The Plight of Yazidis in Iraq

By Rania Khalek | September 15, 2017

[This is a collection of 3 part series of articles on the 'Plight of Yazidis in Iraq' by Rania Khalek, originally published by Alternet. The first part is followed by the second and the third.]


Tales of Genocide at ISIS's Hands 

Yazidi fighters are joining the Iraqi-run PMF in droves, and see a new war on the horizon.

SINJAR, IRAQ—On a Sunday afternoon in mid-August under the baking Iraqi sun, 980 Yazidi soldiers marched in formation at a military camp south of Sinjar mountain. Graduation music blared from loudspeakers as several dozen seated Yazidi elders applauded. After a month of training, the Yazidi soldiers were now official members of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), bringing the total number of Yazidis in the PMF to 1,350.

Just a few kilometers behind the graduation procession was Sinjar mountain. Three years ago many of these Yazidi PMF recruits escaped to the mountain as ISIS overran their towns. These were the darkest days for the Yazidi people.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 3, 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, launched a pre-planned and systematic campaign of forced conversion, massacres and sexual enslavement against the Yazidi community of Sinjar, which the UN has described as an ongoing genocide. Yazidis practice a pre-Islamic monotheistic religion that ISIS equates with devil worship. Under ISIS doctrine, Yazidi men must be killed and their women kidnapped into sexual slavery and forcibly converted.

The onslaught sent tens of thousands of Yazidis fleeing to the mountain, where they were trapped for days. The recruits recalled in detail the hunger and thirst they experienced while trapped there. The dusty mountainous terrain was their refuge, but for some of their family members it became a tomb. Nonetheless, the rugged mountains saved the Yazidi people in their darkest hour.

The atrocities carried out against the Yazidis by ISIS received enormous international media coverage at the time, but for some reason, the cameras turned away when the PMF units liberated some 40 percent of Sinjar from ISIS earlier this year. Launched in the beginning of May, the PMF offensive was swift and devastatingly effective. By June, the PMF managed to expel ISIS from all of south Sinjar.

Yazidi men flocked to the PMF during and after the liberation. Hundreds of them defected from Kurdish-run outfits like the Peshmerga and PKK. Many of the new graduates participated in the recent operation to expel ISIS from Tal Afar, where hundreds of Yazidi women had been taken to be sold into slavery. But the battle is far from over.

With ISIS cornered and its territory shrinking, a new conflict is emerging, with the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad jockeying for control over Sinjar. The KRG wants Sinjar as part of a Kurdish state and Baghdad wants it for security purposes. Given its proximity to the Iraqi border with Syria, Sinjar is seen as crucial to safeguarding the border from ISIS or any future Sunni insurgency that might replace it.

Joining the PMF is a huge risk for Yazidis. KRG intelligence, called Asayish, has responded to the formation of the Yazidi PMF by kicking out the displaced families of Yazidi men who join, raising the question: why are so many Yazidis willing to risk being kicked out of Kurdistan to join the PMF?

I spent a week with the Yazidi PMF in newly liberated south Sinjar in August. I learned that many Yazidis joined the PMF because they are desperate to protect and hold their towns and rescue members of their families who were taken captive by ISIS. As a result they’re eager to work with whatever group is willing to help them. They also want to gain local control over administering their areas and they see an alliance with the central government in Baghdad as offering the best chance for that. There is also the fact that Yazidis loathe the Peshmerga, blaming them for a betrayal of historic proportions. When ISIS attacked the Yazidis in 2014, the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia retreated from Sinjar, leaving the Yazidis defenseless against the militants. Three years later, they’re fed up with what they describe as extreme repression at the hands of the KRG.

Ghost towns and crime scenes

In 1975, when Saddam Hussein initiated his campaign of arabization, Yazidi villages on Sinjar mountain were destroyed by the government and rebuilt in the plains north and south of the mountain in what are called collective towns. Many of the collective towns have a Yazidi name (Yazidis speak a dialect of Kurdish) and an Arabic name that the Ba’athist government imposed.

I was guided through each of the collective towns in south Sinjar by Yazidi locals who walked me through what happened when ISIS invaded. Each neighborhood felt like a massive crime scene in desperate need of examination by forensic units. In Tal Ezeir (the Arabic name is Qahtaniyah), I saw ISIS prisons for Yazidi women and girls where women’s clothing—bras, underwear, colorful dresses and piles of shoes—littered the floor. In Gir Zerek (Arabic name is Adnaniyah) I saw the trenches where heroic Yazidi men held off ISIS for several hours until they ran out of ammunition, buying time for countless families to flee. In the town of Kojo, the site of the largest known ISIS massacre of Yazidis, I saw mass graves believed to hold the corpses of an estimated 400 Yazidi men and boys who were killed by ISIS on August 15 before the women and children were hauled off to prisons in Tal Afar. Everywhere I went, I found stacks of photocopied Yazidi identification cards in former ISIS headquarters.

There isn’t much for Yazidis to return to in south Sinjar. ISIS fighters left one human wasteland after another in their wake. Many of the houses, especially the Yazidi homes, are in ruins. Those that remain intact have been stripped to the bone—even the doors and windows are missing. These towns were extremely underdeveloped from the start. They’re connected by unpaved roads. In some cases there are no roads at all, so getting from one town to another requires a bumpy ride in a 4x4 that can cruise through desert sand.

The towns have yet to be cleared of explosives and there are still ISIS tunnels that need to be sealed. At the Yazidi PMF headquarters in Tal Qasab, I met two young men from Basra, a city in southern Iraq. They were sent over by the Iraqi government for a couple days to train Yazidi PMF recruits in how to neutralize booby traps, IEDs and unexploded ordnance. One of the men was missing his left index finger. He cracked a joke about it: “At least it was a finger and not a leg…or something even more irreplaceable,” he said, pointing between his legs.

The upside is the PMF has handed over control of the towns to local Yazidi PMF. Yazidis from the area man the checkpoints and provide security in their former neighborhoods using equipment and training provided by the PMF.

That said, south Sinjar is not fit for civilian return. There are no services, schools or hospitals, just Yazidi PMF. Unfortunately, some families have no choice but to move back in.

Punishing genocide survivors

Marwan Kamala El Sheikh, a Yazidi PMF soldier, got a call from his family in Dohuk two days before my visit. His family was told by the Asayish that they have one week to gather their things and leave Dohuk or they will be forcibly removed from the area and their belongings dumped in the street. This was retribution for Marwan joining the PMF.

Marwan is from Gir Zerek, a mixed Kurdish Sunni and Yazidi town in south Sinjar. ISIS bulldozed, bombed and burned down most of the Yazidi homes here, including his. He was scrambling to find a place for his family to sleep upon their return. Standing in front of his almost entirely destroyed home, he huffed, “The Peshmerga is ISIS.”

Marwan Kamala El Sheikh stands outside of his ruined home in Gir Zerek wondering where his family will live after the KRG force them out of Dohuk becuase he joined the PMF.

“What Kurdistan is doing is a disaster and it’s against international law,” said Yazidi PMF leader Murad Sheikh Kaloo at his office in Baghdad. “It’s not a crime to join the PMF. I contacted those responsible for human rights in the US embassy in Baghdad and the U.N. and international organizations and they have done nothing to help us.”

Before ISIS overran Sinjar, Murad was a businessman who ran a trade company out of Baghdad and Mosul. As events unfolded in August 2014, Murad became a consultant for the PMF, trying to rally support for Yazidis trapped in Sinjar. Today he oversees the entire Yazidi PMF. As a result of his involvement in the PMF, his daughter, who was attending the American university in Erbil, was kicked out.

“As the Yazidi community, we have not received enough help, not from the Iraqi government or the international community,” said Murad. “The only person standing with us is Hajj Mahdi. On Aug. 6, 2014, he was the one who coordinated with the PKK and the Yazidis to open the border so they could evacuate out of Sinjar. He personally saved over 300,000 Yazidis trapped on that mountain. The Americans and the governments around the world didn’t do anything, they just watched the massacres happen. Our gratitude goes to the PMF and Abu Mahdi [Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraqi military commander of the PMF]. and [Iraq’s leading Shia cleric] Seyid Sistani.”

'Iranian-backed militias'

Western- and Gulf-funded media often depict the PMF as a collection of ultra-sectarian Shiite militias that answer to Iran. Yazidi soldiers laughed around the lunch table when I asked them their thoughts on this description of the PMF. One of them pointed to a carton of yogurt that said “Made in Iran,” and joked, “The Americans are right! We are Iranian-backed!” This elicited more laughter. Another pulled out a box of juice that said, “Made in Turkey.” More hearty laughter echoed through the room.

While the 110,000-strong PMF is indeed majority Shia, as is the population of Iraq, Iran does not control it. On the contrary, the PMF is a state-approved coalition of paramilitaries that more closely resemble a national army than militias. Late last year, the PMF was integrated into the Iraqi military structure by the Iraqi parliament and now falls under the authority of the Iraqi prime minister. The PMF serves Iraqi security interests which happen to align with Iran in the fight against ISIS.

“The PMF was actually created because of the ISIS invasion of Iraq,” points out Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English literature and Oriental studies at the University of Tehran. “It wasn’t as if the Iranians initiated a program in the country with some sinister motive. If it wasn’t for ISIS Iran would’ve never thought of being involved in Iraq in such a way,” he said.

“When I was in Mosul I went to areas completely controlled by Sunni PMF. There are areas controlled by Yazidi PMF and Christian PMF. Iranians helped organize and train people in order to save the country. Without the PMF, Iraq would’ve fallen to ISIS. The Iraqi army, thanks to the Americans, was not in a position to defend the country,” he added.

The PMF is indeed multi-ethnic and transcends sectarian lines, counting some 30,000 Sunnis, 3,000 Turkmen, 2,000 Shabak, 1,000 Christians and now 1,350 Yazidis in its ranks. As the country’s most effective fighting force against ISIS, the PMF, whether intentionally or not, has come to be seen as a protector of Iraq’s minorities, which explains why so many members of minority groups, like the Yazidis, have joined it.

It was, after all, the PMF’s success in routing ISIS from south Sinjar that prompted several hundred Yazidis to enlist. Some came from as far as Germany, like 25-year-old Khudr Walateh, who is from northern Sinjar. He and his family, now scattered between Germany and IDP camps in Dohuk, escaped to the mountain when ISIS attacked. They suffered for days from thirst and starvation in the extreme summer heat. “First, we are defending our country in the name of Iraq,” said Khudr when asked why he left the comforts of Germany for a war zone. “Second, we as minorities need to defend our land and our people, and the PMF is the only one helping us do that.”

