“It was seven o’clock in the morning when they came to Tel Azir, my village. They killed seven men and captured 24 women, so we ran to the mountains. We escaped to the mountains.”
This is how 24-year-old Amira Jamil begins her story about the Yazidi pogrom – the singular event in a three-year chain reaction of atrocities that led to the American-brokered coalition campaign of airstrikes on jihadist targets now underway across Iraq and Syria.
It was Aug. 3. Heavily-armed marauders from the al-Qaida offshoot known as the Islamic State (also called ISIL, ISIS, and in the Arabic pejorative, Da’ash) swept in from the south and surrounded Jamil’s village, in the Shingal Mountains of northern Iraq.
They’d come to commit a genocide explicitly ordered by their caliph, the fanatical Sunni cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a fatwa. The Yazidis are “mushrikin,” devil-worshippers. Plunder their homelands. Slaughter the men who refuse to submit to Islam. Capture the Yazidi women and the girls. Everything is permitted. Rape, mass murder, slavery, extortion, pillage.
Al-Baghdadi had announced the establishment of his caliphate in June, declaring himself the leader of all the world’s Muslims. All summer his shock troops had been pouring into Iraq from the smoking ruins of Syria. Iraqi troops abandoned their posts, one after the other. At Tikrit, at least 700 Iraqi soldiers who’d surrendered were slaughtered en masse.
Al-Baghdadi’s fighters easily overran Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. By July they were in control of a swathe of territory the size of Great Britain, from Raqqa in Syria to Fallujah on the outskirts of Baghdad. Christians were crucified, Muslim apostates were lined up in front of firing squads. Captured women were traded around like livestock. Captured soldiers were forced to dig their own mass graves.
When al-Baghdadi’s forces came roaring towards the Shingal Mountains they were loaded down with weapons they’d looted from Camp Speicher, the former American military base at Tikrit. They moved in convoys of tanks and hundreds of armoured Humvees.
The Yazidis’ arsenals consisted mainly of bird guns, rusty AK-47s and antique Lee Enfield rifles. A minority within a minority, the Yazidis follow a pre-Abrahamic faith with a peacock-angel for a deity, and they are found only among the Kurds – a stateless people whose homelands straddle the mountainous frontiers of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
By Aug. 3, the Yazidis had no one to defend them but the ragged guerrillas from Turkey’s outlawed PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party) and the Kurdish YPG (Local Defence Forces) from the rebel zones of northern Syria. Under a guerrilla escort, the Yazidi exodus began.
“We were in the mountains for seven days, and then we started walking,” Jamil told me. “We couldn’t even get water for our babies. If our children die, we must save ourselves. Just throw them away, leave them by the side of the road.”
I met Jamil at a makeshift refugee camp that had sprung up at a football field and picnic ground near the town of Sukurlu, about eight hours’ drive from the Iraqi border and a half-hour’s drive from Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeastern Turkey. Nearly 5,000 Yazidis were living there in shelters built from tarpaulins, plastic equipment sheds, bedsheets and carpets.
As I travelled south from Diyarbakir into Iraq, and then across the Tigris River into Syria, the scale of the Yazidi pogrom became clearer in accounts I heard at the half-dozen makeshift camps I visited. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other agencies are just beginning to tabulate the enormity of the catastrophe.
It was only when thousands of Yazidis found themselves encircled and trapped on the barren massif of Mount Sinjar, dying by the dozen from exposure and thirst, that the outside world took notice. It was at Mount Sinjar that the curtain was raised on the United States’ disastrous foreign-policy incoherence in the Middle East, and on the NATO capitals’ indifference.
By those early days of August, the contradictory and waffling half-measures that U.S. President Barack Obama had pursued in Syria and Iraq had cost him the confidence of almost all his senior advisers, along with a majority of American opinion-poll respondents. With the American public riveted to the horror unfolding on Mount Sinjar, he finally decided it was time to act.
On Aug. 7, Obama announced that American fighter jets would bomb Islamic State convoys advancing across the Nineveh Plain towards Irbil, the capital city of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government. “American personnel” were at risk there. In tandem, the U.S. air force was to begin humanitarian airdrops to the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain … then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama declared. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”
Within days, Canada, France and Germany were airlifting arms to the faltering peshmerga (“those who face death”) of the Kurdish Regional Government, and ramping up humanitarian aid. When his Arab League allies would only strike Islamic State targets in Syria, Obama enlisted a coalition of mostly NATO countries, including Canada, to target al-Baghdadi’s forces in Iraq.
