Iraq: Yezidis Caught in the Crossfire

Is There a Future for Yezidis in Iraq?
Kurdish Women fighters pose for a picture with a displaced Yazidi woman (R) who lives near the base in Sinjar.
Kurdish Women fighters with a displaced Yazidi woman (R) who lives near the base in Sinjar.

By Yvo Fitzherbert

Two years ago, the Islamic State group or ISIS invaded the little-known city of Sinjar in Western Iraq. The Kurdish Peshmerga, the military force of Iraqi Kurdistan, were nowhere to be seen, allowing ISIS to overrun the town in a matter of hours. In desperation, hundreds of thousands of Yezidis fled up Sinjar mountain, directly north of the city. Those that did not flee were subjected to indescribable horrors: the men were lined up and shot in mass graves dotted around the countryside of Sinjar, while the women and children were taken away to ISIS strongholds across the so-called Caliphate.

According to government figures, nearly 10,000 were either massacred or taken into captivity, leading the UN to recognise ISIS’s atrocities against the Yezidi community as an act of genocide. While many have fled to Europe, more than 400,000 Yezidi refugees live in the dozens of camps dotted around Iraqi Kurdistan.

Until the Yezidi genocide in August 2014, the Yezidis were a little known minority in the Middle East. Their religion, a syncretic religion which shares elements of Christianity and Islam, is clouded in mystery and misinformation. At the heart of such misinformation is the belief that the Peacock Angel, who Yezidis consider to be the mediator between God and them, is interrupted by Muslims as the embodiment of Satan. As a result, Yezidis are often accused of being “devil-worshipers” by their Muslim neighbours.

Forever persecuted, Yezidis have never had it easy. Activists claim they have suffered as many as 74 massacres against them, and Yezidis have little hope in a future for themselves in a region with rising Islamic extremism and intolerance of minorities.

However, following the Iraqi Peshmerga forces took back control of Sinjar – the ancestral home of Yezidis – late last year, many hope that the Yezidis can be encouraged to return home once again. Such a solution is not so simple: With ISIS still controlling territory within firing range of Sinjar, coupled with Yezidis deep distrust of the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, returning home is simply not an option for many.

Kurdish – Yezidi relations

Due to the fact that the Yezidis speak the main dialect of the Kurdish language, Kurmanji, and their religion is considered by many to be the original religion of Kurds before the spread of Islam, some believe Yezidis and Kurds to be the same ethnic kin. However, this is a subject that many Yezidis reject, claiming that they do not feel like an accepted part of the Kurdish community despite speaking the same language.

Relations are particularly sour between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and the Yezidis in Iraq. The Peshmerga are blamed for their abandonment of Sinjar in the hours before ISIS launched their attack. It is widely believed that, lacking sufficient arms with which to defend against ISIS, the Peshmerga fled Sinjar, leaving the Yezidi population to the mercy of the jihadists.

Alongside the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) have kept a small committed force in Sinjar since 2014. When Yezidis fled ISIS in the immediate aftermath of ISIS’s actions, it was the PKK who came to the rescue of thousands of Yezidis stranded on Sinjar mountain. Such a manoeuvre won a significant amount of support among Yezidis, with many joining the Kurdish guerrillas.

Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been angry at the presence of PKK fighters in Sinjar. In an attempt to turn the Yezidi community against the PKK presence in Sinjar, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has imposed an embargo on all goods entering Sinjar. Such an embargo has prevented Yezidis from bringing in any supplies to the region. Two months ago, a Peshmerga killed a Yezidi for defying such an embargo. Such an event underlined the Yezidis’ distrust in the KRG government.

Despite Kurdish assurances towards the Yezidis, Yezidis choose not to mix with Kurds and differentiate themselves as Yezidis, not Kurds. Routinely discriminated by the Kurdish authorities, Yezidis feel as second-class citizens in Iraq. Such segregation only fuels the exclusion with which Yezidis complain of. Mahmut, a Yezidi activist in Duhok, explained to me: “Until we Yezidis are treated on equal terms as other Kurds, how can we ever call ourselves Kurdish?”

Throughout their history, Yezidis have faced forced assimilation. Under Ottoman rule, the Yezidis were denied a separate status and were either labeled as non-Muslims or Kurds. Such a policy led to them slowly becoming assimilated into the Kurdish minority, with their numbers shrinking dramatically in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In Sinjar, the Yezidis continuously fought the local Kurdish rulers supported by the Ottomans. Solidarity was practically non-existent.

The exact number of Yezidis today is unknown, but most estimate little more than 500,000. In order to protect themselves, Yezidis have always lived in a tight-knit community, never marrying outside their community. Like other minority religions of the region, it is not possible to convert to Yezidism, only to be born into it.

Fearing their Arab and Muslim neighbours, Yezidis know that the KRG administration may be their only chance of survival. In November 2015, Barzani made a speech on Sinjar mountain announcing the recapture of Sinjar. “Sinjar was liberated by the blood of the Peshmerga and became part of Kurdistan,” Barzani said. “It’s time for the Yezidi girls to hold their heads up. Revenge has been taken for them.”

What Barzani failed to mention was how uneasy the Sinjar Yezidis feel towards their Kurdish neighbours. Facing constant discrimination by authorities, Yezidis continue to live in fear of the authorities. They still blame the Peshmerga for abandoning them to ISIS, while many Yezidis are arrested for speaking out against the KRG. While the PKK offers an alternative vision of freedom for many Yezidis, the same problems persist. Both groups insist that the Yezidis are Kurds, and Yezidis fear they are being used as pawns in a wider power struggle. The Yezidis are simply being caught up in the crossfire.

While many have expressed solidarity with the Yezidis after ISIS’ horrifying acts, it is not enough. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the KRG government set up a department which offered financial support to Yezidis smuggling their family members out of ISIS captivity. Such an office, known as the Office of Kidnapped Affairs, facilitated in the return of hundreds of Yezidis to their families.

However, last autumn, such funding stopped. With the oil prices tumbling, the KRG government has been in financial crisis. Yezidi families who are communicating with their family members trapped in captivity cannot afford the steep prices demanded by smugglers. With western governments refusing to help, arguing that such money may indirectly end up in the hands of ISIS, Yezidis have nobody to turn too.

The sheer helplessness with which the Yezidi community feels is staggering. Lacking financial support, many Yezidis live in poverty across the refugee camps. Beyond such financial insecurity, there is a fear that the KRG government may fail them again, leading to a repeat of the horrors they have endured. The Yezidis need to be given autonomy to run their own affairs, and until such freedom is granted, the KRG government will never regain the trust of the Yezidi community.

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