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

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.