why?” asked a Yazidi activist from Sharya, a Yazidi town in Dohuk. Many Yazidis who’ve spent the last three years languishing in IDP camps in Dohuk are wondering the same thing.
The collective towns south of the mountain, which constitute 40 percent of Sinjar district, have been under the control of Baghdad since the PMF liberated this area from ISIS in June. Yazidis had grown extremely frustrated with the Peshmerga for its refusal to expel ISIS from the southern towns, where the militant group had a light presence and was easy to route, as the PMF operation demonstrated, another reason they have rallied around the PMF.
On top of making it difficult for Yazidis to return to Sinjar, these political rivalries are obstructing efforts to comprehensively investigate the Yazidi genocide. People working for international organizations told me their investigations have been hindered by the lack of coordination between the various political actors in Sinjar. The KDP in particular is making investigation difficult by thwarting movement between north and south Sinjar. After spending a week in the southern Sinjar towns, I had to drive eight hours from south Sinjar to Baghdad and fly from Baghdad to Erbil, then drive two hours from Erbil to Dohuk in my attempt to reach north Sinjar. The journey would have required another three-hour drive from Dohuk, but the KRG did not grant me permission to enter north Sinjar.
“We are suffering as minorities inside Iraq,” said Murad, the PMF leader. “We didn’t get enough attention from the past or current government or from international organizations like the UN or human rights groups. For that we are suffering and there is pain inside. This genocide, no one is investigating it. If too much time passes, the evidence will disappear.”
Among the Yazidi PMF are around 100 men who defected from the PKK and some 300 from the Peshmerga. The defectors say they begged the Peshmerga to allow them to participate in the PMF liberation, but the leadership said no. This prompted dozens of Yazidis to abandon the Peshmerga, including Naif Jaso, a well-known Yazidi leader from the town of Kojo.
Kojo is the site of the largest ISIS massacre of Yazidis. On Aug. 15, 2017, ISIS rounded up and murdered every single man and teenage boy in the tiny farming town, including Naif’s brother, Ahmad Jaso, the Mukhtar of Kojo, after they refused to convert to Sunni Islam. All the young women and girls, including Naif’s daughters, were sold into sexual slavery. The older women were executed.
Naif’s grandson, 12-year-old Manay, was hidden by his mother before the slaughter took place and was then smuggled out by local Sunnis opposed to ISIS. His 15-year-old brother was likely killed and the fate of his 5-year-old brother is unknown. The family believes Manay’s mother was killed in an airstrike, though they don’t have the heart to tell him that.
Naif Jasso and his grandson Maney, 12, who survived the Kojo massacre, at their home in south Sinjar after being kicked out of Dohuk for joining the PMF.
The bodies are buried in several mass graves that dot the outskirts of Kojo. The graves are fenced off and have yet to be unearthed. Local Yazidi PMF are trying their best to preserve the crime scene as they wait for international investigators to visit. There are some human bones strewn on the ground, likely dug up by homeless dogs.
Jaso’s surviving son, Talib, commanded one of 14 brigades in the Yazidi Peshmerga. In mid-May, with the PMF operation underway, Talib and Naif defected from the Peshmerga to the PMF, taking their entire battalion with them to participate in the PMF liberation of Kojo. Their PMF battalion was called the Kojo brigade. Many other high-profile defections followed, as Yazidis were anxious to take back the rest of their towns.
“Unlike the Americans, the PMF didn’t just come here by airplane. They came here on the ground and liberated Sinjar,” said Jaso at a relative’s home in Tal Qasab. He and his family had just returned to south Sinjar that week after being forced to leave Dohuk by the KRG.
“There is no support for us so our community goes with the PKK and Peshmerga, but deep down all Yazidis support the government of Iraq,” he said. “If the situation was better for the Yazidis, if they were stronger, they would be supporting the Iraqi government. But right now, anyone who plants their flag here, the Yazidis will come under their rule because they have no power to resist. Kurds have been running this area since Saddam fell because we are weak.”
There is much more good will from Yazidis toward the PKK. When ISIS attacked Sinjar, the PKK’s Syrian branch, the YPG, opened the border between Iraq and Syria, allowing Yazidis an escape route to Kurdistan. Many Yazidis subsequently joined the PKK’s Yazidi branch, called YPS. But there is tension between some Yazidis and the PKK rooted in antagonism between growing Yazidi loyalty to the Iraqi state and the PKK’s Kurdish nationalism.
As Khudaydah, a 68-year-old Yazidi PMF member who defected from the PKK put it, “We are Iraqi and they [the PKK] are mostly with the Kurds. They don’t recognize the Yazidis as a people, they want to label us as Kurds,” he said, adding, “the PKK wants to control all of Sinjar, that’s their concern.”
Captain Shukr, who defected from the PKK, shared Khudaydah’s frustration. “Last year, we protested the Turkish army when they entered Bashiqa. The PKK got mad that we were holding Iraqi flags and they made us take them down. They said we have nothing to do with Iraq, we are Kurdish. How do you want to protest a foreign country’s interference in Iraq if you deny the one symbol that represents Iraq?” he asked.
