In the foothills of Mount Olympus, the location of the Petra refugee camp in Greece should make it a haven. Surrounded by pine trees, with the snow-topped summit of the gods’ mythological home in the distance, the quiet refuge houses groups of women sitting peacefully in the shade. Families cook vegetable pasties in hot oil and children dance in circles on sun-parched grass.
In reality, it is not, of course, an idyll. The tented site – on the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital – is home to 1,300 of the 4,000 Yazidis currently in Greece. They fled the Islamic State advance on their homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014, when the terror group slaughtered 5,000 of their kin in an internationally recognised genocide.
But while these members of the religious minority escaped the immediate danger of IS, they found fear and poverty in their flight.
They are among 50,000 people trapped on Greek soil after European countries shut their borders in March. Housed in camps with poor water, electricity and food supplies, there is disquiet between ethnic and religious groups, including the Yazidis.
The ethno-religious group, who numbered 600,000 in Iraq before the arrival of IS, follow a non-Abrahamic faith and worship Melek Tawwus, a fallen angel. Because their traditions are derived from multiple religions, some followers of other faiths consider them heretical and worthy of punishment.
Katsikas camp. All photos: Lizzie Porter
The poor health and sanitation conditions for Petra’s residents – half of whom are under 18 – are obvious. Cream canvas tents, searingly hot under the Mediterranean sun, are packed tightly, guy ropes tangled together. Some families have cooking equipment, and fires are lit in narrow alleyways.
“The water is not clean and the children are sick”, one Yazidi woman from Sinjar in northern Iraq tells me at the camp, in fluent English. “One day two long snakes came into the tent. The children have bites and the toilets here are very bad.”
According to the UNHCR, three daily meals are provided, including hot food, and authorities collect waste. But it also admits that there are just 30 toilets, 20 showers and 60 water taps for the whole camp. There are no separate washing facilities for women. The colonel managing Petra would not let me inspect the washing facilities.
Petra’s residents are solely Yazidi: they say they fear persecution and violence in camps housing people of mixed ethnicities and religions. The UNHCR admitted to me that there have been “tensions” between Yazidis and other refugee groups.
Naji Haji, a 27-year-old resident also from Sinjar, said the authorities treated them well, but that friends in another camp north of Thessaloniki had been beaten by other refugees because of their faith.
“Yazidi people in other camps want to come to Petra,” he said.
Several hundred other Yazidis initially gathered in Katsikas camp, near the Albanian border.
Falah, a 30-year-old Yazidi barber from Sinjar, is among them, along with his two children, wife and parents.
When IS invaded his village last summer, they kidnapped his mother’s father, four cousins and two of his brothers: “They came with guns and knives. I saw them kill people.”
A Syrian Kurd and his daughter.
The community fled to Mount Sinjar, where they stayed for ten days with little food or water, before escaping to Iraqi Kurdistan, then to Turkey and onto Greece.
“The Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar died from no food or water or hope. I brought my children here because I wanted to live,” he adds.
A fortnight ago, Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and a former ICC prosecutor visited Petra camp as part of a campaign to bring criminal charges on Islamic State. In June the UN recognised the August 2014 massacre as a genocide, echoing a declaration by US Secretary of State John Kerry in March.
But Haji, whose brother was killed in a car bomb in 2007, said he felt afraid even in Europe.
“We feel little hope in Europe. We managed to escape Daesh”, he says, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “But now they are in France, Germany, and all states.”
While the UNHCR says it visits Petra daily to monitor the situation, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), is doing its best to support the Yazidi minority.
The NGO’s country co-ordinator, Julide Glanz, is mindful of the danger of exacerbating tensions between ethno-religious groups.
“When we speak of Muslims [who discriminate against Yazidis] we are referring to the brainless fanatics who drag the name of Islam into the dirt,” she says. “Muslims had to flee too and on their journey the Yazidis took them in and accepted them as one of their own.”
She insists Yazidi-only camps are the best way of minimising violence. On the Petra model, for example, Greek authorities moved Yazidis at Katsikas to their own camp nearby in July. “The fear is big and there is little protection,” Glanz says.
A lack of interpreters of Kermanji – the dialect of Kurdish spoken by Yazidis – is a problem, according to Greek authorities. A spokesperson tells me that there is a lack of interpreters in all refugee languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Pashto, “let alone a rare dialect like Kermanji. We are trying to manage the situation by using English-speaking refugees of the same ethnic group.”
Tent at Katsikas camp.
What of the future? Falah feels increasingly desperate. “Here there is no money, no tea, no food, nothing. Before, people had money, but we paid €10,000 (£8,600) to the people smuggler to get us to Greece.”
Elsewhere, there is some hope. Abu Roudyan, a 27-year-old Yazidi originally from Bahzani in northern Iraq, lived in Petra camp with his wife and young children for over three months. They have now managed to get to Germany, while Roudyan waits in Athens.
“Iraq is at war and women are kidnapped and children are killed,” he says. “The important thing for the future of my family is safety in Germany.”