The one-story house has rounded contours and cream-colored walls. Outside, the garden is overgrown with brush. Two windows are bricked up. As soon as you enter, you see a cell door. In the first room, your attention is drawn to a hole in the wall. “ISIS made it, during the fighting, to escape without being seen by the Kurdish forces,” they tell us. Inside the house there are six rooms, the floors strewn with empty water bottles, dusty women’s shoes, scraps of clothes and plastic spoons.
On the wall of a windowless room, a red arrow has been drawn: “This is how the Islamist militiamen marked the direction of Mecca.” This house, in the village of Tilezer in the Nineveh Plain, was a prison for Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS during its occupation of the Sinjar region. “It remained in the hands of ISIS until May 29, 2017,” Faris Harbo, head of diplomacy at the Sinjar Autonomous Administration, tells us. “When the YBS Yazidi self-defense forces and the Shiite militias arrived, the Islamists fled without a fight. I went into that house. There were signs of what had happened in there. But no women. None of them were left.”
They had been enslaved in those six rooms after the August 3, 2014 massacre, when at least 10,000 were killed. On that day, in a matter of hours, the Islamists occupied this region in northwestern Iraq, removing it from the soft control of the peshmerga and the Iraqi army.
The soldiers of Erbil and Baghdad withdrew without fighting, while the Islamic State continued its Iraqi advance, just two months after the taking of Mosul (in 48 hours), transformed in a few weeks into the second capital of the “caliphate,” together with the Syrian Raqqa. The 500,000 Yazidis of Sinjar tried to defend themselves, with the few weapons and ammunition available: “The best weapons, the ones arrived from Germany, were sent to Erbil. They left us the rifles from the ‘70s,” says a Yazidi former member of the seventh battalion of the peshmerga.
Sinjar fell in seven to eight hours. So did the village of Girzerik: the Islamists killed the men, kidnapped the women, and buried 74 people in a mass grave in front of a beautiful two-story house. Clumps of thistles have grown above the mounds of earth. No one has ever exhumed those bodies: the area is littered with mines, the legacy of fleeing ISIS, and calls for action to the authorities in Baghdad remain unanswered.
Surrounding the mass grave is a ghost village. The entire population has disappeared, either killed or having fled. For years, Girzerik was entirely in the hands of the Islamic State, until the liberation of Sinjar City in November 2015 and the rest of the communities in the following months. We see gutted stores, weeds that have burrowed their way through the concrete, and walls bearing the marks of the battle between the Islamists and the Rojava self-defense units, YPG and YPJ.
And then, the debris inside the houses, with broken chairs, a non-functioning refrigerator, broken shutters. The landscape is disorienting, concrete roads under the hot sun without a living soul. A different skyline, but much the same as that of the old Sinjar City. There, the rubble narrates the course of the war, the street-by-street clashes between Islamists and Kurds and the American bombings, launched by Obama in August 2014, when the world discovered the Yazidi population as it fled up Mount Sinjar, without food, water or shelter.
The houses are devastated, crumpled in on themselves, with pieces of rebar freed from the concrete pointing in every direction. There is no reconstruction in sight, as there is no money, but in any case, there are different plans being considered, as the co-chairman of the Sinjar People’s Assembly, Haso Hibraim, explains: “We don’t want to rebuild. We want the rubble to stay where it is as proof of the massacre suffered by our people.”
Up there, on Mount Sinjar, in temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius, carrying only their children with them, the Yazidi families came on foot, leaving behind the ferocity of the Islamic State. They climbed the mountain for days, without food or shelter, until the YPG and YPJ that arrived from nearby Rojava, along with PKK fighters, managed to open a humanitarian corridor to Northern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Out of those displaced, half have not yet returned: 250,000 are divided between the refugee camps—where people are too frightened to return or without a home to go back to—and the diaspora living in Germany. Many women have still not been found: at least 1,117 of the 5,000 kidnapped in August 2014 and enslaved, sold on the Mosul market, passed around from one to the next, raped countless times.
Up on the mountain, something else has happened as well. The Yazidi community has reorganized itself and started working on its future. The influence of the ideas of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and of the democratic confederalism of Rojava, which took root and were absorbed together with the counteroffensive against ISIS, has become a possible model.
Thus, the project of the autonomy of Sinjar began, a region historically disputed between regional heavyweights and even regional small players, from Turkey and its pan-Turkish dreams of glory (it is no coincidence that Ankara’s fighter jets dropped bombs here after the ouster of ISIS) to the central government in Baghdad and the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The fight against Sinjar’s autonomy saw a turn on October 9, with a bilateral agreement (with Turkish supervision) between Erbil and Baghdad that excluded Yazidi autonomy: it set out the disarmament of the male and female self-defense forces, the YBS and YJS, and also the appointment of a new mayor (the “official” one is in exile in Duhok) and vague reconstruction plans. All in the hands of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. “The non-recognition of the autonomous government is weighing heavily on us,” explains Leyla Kasim, the co-president of the administration. “The other governments want to come back here, as if there had been no massacre in the meantime and as if they hadn’t fled instead of defending us. They didn’t include us in their agreement. Our demand is clear: we want official status for Sinjar.”
In a room on the second floor of the administration building, a short distance from the rubble of the old city, the co-president welcomes us along with the leaders, men and women, of some of the committees set up to manage the various aspects of Yazidi political and social life: the committees on youth, culture, health, and schools. “The basis of our self-management is the People’s Assembly, created immediately after the massacre. The administration was set up in 2017. The goal is to take care of our society, defend it from other potential massacres and heed its demands.”
The system is very similar to that of neighboring Rojava. “The administration meets every month to address the issues and priorities set out by the People’s Assembly,” Kasim continues. “We sowed the seeds of what you see today up in the mountains,” adds Masad, head of the committee in charge of culture. “We created the first training groups and self-defense forces. Today, we have to protect that system.” As they explain to us in the large white and purple circular hall where the Assembly meets, this system reproduces historic characteristics of the Yazidi community in a number of ways: sharing and cooperation, the pooling of means, especially in agriculture, ecology, and the reflections of an ancient “matriarchy.”
The system operates as a pyramid. At the base are the assemblies (all with two co-presidents, a woman and a man) of the neighborhoods and those of the villages, which appoint representatives to the People’s Assembly. There are 73 members, one for each massacre suffered by the Yazidi throughout history. This is how internal laws are passed, needs are voiced and solutions are sought.
Meanwhile, on Mount Sinjar—yesterday’s refuge and today’s trusted companion—the bodies of the martyrs are buried near the agricultural terraces and the tents that still host thousands of displaced people. In the well-maintained cemetery, rows of white graves preserve the names of those who died to free Sinjar, but also the Iraqi cities and nearby Rojava. There are dates of birth and death and the place where they fell. Some tombstones are wrapped in a keffiyeh.
A small group of elders, members of the association of the families of the martyrs, tell us about their pain: “We don’t want everything that was born from blood and sacrifice, the autonomy, the People’s Assembly, the self-defense, to vanish,” says the mother of a young man killed in Serekaniye. A child hugs his grandfather. He has lost his daddy in the war.
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