Growing Yazidi preference for the PMF is also a result of built-up resentment toward the KRG, due in large part to the extreme repression Yazidis have experienced at the hands of the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Kurdish repression of Yazidis

There are two main political parties in the KRG: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which is associated with Sulaymaniyah and led by the Talabani family, and the larger and more powerful Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which is associated with the Barzani family and based in Erbil.

After the removal of Saddam Hussein, the KRG wooed Yazidis into its fold through a system of patronage that benefits Yazidi leaders who show loyalty to the Kurdish project. They punished detractors with intimidation, arbitrary arrests and even torture.

Nonetheless, prior to August 2014, most Yazidis were loyal to the KRG and saw themselves as part of the Kurdish project. That all changed after the genocide.

Since 2014, KRG repression against the Yazidi community has intensified. Today, Yazidis detest the KDP for the way it has treated them. Most Yazidis displaced from Sinjar live in camps for the internally displaced in Dohuk, a KDP stronghold. They are at the mercy of the KDP, which conditions aid and good treatment on loyalty to the party, according to Yazidis I spoke to. Yazidis who complain about conditions in the camps are threatened. Yazidis also believe the KDP is protecting Sunni Kurds who collaborated with ISIS by giving them refuge in Kurdistan.

Even Yazidi organizations trying to help survivors are shut down if they don’t align with the KDP.

One such group is called Campaign of 1000 Dinar. This organization was run by Yazidi youths who raised money from the community to help Yazidis in need, including girls who survived ISIS, poor students, orphans and families of Yazidis who died fighting ISIS. I met two of the Yazidi survivors who were helped by the campaign—two sisters from Tal Ezeir who escaped from ISIS captivity. Everyone in their family had been killed except for their uncle. But their uncle disowned them because they had been raped. Campaign of 1000 Dinar swept into action, raising money for the girls and helping them secure asylum in Germany, where both are now in college. Tragically, the campaign was shut down and outlawed by the KRG intelligence, or Asayish, after one of its members was photographed holding the flag of another political party.

“They want all Yazidis to be dependent on KDP,” said one former member of Campaign of 1000 Dinar. He asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the KDP. The former members of this campaign are still the most active Yazidis in Dohuk, such as Nasser Kret, who runs a volunteer NGO called the Ezidi Millennium Organization for Development, among many other projects, said the former member.

Those who take up arms against ISIS with any group that isn’t the Peshmerga face even harsher repercussions. Still, nothing has turned Yazidis against the KDP more than the Peshmerga’s retreat from Sinjar when ISIS attacked.

Betrayal at dawn, and a heroic sacrifice

When Mosul fell to ISIS in June 2014, the Peshmerga and KDP leader Masoud Barzani assured the Yazidis that they would protect them from ISIS. However, as ISIS moved in on Sinjar in August 2014, the Peshmerga suddenly retreated, leaving the Yazidis defenseless. This was disastrous for the Yazidis living southwest of the mountain; their towns were the first to be swarmed by ISIS with fighters from Baaj, a Sunni stronghold on the outskirts of Mosul.

As word spread of ISIS' attacks on Siba Sheikh Khider (Arabic name: al Jazeera) and Gir Zerek (Arabic name: Adnaniyah)—Yazidi collective towns on the southwest side of the mountain that were the first to come under ISIS fire—tens of thousands of Yazidis from towns further north began fleeing to Sinjar mountain by car and on foot, slogging through windswept desert terrain in the punishing summer heat. Many were barefoot, with nothing but the clothing on their backs. Not everyone survived. Small children and the elderly died by the hundreds. Others were shot by ISIS members who were hunting fleeing Yazidi civilians, often with the help of the Yazidis’ Sunni neighbors, who Yazidis say turned on them overnight.

After enduring such an onslaught at the hands of Sunni extremists, Yazidis now blame the Peshmerga for their suffering.

Captain Shukr, 37, a former Iraqi soldier, joined the PKK after the events of August 2014. In July of this year, he defected to the PMF. He will fight alongside whoever helps liberate his people, and he sees the PMF as the most capable and willing force at the moment.

“Peshmerga pulled out without a fight, so they betrayed us,” he said. “On Aug. 3, 2014, we were fighting from 2 in the morning for six hours and we didn’t realize the Peshmerga pulled out from our area. We asked, Where are you guys going? They told us, We’re going to bring support and we’ll be back. They never came back. They betrayed the Yazidis and they left us with ISIS. Anyone who couldn’t reach Sinjar mountain was killed or kidnapped by ISIS, thanks to the Peshmerga.”

Salah Hussein, 64, worked in the administration office for the Yazidis in Sinjar before joining the Yazidi PMF. “Our Sunni neighbors, they all attacked us, burned our houses and took our women. They couldn’t do that without getting help from Masoud Barzani,” he said.

Yazidi men in the frontline towns resisted for as long as they could with light weaponry (almost everyone in this rural and tribal desert had a weapon in the home). They were able to hold off ISIS for a few hours, allowing families time to flee to the mountain. Some of those who resisted say the Peshmerga told them they were only leaving temporarily to call for reinforcements, so they continued shooting at advancing ISIS fighters throughout the night. By the morning, most had run out of ammunition. When they realized that the Peshmerga was not coming back, they dug into their trenches and spent whatever ammo they had left, knowing that they would almost certainly die. Their efforts to hold off the ferocious advance, even if for just a few hours, bought time for countless families to escape. For that, they’re memorialized as heroes.

Qasim Shevan spent a year and a half fighting ISIS with his own independent militia on Sinjar mountain. His fierce refusal to align with any political party gained him the respect and admiration of all Yazidis. He said no both to the PUK and KDP Peshmerga when they tried to recruit him and he openly accuses Barzani of collaborating with ISIS. He says he saw friendly interactions and what looked like negotiations, possibly even collaboration, between ISIS fighters and the Peshmerga on several occasions in Sinjar. The fact that an independent figure like Shevan joined the PMF says a lot about the genuine support the PMF has among Yazidis.

“I didn’t join them [the Peshmerga] and follow their orders. I told them I’m Yazidi and I’m Iraqi and I’m not following Kurdistan,” he told me with great pride. “When the PMF came to liberate our areas, we volunteered with them. We went to Hajj Abu Mahdi and he told us we will do anything you want, and we told him we want to volunteer to defend our country and he gave us money, weapons and training. They provide us supply lines for the training camp and tomorrow a group of us will graduate.”

Most Yazidis suspect that Barzani’s Peshmerga made a deal with ISIS to get rid of the Yazidis for the sake of expanding Kurdistan. Whether or not this is true, part of the budding Yazidi alliance with Baghdad is based on opposition to Kurdish expansionism.

Kurdish expansionism

Sinjar is technically part of Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate. But it is also one of 26 “disputed territories” across northern Iraq that the Kurds claim belongs to them. According to an analysis published by Jane’s Intelligence Review, “After the Iraqi military’s retreat from the Islamic State in 2014, Kurds seized approximately 90% of these territories, including Kirkuk.” In other words, the KRG used the rise of ISIS and the chaos it stoked as an opportunity to carry out a massive land grab, increasing the territory it controls by 40 percent since 2014.

The PMF’s liberation of south Sinjar has complicated the Kurdish project. Sinjar district is now controlled by three different parties: the PMF, the Peshmerga and the PKK.

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), an international Kurdish leftist movement with many local branches, controls a stretch of Sinjar district northwest of the mountain close to the Syrian border. The YPS is the Yazidi branch of the PKK and the YPG is the Syrian Kurdish branch. Since the conflict began the KDP has been punishing Yazidis who joined the YPS to defend their lands from ISIS.

The KDP controls the collective towns north of the mountain, which the Peshmerga liberated in December 2014. It also controls Sinjar city, which the Peshmerga liberated in November 2015. Together these areas constitute about 30 percent of Sinjar district, though it hasn’t been much of a liberation. The KDP imposed an economic blockade on Sinjar, making it difficult for Yazidis to return, rebuild or farm their land.

“Go to Mosul. After a month of liberation, you see state services again. Northern Sinjar was liberated almost three years ago and still nothing. Why?” asked a Yazidi activist from Sharya, a Yazidi town in Dohuk. Many Yazidis who’ve spent the last three years languishing in IDP camps in Dohuk are wondering the same thing.

The collective towns south of the mountain, which constitute 40 percent of Sinjar district, have been under the control of Baghdad since the PMF liberated this area from ISIS in June. Yazidis had grown extremely frustrated with the Peshmerga for its refusal to expel ISIS from the southern towns, where the militant group had a light presence and was easy to route, as the PMF operation demonstrated, another reason they have rallied around the PMF.

On top of making it difficult for Yazidis to return to Sinjar, these political rivalries are obstructing efforts to comprehensively investigate the Yazidi genocide. People working for international organizations told me their investigations have been hindered by the lack of coordination between the various political actors in Sinjar. The KDP in particular is making investigation difficult by thwarting movement between north and south Sinjar. After spending a week in the southern Sinjar towns, I had to drive eight hours from south Sinjar to Baghdad and fly from Baghdad to Erbil, then drive two hours from Erbil to Dohuk in my attempt to reach north Sinjar. The journey would have required another three-hour drive from Dohuk, but the KRG did not grant me permission to enter north Sinjar.

“We are suffering as minorities inside Iraq,” said Murad, the PMF leader. “We didn’t get enough attention from the past or current government or from international organizations like the UN or human rights groups. For that we are suffering and there is pain inside. This genocide, no one is investigating it. If too much time passes, the evidence will disappear.”


Among the Yazidi PMF are around 100 men who defected from the PKK and some 300 from the Peshmerga. The defectors say they begged the Peshmerga to allow them to participate in the PMF liberation, but the leadership said no. This prompted dozens of Yazidis to abandon the Peshmerga, including Naif Jaso, a well-known Yazidi leader from the town of Kojo.

Kojo is the site of the largest ISIS massacre of Yazidis. On Aug. 15, 2017, ISIS rounded up and murdered every single man and teenage boy in the tiny farming town, including Naif’s brother, Ahmad Jaso, the Mukhtar of Kojo, after they refused to convert to Sunni Islam. All the young women and girls, including Naif’s daughters, were sold into sexual slavery. The older women were executed.

Naif’s grandson, 12-year-old Manay, was hidden by his mother before the slaughter took place and was then smuggled out by local Sunnis opposed to ISIS. His 15-year-old brother was likely killed and the fate of his 5-year-old brother is unknown. The family believes Manay’s mother was killed in an airstrike, though they don’t have the heart to tell him that.

Naif Jasso and his grandson Maney, 12, who survived the Kojo massacre, at their home in south Sinjar after being kicked out of Dohuk for joining the PMF.