The U.S.-led intervention came about only after the deaths of 26,000 people in Iraq and 200,000 in Syria, and after more than 13 million people had been rendered either refugees or “internally displaced persons” in both countries. The carnage had been unfolding since 2011, and even now it shows no sign of abating.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has ramped up his own air war threefold, most notoriously in the crude barrel bombs that he has used to kill thousands of Syrian civilians and to destroy so many Syrian cities and towns over the past three years.
But even for the Yazidis in their remote mountains, the American-led intervention was too little, too late. It is now evident that roughly 350,000 Yazidis fled their Shingal Range homelands during the early days of August. The mountains they’d held to be holy from time immemorial are almost completely depopulated. Thousands of Yazidis never made it out alive.
“We don’t know what has happened to the women from our village who were captured,” Amira Jamil told me. “We are told they are being sold as slaves to rich people.”
Jamil was one of the lucky ones. She had been separated from her husband, Hustad, for much of her journey, but he was alive, or at least she believed he was — he’d returned to the mountains in hopes of finding her sister.
Jamil’s infant son, Hassam, was sitting on her lap. He was only 10 days old when the Yazidi exodus began, and Jamil had carried him on mountain paths and backroads, with throngs of trudging people, for six weeks. They slept on the roadside, sometimes under bridges. Sometimes she travelled in the back of a truck with other refugees.
When I met her at the Sukurlu encampment, Jamil was sitting with a group of about two dozen women on a patch of grass in the shade of a poplar tree. Every one of them said they had lost a family member: a son, husband or brother who had been butchered or who had died fighting, a sister, aunt or daughter who had been killed or captured and carried off. They said they wanted the world outside to know their stories.
There were too many stories to tell them here. But as I was leaving, an anxious-looking girl I’d noticed standing at the edge of the group in a tattered black hijab hurried up to me and grabbed my arm. She spoke quickly. She said her name was Molina Sa’alem, and that she was 14. Her story is brief enough.
– Terry Glavin, Ottawa Citizen.
In the panic of Aug. 3 when everyone was running to the mountains, Molina became separated from the 18 members of her family who fled that day, and she didn’t know what had become of any of them, except for one. “My brother,” she said. “They killed my brother.” Her voice started to break. “He was fighting back. His name was Hayaff. He was 13.”
While the death toll from the Yazidi pogrom remains unknown, the authors of a recent UN report released in Geneva managed to enumerate 4,692 civilians in northern Iraq who were summarily executed, buried alive, beheaded, crucified or tortured to death between June and September.
The report also estimated that as many as 2,500 people, almost all of them women and girls, had been abducted. Yazidi women were “allotted to ISIL fighters or were being trafficked as slaves,” and in Mosul, the captives were being sold at open markets, adorned with pricetags.
Following the week-long airdrops at Mount Sinjar, the Pentagon called off an evacuation and announced that the crisis had passed.
The crisis has not passed.
“We cannot go back. Da’ash is still there,” Sanjar Sununi, a 24-year-old truck driver, told me. “I went on the mountain after there were 18 men who were beheaded by Da’ash. With my own eyes I saw the bodies of 350 people they killed at the side of Mount Sinjar, at the village of Jidar,” he said.“We cannot go back.”
More than two months after the Pentagon halted its airdrops, the Kurdish Regional Government reported that 10,000 Yazidis were still hiding in the mountains around Mount Sinjar, in desperate need of blankets and tents. During the first week of October, Islamic State forces overran three local villages, effectively closing off any escape route by road. By early November, a column of Islamic State fighters was reported to have advanced to within a kilometre of Mount Sinjar, where at least 700 Yazidi families were again besieged.
Nearly 300,000 Yazidis are now scattered across northern Iraq, as far east as the city of Sulaymaniyah. Of the 150,000 Yazidis who traversed a rebel-held cordon in northeastern Syria during their long march out the Shingal Range, perhaps 20,000 remain there, in Rojava, the YPG-controlled Kurdish region of Syria. At least 30,000 Yazidis appear to have made it into Turkey.
