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After mass atrocities at the hands of ISIS, Yazidis endure repression in Iraqi Kurdistan, says independent journalist Rania Khalek

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Iraqi Kurds are holding a referendum next week on their long-held goal for an independent state. The outcome has major implications for Iraq and the region. But one overlooked aspect is the plight of the non-Kurdish groups inside Iraqi Kurdistan, they include the Yazidis. The Yazidis came to international attention in 2014 when the self-proclaimed Islamic State launched a campaign against them that the U.N. described as genocide. The U.S. intervened militarily to prevent a massacre on Sinjar Mountain. But today, the Yazidis are still suffering in that area. But they’re not getting nearly as much attention. Journalist Rania Khalek recently spent a week with the Yazidi militia in south Sinjar, and she reports on it in her new piece for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. It’s called “In the Field with Yazidi Fighters, Tales of Genocide at ISIS’s Hands and More Conflict to Come.” Rania Khalek joins me now, independent journalist and co-host of the podcast “Unauthorized Disclosure.” Rania, welcome. RANIA KHALEK: Great to be on with you, Aaron. AARON MATE: So I gave a little bit of an introduction to set the scene. But if you could explain a bit more about who the parties are here and what the background is to what you looked at in Sinjar. RANIA KHALEK: So I was in south Sinjar, like you said. I spent a week there with the Yazidi PMF. The PMF is the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is this basically Iraqi paramilitary group that came together after ISIS took over large swathes of the country, and the Iraqi army collapsed. The PMF formed, and it’s been one of the most effective fighting forces against ISIS. And last year the PMF actually became integrated into the Iraqi military structure, and now it falls under the authority of the Iraqi prime minister. The PMF is oftentimes referred to as Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the Western media and in Gulf-funded media. But the interesting thing about the PMF is that, yes, it is majority Shia, as most of Iraq is, but it has all of these units of various groups and minority groups in Iraq, including the Yazidis who have now formed at least three brigades in the PMF. And I spent a week with these Yazidis in south Sinjar because the PMF basically liberated 40% of Sinjar, which was all of south Sinjar that was still under the control of ISIS until June when the PMF liberated them. And since then, Yazidis have been flocking to the PMF to join the PMF in droves. You mentioned they came to international attention in 2014 because of the genocide ISIS inflicted on the Yazidis. But we haven’t heard much about them since except for articles here and there about some of the more horrific atrocities that ISIS committed against them, like the sexual enslavement. But the fact of the matter is that Yazidis are still fighting to rescue members of their families, to rescue their daughters and sisters and children. And beyond that they are, because of what happened, because of what befell them in 2014, they really want to be able to hold their own areas, protect their own areas so that something like what ISIS did to them never happens again. They see an alignment with the Iraqi central government as the best way to secure autonomy over their own areas and be able to protect themselves and arm themselves. Prior to the genocide in 2014, Yazidis were really very much pro-Kurdish. They even saw themselves as a part of the Kurdish Project. But since 2014, they feel abandoned by the Kurds, especially the Peshmerga, the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Iraqi Kurdistan. So they have basically shifted and now want to align with the Iraqi central government. And that’s why you see all these Yazidis joining the PMF. AARON MATE: And this started back when the genocide began when … Didn’t the Kurdish forces essentially leave the Yazidis to be massacred? They didn’t put up a fight to defend them, except for maybe in one area? RANIA KHALEK: Yeah. And this is really striking because it’s received so little attention. But basically prior to the ISIS attack on Sinjar, the Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraqi Kurdistan, was in charge of security in Sinjar. So the Peshmerga, which is the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that’s basically the army of Iraqi Kurdistan, was placed at various checkpoints all throughout Sinjar. The Peshmerga and Masoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP Party in the KRG, assured the Yazidis that the Peshmerga would protect them as ISIS took Mosul and took Tal Afar and Baj and all these areas that basically like encircle Sinjar. And so the Yazidis, they were given assurances by Iraqi Kurdistan that they would be protected. Yet on the early morning hours of August 3rd when ISIS launched their attack, the Peshmerga retreated from Sinjar. And it wasn’t just a couple different units that retreated because they were overwhelmed by ISIS. They were very well armed. It was a very systematic retreat that clearly came … They were being ordered to retreat. No one knows why they retreated. There haven’t really been sufficient explanations given for this. But either way, Yazidis feel like this was like an epic betrayal, and they were abandoned. And that is why ISIS was able to invade Sinjar and enslave their women and kill the men is because they had no protection. They were defenseless aside from a few AK-47s that people kept in their homes. So it was a really nightmare scenario that didn’t have to happen, but it did. And till this day, Yazidis haven’t really received a proper response into why the people who were supposed to protect them left. But either way, they basically blamed the Peshmerga more than anything else for the genocide that befell them. And they hate, I