The bodies are buried in several mass graves that dot the outskirts of Kojo. The graves are fenced off and have yet to be unearthed. Local Yazidi PMF are trying their best to preserve the crime scene as they wait for international investigators to visit. There are some human bones strewn on the ground, likely dug up by homeless dogs.

Jaso’s surviving son, Talib, commanded one of 14 brigades in the Yazidi Peshmerga. In mid-May, with the PMF operation underway, Talib and Naif defected from the Peshmerga to the PMF, taking their entire battalion with them to participate in the PMF liberation of Kojo. Their PMF battalion was called the Kojo brigade. Many other high-profile defections followed, as Yazidis were anxious to take back the rest of their towns.

“Unlike the Americans, the PMF didn’t just come here by airplane. They came here on the ground and liberated Sinjar,” said Jaso at a relative’s home in Tal Qasab. He and his family had just returned to south Sinjar that week after being forced to leave Dohuk by the KRG.

“There is no support for us so our community goes with the PKK and Peshmerga, but deep down all Yazidis support the government of Iraq,” he said. “If the situation was better for the Yazidis, if they were stronger, they would be supporting the Iraqi government. But right now, anyone who plants their flag here, the Yazidis will come under their rule because they have no power to resist. Kurds have been running this area since Saddam fell because we are weak.”

There is much more good will from Yazidis toward the PKK. When ISIS attacked Sinjar, the PKK’s Syrian branch, the YPG, opened the border between Iraq and Syria, allowing Yazidis an escape route to Kurdistan. Many Yazidis subsequently joined the PKK’s Yazidi branch, called YPS. But there is tension between some Yazidis and the PKK rooted in antagonism between growing Yazidi loyalty to the Iraqi state and the PKK’s Kurdish nationalism.

As Khudaydah, a 68-year-old Yazidi PMF member who defected from the PKK put it, “We are Iraqi and they [the PKK] are mostly with the Kurds. They don’t recognize the Yazidis as a people, they want to label us as Kurds,” he said, adding, “the PKK wants to control all of Sinjar, that’s their concern.”

Captain Shukr, who defected from the PKK, shared Khudaydah’s frustration. “Last year, we protested the Turkish army when they entered Bashiqa. The PKK got mad that we were holding Iraqi flags and they made us take them down. They said we have nothing to do with Iraq, we are Kurdish. How do you want to protest a foreign country’s interference in Iraq if you deny the one symbol that represents Iraq?” he asked.

What do Yazidis want?

There is no single, unified Yazidi opinion. In fact, there are Yazidis on all sides of this conflict, with the exception of the ISIS side, of course. That said, most express support for the PMF operation against ISIS in Sinjar, even many in the KDP, though they don’t dare say so publicly. One Yazidi KDP member who works in a KDP-affiliated office that helps Yazidi rape survivors confided that he was demoted from his position because his uncle joined the PMF. “What can I do?” he asked. “If I complain, I might lose my job. But I’m proud of my uncle.” Many Yazidi PMF members still live in Dohuk and keep their participation secret.

Dawood Jundy Sulaiman, 40, a Yazidi politician in the PUK and member of government in Nineveh province, also praised the PMF offensive. “Whoever fights ISIS, we support them. The PMF gave many martyrs to defend our land in Iraq and Sinjar. When the PMF reached Sinjar, they made a balance between the forces there,” he told me at his relative’s home in Dohuk.

Jundy wants to see coordination among all the parties in Sinjar and has tried to mediate, but he says the KDP has not been cooperative. He complained that the KDP are unwilling even to sit down with their adversaries let alone compromise and they refuse to allow Yazidis to have any say in their own affairs. “The KDP wants to control the Yazidi people so they get can get them to vote the way they want in the referendum,” argued Jundy.

At the end of the day, it is Yazidis who are on the frontlines in Sinjar, whether they are in the north or the south, says Jundy. And, he insists, “a Yazidi will never fight with another Yazidi.”

Jameel Chomar is manager of operations at Yazda, a Yazidi NGO that has been shut down by KDP on occasion. He believes all sides are using the Yazidis to further their own interests.

“Even the Peshmerga in the north, 90 percent of them are Yazidi. But most of them are there for $300 a month. And some people get privileges from being with the Peshmerga, like battalion commanders and privilege from the government,” he said in English.

“In my personal view, it seems like the KDP wants to be the voice for the Yazidi people during the elections. They don’t care much about that land because it’s very far away and there’s Arab tribes still there, like in Rabia. That’s why they don’t care about Shingal [the Yazidi word for Sinjar]. They only care about using the Shingaly people for political purposes. It seems like the PMF don’t care much about the Shingaly people, but they care about that land,” he said.

“The best solution for Shingal is coordination between all of these actors, between KRG, between the central government under supervision of U.N. or U.S. and European countries and with the participation of Yazidi people themselves, those people who truly represent the Yazidi people and are working for the benefits and future of Yazidis, not looking for future of their families and their pockets. There are many options. Shingal could be a province, then people of Shingal need to decide whether to stay with KRG or not. No matter what they decide, the discussion about Shingal area should include Yazidis,” said Chomar.

The next war?

“For the past three years following the August 3 genocide, Yazidis have consistently requested the support of the international community in creating local administration and nonpartisan security for the Sinjar Region, to be administered under the appropriate ministries in Baghdad,” said Matthew Barber, a PhD student at the University of Chicago. Barber was in Iraq when the Yazidi genocide began and later led a humanitarian and advocacy organization in the country.

“Yazidis hope that the PMF battalions might be transitioned into a local, permanent force that can protect the Sinjar Region, keeping it under the authority of the central government but separate from the Kurdistan Region and its political parties. If this possibility will be supported by the U.S. government, as the Yazidis continue to ask for, it could be a stabilizing development,” he said, echoing Chomar.

While this solution seems ideal, political tensions are escalating on the ground while Yazidis grow bitter and resentful and lose patience with the international community.

The recent batch of Yazidi PMF recruits were trained by a man from the PMF department of training called Abu Haidar.

“The training is going very well,” he told me from his headquarters in Baaj, pacing back and forth using a cane. He lost his leg in battle back in 2014 and was evacuated to Lebanon, where he was fitted with a prosthetic leg. “We only have one issue, which is they all want to be leaders. They feel it’s their right and duty because they have been suffering and have lost their families,” he said.

Abu Haider complained of the lack of space at the Yazidi training camp.

Built in the 1970s, the training site used to belong to the Iraqi army. After 2003, the Americans took control of it. Some Yazidis recall working with the Americans at this base after the fall of Saddam as translators and drivers. Eventually the base fell to ISIS, which left its mark; many of the barracks are damaged, while others have been reduced to rubble.

“As you can see, most of the camp is destroyed. We don’t have the kind of space we need for all these soldiers. Also, these soldiers, they’re very motivated, they just want to liberate their land. They want to work for us. When they graduate this Sunday, let’s hope Abu Mahdi gives them enough space,” he said.

I asked what they are training for if ISIS has already been ejected from the area. He replied that they are training to hold their areas and help liberate the remaining areas from ISIS. Suddenly a Yazidi leader interjected, “Yazidis still need to liberate the other half of Sinjar from the Peshmerga.” The soldiers in the room nodded in agreement, an acknowledgement that their war was far from over.



How ISIS Wives Helped Their Husbands Rape Yazidi Sex Slaves

September 24, 2017

DOHUK, IRAQI KURDISTAN - Seeham Haji Khudayda, a 22-year-old Yazidi woman from northern Sinjar, was sold seven times during her ISIS captivity. Like chattel, she was passed from one ISIS fighter to the next. She was raped almost daily. Sometimes she was gang raped by her owner’s guards. But of all the abuses she endured, what outraged her the most was the women who were complicit in it -- and who participated directly in her rape.

In addition to being raped, captured Yazidi women were forced to work as domestic servants for ISIS families. The wives and children of ISIS fighters would often participate in verbally and physically abusing Yazidis, according to accounts from survivors I spoke to in Dohuk. For Seeham and at least one other Yazidi survivor I spoke with who asked not to be named, the complicity went even further.

The second ISIS fighter who bought Seeham had a wife who helped him rape Seeham. The wife would restrain Seeham’s arms and legs, apply her makeup and dress her up in lingerie in preparation for her husband. She would prepare Seeham for rape and even seemed to derive enjoyment from the excruciating process, Seeham recalled, her doe brown eyes welling up with tears of anger.

Gang rape as punishment

On August 3, 2014, ISIS attacked Sinjar in northwest Iraq as part of a pre-planned and systematic campaign of genocide against the Yazidis. Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking ancient community who practice a pre-Islamic monotheistic religion that ISIS ideologues equate with devil worship. All across Sinjar, wherever Yazidis were captured by ISIS, the Sunni extremists forcibly converted or killed the men and enslaved the women and children.

According to the directorate of Yazidi affairs in Dohuk, 6,417 Yazidis were kidnapped by ISIS. By the middle of August 3,092 had escaped or were rescued and another 3,325 remain in ISIS captivity (these figures have likely changed since the liberation of Tal Afar, where many Yazidis were sold in slave markets). Thousands more Yazidi men and boys were killed. The number ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 depending on who you ask.

Seeham was just 19 years old when ISIS invaded Hardan, the northern Sinjar town where she lived with her husband and infant daughter. ISIS murdered her husband along with the rest of the men in Hardan that day. The women and children, meanwhile, were hauled away in buses and driven to a holding area in Tal Afar.

An ISIS prison cell for Yazidi women and girls in the collective town of Tal Ezeir (Arabic name is Qahtaniyah) located south of Sinjar. Yazidis were forced to pray in the direction of Mecca as demonstrated by the Qibla on the wall. (Photo Credit: Rania Khalek, August 12, 2017)

Seeham spent the next six months being shuffled between the Iraqi cities of Tal Afar and Mosul from one holding area to the next. She was imprisoned with hundreds and sometimes thousands of Yazidi women and children. Each day ISIS commanders would select girls to sell as sex slaves. Seeham watched them drag away girls as young as nine. They were usually pulled from their mothers or older siblings kicking and screaming over the riotous objections of their relatives, who were brutally beaten for protesting.

“They were choosing the prettiest and most beautiful girls for the ISIS leadership,” said Seeham. Desperate to make herself look as unattractive as possible, Seeham cut her eyelashes, smeared ash on her face and avoided bathing. “I wore the clothes of elderly women. We would cover our faces with scarves and make some crazy movements to try and look ugly. I put a white cloth on my head to look older, anything to avoid being taken by them.”

