In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide Before Our Very Eyes
The two bullet casings are already beginning to rust. Sheikh Nasser Pasha plucks them from the ground. “Look, one is from an AK-47, one from an American M-4.” The casings are strewn on the ground atop a long mound of dirt with a few bits of white sticks on it. It would appear unremarkable if one were walking by it. A closer look, however, reveals the white objects are pieces of human bone: arms, legs, and a single human skull. Nasser plucks up the skull and points to a half circle at the base where the bullet entered. “When they had shot the Yazidi people here, they covered the bodies with dirt from a bulldozer.” That was last August. Then the rains came, and then dogs, he says. They dug up the human remains, and the bones dried in the sun.
Here lies one of the seventeen mass graves found so far in Kurdistan, Iraq. Yazidi leaders like Nasser expect to find more than twenty more, based on testimony from survivors and intelligence work by security officials. Many of the graves lie beyond the frontlines, in areas still controlled by Islamic State. If the Kurds are successful in their efforts against ISIS, they will take back the Yazidi villages and unearth the full extent of the crime.
The Yazidi are a religious minority in Iraq whose ancient religion is indigenous to this area. Their holy shrines dot the landscape. The Yazidi religion is complex and secretive. Due to centuries of persecution by varying Islamic regimes, they are reticent to go into detail about their religion or history. Yazidis live in a large area that stretches from the Syrian border through the Nineveh plains, around Mosul to the foothills of the mountains of Kurdistan. This is a diverse countryside, with many Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs. It is also a heartland of ancient civilizations.
At the center of the Yazidi district is a long mountain with craggy approaches called Shingal in Kurdish and Sinjar in Arabic. Below the mountain to the south lies Shingal city, and around the city are numerous Yazidi villages. Shingal itself was inhabited mostly by Arabs and some Kurds before the war. The Yazidi describe a history of persecution numbering what they describe as 73 genocides in the past. But memories of persecution fade and people didn’t expect genocide would befall them, say Yazidis I spoke with. They trusted their neighbors before last year. Now the mass killings in 2014 are being remembered as the 74th genocide to befall them.
Yazidis and Kurds in this region all look back to August 3, 2014, as the date that changed everything. In just one day, ISIS — well-armed with thousands of hummvees captured from the Iraqi army — rolled across Kurdish checkpoints, scattering what resistance there was, and captured a huge swath of territory in northern Iraq. Then the massacres of civilian Yazidis began, as well as the selling of women and children.
ISIS hasn’t only been targeting Yazidis. It has also murdered untold number of Christians. And in July, ISIS carried out a massacre of Shia Iraqi army cadets they had captured at Camp Speicher. They proudly published videos of men being machine-gunned, or having their throats slit and thrown in a river. As with genocides and mass-killings in the past, such as those of Armenians, the Holocaust or Rwanda, the build up to systematic slaughter and ethnic-cleansing comes in stages. Now it is clear the expulsion of Christians and killing of Shia was a prelude to the attack on Yazidis.
Kurdish peshmerga soldiers have thrown ISIS out of the areas it conquered in 2014, liberating one after another of the Yazidi villages.
One of the only villages to which some residents have returned to is Snune. This was once a sizable market town at the center of a large district. The government had invested in the area, building new street lights adorned with gold flowers and drooping lamps at the top. It had a stately central boulevard. Now it is all hulks of buildings, abandoned, and mostly deserted. Only the street lamps remain intact. Some men sell vegetables and fruits on the side of the road. Here and there are a few women and children.
When I arrived in the town the men selling fruits gathered around to listen and intently describe their experience. A shopkeeper named Adar, wearing a long black coat and with a broad smile, says he fled in August. “We knew what they would do, they had killed people in Mosul. We came back a year ago on December 17 when peshmerga liberated this area.” But many families could not return due to lack of basic services such as schools and a hospital. “They live in Zakho, Duhok, Syria, or Turkey.”
After they fled, many of the people signed on to fight with the peshmerga, and some joined a communist guerrilla force run by the PKK, a Kurdish political party from Turkey. “We had no training before,” says another man. “We lost ten people here. It’s like a genocide, they killed thousands on the other side of the mountain in places like Kochko village.” Adar points across the street where some men are unloading a truck. “They beheaded my uncle there. Later, when we came back, we took his body to a cemetery two hours from here to be buried.”
The men were preparing for a holiday on December 18, but they argued among each other over whether one should celebrate this traditionally festive time or not. “Some want to celebrate due to the liberation, others say we cannot,” says a man named Hussein. “We don’t receive anything here, we don’t have a generator for electricity often and use lamps.” The men agree they cannot speak of a future life here. “We are surrounded by Arabs who joined ISIS, we are afraid of them. We are asking the international community to free the kidnapped girls and women, and recognize the genocide. Many people fled to Europe and are dying at sea and the international community will not help them either.”
The drive over Shingal mountain at night is interrupted only by several illuminated posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish PKK leader. Out in the darkness are thousands of Yazidi refugees, huddled in tents, a year and a half after they fled. There are no electric lights. At the top of the mountain stands a model of a truck with a large double-barreled machine gun on the back. The truck and plaque next to it are new. It commemorates the truck that fought off ISIS during their rapid advance on August 3, and the Yazidi commander Qasim Dorbu, who stood at this location.
In the morning, after a night sleeping with a Kurdish peshmerga de-mining team, we travel into the abandoned city. The de-mining team, which works with rudimentary equipment to clear ISIS booby-traps, IEDs, and TNT is a reminder of why people cannot return. Most of the city is in total ruins, houses blown up from coalition airstrikes, or by ISIS. Shops owned by Yazidi were marked ‘Yazidi’ in graffiti by ISIS and then burned. The appointed mayor, who is Yazidi, lives in a tent next to the destroyed municipality building.
Across from the mayor’s office several Yazidi men have opened small shops. They sell foodstuffs to the peshmerga and also some beer and Ouzo. Like others, he describes the perpetrators of the massacre. “It was Arabs from our region that did these crimes.” He says some of the residents of Shingal put up ISIS flags before August 3rd. The Iraqi army had abandoned the region and when it was clear that the Kurdish peshmerga and local Yazidi men could not defend the people. He walked 9 hours into the mountains to safety.
“My father and brothers were with me but my uncle’s daughter was kidnapped by ISIS who sold her and she is in Raqqa.” Another of his relatives was killed by the extremists. “766 people from my village were killed or captured by ISIS.” Many of the women he says are in alive and kept as slaves, forcibly married to ISIS fighters or others. “We want to return to our village but there is no interest to go back without freeing the women. I don’t think they will all be free, some of them were sold and taken to Saudi Arabia.”
Zalud says that the Yazidis have sought to identify the people in the mass graves that have been found, but that because dogs and animals got at the victims and the rain washed bones away, he doesn’t know if it will be possible. “There is someone who kept a book and list of the names, but I was not involved in that.” Zalud fought in the mountains against ISIS, but he’s not sure life will be much better with the Kurds in charge either.