What do Yazidis want?
There is no single, unified Yazidi opinion. In fact, there are Yazidis on all sides of this conflict, with the exception of the ISIS side, of course. That said, most express support for the PMF operation against ISIS in Sinjar, even many in the KDP, though they don’t dare say so publicly. One Yazidi KDP member who works in a KDP-affiliated office that helps Yazidi rape survivors confided that he was demoted from his position because his uncle joined the PMF. “What can I do?” he asked. “If I complain, I might lose my job. But I’m proud of my uncle.” Many Yazidi PMF members still live in Dohuk and keep their participation secret.
Dawood Jundy Sulaiman, 40, a Yazidi politician in the PUK and member of government in Nineveh province, also praised the PMF offensive. “Whoever fights ISIS, we support them. The PMF gave many martyrs to defend our land in Iraq and Sinjar. When the PMF reached Sinjar, they made a balance between the forces there,” he told me at his relative’s home in Dohuk.
Jundy wants to see coordination among all the parties in Sinjar and has tried to mediate, but he says the KDP has not been cooperative. He complained that the KDP are unwilling even to sit down with their adversaries let alone compromise and they refuse to allow Yazidis to have any say in their own affairs. “The KDP wants to control the Yazidi people so they get can get them to vote the way they want in the referendum,” argued Jundy.
At the end of the day, it is Yazidis who are on the frontlines in Sinjar, whether they are in the north or the south, says Jundy. And, he insists, “a Yazidi will never fight with another Yazidi.”
Jameel Chomar is manager of operations at Yazda, a Yazidi NGO that has been shut down by KDP on occasion. He believes all sides are using the Yazidis to further their own interests.
“Even the Peshmerga in the north, 90 percent of them are Yazidi. But most of them are there for $300 a month. And some people get privileges from being with the Peshmerga, like battalion commanders and privilege from the government,” he said in English.
“In my personal view, it seems like the KDP wants to be the voice for the Yazidi people during the elections. They don’t care much about that land because it’s very far away and there’s Arab tribes still there, like in Rabia. That’s why they don’t care about Shingal [the Yazidi word for Sinjar]. They only care about using the Shingaly people for political purposes. It seems like the PMF don’t care much about the Shingaly people, but they care about that land,” he said.
“The best solution for Shingal is coordination between all of these actors, between KRG, between the central government under supervision of U.N. or U.S. and European countries and with the participation of Yazidi people themselves, those people who truly represent the Yazidi people and are working for the benefits and future of Yazidis, not looking for future of their families and their pockets. There are many options. Shingal could be a province, then people of Shingal need to decide whether to stay with KRG or not. No matter what they decide, the discussion about Shingal area should include Yazidis,” said Chomar.
The next war?
“For the past three years following the August 3 genocide, Yazidis have consistently requested the support of the international community in creating local administration and nonpartisan security for the Sinjar Region, to be administered under the appropriate ministries in Baghdad,” said Matthew Barber, a PhD student at the University of Chicago. Barber was in Iraq when the Yazidi genocide began and later led a humanitarian and advocacy organization in the country.
“Yazidis hope that the PMF battalions might be transitioned into a local, permanent force that can protect the Sinjar Region, keeping it under the authority of the central government but separate from the Kurdistan Region and its political parties. If this possibility will be supported by the U.S. government, as the Yazidis continue to ask for, it could be a stabilizing development,” he said, echoing Chomar.
While this solution seems ideal, political tensions are escalating on the ground while Yazidis grow bitter and resentful and lose patience with the international community.
The recent batch of Yazidi PMF recruits were trained by a man from the PMF department of training called Abu Haidar.
“The training is going very well,” he told me from his headquarters in Baaj, pacing back and forth using a cane. He lost his leg in battle back in 2014 and was evacuated to Lebanon, where he was fitted with a prosthetic leg. “We only have one issue, which is they all want to be leaders. They feel it’s their right and duty because they have been suffering and have lost their families,” he said.
Abu Haider complained of the lack of space at the Yazidi training camp.
Built in the 1970s, the training site used to belong to the Iraqi army. After 2003, the Americans took control of it. Some Yazidis recall working with the Americans at this base after the fall of Saddam as translators and drivers. Eventually the base fell to ISIS, which left its mark; many of the barracks are damaged, while others have been reduced to rubble.
“As you can see, most of the camp is destroyed. We don’t have the kind of space we need for all these soldiers. Also, these soldiers, they’re very motivated, they just want to liberate their land. They want to work for us. When they graduate this Sunday, let’s hope Abu Mahdi gives them enough space,” he said.
I asked what they are training for if ISIS has already been ejected from the area. He replied that they are training to hold their areas and help liberate the remaining areas from ISIS. Suddenly a Yazidi leader interjected, “Yazidis still need to liberate the other half of Sinjar from the Peshmerga.” The soldiers in the room nodded in agreement, an acknowledgement that their war was far from over.
Rania Khalek is an independent journalist living in the Washington D.C. area.