Yazidi women quickly realized that ISIS placed a higher value on unmarried girls, so many would say they were married even if they weren’t. They would even pretend their nephews, nieces or young siblings were their children. Seeham’s daughter was just 4 months old at the time. Even though she was feeding her child with baby formula, Seeham would pretend to breastfeed her in front of ISIS members to remind them that she was a married woman.

Seeham’s attempts to repel ISIS worked for about six months. Then one day she was selected.

The first ISIS fighter who bought Seeham was a man called Abu Anas. She pleaded with him not to rape her and asked why he was treating her this way.

“He told me you are a Yazidi, either we will kill you or you will convert to Islam. I said, please kill me, don’t rape me, I love my husband. He said it’s not your decision. This is halal. In the Koran, it’s mentioned that you can take the women of other religions as sex slaves. This is our right, we are not doing anything wrong, it’s according to Islamic law.”

“You are kuffar [an unbeliever], you deserve this,” she remembered him saying.

Abu Anas was Iraqi. He had two guards, one Lebanese and the other, a Syrian. The three of them gang raped Seeham on several occasions, usually as punishment for resisting Abu Anas. They would rape her with her baby girl in the room. It killed her to hear her daughter’s cries during the abuse.

Seeham believed she was living a nightmare that couldn’t get any worse. But it always did.

“She helped him rape me”

The ISIS fighter who bought Seeham from Abu Anas was called Abu Qutada. He was Lebanese and had a Syrian wife from Raqqa. “He was so bad,” said Seeham, “but his wife treated me even worse than him.”

“She forced me to shave my body. She brought me sexy clothes to wear for her husband and helped him rape me by tying me to the bed. She used very tough, cheap and bad words with me,” recalled Seeham.

On top of helping Abu Qutada rape Seeham, his wife forced her to clean their four-story house from top to bottom every day. Abu Qutada’s wife would invite her female friends to join her in taunting Seeham as she cleaned. “She forced me to clean the entrance to the neighbors' flat and she forced me to clean her and her neighbors’ shoes. They would make fun of me while I cleaned, saying look at my slave, she’s a bitch, she’s a Yazidi,” said Seeham.

“Once when I was cleaning, my daughter was on the fourth floor of the house crying because she was hungry. They never gave us enough food. His wife wouldn’t allow me to go upstairs to see my daughter. She forced me to clean from the fourth to the first floor. The whole time I could hear my daughter crying. This was heartbreaking because my daughter was so hungry. She wouldn’t allow me to give her milk,” said Seeham.

Piles of Yazidi women and girls clothing litter the floor at an ISIS house in the collective Yazidi town of Tal Ezeir (Arabic name: Qahtaniyah) located south of Sinjar mountain. (Photo Credit: Rania Khalek, August 12, 2017)

Abu Qutada returned Seeham to Abu Anas after she threatened to throw herself off the balcony. She was sold to five more men after that.

Pattern of abuse

Most of the Yazidi survivors I spoke to described similar abuses from ISIS wives. In some cases, they say the children of ISIS fighters also abused them.

What I found in my interviews seemed to reinforce a report published last year by the Independent International UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic that found the wives and children of ISIS fighters often abused captive Yazidi women and children both verbally and physically.

“ISIS fighters, and sometimes the wives of ISIS fighters, regularly force Yazidi women and girls to work in their houses. Many of those interviewed recounted being forced to be the domestic servant of the fighter and his family. Sometimes, they were also made to look after his children. When held closer to the frontlines, Yazidi women and girls are forced to cook for their respective fighter-owners and other ISIS fighters housed with or near him. One Yazidi girl, 13 years old, was held for 11 months in ISIS-controlled territory and sold multiple times. Sexually enslaved, she recounted also being forced to cook, clean and wash the clothes of her Syrian fighter-owner and his family at a house in Raqqah city,” said the report.

“In some cases, the wives and children of the ISIS fighter would also beat Yazidi children,” adds the report.

Indoctrination and lack of justice

Iraqi authorities are currently holding some 1,400 foreign ISIS wives and children in a refugee camp outside Mosul. Though many are said to have been deceived into coming to ISIS territory, at least some likely participated in atrocities against Yazidis. It remains to be seen if and how the adult women, particularly the foreigners, who participated in such actions will be held accountable or how the indoctrination of children, including Yazidi children in ISIS territories, will be dealt with.

ISIS went to extreme lengths to erase Yazidi identity and supplant it with another one when possible. Yazidi boys over the age of seven were taken to ISIS indoctrination camps and forced to become fighters for the group. There hasn’t been much research into the psychological consequences of ISIS brainwashing on these children, but what seems clear is those who have been rescued are extremely difficult to care for.

In one case, a Yazidi mother in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Dohuk complained that her 10-year-old son tried to behead his baby sister. When asked why, the boy responded that she is a Yazidi kuffar and deserves to die. This instance was relayed to me by Finnish researchers studying the impact of ISIS indoctrination upon children and the systematic destruction of the Yazidi community.

Yazidis sold over Telegram sparks jealousy

A Lebanese woman who was married to two ISIS fighters, first to a Lebanese man and then to a Tunisian, told Akhbar’s Jenan Moussa that ISIS wives would often fight with their husbands “because they feel jealous” of the Yazidi sex slaves. “There was a lot of tension between the wives and the sex slaves,” she told Moussa. “Some ISIS fighters would treat their female slaves better than their own wives,” she said, complaining that the ISIS fighters “were spending too much on the sex slaves, buying them the best make-up, clothes and accessories.” The woman showed no remorse or sympathy for the treatment of Yazidis as she explained how her husband and his friends would buy and sell them on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. She was cold except for when she giggled while discussing the topic.

An ISIS wife from Tunisia provided a similar testimony about the jealousy over Yazidi slaves, explaining to RT, “Many men loved Yazidi girls more than their wives. Just imagine for example a man gets himself a Yazidi girl and as time passes he begins to love her more than his own wife and treats her better and if this Yazidi converts to Islam he will be able to marry her. Marry! Do you get this? It means she will become free, go wherever she wants. She won’t be a slave anymore in this case. Is this clear?”

That isn’t entirely true. Yazidi women were compelled to convert, but that did not free them from sexual slavery. However, it did give them a little bit of wiggle room to run away. That’s how Seeham escaped. She tricked the last ISIS fighter who bought her, a man named Hassan in Mosul, into believing that she genuinely embraced Islam and loved him and wanted to be his wife. She slowly gained his trust and eventually he allowed her to contact her family in Dohuk over the phone just to tell them she was still alive. She secretly stayed in touch with them and they arranged for a man to smuggle Seeham out of Mosul, the formerly ISIS-controlled city where she was being held as Hassan’s captive wife. Due to Seeham’s cleverness and sheer luck, the ruse worked. Had she been caught, Hassan would have probably killed her daughter. Indeed, ISIS members often punished Yazidi runaways by gang raping them and sometimes killing their children.

Today Seeham is safe with her family in a displaced persons camp in Dohuk, but the psychological scars of her enslavement still haunt her. Her sleep is pierced each night by terrifying visions of the men and women who tormented her. By day, she wonders if any of them will ever face justice.



Genocide in Iraq: When Local Sunni Became ISIS and Slaughtered Their Neighbors

When ISIS came to butcher the Yazidis of Iraq, they simply went next door.

On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, orchestrated a pre-planned and systematic campaign of genocide against the Yazidis in northwest Iraq, driving hundreds of thousands of them from their ancestral homeland in Sinjar. Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking people who practice a pre-Islamic religion that ISIS ideologues equate with devil worship. All across Sinjar, wherever Yazidis were captured, the Sunni extremists forcibly converted or killed the men and enslaved the women and children.

The onslaught sent tens of thousands of Yazidis fleeing to Sinjar mountain, where they were trapped for days in the punishing Iraqi summer heat. The dusty and rugged mountainous terrain was their refuge, but for some it became a tomb. Hundreds, especially children and the elderly, died of thirst and hunger.

According to Yazidi survivors I spoke to in Baghdad, Sinjar, Erbil and Dohuk, the 2014 assault was carried out not by strangers, but by their Sunni friends and neighbors, by people they trusted and considered family. While much has been documented about the horrors ISIS inflicted on Yazidis, there has been little examination of how their genocide was made possible by the cooperation and collaboration of their Sunni neighbors and its consequences on communal relations going forward. Yazidis are strongly distrustful of Sunnis. They fear and loathe them and never want to live in a place where they are outnumbered by Sunnis again.

The genocide of the Yazidis poses a major challenge to the Sunni marginalization theory, which posits that Salafi jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS formed in response to the oppression of Sunnis by an Alawite regime in Syria and a Shia-dominated government in Iraq. In the context of the Yazidi genocide, this narrative falls short. Yazidis never possessed the political power to oppress anyone, certainly not their Sunni neighbors who had better jobs, larger houses and more political influence than Yazidis in Sinjar.

Yazidis have an additional explanation for the rise of ISIS. They say an ISIS-style ideology rooted in Salafism, Wahhabism and Sunni supremacy had been cultivated among local Sunnis in and around Sinjar over the last several decades, laying fertile ground for groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Their Sunni neighbors, many of them from large Arab tribes, were just waiting for the right moment to act. ISIS provided them with an opportunity and they took it, say Yazidis.

When their high school teachers turned to ISIS oppressors

“Most of ISIS was from our neighboring villages, from people inside Sinjar. These are people we used to split food with. Some of them were Kurdish Sunnis, some of them were Arab Sunnis. All of the Arab Sunnis were working with ISIS. Before ISIS, they were al Qaeda,” said Khudaydah, a 68-year-old Yazidi who has fought alongside both the PKK and the PMF against ISIS in Sinjar.

One Yazidi woman from the south Sinjar town of Tal Ezeir says she and her two sisters were kidnapped by their next-door neighbor of 25 years. The men from the Arab Sunni family next door surrounded them on August 2, just ahead of the ISIS attack on Sinjar, and wouldn’t allow them to leave. When ISIS attacked in the early morning hours of August 3, the men from the Sunni family next door handed their male neighbors over to ISIS commanders and distributed the Yazidi women of the house among themselves. The father, who was 61 years old, gave the youngest sister to an ISIS commander as a gift and kept the older two, ages 15 and 18, for himself and his two sons. The youngest sister managed to escape.

“ISIS were local people,” said another female Yazidi survivor, “especially in the first couple days. Many of them were from Baaj and Tal Afar. Some of us were students in high school and we recognized them as our teachers,” she said, identifying one of the ISIS guards holding her hostage in Tal Afar as her high school biology teacher.

My translator, a young Yazidi woman named Vian, took notice of my horrified expression and explained that such stories were typical. Vian is from a town in Sinjar called Sinuni. Her high school chemistry teacher, a man called Esaood from the local Jayash tribe, joined ISIS as well, she said. This was the norm.

