By Rosa Burç
The solution to the humanitarian tragedy that climaxed in Shengal and continues in refugee camps lies in the recognition of political status for the Kurds.
Last year, in the night of August 3, the Islamic State group carried out its attacks against the Yazidis (in Kurdish Êzîdî) in Shengal. Within just a few hours, thousands were killed or captured. The rest of the population of the almost completely Yazidi-inhabited region found immediate refuge on Mount Shengal.
The Yazidis were trapped on the mountain for many days, with the Islamic State group waiting for them at the foothills and the international community frozen in inaction, be it humanitarian or political.
Grim conditions with no food and little water at the height of summer caused many deaths of starvation and dehydration – not to mention the numerous children that have completely lost their eyesight due to sun exposure. Only after the People’s Protection Units of Rojava (YPG/YPJ) opened a safe corridor from Shengal to Rojava, which finally broke the siege on Mount Shengal, did the ordeal on the mountain came to an end.
When the Yazidis turn toward the sun for their daily prayer, the first thing they say is “God, please protect all 72 nations first and then us.” Their prayers are always framed around the sacredness of life, sun, soil and mankind. They wish a peaceful life for all ethnicities and religious groups first. This also implies that they believe that only then a peaceful life for the Yazidis is possible too.
But last year’s genocidal attack was the 73rd time in history that the Yazidi people were subjected to a massacre. Luckily this time, they were rescued before the situation worsened.
One year later, on Nov. 13, a joint command of the newly established Shengal Resistance Units and Women’s Defense Units Shengal, as well as with the help of the PKK and the KDP, liberated Shengal and for the first time it was under the control of the indigenous people of this land – the Yazidi Kurds.
With the expansion of the modern state system to the Middle East, which commenced after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, new categories of statehood and a changing political geography were introduced. Some borders were even designated along railroad tracks that initially supposed to unite people, then tragically were used to delineate new nation-states, hence to divide entire cities, villages and families. In other words: the arbitrariness of colonial state making.
An imaginative geography, as Edward Said calls it in his seminal work Orientalism, was established as the new status quo in the region, a status quo that until today denies any kind of self-determination to the Kurds. A fictional reality in which the Kurds are called either Turks, Syrians, Iraqis or Iranians.
As a product of artificial state making, the Shengal region was assigned to the newly founded Iraqi nation-state, albeit closer to Rojava by geography and culture. In Iraq however, Shengal became a disputed area between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi Central Government. Neither of both felt responsible. The Yazidis in the meantime were denied to build any self-governance or self-defense mechanisms. Shengal became a non-protected grey zone between Erbil and Baghdad, which made it easy for the Islamic State group to go ahead with its genocidal massacres.
As a result of all this, 500,000 Yazidis were fleeing in the entire region, which is at least half of the total population of Yazidi people, estimated to be no more than 1 million. The Yazidi exodus started off in Shengal and ended in Kurdish cities within Turkish borders – most strikingly in Roboski, a place that has lost 34 civilians, 17 of whom were children, caught between the borders of the modern states Iraq and Turkey, who were targeted by remote-controlled drones induced by the Turkish armed forces on Dec. 28, 2011.
Only two years later, when the Kurds were facing another trans-border tragedy, it was the victims of the Roboski massacre that provided first refuge for the Yazidi people fleeing the atrocities conducted by the Islamic State group in Shengal. Thousands of Yazidis crossed the Turkish border that summer. However, none of them were accepted officially as refugees by the Turkish authorities or allowed to find shelter in state-led AFAD camps.
The municipalities run by the HDP, such as in Amed (in Turkish Diyarbakir) mobilized many volunteers to build emergency refugee camps in many Kurdish cities. While thousands of Yazidis were accommodated in tent cities, others were sent to empty Kurdish villages – mostly former Yazidi villages.
Only a few villages are left within Turkey that were traditionally inhabited by Yazidis. Systematic state discrimination against Yazidi people in post-80 Turkey let to a depopulation of almost the entire Yazidi geography. Today, it is the Kurdish population living in the very same geography that reaches out to help – despite the Turkish state’s indifference.
The Yazidi people are a pre-Abrahamic ethno-religious minority with Kurdish being their native language. The Yazidis believe in one God, in a natural struggle between good and bad. They believe that good will always overcome the bad energies in life. There is no possibility to convert to Yazidism, since one is only born a Yazidi. All their prayers are in their native language Kurmanji (Kurdish dialect). Some even say that all Kurds have a Yazidi heritage. The ties between the Kurds and the Yazidis are not only strong, but indivisible due to the inter-connectness of their identity. The nation-states that have a Kurdish population all have implied a “divide and rule” mentality within their borders. They have promoted the narrative that the Yazidis are a different ethno-religious nation to the Kurds. It has always been considered profitable to rule over a Kurdish minority that has inner divisions. Due to this, both identities exist today: the ones who call themselves a distinct Yazidi nation and the ones who consider themselves Yazidi Kurds.The idea is therefore to promote a model of self-determination, where all self-perceptions of identities are equality accepted.
Yazidis have always been subjected to a two-dimensional oppression: 1) for being Kurdish and 2) for being non-Muslim.
The past year has proven that Kurdish resistance grows amid genocide and exodus. But more distinctively the developments have shown that the arbitrary designed borders of the Sykes-Picot agreement are indeed not more than a fictional reality.
The Shengal massacre, the rescue corridor provided by the YPG/YPJ, Roboskî being the first destination after the Yazidi exodus, the grassroots mobilization of local structures to protect the Yazidi people in Amed and many other Kurdish cities and finally the joint Kurdish operation that liberated Shengal from the Islamic State group are all the result of a sense of shared destiny among the Kurdish people.
Nation-states have historically squeezed Kurds, as well as Yazidis, between their borders. Today, the Kurdish movement has reached a point where the imposed boundaries are no longer defining the political reality on ground. In all four parts Kurds are fighting for a political status. This political status aims to overcome the traditional and naturalized nation-state in establishing an alternative model for the Middle East that is based on grassroots democracy and self-determination.
From Silvan, to Amed, to Kobanê to Shengal, everywhere where the Kurds resist, only one slogan arises: Resistance is Existence. Berxwendan Jîyane!