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

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.