There were countless stories like this about former neighbors and friends becoming killers. It was reminiscent of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and the Holocaust, where a combination of propaganda, dehumanization and loyalty to group identity pushed ordinary people to kill their friends and neighbors.

Other Yazidi survivors described how Sunnis from their neighborhoods joined ISIS in hunting them as they fled to Sinjar mountain on August 3, helping ISIS fighters identify who was Yazidi and who wasn’t.

Yazidi women held in ISIS prisons, waiting to be sold, quickly realized that ISIS placed a higher value on unmarried girls, so many would say they were married even if they weren’t. They would even pretend their nephews, nieces or young siblings were their children. This worked for a while, until local Sunnis working as ISIS prison guards began informing on them.

Fearing and loathing Sunnis

In August, I visited a training camp in south Sinjar for the Yazidi Hashd al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). As I spoke to the recruits about their ordeal, a group of young men crowded around me demanding to know if I was Muslim or Christian. I could tell if I said Muslim the response would be hostile. I told them my family is Druze.

“Druze? Is that Muslim?” they asked with puzzled expressions. The Druze are a minority sect that live mostly in Lebanon, Syria and Israel-Palestine, so it makes sense that Iraqis might not be familiar with them.

“No, Druze is not Muslim,” I said. They told me I could stay.

Yazidi recruits in the barracks at the Yazidi PMF training camp in south Sinjar. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

I reminded them that the PMF is majority Shia and headed by a Shia man and that Shias are Muslim. “That’s different,” a recruit snapped. “The Sunnis are the ones who persecuted us. The Shia in Hashd al Shaabi helped us. We have no problems with the Shia.”

Behdo, a scrawny 28-year-old Yazidi PMF recruit, interjected to explain why he believes Sunnis aren’t to be trusted. Behdo is from Gir Shebek, a tiny collective town north of Sinjar mountain that was half Sunni and half Yazidi. “We [Sunnis and Yazidis] were friends,” he reminisced. “We even celebrated Eid together. But then they turned on us.”

Behdo’s sister was kidnapped by his Sunni neighbor and classmate, a young man he had grown up with. The former classmate phoned Behdo’s family to brag that he had kidnapped his sister. He taunted them about forcibly converting her to Sunni Islam. Behdo’s uncle eventually bought her back for $3,200. “You can never trust a Sunni,” Behdo warned.

'They turned into monsters'

In March, at a gathering at the Iraqi prime minister's office organized for Yazidis in collaboration with a western mediation NGO, Jaafar al Husseini, the head of Iraq’s national reconciliation committee, introduced the conference by stating that the suffering of Yazidis was greater than anybody else’s. He even compared it to the Jewish Holocaust. He also spoke of their historic persecution and the Ottoman Mufti who issued a fatwa against Yazidis.

The United Nations had similarly described ISIS’s crimes against Yazidis as an “ongoing genocide.”

The Yazidi community has been shattered. According to the directorate of Yazidi affairs in Dohuk, 6,417 Yazidis were kidnapped by ISIS. Over 3,000 have been rescued or escaped, but hundreds remain unaccounted for even as ISIS loses its major strongholds. Of the 500,000 Yazidis who were living in Iraq, 360,000 were displaced by the ISIS attack and at least 90,000 left the country. Thousands more, mostly men and adolescent boys, were systematically killed, but the number varies depending on who you ask. It is believed that some, especially those who were young children when captured, are being held by ISIS supporters in refugee camps and likely don’t even remember their Yazidi identity.

As a poor and rural minority community, Yazidis have historically faced extreme persecution, including several attempted genocides over the past centuries. That’s why they live in the mountains; Mount Sinjar has served as a refuge time and again.

Sunni Islam has always been the dominant religion in the Middle East. Historically it has been the religion of the state. People from minority sects across the region have passed down collective memories of Sunni Islam’s persecution against them (though minorities have on many occasions, particularly during civil wars, turned against one another as well). They say this explains why Shias, Druze, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis are concentrated in the mountains—they were escaping persecution from the dominant state-backed sect in the region.

ISIS, they say, is just a new iteration of something that has always existed and that comes back every century or two.

"Every 100 years, Sunnis can't help massacring us," one Yazidi elder told me. “ISIS just carried out what the Ottomans did in the past. They kill us for being Yazidi,” he added.

In more recent history, Yazidis have been targeted with hate speech, forced conversions, exclusion from the labor market, kidnappings and killings for being Yazidi.

“Ten percent of the people who massacred the Yazidis were from outside,” says Murad Sheikh Kalo, the leader of the Yazidi PMF. “The rest were our Sunni neighbors.”

“Saudi Arabia is the ideological foundation for ISIS,” he continued, expressing a commonly heard view among Yazidis that rarely breaks through into the Western press. “But it is Turkey who trained them. And the Israelis, Americans and British who armed them. Our Sunni neighbors were their foot soldiers. And they turned into monsters overnight,” he added.

Though it seemed to take place in an instant, the Yazidi genocide was decades in the making, the unintended culmination of a series of policies dating back more than 40 years.

Paving a path to genocide

The groundwork for the catastrophe that befell Iraq’s Yazidis was laid in 1975, when Saddam Hussein initiated his campaign of Arabization. Yazidi villages on Sinjar mountain were destroyed by the government and rebuilt in the plains north and south of the mountain in what are called collective towns. Many of the collective towns have a Yazidi name (Yazidis speak a dialect of Kurdish) and an Arabic name that the Ba’athist government imposed.

The collective towns were intentionally populated with and surrounded by Arab Bedouin tribes “to control Yazidi areas,” says Khider Domle, a Yazidi journalist, activist and teacher at the University of Dohuk. “They brought Arab tribes that hate Yazidis and call Yazidis devil worshippers from the south of Iraq to try to change the demography of Sinjar,” he continued. “Step by step they took land from Yazidis and gave it to Arabs. Then they made huge agricultural projects for the Arabs. They wouldn’t allow Yazidi laborers to work on those projects until 1995,” he said.

That same year—1995—Saddam Hussein’s government launched al-Hamlah al-Imaniyah, or the Return to Faith Campaign in an effort to strengthen his rule at a time of weakness. With UN enforced sanctions and various uprisings from the Kurds and Shias threatening his legitimacy, Saddam opened up space for tribalism while encouraging the Islamization of society through the Faith Campaign. This coincided with a growing trend toward conservative Islam that was sweeping the region. In Iraq, this trend was heightened by the sanctions, which had hollowed out the middle class and diminished the quality of education. The Faith Campaign was anti-Salafi but had the unintended consequence of Islamizing the Baath party, which meant that the sons of the top officials were also Islamized, creating fertile ground for jihadi influence a decade later when the Americans invaded, something Saddam and his Baath party did not foresee.

Yazidis were always an underclass in Iraq, often excluded from the labor market. In a more Islamic society they were even more vulnerable. Yazidis owned and operated many of the liquor stores, nightclubs and bars in Iraq’s cities. The Faith Campaign shut down much of Iraq’s nightlife, further reducing economic opportunities for Yazidis. At the same time, Yazidis were demonized for being non-Muslims. And due to the Arabization scheme, they were surrounded by people who were being primed to view Yazidis as inferior and subhuman.

“In Sinjar [the Faith Campaign] was a conversion campaign,” says Domle. “The regime brought mullahs to educate people (Arab Sunnis) on how much they should hate Yazidis. They paid them to do this. When al Qaeda came, many of those people (Arab Sunnis) joined Al Qaeda. And when ISIS came the environment was there for them to join.”

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq created even more precarious conditions for Yazidis.

Many Yazidis worked as translators and drivers for the Americans, hoping to elevate their economic status in a new and democratic Iraq that promised freedom from Saddam’s discriminatory policies. Instead, the US collapsed the Iraqi state, opening the floodgates to al Qaeda. The country descended into sectarian civil war.

Yazidis in Nineveh Governorate, like their Christian counterparts, became targets of the al Qaeda dominated Sunni insurgency. As early as 2004, militants were distributing flyers in Mosul promising “divine rewards for those who kill Yazidis.” But anti-Yazidi attacks received almost no attention in the international press. As a poor community with no political power, international advocacy organization or lobbying apparatus, the plight of the Yazidis went largely unnoticed, despite ominous warnings.

The 2014 assault was as much a conversion campaign as an enslavement campaign. ISIS went to extreme lengths to erase Yazidi identity and supplant it with a strict Sunni one when possible. At an ISIS prison for Yazidi women and girls in the collective town of Tal Ezeir (its Arabic name is Qahtaniyah) located south of Sinjar, Yazidis were forced to pray in the direction of Mecca, as instructed by the Qibla inscribed on the walls of each cell. Yazidi boys over the age of seven were taken to ISIS indoctrination camps and forced to become fighters for the group. Some of those who have been rescued have been so thoroughly brainwashed they have reportedly tried to kill members of their family for being Yazidi.

The tribes that joined ISIS

The Matewti, Khatouni and Jahaysh tribes are the dominant Arab Sunni tribes in and around Sinjar. Many of them joined ISIS. Yazidis say members of the Khatouni tribe were the most hostile, with many of the Khatouni tribal leaders becoming ISIS commanders. At an ISIS prison for Yazidi sex slaves located in Tal Ezeir, endless piles of girls and women’s clothing and shoes were scattered across the floor, draped over mattresses and strewn on the steps leading upstairs where I found a wall adorned with ISIS graffiti. Below it someone had signed his name, Mohammed Khatouni.

But not all the local Arab tribes are remembered in a bad light. Yazidis speak fondly of the Shammar, a large Arab Sunni tribe whose members generally helped Yazidis. When Yazidi families came down from the mountain to Syria through a corridor opened by the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, members of the Shammar tribe provided them with food, water and directions to Kurdistan as well as tips for ISIS-controlled roads to avoid. "They worked as a very helpful GPS,” said a Yazidi man whose family was saved by the Shammar tribe in Syria. “They also provided cars and fuel. Only the Shammar were good Sunni neighbors,” he observed.

While there are members of the Shammar tribe who joined ISIS, the tribal leadership generally opposed the militant group and went on to make up a large portion of Arab Sunni tribes fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Calm before the storm

Despite the hateful climate fostered by decades of discriminatory policies, dehumanization and power vacuums, most Yazidis say that before August 2014 they had few if any problems with their Sunni neighbors. They would eat together, celebrate holidays together, their kids played together, and they attended each other’s weddings. Yazidis even had a word for Arabs who were like family: kreef. They only had problems with Arab Sunnis from Baaj, a district in northwest Iraq just south of Sinjar.

