The streets of the Yazidi village of Khanasur are a network of parallels and perpendiculars that conveys geometrical perfections. It’s the same in the neighboring communities, Sinone, Dolah, Borik – the opposite of the apparent urban confusion of Middle Eastern towns, usually a maze of alleys, steep climbs, labyrinthine paths that almost miraculously lead back to the starting point and houses perched one on top of the other as if to support one other.
In the district of Shingal, a northwestern region of Iraq, wedged between Syria and Turkey, one can also see settlements like that, but not in the valley: instead, one can encounter them on Mount Shengal itself, a mountain range about a hundred kilometers long that cuts through the north and south of the Yazidi territory and splits it into half, with ridges, valleys and caves unreachable by any motor vehicle, but also agricultural terraces and green meadows.
Here in the plains, the few villages that have survived, built in the times of the collectivization imposed by the Baath party in the ‘70s, or that have been rebuilt in recent times, are following more modern urbanistic principles. Tiny settlements appear sporadically on the flat areas, with low houses divided by narrow dirt paths, where you’ll inevitably be slowed down by the stones, or held back by the cracks in the earth.
The houses are not all the same: some are built in the traditional way, a mixture of mud and stones, others are made of cement bricks.
Haso Hibrahim, the vice co-chairman of the Shingal Autonomous Administration, which arose from the Yazidi resistance to the ISIS massacre of August 2014, lives with his family in the mountain settlements, called Serdest (literally “above the plain”), a short distance from the cemetery of the martyrs, the physical memory of the Yazidi fighters who died to liberate the region from the Islamist occupation that lasted for 15 months, until November 2015.
Sitting on mattresses in the common room, wearing traditional clothes and a red and white keffiyeh on his head, Haso recounts the expulsion of his family from the village in the mid-1970s.
It was before he was born: “My family had been living in the mountains long before Saddam Hussein. In 1975, the Iraqi government ordered the destruction of the Yazidi villages on Mount Shengal, after the conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdish-Iraqi movement led by Mustafa Barzani in which Yazidis also took part.”
“My family was moved to the new village of Borik, in the valley. We returned only in 1992, with the restriction that we couldn’t build ‘stable’ houses made of concrete, but only of mud. The Iraqi government arrested my brother and father because they refused to sign a document pledging not to build stable homes.”
“But up here we had everything we needed: fig trees, crops of tobacco, wheat, chickpeas, lentils, the sheep gave us wool. We were independent.”
The agricultural terraces and pastures that dot the mountain, tucked between the rugged peaks, tell a story about the past. Up here, on Mount Shengal, the Yazidis have been living off sheep farming and agriculture, activities that flourished thanks to water sources that are almost impossible to find in the valley, the desert plain that continues eastwards towards Mosul.
In 1975, Baathist Baghdad ordered the forced transfer of the inhabitants of over 150 mountain villages to eleven new townships in the plains: the mujamma’at, the collective villages planned by Saddam Hussein. Given Arabic names, which were soon replaced by the Yazidis with their own vocabulary, they were built up from nothing: unnatural urban settlements designed to make social control easier.
Specifically intended to keep them from taking refuge on the heights – a mountainous stronghold that would be difficult to conquer by an army thanks to its natural caves, tunnels and steep paths that can be tackled only by those experienced – the design of the new villages in the valley was planned to facilitate military patrols: wide, parallel and perpendicular roads, low houses, all built along the main road that runs from the Syrian border and crosses the plain of Nineveh up to Mosul.
At the origin of these settlements was the mixed policy of Arabization and land confiscation, with which the Iraqi regime back then wanted to transform the north of the country, home to Iraq’s many ethnic and religious minorities. It was a work of demographic engineering that used urban planning and land ownership rights as an instrument of control and repression of any possible dissent.
It started with the Algiers Agreements between Iran and Iraq, by which the two countries agreed on the borders of Shatt al-Arab (the very fertile ground between the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates): as part of the deal, Tehran agreed to stop supporting the Kurdish rebellion.
This was followed by the deportations, which have been called “ethnic dilution”: about 250,000 people, mostly Yazidis, but also Turkmen, Kurds and Assyrians, were forcibly moved from their ancestral villages to the mujamma’at.
In Shingal, more than 150 rural communities were emptied out, with orchards, houses and water sources destroyed. The confiscation of land affected 64% of all private property at the time.
The Yazidis were assigned plots of land in the 11 new townships, north and south of the mountain, according to criteria that ignored tribal ties and clan affiliation, breaking up the Yazidi social structure. “The mujamma’at,” according to a 2019 UN Habitat report, “represent the structural territorial units around which the 1975 Land Reform was organized and have become an important feature of contemporary landscape in northern Iraq. […] While differing in size, the mujamma’at were designed according to a modular pattern and typology, which produced a repetitive landscape which remains highly recognizable today.”
This was a securitarian project, not one focused on development. The Yazidi families who had been deprived of their land were assigned 450 square meters of land each (but not the ownership of the plot, which was never registered in their name) and 400 dinars (equivalent to 1,200 dollars today), to be used for building materials.
From the old mud houses, they moved into brick dwellings: however, without the space necessary for flocks or agriculture, the Yazidi soon became dependent on the government for meager services.
In the meantime, thousands of hectares of land in the mountains were absorbed by the state, in a massive operation of confiscation and nationalization, exploited for demographic engineering: some lands were rented at low prices to Arab families moved in from the center and the south of Iraq.
That wasn’t the only change: on the highest point, Cilmera (“the 40 men”), the regime installed a military base. It is still there today: it’s where the YBS, the Yazidi self-defense units, are stationed. Between barbed wire and barracks, two enormous triangular stone buildings remain.
It was also used as a launch pad: “Back in 1991,” Hussein, a journalist, tells us, “Scud missiles were launched against Israel from up here.” There were about 40 of them, taking advantage of the other use of the mountain that the Baath party envisioned: the geographical position, height, absence of prying eyes (the possible witnesses, the Yazidi communities, had been “wisely” deported elsewhere) and distance from the capital, Baghdad, in case of Israeli retaliation made Mount Shengal the perfect military location.
Nonetheless, traditional life on the mountain is still here today. In a surprising twist, it returned after the Islamic State massacres, which came in 2014 after the flight of the Kurdish KDP peshmerga of the Barzani clan and the collapse of the Iraqi army. Displaced people with tents came and took back the lands they once owned.
“The settlements were reborn after the liberation of Shingal and the birth of the Autonomous Administration, starting from the refugee camps that arose when tens of thousands of Yazidis took refuge up here,” Murad explains, as he takes us to visit an elderly friend, one of those who rebuilt his house after being forced, almost half a century ago, to abandon his home village for the Baathist mujamma of Til Ezer.
Today, Til Ezer is a ghost town, as very few families have returned after Daesh was driven out: the mines hidden by Islamists in the houses and in the streets, never removed, are deterring them from coming back.
The new house is made of cement, and outside its inhabitants have set up everything needed to raise sheep and chickens. Murad continues the story: “After starting in tents, those who were able to do so built brick houses on the land they had owned and brought back their animals, planted trees and put back together the pieces of their traditional life.”
In Serdest, a group of workers is working to build the Women’s House, a part of the Yazidi system of self-government inspired by the democratic confederalism of the nearby Rojava, while in the valley dozens of children with backpacks are hitchhiking: after spending the morning at school in the city of Sinone, they are looking for a ride back home, in the mountains.