Sitting outside a refugee camp in northern Greece, the woman across from me – a member of the Yazidi faith – wrestles with her English homework. As a survivor of an ongoing genocide, her thoughts remain with what is left of her family, torn apart by ISIS. Three years on, as fires rage across Sinjar, many other Yazidis will now be wondering what remains of their scorched homeland, a myriad of villages dotted around the Sinjar mountain range of northern Iraq, home to the worst atrocities committed by the jihadist group during its bloody reign.
Labeled as “devil-worshipers” by ISIS and other extremist groups, the Yazidi community was attacked in August 2014, mere months after the conquest of Mosul. Thousands were shot to death, left to starve in the summer heat and sold as sexual slaves at markets across the caliphate. To this day, thousands of women and children remain in the hands of terrorists who deem their rape and purchase as permissible under Islamic law. While survivors of ISIS enslavement have sought safety in Europe, North America and Australia, the majority of Yazidis remain in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. A small number have returned to Sinjar, where they face extreme poverty and a lack of resources.
“There is nothing left,” said Baderkhan Kassim, an NGO worker from the village of Tel Banat. He had been waiting eagerly for six months to harvest crops before they were destroyed last week, in a spate of fires affecting dozens of villages. Speaking from Sinjar, Kassim warned of the devastating consequences the blazes will have on the local community, many of whom rely solely on the harvests to survive. “It is so hard to find a job. I have applied to over 200 and received no response. Without the crops, people will starve.”
Yazidi spiritual life is inextricably tied to the land of Sinjar, a land on which they have built their temples for thousands of years. While their holiest site, in Iraqi Kurdistan, was spared destruction, growing numbers of Yazidis have left the Kurdish camps to return to their hometowns and villages, showing the enemy that they will not be driven out of Iraq. The recent fires, however, are threatening to do just that – and no one is coming to their rescue. Governments have shed their moral compasses and forgotten the treaties they signed promising to end the horror of genocide. Many recognize the horrors against the Yazidis as genocide, yet refuse to halt the persecution of its survivors.
“Yazidis will never be able to return if this continues; we will have to leave Iraq,” said Kassim.
Leaving Iraq, however, is not an option afforded to most survivors. Many fled without documents, and acquiring passports – and a successful asylum claim – is a lengthy process without a guarantee of success.
“Returning to Sinjar without protection or justice was one of the biggest mistakes we have made,” said Sarhad Khero. “Going back without guarantees for our safety is as if nothing ever happened.” Hailing from the village of Zaituny, Khero sought safety close to the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, where he now works as a translator for other refugees. He says the fires and instability in Sinjar distracts him from doing his work.
The source of the fires remains under investigation, but many suspect foul play and extremist activity. Mass graves surrounding Hardan and Kocho – the village of Nadia Murad – were not spared from the fire, destroying incriminating evidence against ISIS fighters, now guilty of genocide. As Sinjar burns, hope for justice grows weaker and weaker.
Whatever the causes of the blazes, one thing is clear: the Yazidis have no security in Sinjar. Denying safety to Yazidis – and telling them to return home – is to hand them a death sentence.
The writer is a Scottish author and Yazidi rights advocate.