Baaj was a strategic hideout for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before it was liberated in June by the PMF. Today Iraqi and PMF flags fly side by side atop Baaj’s deserted houses, many of them broken from the fighting. All of the doors and windows are missing. A few homes appear to have been smashed by airstrikes while others are partially damaged from booby traps set by ISIS. The houses in Baaj are quite large and multi-storied compared to the one-story homes in Yazidi villages. It was also home to many wealthy traffickers and smugglers and has long served as a key passageway for Jihadists between Iraq and Syria.

ISIS graffiti on the wall outside a school in Baaj. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Prior to 2014, Baaj was an Al Qaeda stronghold. At least once or twice a month a Yazidi youth traveling through Baaj would get kidnapped and ransomed for around $15,000. In 2007 Sunni militants believed to be members of Al Qaeda from Baaj detonated five truck bombs that tore through the Yazidi towns of Siba Sheikh Khider (known in Arabic as al Jazeera) and Tel Ezeir, killing upwards of 500 people and wounding some 1,500. It was the largest death toll from a single attack since the start of the US invasion. That same year, Sunni gunmen stopped a bus of laborers in Mosul and executed the 23 Yazidis workers on board. Yazidis living in proximity to the attacks began to leave Nineveh as a result of the rising threats against them.

Recruiting local Sunnis

ISIS took Mosul in early June of 2014. Tal Afar fell a few days later. This is when the militarization of the Sinjar-adjacent districts of Baaj and Balij began.

Baaj was once home to some 50,000 residents, most of whom belonged to the Khatouni and Matewti Bedouin tribes. Many of the leaders of these tribes pledged their loyalty to ISIS and participated in the atrocities carried out against their Yazidi neighbors in Sinjar.

According to Yazidis as well as investigators at an international NGO that is building a case against ISIS, but who asked not to be named in this report due to the sensitive nature of their work, the loyalty of these tribes was secured prior to the August 3 genocide in a series of meeting with ISIS figures in and around Baaj.

Qasem Shevan, a brigade leader in the Yazidi PMF who commanded an independent Yazidi militia against ISIS following the genocide, told me he witnessed one of these meetings taking place in Qabusiya village on July 27, 2014, between ISIS leaders and Sunni tribal leaders named Ahmad Jarbouaa and Mohammad Qasem Bejuoh. “These men were in another meeting with the same people on the next day in Baaj,” said Shevan. “I didn’t see the meeting in Baaj, I only heard about it. But I saw the one in Qabusiya with my own eyes.”

These meetings suggest that at least some of the members of the Baaj tribes were going to be loyal to ISIS when the Sinjar operation was launched. Yazidis believe that those who hosted ISIS gathered intelligence for them on Yazidis. However it remains unclear whether the locals were fully aware of ISIS’s plans for the Yazidis.

Enthusiasm for ISIS

After the spread of ISIS to Mosul, Tal Afar and Baaj, Yazidis noticed a change in the behavior of their Sunni neighbors in Sinjar. Some raised ISIS flags outside their homes. Others began referring to Yazidis as kufar (unbelievers). There was widespread Sunni excitement for ISIS in the villages surrounding Sinjar, but this did not immediately translate into violence against Yazidis.

Sukr, 25, grew up in Mosul. He and his family fled the city in 2008 after Sunni insurgents sent leaflets to Yazidi homes with notes threatening violence if they didn’t leave. Today Sukr and his family live in Sharya, a Yazidi neighborhood in Dohuk. Sukr kept in touch with his Sunni friends in Mosul and called to check on them after ISIS took over in June 2014. He was surprised to hear them celebrate the arrival of the militant group. “They wanted the Islamic State at first. They only changed their minds after ISIS was mean to them,” said Sukr.

Jameel Chomar is manager of operations at Yazda, a Yazidi NGO based in Dohuk. Prior to the genocide he was a schoolteacher in Borek, a collective town in north Sinjar. He described a similar response from his Sunni colleagues after ISIS captured nearby areas.

“I spoke to some of the teachers in the collective towns. Some were happy about ISIS,” said Chomar. “They said this is the first time after Saddam’s regime collapsed that we could enter Mosul without checkpoints. They were saying ISIS is cleaning the area of barriers, security is very stable, there are no IEDs, no suicide bombs, no mines. They told me, we are happy. I told them we hope that they [ISIS] will do something good, but I think they will apply sharia law, and it will be very aggressive.”

Around the same time Yazidis began to hear threats against their community. Members of the Khatouni and Matewti tribes reportedly threatened to attack them during Xile, a Yazidi holiday celebrated on August 2. There was also a large degree of whitewashing of ISIS by their neighbors, mostly from members of the Matewti tribe. One Yazidi after another relayed a similar story about how their Sunni neighbors encouraged them to stay put, offering assurances that they would protect them from ISIS. Some of these assurances were probably genuine. But there was also a great deal of intentional deception to lure Yazidis into staying without putting up a fight.

As the perceived threat grew, Yazidis took a more defensive stance alongside the Peshmerga, the US-backed Kurdish militia of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that was in charge of security in Sinjar. As ISIS flags and vehicles started popping up, Yazidis knew something was coming but the majority of them believed the Peshmerga would be strong enough to fight off an ISIS advance.

Anger at the Kurds for exploiting the rise of ISIS

Back in 2014, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, assured Yazidis that the Peshmerga would protect them from ISIS. But as ISIS attacked Sinjar, the Peshmerga systematically retreated without warning, leaving the Yazidis completely defenseless. Some even told Yazidis that they were only leaving to bring back reinforcements, which they never did. Barzani has yet to offer a sufficient explanation for why his troops were ordered to pull out of Sinjar.

The Peshmerga retreat was disastrous for the Yazidis, especially those living southwest of the mountain; their towns were the first to be swarmed by ISIS fighters from Baaj.

Most Yazidis suspect that Barzani’s Peshmerga made a deal with ISIS to get rid of the Yazidis for the sake of expanding Kurdistan. Sinjar is technically part of Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate. It is also one of 26 “disputed territories” across northern Iraq that the Kurds claim belongs to them.

According to an analysis by Jane’s Intelligence Review, “After the Iraqi military’s retreat from the Islamic State in 2014, Kurds seized approximately 90% of these territories, including Kirkuk.” In other words, the KRG exploited the rise of ISIS and the chaos it stoked as an opportunity to carry out a massive land grab, nearly doubling its territory.

Meanwhile Iraqi Kurdistan has destroyed tens of Arab Sunni villages since 2014 usually under the guise of liberating and protecting areas from ISIS. In 2017 alone, the Peshmerga and KRG intelligence displaced or prevented the return of Arab Sunnis in at least 21 villages in Nineveh Governorate. It’s the only part of the Middle East outside of Israel/Palestine where deliberate government-backed ethnic cleansing of Arab Sunnis is taking place, yet it has received no attention.

Yazidis also accuse the KRG of providing sanctuary to people who collaborated with ISIS, particularly if they were Kurdish.

“Kurdish Sunnis who joined ISIS are getting protection from Kurdistan,” said Sayeed Qudr Maamko, a 44-year-old farmer from the outskirts of Qabusi, a mixed Yazidi and Kurdish Sunni village in south Sinjar. A stereotypical military man with a crew cut, bushy mustache and raspy voice, Sayeed joined the PMF over the summer after the PMF liberated south Sinjar from ISIS. “Barzani might as well start an embassy for ISIS,” he quipped.

Kurdish ISIS

While the Erbil-based peshmerga are widely believed to have abandoned Yazidis to their fate, and to have opportunistically seized large swaths of Arab Sunni areas in a land grab, once ISIS began moving towards Erbil, the Kurds fought ISIS as fiercely as other Iraqi security forces. The peshmerga ultimately played a major role in the fight against ISIS and sacrificed thousands of fighters combating the militant group. In fact, ISIS and Al Qaeda have traditionally resented Kurds because of their alliance with the US and Israel, and because of the predominance of secular Kurdish parties. In Syria, Kurds have been targeted by ISIS and Nusra en masse and even the supposedly “moderate” Sunni insurgents have used genocidal language against them.

According to the Yazidis, however, it wasn’t just Arab Sunnis that collaborated with ISIS. Their Kurdish Sunni neighbors also played a part.

On top of the extreme repression they face as non-Kurds, the Yazidi and Christian minorities in Iraqi Kurdistan described mounting pressure from rising religious conservatism and Sunni sectarianism among the Kurdish population. “If it wasn’t for Kurdish nationalism, maybe Iraqi Kurdistan would have joined with ISIS because they are Sunni brothers,” one Yazidi activist speculated.

As Saad Babir from Yazda recently observed, religious extremism in Iraqi Kurdistan “has expanded significantly in the past ten years, paralleling the general increase in religiosity. The number of mosques in the region now exceeds the total number of schools, universities, and hospitals combined. Concerns that religious extremism could increase in the future causes alarm for non-Muslim groups. Studies have shown that around one thousand Kurdish youth joined IS, suggesting that Kurdish societies have serious issues with radicalism that must be addressed.”

Indeed, sectarian attitudes appear to be just as pervasive in Iraqi Kurdistan as in the rest of Iraq. On the way to Dohuk from Erbil, my Kurdish driver, Ali, expressed fear of and hatred for Shias, who he complained were killing Sunnis on behalf of Iran. He went on to describe Yazidis as a weird and insular community and accused them of hating Sunni Muslims. These were not uncommon views in Erbil and may have led at least some Kurds to join ISIS.

As soon as word spread that ISIS was on its way from Baaj, Yazidi men in the frontline collective towns of Gir Zerek (Arabic name: Adnaniyah) and Siba Sheikh Khider (Arabic name: Al Jazeera), who had already organized their weapons in anticipation of a possible attack, dug into their trenches and prepared for a fight.

Gir Zerek was home to some 15,000 people, according to Yazidi locals. Three to four thousand were Kurdish Sunnis and the rest were Yazidi.

“Our Kurdish Sunni neighbors were calling us Kufar after ISIS took Mosul. And they started shooting at us when ISIS attacked Sinjar,” said Marwan Kamala El Sheikh, a Yazidi PMF soldier from Gir Zerek who helped in the resistance effort against ISIS. Of course it’s never quite so black and white.

The armed Yazidi men of Gir Zerek held off ISIS for several hours until they ran out of ammunition and were captured and executed by ISIS. Their sacrifice allowed time for hundreds of thousands of Yazidis from all over Sinjar to escape to the mountain and for that they are memorialized as heroes. They were assisted by a small group of about seven or eight local Kurdish Sunnis from the Asayish who stayed behind to block the ISIS advance. I was told they hailed from the Sarhoki tribe.

