In Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan: “Where Is The World?”

Ottawa Citizen, September 25, 2014.

DUHOK, Iraq: “When they came, they had lots of guns and tanks, and they had rockets. They came to kill our people and take away all our girls. We fought for a couple of hours, but we ran out of ammunition so we had to run away from there. Whoever stayed, they killed. At least 1,000 people from the village were killed. The village was emptied. There are just bodies in the streets now.”

Iraqi Kurdish police trooper Bashar Khalaf, left; Iraqi soldier Jamal Ali, right.

This is the way 24-year-old Iraqi soldier Jamal Ali (pictured on the right; Kurdish trooper Bashar Khalaf on the left)) described the last hours of the ancient Yazidi village of Siba Shekdra, his home village  in the Shingal Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the scores of Yazidi villages that the marauders from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have attacked and emptied since the early days of August. The Islamic State’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has deemed the Yazidis devil worshippers who must either renounce their ancient and esoteric faith or be put to the sword.

At least 600,000 people have streamed into this city of about 1.1 million in recent months. At least a third of them are the Yazidis of the Shingal mountains, survivors of the Yazidi death march to Mount Sinjar that captured headlines and shook the world last month. Those that escaped Mount Sinjar keep pouring into Duhok, where they sleep in the streets or under highway overpasses.

Municipal officials here say they are struggling to accommodate the influx as best they can, with little help from the United Nations or from the Iraqi government in Baghdad. City workers have gone weeks without salaries. The school year has been suspended: all of the Duhok District’s roughly 700 schools have been turned into makeshift camps.

I met Ali at the Avro Elementary School in Duhok’s Shaxe neighbourhood, where about 750 Yazidis were huddled in the classrooms or outside on the school grounds. Ali was living under a plastic tarpaulin in the school courtyard with seven of his family members: three adults and four children. They had nothing except the few meagre possessions they’d managed to carry with them on their trek out of the mountains.

Ali’s cousin, 21-year-old Iraqi police trooper Bashar Khalaf, told a darker and scarcely-reported story that I’d heard from several Yazidis during my visits to makeshift refugee camps in Iraq, Southern Turkey and across the Tigris River in the Kurdish areas of Syria that are under the control of the Kurdish guerrilla force, the YPG (Local Defence Forces).

“All of the villages around us are Arabs, and they joined with Daash (the Arabic term for ISIL) against us. They are our neighbours. We have known them all our lives. We don’t know what happened to them,” Khalaf said. “They say if we come back they will kill us. They say, ‘we have taken your house, your car, your fields.’ This is why we do not want to go back.”

The scale of the Yazidi pogrom has yet to be fully comprehended by the outside world, Duhok Mayor Mohammad Amin Osman told me.

“Where is the world?” Osman asked. “Here in Duhok, we are Kurds, Arabs, and some Christians, and we are feeling the sadness for the Yazidis. As humans we are feeling their suffering. For the Yazidis, a genocide has happened for them now. All around them they see enemies, and they are afraid of dying.”

Osman said it would take international forces to help the Yazidis return and settle safely in the mountain redoubts that they consider sacred and central to their faith, but that would mean a heavily armed peacekeeping commitment that he doesn’t see coming from the international community. For now, the main problem is that the outside world is still unaware of the enormity of the Yazidi crisis, he said.

The UN High Commission for Refugees was already counting about a million “internally displaced” Iraqis prior to the Yazidi pogrom. The UNHCR counted 93,000 Syrian refugees in Duhok alone as of September 15. But the UN has registered only an unknown fraction of Northern Iraq’s displaced people, and the UN doesn’t list its registrants’ ethnic or religious background.

Duhok municipal staff reckon that 350,000 Yazidis have been driven from their homes – well more than half the entire population of the harmlessly devout religious minority – and that more than half of the displaced Yazidis have ended up in Duhok. Further to those numbers, unknown thousands of Yazidis are still trapped in the Shingal Mountains, and thousands more remain on the move.

It was only at the end of a harrowing march through a “security corridor” the Syrian Kurdish YPG guerrillas opened up for them last month that roughly 150,000 Yazidis found refuge in Rojava – the Kurdish term for Syrian Kurdistan. At least 20,000 Yazidis opted to remain in YPG-controlled Rojava. The guerrillas later helped 127,000 Yazidis cross back into Iraqi Kurdistan via a floating bridge across the Tigris River at Samalka, Shevket Barbahari, administrator of the Kurdish Regional Government’s Samalka border checkpoint, told me.

Perhaps 40,000 of those Yazidis are surviving in the several makeshift camps I visited that are run by Kurdish-majority municipal governments in Turkey’s southeastern towns and cities. Turkey is notoriously hostile to the Kurds, and the Yazidis are a Kurdish minority who harbour deep and not unreasonable suspicions that Turkish authorities sometimes collaborate with ISIL.

As a consequence, it is Duhok, the key northern city in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government region of Iraq, that has taken in the greatest numbers of Yazidis – roughly 200,000 people. “We are all doing our best,” Isa Suleiman, president of the 20,000-member Duhok Labour Federation, told me. “It has been a shock to our economy, and wages are falling badly. But even I have three Yazidi families, 25 people, who are living in my garden now, and I am feeding them.”

Canada has found about $20 million for humanitarian aid to Northern Iraq since the crisis began – a paltry sum, but above average. Even in Syria, where no refuge at all is available to the Arab victims of Bashar Assad and the ISIL gangrene his savagery has caused to spread through the region, the World Food Program has just announced that it is cutting back on the food rations it supplies to six million people, owing to the broken pledges of UN member states.

The suffering goes on. The world prefers to avert its gaze.

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