Weeks after the pogrom, there was still scant evidence of any significant help for the Yazidis from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The largest UNHCR facility I came across was at Banjid Kandala, just a few kilometres from the Syrian border, inside Iraq. Although established as a UNHCR transit facility, there were at least 20,000 Yazidis still living there in tents.
All the major centres where the Yazidis have found refuge are in Kurdish districts – Sukurlu and Silopi in Turkey, Rojava in Syria, the Iraqi city of Duhok, and so on. If there is truth to the old saying, “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” the Yazidis seem to have no true friends but their fellow Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslims.
The Yazidi encampment at Sukurlu where I met Amira Jamil was being run by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party from the local municipal administration. At the other end of the scale, officials with the mainly Kurdish city of Duhok in northern Iraq were attempting to care for more than 200,000 Yazidis, housing them mostly in parks, community centres and the district’s 700-plus schools.
“I would say the UN is helping the Yazidis to practically five per cent. The help from the UN is not more than that,” Duhok’s beleagured mayor, Mohammad Amin Osman, told me. “We have had some help from the Kurdish Regional Government, and we have also opened our houses for the Yazidis. They have even no food, so it is up to us.”
Even before the Yazidis arrived in Duhok, the city’s population had already swollen from 1.1 million to 1.5 million, mostly people fleeing Islamic State rampages that disproportionately target minorities: Christians, Arab Shia, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabaeans and others.
As horrific as their sufferings have been, the Yazidis make up only a small number of the 1.9 million Iraqis recently uprooted by the mayhem in that country. In Rojava, the Kurdish-held region of northern Syria that runs along the Turkish frontier, the story is the same.
“The Yazidis have come here to us, but so many others have come here as well, to save themselves,” Abdulsalam Ahmad, the co-chair of the Rojava’s provisional government, told me. The influx began almost as soon as the Kurdish YPG guerrillas drove out Assad’s forces in the weeks after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.
Rojava’s population has nearly doubled to about 4.6 million. The newcomers are Sunni and Shia Syrian Arabs who have fled the scorched wasteland that Assad has made of his country. They are also Orthodox Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Catholics, and others, from out of the jihadist dystopia that has taken up so much of the space where Assad’s police state used to be.
I met Abdulsalam Ahmad in Derike, one of the principal towns of Rojava’s Jazeera canton, in Syria’s mountainous northeastern corner. While there are no UNHCR camps in Rojava there is a camp the Derike municipality has established for about 10,000 refugees, mostly Yazidis, on a rocky desert plain at the district’s Nowruz festival grounds.
At the camp, I met Omar Saleh Ibrahim, a 46-year-old Yazidi from the village of Ramboosi, in the Shingal Mountains. The people fought the Islamic State’s invaders until there were no more bullets, Ibrahim said. As it was with Amira Jamil’s village, Tel Azir, Ramboosi fell on Aug. 3. Seven girls were captured.
Ibrahim had only been at the Nowruz camp for a couple of days – he’d gone back to the Shingal Mountains, and he was just getting ready to return eastward again, to join his wife and daughter. “They are with the YPG in the mountains now, and I am proud of them,” Ibrahim told me. “We are going to keep fighting until we have rescued those girls and we have taken our village back.”
From Derike and other towns in Rojava’s Jazeera canton, YPG guerrillas were also streaming westward, to Kobani, on the Syrian-Turkish border. Joined by the Free Syrian Army, the YPG was putting up a fierce fight to defend Kobani against heavily-armed Islamic State forces that had poured in from the south.
Besieged on three sides by the Islamic State’s jihadists and on the north by a border where massed Turkish troops were refusing to help, the calamity of Kobani was threatening to become another Mount Sinjar. The world was watching. It did not go unnoticed that among Kobani’s bravest and most gallant fighters were battalions of young women from the ill-equipped YPG.
Over a 36-hour period, after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was shamed into allowing them through, more than 160,000 civilians stormed across the Turkish border from Kobani.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry excused the American refusal to intervene in Kobani by saying it was a “tragedy,” sure enough, but a tragedy that had “nothing to do with foreign strategy that is occurring in response to ISIS and its actions.” Eventually, the White House was shamed into authorizing airstrikes and arms drops for Kobani’s defenders.
The fighting continues, but Kobani is still a Kurdish town.