The ISIS attack on Sinjar also demonstrated that Iraqi Kurds were influenced by the same sectarian and tribal dynamics that prevailed among Iraqi Arabs. Kanroveh is a Kurdish village that is half Shia and half Sunni. The Kurdish Shias from Kanroveh escaped with the Yazidis to Sinjar mountain when ISIS attacked. The Shia homes were burned to the ground or booby trapped. The Sunni houses remained intact. Locals told me that the top leader for ISIS in Kanroveh was a man called Najem Abdullah Ensuad, a shipper and farmer from the Kurdish Babawat tribe, a mixed Shia and Sunni tribe. Najem was from the Sunni Babawat.

“The Kurds are supporting the Sunnis because they are Sunni,” argued a Yazidi elder. “So when ISIS rose up, the Kurds started coordinating with ISIS. This thinking is from Salafism, from Saudi Arabia.” He added that most of the Kurds used to be Yazidis until they were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam by the Ottomans.

It is widely believed that Yazidis were the original religion in northern Iraq, but this has been forgotten after centuries of forced conversion to Sunni Islam. Even some Kurds will admit that their ancestors were Yazidi.

“For the Kurds, who knows? Maybe their grandfathers or fathers were Yazidis and now they want other Yazidis to become Muslim, just like them,” he reasoned.

Campaign of deception

The Yazidis tend to place the bulk of the blame for their suffering on the Kurdish Peshmerga. Next, they blame their neighbors’ duplicity.

Yazidis who survived the genocidal onslaught from a variety of locations offered similar stories of their Sunni neighbors offering false assurances and encouraging them to submit to ISIS. There appeared to be a widespread campaign of intentional deception.

“When ISIS started attacking the collective towns with mortars, the Arab and Kurdish Sunnis in these areas were on Facebook sending messages to Yazidis, saying don’t be afraid, ISIS is only coming to liberate the area from the government,” recalled Sayeed Qudr Maamko.

“The Sunnis in these areas said to us, we have a relationship with you, we were born together, we live in peace, and as Sunnis we will defend you even from ISIS. So most of the Yazidis were raising the white flag of surrender without fighting with ISIS because our Sunni neighbors told us not to resist. Then after ISIS came, our Sunni neighbors began imprisoning and killing the men and selling the women as sex slaves. They were sleeper cells for ISIS. When ISIS came, our Sunni neighbors became ISIS members. And when ISIS escaped, some of our former neighbors escaped to Kurdistan,” Maamko said.

Seeham Haji Khudayda is 22 years old. With brown hair, wide-set eyes and a resilient sense of humor, it’s hard to believe she underwent the horrors ISIS subjected her to. Even though she’s illiterate and can’t speak Arabic, she managed to escape her ISIS captors thanks in large measure to her clever wit. Seeham is from a village in north Sinjar called Hardan. She was newly married and a new mother. Her daughter was just three months old when ISIS enslaved her.

“We woke up early at 7am on August 3, 2014 and heard ISIS was in Tel Ezeir and Gir Zirek. So we started fleeing, but we didn’t know that they were taking the women,” she recounted.

“Our village is surrounded by Arab villages, they were our kreef [friendly neighbors]. Each family in the village have some friends or kreef in those villages. They came to our village and said we will protect you, don’t leave, don’t worry, just raise white flags and nothing will happen, only those who are fighting against ISIS will be harmed. Don’t fight. They also told us the road to Kurdistan is closed, which was a lie. But we believed them. We thought we had no place to go. We were so confused about what to do. And then it was noon.”

At noon a group of ISIS vehicles from the surrounding Arab Sunni villages entered Hardan. “There were no strangers among those ISIS members. We knew all of them, they were our friends and neighbors. They said stay in your homes and do not let the girls and women go outside. They were talking to the men in Hardan normally, because they knew them,” said Seeham.

Arab Sunni leaders from the surrounding villages of Gir Shebek, Naeneeyat and Golat told Yazidis in Hardan not to flee, assuring them ISIS would not hurt them.

“We stayed in our homes until 5pm,” she continued. “We were on the phone calling people from other villages, we didn’t know they are taking the girls and women as sex slaves. All the Arab Sunni friends we were talking with were saying that ISIS is just killing those who pick up arms against them, but they don’t take the women and children. But after 5pm, we talked to some Yazidis saying the opposite—that they are taking the women from the south and the children and killing the men, so don’t believe the Arabs telling you that nothing will happen to you.”

Hardan’s Mukhtar also received a visit from members of the local Shammar tribe, considered the friendliest among local Sunnis. “They are killing the Yazidi men and taking the women, do not believe them,” the Shammar leaders warned.

“At this point all the people in the village started to flee. My family and I fled in the car with our neighbors. We reached the entrance of the village and saw ISIS set up a checkpoint.”

ISIS fighters captured Seeham and her family and began separating the men from women. Segregating the men from the women and children would become a pattern across Sinjar, a testament to the pre-planned nature of what was about to befall the Yazidis.

“There was about 17 men with us. The women and children stayed in the cars and they took the men,” said Seeham. They were held at the checkpoint for some 30 minutes while the ISIS members “arranged the men to kill them,” including Seeham’s husband. That was the last time she saw him.

“We knew they were going to kill them, they arranged them in lines. My husband’s uncle, Khalat, came and told us they will kill us and take you as sex slaves, he heard an ISIS member say this.” ISIS drove off with the women and girls, but not before Seeham got a glimpse of the men forced onto their knees by ISIS gunman. “We weren’t sure if they killed those men or not, but we are told they killed them and now there is a mass grave there.”

Not a single man in Hardan survived. It is believed this is because, unlike in Kojo, the men of Hardan were beheaded.

The women were taken to a school in Tal Afar. “We thought we were the only ones ISIS captured but we found there were thousands of Yazidi women and girls captured in that school.”

This was the beginning of what would be a year-and-a-half-long nightmare for Seeham, who was shuffled from one dirty, overcrowded prison to the next and sold at least seven times to ISIS fighters.

Misguided trust

The duplicity of their neighbors was the most deadly in the tiny Yazidi farming village of Kojo, the site of the largest ISIS massacre of Yazidis.

On Aug. 15, 2017, ISIS rounded up and murdered every single man and teenage boy in Kojo, including Kojo’s mukhtar, Ahmad Jaso, after the town’s residents refused to convert to Sunni Islam. The older women were executed as well, though it’s unclear where they were buried. All of the younger women and girls were sold into sexual slavery.

An estimated 400 bodies are buried in several mass graves that dot the outskirts of Kojo. The graves are fenced off and have yet to be unearthed. Local Yazidi PMF are trying their best to preserve the crime scene as they wait for international investigators to visit. There are some human bones strewn on the ground, likely dug up by roaming dogs.

One of several mass graves on the outskirts of Kojo. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Ninety percent of the people who carried out the assault on Sinjar were locals, says Naif Jaso, the brother of Kojo’s mukhtar. Naif says Kojo was so close with its Arab neighbors that there were more Arab Sunnis than Yazidis at his son Talal’s wedding, including some of those who would go on to join ISIS.

Naif happened to be out of the country when ISIS invaded, but he kept in touch with his brother hourly until the massacre. His daughters and granddaughters were sold into sexual slavery and three of his sons and most of his grandsons were killed. His 12-year-old grandson Manay, one of the few survivors, was hidden by his mother before the slaughter took place and was then smuggled out by local Sunnis from the Shammar tribe. Manay’s 15-year-old brother was likely killed and the fate of his 5-year-old brother is unknown. The family believes Manay’s mother was killed in an airstrike, but they don’t have the heart to tell him.

The ISIS assault on Sinjar initially bypassed Kojo and a nearby Yazidi village called Hatimiyah. But due to their more remote location, the residents of Kojo and Hatimiyah were unable to flee the area. Those who tried to flee were either killed or captured by ISIS.

The population of the entire town of Kojo was 1,738 men, women and children. At least 500 were either not present in the village, working in other areas or escaped in the morning prior to ISIS surrounding the town. Those who remained were either killed or enslaved.

On August 3, the day ISIS invaded Sinjar, an estimated 73 women and 13 children who fled Kojo in the morning following ISIS’s attacks on Gir Zerek and Siba Sheikh Khider were killed in and around Solagh, just to the east of Sinjar. International investigators believe that ISIS killed the older women because they were seen as having no economic value.

ISIS fighters were hunting Yazidis on the road to the mountain. Yazidis who tried to flee identified one of the ISIS hunters as a local Arab Sunni leader named Sheikh Jarallah Mohammad Ali Jarallah, a man Naif knew well. “He was at my son’s wedding in 2013,” said Naif. “I called him and asked, where are you? He told me I’m on the road between Tal Qasab and Sinjar. I knew then he was hunting the families that were trying to escape, because that is where many of them were telling me they saw him. I asked him what happened with ISIS, what are they doing with the families. He told me I’m here to prevent the members of the Matewti tribe from stealing the money of Yazidis. But the families were telling us this man was armed and standing at a checkpoint with ISIS members helping them hunt Yazidis. He was lying.”

At around 4 and 5 in the evening on August 3, an ISIS commander named Abu Hamzeh al Khatouni from Baaj came to al-Hatimiyah and Kojo to speak to the village mukhtars. The mukhtars of Hatimiyah and Kojo met on several occasions with one another as well as with local Arab sheikhs to try to come to an agreement about what would happen to their villages under ISIS. After several meetings Abu Hamzeh gave the people of Hatimiyah and Kojo an ultimatum: Convert to Islam and you can stay and live under the Islamic State or give ISIS all your gold and other valuables and we will let you flee to the mountain. A similar ultimatum was given to the Christians of Mosul. Christians who chose not to convert were allowed to leave because ISIS considers them “people of the book.” Yazidis assumed ISIS would allow them to do the same.

As the villages contemplated the ultimatum, ISIS wrote orders at the village entrances not to harm the residents. There was an agreement that these people were under an ultimatum.

By August 7, Abu Hamzeh had issued the official ultimatum, giving Yazidis in Kojo and Hatimiyah three to four days to decide whether to convert. However, there was no mention of what would happen if they chose not to convert, which left Yazidis feeling uneasy. This prompted Ahmad Jaso, the Mukhtar of Kojo, to travel to Hatimiyah to speak with Hatimiyah’s Mokhtar, Hussein Barjas. Jaso and his entourage spent the night in Hatimiyah with Barjas strategizing their next move. They decided both villages would escape to Sinjar mountain before the ultimatum deadline. They planned their escape for either August 9 or 10. The residents of Hatimiyah broke into two groups. They covered the headlights of all their cars and vehicles with wet sand to conceal their movement and in the dead of night they made it safely to the mountain.

