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
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.