Displaced Yazidi rest after crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border in northern Iraq, 13 August 13. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Yazidis are starving, traumatised and still unsafe

The options offered to the Yazidis are far fewer than to Christians because they are not a monotheistic faith. To the jihadists, Yazidis must either embrace Islam or be killed. 

Since 3 August, over 200,000 residents of Sinjar have flooded into Dohuk, the westernmost governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. Most of these refugees are Yazidis, fleeing the advance of Islamic State (also known as “Isis”) jihadists. By 9 August, the new arrivals had survived almost a week trapped in the mountains of Sinjar, with little food or water and without shelter from the sun. They have since taken up residence wherever they can: scores of families sleep on the floor in schools; old men sit inside empty shells of buildings still under construction; women and babies gather in circles on the floor of warehouses.

I have been told the harrowing stories of a family that walked with their ten children for three days across the desert; of a father whose 21-year-old daughter was shot by a jihadist when she ventured out to find water; of people who ate leaves or raw meat to survive; of a man airlifted out by a Kurdish-manned Iraqi government helicopter who watched as two other desperate men, clinging to the landing skids, fell to their deaths; of a Yazidi family, hidden by Arab Muslims until they could escape from the city by night.

Yet to some extent these refugees are lucky: many more Yazidis remain stuck in the mountains. Others could not flee; their villages were surrounded by Isis before they could escape. A number of people have told me that they are receiving calls from relatives trapped inside besieged villages. They are calling for one purpose: to inform their families that they will soon be killed for refusing to convert to Islam.

A man named Haider Elias Rasho told me he had just had a call from his daughter, trapped in their village, telling him that in the morning a two-day window to convert would expire. Another named Khalid Quto Khalaf had received a call from his brother-in-law bidding him farewell and saying he expected to be executed along with 500 other men imprisoned by the jihadists. Many people reported receiving similar phone calls.

On 17 July, Isis had given the Christians of Mosul – Iraq’s second city, which fell to the jihadist group in June – three options: convert to Islam, pay jizya (a head tax for non-Islamic “protected” minorities) or be killed “by the sword”. Rather than capitulate, many Christians fled the city, at which point Isis jihadists stripped them of all their belongings. They were not, however, killed.

This is no accident. Isis views Christians as “People of the Book”, an Islamic category for a few religions that, though seen as inferior to Islam, qualify for certain rights. The options offered to the Yazidis are fewer: as a faith group characterised by an oral tradition and marked by “pagan” and polytheistic elements, Yazidis cannot qualify for the designation, offered only to those who belong to monotheistic traditions that preceded Islam (Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians). To the jihadists, Yazidis must either embrace Islam or be killed.

The Yazidis are keenly aware that they are the targets of a genocidal impulse. After viewing the slaughter and dispossession of Sinjar, other Yazidi communities living south of Dohuk have started fleeing northward even if Isis has not yet breached defences near their villages.

The town of Shariya, south of Dohuk, saw its population grow from 17,000 to 80,000 in three days as refugees from Sinjar arrived. Then, on 7 August, the town emptied after fearful refugees and local people heard rumours that peshmerga defences were breaking. In the following days, the same refugees began returning to Shariya, having been unable to find accommodation elsewhere.

The Dohuk governorate is a whirlpool of movement as frightened minorities – and some Muslims as well – look for refuge. Many are moving in circles, from one town to the next and back again, unable to feel safe anywhere. The Kurdish regional government and NGOs are trying to bring food and water to towns overwhelmed by refugees but they are struggling to cope. It was at least easier to organise relief efforts when the refugees were concentrated in defined areas. Community leaders now say it is impossible to care for needy families when they are dispersed throughout the mountains and countryside.

This ongoing flight is driven by terror. Yazidi families no longer have confidence that the Kurdish peshmerga forces can protect them. Most welcome US aerial support for the local defensive efforts, though many do not understand why it is so limited in scope. Merely supporting the peshmerga is not enough; they will not be able to relax again until the Isis invaders have been driven from their country. 

Matthew Barber is a PhD student at the University of Chicago who studies Islamic studies and Yazidism, and who follows events in the Levant and Iraq. He can be followed on Twitter: @Matthew__Barber

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war