In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide Before Our Very Eyes (PART TWO)
Part One of this article appeared here.
Nothing can prepare one for the level of destruction found in Shingal. The streets are strewn with rubble, housing blown inward, walls broken in half, pieces of trucks and vehicles everywhere.
One of the leaders of the KDP party here and a representative of the Kurdistan regional government in this region is a man known locally as Sheikh Nasser. In the Yazidi culture, there is a strict caste system between sheikhs, pirs, and murids. When ISIS attacked, Sheikh Nasser was in his village north of Shingal. “We fought to the last bullet,” he recalls. After the peshmerga were pushed back towards the Tigress, he agreed to be helicoptered to Shingal to continue to fight with the people who had stayed behind.
“The women and children suffered a lot and there was no water, and it was cold and the people were starving and there were terrible conditions; we couldn’t even make bread — it was not edible. There were just two helicopters that came to help and take people out.”
Nasser says that the Arab neighbors of Yazidi villagers tried to trick the people into staying. “Just raise a white flag,” they said before coming to kill the Yazidis with ISIS. Nasser recalls being on the mountain and learning that men were lined up, shot, and then buried in the mass graves.
Driving out to the area of the graves, there are still ISIS flags spray-painted on some walls; they are scrawled over, but the unmistakable black flag is still there. Seven kilometers east of Shingal, the road runs strait towards Syria. Houses owned by Yazidis here were blown up by ISIS, but those of Arabs remain on the plains, intact and empty. We pass the large bulldozed earthworks the peshmerga set up as frontline positions when they liberated this area in November 2015. The mass graves are near the frontline positions. Explosions from coalition airstrikes can be heard in the distance.
We exit Nasser’s pickup truck. He slings his Russian-made sniper rifle over his shoulder. Then we come to a low, dry streambed. Here are the graves — the bones bleached white, the clothing of the people poking from the dry earth. In one mass grave there are elderly women. In another, men and a young boy’s purple Emirates soccer shirt. Even the matted hair of the murdered sticks up from the soil.
Nasser believes the genocide will lead to a mass refugee flight from the area, with many Yazidis moving to Europe, where they will assimilate. He knows that any return will be difficult. “This city feels like a cancer. We want this to be a historical place of memory and build a new city. We don’t want the Arabs back we can’t trust them anymore.” He thinks the government should build a wall of security around the Yazidi areas, “like Israel has.”
A long drive through the ruined city brings us to another grave east of the city. Here men were killed. The blindfolds used are on the surface of a small pile. Red tape has been placed around the area that measures ten feet by thirty. Striking to the eye are two patches from an Iraqi security forces uniform. Nasser explains that these men likely served in a local police unit.
“Because of the blood nothing will grow here,” he says, pointing to the area around the graves. They have not excavated this or the other 17 graves, preferring to wait for experts and international observers to do so. So far no one has come.
The worst killing took place in Kocho, where out of 1,400 people, only 400 survived. Nasser relates a chilling story. “First Arabs came from another village and told them not to leave, nothing will happen. Three days later on August 6 they came and asked for the weapons in the village and told them to convert to Islam. The people asked for time to decide. Eventually, they said no. The Arabs separated women, children and men and in groups of 35 they shot and killed the men.”
“Two men came out of this mass of bodies – having miraculously survived — and made their way to the mountain and the Kurdistan regional government to bare witness to this crime,” says Nasser.
The killing was not finished. The women were taken to a pink building near Shingal, which was once used for technological training. ISIS took 78 elderly women away “who could not be used for sex or sold” and shot them. The boys who had not been killed were sent to be indoctrinated by ISIS’ fanatical version of Islam.
One of the symbols of Yazidi resistance to ISIS is a man named Qasim Sheshu. Today he commands a Yazidi peshmerga unit of 7,500 men, splitting his time between soldiers closer to the front and a holy Shrine called Sharfadin that sits just north of Mount Shingal. The Shrine itself is a small stone enclosure with a cone rising 40 feet above it. As people prepare for holiday, a young boy poses on it in fatigues. Some elders go in for prayers. Down a dirt road is a compound guarded by armed men. Inside, the yard is full of military vehicles.