mean, they really do. I mean, these are people who really did support the Kurdish Project before despite the amount of corruption and sort of police-state like apparatus that exists in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet, after what happened in 2014, most people, most Yazidis I spoke to both in south Sinjar and also in Erbil and Dohuk have completely turned against it. AARON MATE: Right. And so this gets to a main focus of your piece, which is something that has not been reported, at least I have not seen reports of this anywhere else, which is that the Yazidis are suffering what many people who talked to you say is repression at the hands of the Kurdish government. Can you talk to us about what you found? RANIA KHALEK: So the vast majority of Yazidis who fled Sinjar now live in displaced persons camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, mostly based in Dohuk, which is a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. And the reason that they haven’t returned back to Sinjar … Northern Sinjar was liberated from ISIS back in December 2014, interestingly enough by the Peshmerga. And then Sinjar city, which is in the mountains, was liberated in November 2015. Yet Yazidis haven’t really been able to return because of this embargo that’s been placed on Sinjar by the KRG, by the dominant party in the KRG. Got all these acronyms, get a little confusing. But the KDP is the dominant party that kind of runs everything, especially in Erbil in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. And they rule with an iron fist. It’s a party that’s run by the Barzani family. Because of this embargo they placed on these areas that were liberated in northern Sinjar in Sinjar City, Yazidis weren’t able to return. They’ve just been languishing in these displaced persons camps in Dohuk for the last three years ’cause there’s nothing to return to. They’re not able to rebuild. They can’t farm their land. They can’t bring in certain items because of this embargo. On top of that, the camps they live in, the treatment isn’t great. They’re not receiving the psycho-social support they need. They’re not receiving all the aid they need. And if they complain, they are basically, they’re reprimanded, they face repercussions, if they complain, from the KDP Party. Beyond just complaining about the treatment or the conditions, also if they fail to show loyalty to the KDP Party or, even worse, if they demonstrate loyalty towards any other political party, it can actually affect whether or not they can receive aid in these displaced persons camps. So they’re in a really tough situation. I mean, this is a poor community that’s politically weak, that has no political power, really, and never really has. They’ve experienced persecution and discrimination under consecutive governments in Iraq as long as they can remember, both before and after Saddam Hussein was removed. And so now under the Kurdistan Regional Government’s authority and after they experienced a genocide, they’re still experiencing extreme amount of repression. Even Yazidi organizations that just basically are civil society organizations trying to help survivors of ISIS atrocities, these kinds of organizations, if any of their members show loyalty or demonstrate support for any political party besides the KDP, those organizations are shut down. On top of that, any Yazidis who live in Kurdistan, who joined the PKK, which is the like rival to the KRG, it’s another Kurdish party that has like a militia, those who are joining the Yazidi branch of the PKK just for the sake of fighting ISIS were kicked out of Kurdistan and their families were kicked out of Kurdistan. And now, with the popularity around the PMF and Yazidis joining the PMF, once again joining just so they can fight ISIS … I mean, at this point, they will join anyone who will help them and support them and arm them against ISIS. And that’s what the PMF is doing now. And so Yazidis who join the PMF- AARON MATE: In part because they wanna help rescue their relatives, right? RANIA KHALEK: Exactly. They wanna help rescue their relatives. But also, after what happened to them, they don’t trust anybody else to defend them. They wanna be able to defend themselves and hold their own areas because of the Peshmerga retreating and them not being able to defend themselves against ISIS. So they also want to be able to protect their own areas down the line. So at this point, that’s their calculation. That they will join whatever group will help them save their people and help train and give them the equipment they need to defend their own areas. And so that’s why they’re joining the PMF now. But those who join the PMF, their relative, their displaced relatives who survived a genocide, who are living in Iraqi Kurdistan, are being kicked out of Kurdistan as punishment for their male relatives joining the PMF. And so I met families … South Sinjar is not an area that is ready for civilians to return to. I mean, most of the homes are ruined there. ISIS destroyed everything, looted everything. It’s just one wasteland after another. There’s not running water. There’s not regular electricity. It needs a lot of time to be fixed up. And yet civilians are being forced to return there by the Kurdistan Regional Government because they couldn’t prevent their male relatives from joining the PMF. So it’s collective punishment against families. AARON MATE: Rania, what’s the reason for this Kurdish government hostility towards people joining the PMF? Is that a reflection of the Kurds not wanting anyone to be a part of something affiliated with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad? RANIA KHALEK: Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it. Under the cover of ISIS taking over so much territory across Iraq, the KRG, the Iraqi Kurdistan has basically increased its territory by 40%. There are something like 26 disputed areas that the Iraqi Kurdistan claims as part of its potential Kurdish state. That also the Iraqi government says it’s