But the residents of Kojo did not escape. At the last minute Ahmad Jaso backed out.
Following a number of phone calls between Arab Sunni leaders and more visits from Abu Hamzeh, Jaso was reassured that there would be no problems under the Islamic state. There was a general feeling that the Yazidis would be allowed to live. Then Abu Hamzeh went to Hatimiyah and found it deserted aside from a few elderly people who couldn’t make the journey. He was furious. He brought the elderly people of Hatimiyah to Kojo and accused Jaso of betraying him. ISIS then cordoned off Kojo, surrounding it with checkpoints and ISIS vehicles. Heavily armed ISIS fighters entered the village, took over the school and turned it into their headquarters.

“The people of Kojo had misguided trust in their neighbors,” the international NGO investigator told me. “They were the victims of a huge deception.”

The ultimatum: convert or die

By August 12, Kojo was surrounded. Its residents lost their chance to escape.

Naif tried desperately to find a solution that would save the people of Kojo. He teamed up with his brother, trying to convince their Arab Sunni friends to help.

“I called Sheikhs from the Khatouni’s, including Kassem al Hamzeh and Malek al Nouri Jarallah--he’s our neighbor from the western side of Kojo. At the same time my brother was contacting the others. They claimed to meet with the caliphate leaders in Mosul to persuade them to protect the Yazidis. I don’t know if they really went or not. I contacted Salem Mullah Aloo, he’s a big head for the sheikhs inside Mosul and he has a daughter married to the relative of Mosul’s caliphate leader. I contacted him and said come on Salem, all of the families inside Kojo are going to die. He said, what should I do, they didn’t listen to my words. ISIS is like gang leaders, they don’t listen to me. They are idiots, fools, hoodlums, jerks.”

On August 15 around lunch time a large ISIS convoy entered and surrounded Kojo. Part of that convoy included two excavators driven by local members of the Matewti tribe, according to survivors. One of the drivers was very well known to some of the survivors of the Kojo massacre as a former coworker—they worked construction together. Survivors recall hearing the excavators moving earth on the outskirts of the village. They were digging the mass graves.

ISIS told all the men, women and children of the village to gather in the school and hand over all their money and gold. By noon the entire village had congregated at school. The men were separated from the women, car keys and mobile phones were confiscated and valuable possessions were collected in bags.

The school in Kojo where ISIS gathered the village for enslavement and execution. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Various discussions took place between Abu Hamzeh and Ahmad Jaso but there were other ISIS commanders from other places present, senior leaders from Tal Afar. According to survivors, the men were told that they if they chose not to convert, they had to give up all their possessions and would be released like the Christians of Mosul. They were given several opportunities to convert. Ahmad Jaso reportedly said, we’d rather go to mountain, we want to stay within our faith. ISIS started loading the men into vehicles, around 40 to 60 men at a time. They were driven to various points on outskirts of village and shot.

Seventeen Yazidi men survived the ISIS massacre, mostly by playing dead and hiding under bodies. The survivors say they recognized some of the perpetrators as members of the Matewti and Khatouni tribes. Though many of the executioners wore masks, the survivors were able to identify one of the ISIS men operating one of the excavators that dug the massive graves. They knew him from working construction together. He was their coworker.

Dalal Ahmad Jassem, 46, is one of Ahmad Jaso’s daughters. She was kidnapped by ISIS after they killed all of the men in Kojo, including her husband. She spent a year and a half being shuffled from one prison to another. Eventually she was sold into slavery and repeatedly raped by ISIS fighters.

Wearing all black with a scarf wrapped loosely around her head, Dalal spoke to me at her apartment in Dohuk. She seemed emotionally numb, though every 10 minutes or so she would break out in tears, quickly collect herself and then continue.

“We had a very peaceful and friendly life together before ISIS,” she said of Kojo and the surrounding Arab Sunni villages. “After ISIS attacked Sinjar, the leaders of the Arab Sunni villages surrounding our village became ISIS leaders,” explained Dalal. “They were coming to our house, meeting with my father and saying we’ll try to find a way to help you. They said they were coming as friends and saying we will talk to our leaders in ISIS to find a way to help you. They had captured and besieged our village but they kept coming to my father saying we will find a way to help you.”

“They all kept telling my father that nothing would happen, and in the end they betrayed my father. They were saying these things just to get my father to trust them,” she said.

“On August 14, they had a meeting inside my brothers house. He made lunch for them, they were eating sheep and rice because they were the sheikhs of the Sunnis. After 13 hours, the next day, they witnessed the murders in Kojo. They witnessed my brother’s killing, they were having lunch with him the day before. They were watching and did nothing,” said Ahmad Jaso. “There are no Sunnis who didn’t help ISIS. Even the Sunni politicians in Iraq supported the protesters that became ISIS.”

Among the Sunnis of Sinjar, denial and defensiveness
Yazidis insist at least 90 percent of their Sunni neighbors joined ISIS. The number seemed to be heavily exaggerated. I traversed Iraq to track down displaced Sunnis from Sinjar and get their side of the story.

Tal al Jarabeaa is a displaced persons camp on the desert outskirts of Mosul. It was established on December 12, 2016 and shelters around 1,900 families who fled ISIS-controlled areas, including Arab Sunni families from Sinjar. Rows of tents house impoverished families. There are flies everywhere. Camels lounge under the baking desert sun. Children run around barefoot, playing with pieces of trash and empty water bottles.

An Iraqi child wanders around Tal al Jarabeaa, an IDP camp on the outskirts of Mosul. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Iraqi children pose for a photo at Tal al Jarabeaa. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Most of people I spoke to expressed loathing for ISIS, but showed little sympathy for the genocide of the Yazidis. Most even accused the Yazidis of orchestrating the genocide against themselves, casting Yazidis as aggressors against Arab Sunnis.

“The Yazidis are targeting the Sunnis and Arabs,” argued Salah Ahmad Jassem, 42, a displaced Arab Sunni from Gir Shebek. Gir Shebek was a mixed Sunni and Yazidi collective town close to the remote Yazidi farming village of Hardan. Most of the men in Hardan were massacred and women enslaved by ISIS.

“The Yazidis want to destroy the reputation of Sunnis and Arabs by saying that ISIS members are Sunni. But there are Yazidis who became ISIS members,” Jassem said defensively. “Half of the Yazidis became ISIS members and started hunting and selling their own people. And Sunnis around Sinjar helped them escape,” he argued, accusing Yazidis of being ungrateful for the help and protection they received from Sunnis

“For 50 years we [Sunnis and Yazidis] were neighbors and we had no problems,” he said. His voice grew louder, filling with anger, “But Yazidis are now pushing from different sides against the Sunnis. We suffered from ISIS more than the Yazidis suffered!” A crowd had formed around him and was nodding in agreement.

“ISIS controlled our village for three months. When they took over, they searched inside the village for Yazidis. We saved some Yazidis in the village and let them escape toward Sinjar,” said Jassem. “ISIS members called us traitors for helping the Yazidis and prohibited us from leaving our houses. They stole our money and weapons and imprisoned those who were working with the police and government.”

If Yazidis exaggerated the number of Sunnis who joined ISIS, their Sunni neighbors downplayed it. Most of the local ISIS members were from Tal Afar and Baaj, insisted 40-year-old Mohammed Ahmad, a member of the Jahaysh tribe from Sinjar. “Gir Shebek, Nayniyah, Golat, Ayesshet — these villages are around 12 kilometers all together. Inside the four villages, there is only one person that joined ISIS,” he said.

“When ISIS started occupying these territories, they finished off the Iraqi army and then started talking about the Kurds and Yazidis. At first we thought they were for peace with the Yazidis. Then they started talking about killing them. We saw the mass graves inside. We saw them segregating women and men, killing the men and taking women. We saw the women in the cars screaming for help. We weren’t present, but the road to Tal afar passes by our village. We saw women in the cars going to Tal Afar. They were terrified, banging on the windows and screaming for help,” he added, emphasizing that Arab Sunnis were punished for helping Yazidis.

“There’s two people from our village who were killed by ISIS just because they helped the Yazidis escape. These people who were executed by ISIS were helping Yazidis escape from Tal afar and they were delivering them to mount Sinjar,” he said.

The only thing that Yazidis and Arab Sunnis seem to be in agreement about is their hatred for the Peshmerga.

Ahmad complained that he tried to flee from ISIS with his family to Kurdistan but the Peshmerga would not allowing Arab Sunnis to enter. “They accuse us of being ISIS,” he said. He also said the Peshmerga burned their homes and kicked them out some three months after liberating his village in northern Sinjar from ISIS. “We told Peshmerga, if you see any ISIS members, just kill them. The Peshmerga burned our villages. They said the Yazidis did it but it was the Peshmerga,” he said.

Abdulkareem Ali Hamad is from a village around Sinjar called Abusenaam, an entirely Sunni village about 25 kilometers away from Tal Qasab. He also blamed the Peshmerga for displacing him from his village and accused Iraqi Kurdistan of supporting ISIS.

“Inside my area, most ISIS members were from Tel Afar, the Matewti tribe and Balij. The highest ranking ISIS leader in my town was from Tel Afar. I never saw such a thing like ISIS behavior, like killing and hunting -- not in movies, not in cartoons. I have two brothers who were in ISIS prisons for more than a year because they were Iraqi police officers. And until now the Kurds are helping ISIS members,” he argued.

Burning for vengeance

In 2015 there were several media headlines that Yazidi militias were attacking and murdering Sunni Arab civilians. Amnesty International soon issued a report echoing the accusations.

Yazidis of different political leanings vehemently denied that they were responsible. They all blamed the Peshmerga and insisted that Yazidis were falsely blamed by Gulf-funded media outlets. “Sunnis have excellent media, like Al Jazeera,” observed Jameel Chomar. “There was a village belonging to Arabs in Zamar that was burned by the Peshmerga. Al Jazeera made a report saying that Yazidis burned it. There were no Yazidis around there,” he insisted.

Even Arab Sunnis from Sinjar expressed confusion over the culprits. Among those I spoke to, some blamed the Peshmerga, recalling that the US-backed Kurdish militia burned their homes and forced them to leave their villages. Others blamed Yazidis. But no one actually saw or knew who was behind it.

That’s not to say Yazidis aren’t capable of committing atrocities.

“I wish it was Yazidis who killed those Sunnis,” a Yazidi activist in Dohuk bluntly proclaimed. “We’re not organized or armed enough to carry out revenge like that. But I wish we could.”

October 20, 2017

Rania Khalek is an independent journalist living in the Washington D.C. area.






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