Sheshu is a big stocky man with a thick large mustache. His hands are rough and meaty. He is a living reminder of several Yazidis famous in Kurdistan for fighting against various regimes in the last 100 years. Born in 1953, he joined the KDP, today’s ruling party of the Kurdistan regional government, and was a frequent target of Saddam Hussein’s regime for his political activities.
His tales of fighting in the mountains, being imprisoned, and the several times the regime tried to kill him, could fill a book. In one instance, he says he killed a well-known deputy of Saddam’s intelligence forces from Mosul.
A constant smoker of Marlboro Golds, he enjoys telling his life story. “I was against Saddam from the 1970s and I came back [from exile] to this region and since then I have been fighting terrorism such as al-Qaeda, and then Daesh [ISIS] and I say they are all coming from [Saddam’s] Ba’ath party. I had returned in 2003 and I came with my family and we came back to live here.”
In April 2014, he was injured in a car accident and was in a hospital in Germany when ISIS appeared on the border of Shingal. He checked himself out, and, still walking with a cane, traveled back to his hometown.
“On the August 3 at 3:30 am, someone called me and said that ISIS was attacking two districts.” Sheshu tried to rally fighters to resist the ISIS advance. “We had no weapons to stand against them. They attacked us with two brigades worth of Iraqi army weapons and vehicles they had captured, and weapons from Syria.” He tried to convince the Kurdish peshmerga to defend the area but the situation was hopeless and their forces were routed quickly. “I decided not to leave the region; if we did not fight, more Yazidis would have been killed.”
There were 200,000 Yazidi refugees fleeing ISIS through the Shingal Mountain, and Sheshu says the stiff resistance that he and a few others put up helped save many lives. But tens of thousands of Yazidis remained on the mountain, starving and without food or water, refusing to leave the sight of their villages in the plains below. Even as ISIS overran all of Shingal city and moved through Snune to Rabiah, an Arab town on the Syrian border, they remained on the mountain, abandoned.
“In the beginning there were only 17 of us to defend this shrine. We had one heavy DSHK machine gun, one sniper rifle, and an RPG,” recalls Sheshu. Like the Jewish resistance fighters who fled to the swamps and forests of Belarus, Sheshu’s force slowly grew to thousands of men. Sixteen times he recalls that ISIS tried to break through their meager defenses. On December 3, four months after the catastrophe had begun, peshmerga forces were able to liberate the entire area of Rabiah and Snune, and link it up with Mount Shingal.
“We knew about the genocide,” recalls Sheshu. “It was like what Hitler did to the Jews, we couldn’t believe in this civilized world with this internet and technology that this could happen again. They came and they killed our people and they killed kids, they killed elders, and all kinds of people. They are doing that because we are not Muslim like them and our language is Kurdish.”
Sheshu places this genocide amidst the others of the past, but he notes today is even more extraordinary given the international community’s lack of action. He also argues the coalition airstrikes against ISIS are not designed to fully defeat it.
Sheshu says that the people want to return to their homes but they want security guarantees, protection, and better weapons. “Every nation has its land and we want to live and die here.” One feels the memory of the Shoah in the experience of these people, watching their own neighbors turn on them and the vast majority remain silent as they were driven from their homes, and massacred.
Most importantly, these atrocities are still ongoing. According to Vian Dakhil, the Yazidi member of Iraq’s parliament whose impassioned speech awakened the world in 2014 to the massacres, there are still 3,600 women and girls held by ISIS. Yazidi men we spoke to say they still have contact via phone with those holding the women, and a special office of the Kurdistan regional government is devoted to working to free them. In the camps and in Dohuk, where survivors’ testimonies are written down, basic issues such as having women present to help rape victims deal with the trauma is lacking.
Soud Msto, the lawyer who helps run one of the refugee camps, says he is working towards a future commemoration for the massacred Yazidis. “I hope it will be commemorated, but most of the mass graves have still not been liberated. It was a genocide, a million percent it was, and according to human rights law, it also was. I am a lawyer and we are working with the office and court here and with the Kurdistan regional government to get it recognized as a genocide. We and Jews are cousins, so yes it is like the Holocaust, and there are many similarities; they killed people.”