part of the Iraqi state. And so of these disputed territories, something like 90% of it has been taken by Iraqi Kurdistan at this point. So they really carried out this massive land grab under the cover of the chaos of ISIS. Now the issue is that the PMF is now a force that is run by the Iraqi central government. And they obviously have … These are areas that they see as part of Iraq. And they see it as a issue of sovereignty. And you have this area, this Iraqi Kurdistan area trying to secede from Iraq and take a bunch of land with it, including a lot of oil-rich land. And so there is this broader conflict that Yazidis are in many ways stuck in the middle of now between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government. That said, they seem to believe that aligning at this point with the Iraqi central government is best for their community. And it’s not just Yazidis, by the way, that is happening with. I mean, the disputed areas I mentioned are non-Kurds who live in these disputed areas. And these people, many of these people are very much against this referendum that’s about to take place, and against the idea of a Kurdish state because they’re not Kurdish. They don’t wanna be in a state where you have like an ethno-centric character if you’re not a part of the dominant group ’cause technically you’ll be discriminated against. And so that’s the issue that people are facing. This is not just happening outside in the disputed areas. Also, I mean, I talked to a lot of different minorities, not just Yazidis, also Christians who live in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. And they feel very, very imposed upon by the Kurds that they live around, as do the Yazidis. And so it’s just kind of a different perspective that you just don’t really hear about or get any sense of in the Western media. Despite the fact that the U.S. has come out against the Kurdish referendum, there’s this sort of process of Kurdification that’s been taking place in Iraqi Kurdistan and around it that’s definitely been discriminatory towards the minorities in these areas. AARON MATE: Yeah, Rania. So let’s talk about why we don’t hear about the Yazidis nearly as much anymore. We mentioned just three years ago when they suffered this genocide, everybody knew about them. Now, obviously they’re suffering less atrocities, but they’re still suffering. And we’re not hearing about them nearly as much. You’re one of the few journalists to go and report on their plight. And the question that your article raises is are we not hearing about them because now they’re no longer suffering at the hands of an enemy, but they’re suffering at the hands of groups who the U.S. and Western governments are allied with, including the Kurdish Regional Government. RANIA KHALEK: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty on-point assessment of why we’re not hearing about this. Because after all, it was the ISIS atrocities against Yazidis, particularly when they chased them into the mountain and they were surrounded and couldn’t get food or water, that their plight back in August 2014 was used as the justification for the U.S. to intervene in the Middle East, once again, because of ISIS. And the U.S. did, and so they were useful back then. But ever since then, their suffering at the hands of the KRG, specifically of the KDP Party, under a U.S. ally and under an Israeli ally as well, has received almost no attention. And it’s really, really stunning because Yazidis, I mean their plight has been covered, has received an insane amount of coverage. And it deserves to receive an insane amount of coverage. Because what happened to the Yazidis, it really defies comprehension that human beings could be treated like this by anybody, by what ISIS did to them. That said, that’s kind of where it ends, where the journalism on Yazidis ends. And it doesn’t ever go any further. And journalists, they visit the KRG, they visit Erbil, they visit Dohuk, they go and they talk to Yazidis, but they don’t dig any deeper than that. I don’t even know if they realize … Maybe, again, it’s because the KRG is aligned with the U.S., is such a good friend of the U.S., perhaps they don’t realize that they’re in a place that really does operate like a police state. People can’t tell you how they feel or what’s really going on when they’re there. It’s not an easy place to be in, in that sense, or to do journalism in. You have to get permission to go places and to visit places. And you might not get that permission if you speak against the government there. The point is is that for whatever reason, it might be either because when you go there you’ve got blinders if it’s a U.S. ally, or maybe because the journalists are in a police state they wanna maintain access. For whatever reason, this particular aspect of the plight of the Yazidis has received no attention. And now the Yazidis are aligning with the PMF, which the U.S. government sees as Iranian-backed because the Iranians do support the PMF. In that respect, the U.S. does see the PMF as a future enemy and kind of at the moment a weird enemy/not enemy ’cause they’re both fighting ISIS. Regardless, because the Yazidis are aligning with the PMF, that might also be another reason why they’re not getting as much attention from the U.S. or from the West, at least, because they’re aligning with what’s considered a U.S. enemy. AARON MATE: That’s gonna wrap part one of this discussion with Rania Khalek, independent journalist, co-host of the podcast “Unauthorized Disclosure.” Her new piece for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project is called “In the Field With Yazidi Fighters, Tales of Genocide at ISIS’s Hands and More Conflict to Come.” And stay tuned for part two. Rania, thank you. RANIA KHALEK: Thanks, Aaron. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Rania Khalek is a journalist and co-host of the weekly Unauthorized Disclosure podcast. Her work has appeared at The Nation, Salon,, Vice, The Intercept, Electronic Intifada and more.