Sticks, stones, broken homes: Yazidis trapped between displacement and danger
Outside a garage in the Iraqi town of Khanke, 20 kilometres from Duhok, 35-year-old Faisal Said turned up greeting some of the mechanics nearby and joking with them. He comes across as someone without any life concerns. Yet, he was among the thousands of people forced to flee their homes after armed confrontations broke out in the Yazidi-majority district of Sinjar a few weeks ago.
“I’ve come by to say hi to my friends,” the young man says, speaking to The New Arab spontaneously.
“I used to work here after I was first displaced with my family in 2014, that was before we went back to our hometown four years later only to be displaced a second time now.”
Showing a picture of their kitchen window with a bullet hole resulting from the latest clashes on his mobile phone, he vividly recalled how their house, located outside Sinjar’s Sinuni sub-district, was completely surrounded by Iraqi forces with three tanks deployed on one side, three more tanks on the other side, and Yazidi fighters at the back. “They were shooting at each other, even randomly, and we rushed out in the crossfire,” he told The New Arab.
"Some 300,000 displaced Yazidis are estimated to be in the Kurdish region"
He took his wife and five small, terrified children (aged 5 to 13) to find refuge inside Sinuni until hostilities spread to that area too, prompting them to run away once more within a few hours, until they finally reached the Kurdish-run region.
After sheltering for a few days with his father-in-law in the Sharya camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), the 35-year-old moved with his family into a block of flats in the town of Sharya, 15 kilometres south of Duhok.
“Previously, the Islamic State group (IS) made us leave, this time it is due to the infighting,” he uttered. “My business and home are in Sinjar. I left everything behind.”
Fierce clashes between the Iraqi army and local fighters affiliated with Turkey's banned separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) forces, in northern Iraq’s Sinjar district in early May pushed over 10,000 Yazidis out of their homeland.
Most of the displaced are now scattered across camps in the Kurdistan region (KRI).
As of 4 May, the UN refugee agency in Iraq recorded above 135,700 people, mainly Yazidis, sheltering in 15 camps in the provinces of Duhok and Nineveh, in addition to about 195,000 IDPs living independently in the area. Overall, some 300,000 displaced Yazidis are estimated to be in the Kurdish region.
Two weeks later, UNHCR Iraq stated that approximately over one-third of Sinjar’s displaced families had returned home.
“We’re just getting by here. The Iraqi government hasn’t done anything for Yazidi people or Sinjar,” Faisal complained adding that the security of the district should be managed by one force only and not jointly.
“We don’t know anything about our future, whether staying in Kurdistan or returning home. We hope our life will be in our Sinjar someday even though it’s not safe," he concluded.
In the summer of 2014, scores of minority Yazidis escaped from Sinjar after Islamic State militants seized the predominantly Yazidi town and launched their genocidal campaign of killings, abductions, rape and enslavement. Many have been reluctant to return even after the extremist group was defeated whilst others have returned despite the challenges or even risks they are facing there.
As a result of the recent military confrontations, the newly fled have settled mainly in Chamishko camp, near the city of Zakho, and other camps while others have sought shelter with relatives.
“Many Yazidis among the recently displaced, too, have gone back to Sinjar as they see calm has returned since last month’s fighting,” Hasan Khaled, legal coordinator at a local humanitarian NGO, Harika, that helps IDPs and refugees in the Duhok governorate, noted. Talking to The New Arab, he specified that people have fears of losing their jobs and businesses in the area as well as worries for students who are due to take their final exams.
Living conditions of IDPs in KRI [Iraqi Kurdistan] remain precarious. Inside camps, for the largest part, people are still residing in tented accommodation. Running water and electricity are intermittent
For Khaled, one critical challenge for displaced people in KRI [Iraqi Kurdistan] is the lack of documentation since they either lost their IDs or their documents – which include nationality certificates and civil identity cards – were damaged or expired.
Most of the time, IDPs are afraid or do not have the means to travel to their area of origin in order to have their documents replaced or renewed. The lack of documentation severely impacts their ability to access education, healthcare and employment.
“In this respect, we have stepped in providing legal assistance free of charge,” Harika’s legal coordinator pointed out. “Since 2019, we have issued more than 51,000 documents for IDPs.”
Other major challenges, he indicated, include the widespread financial crisis and access to the labour market in the host community where the population has grown in size, prices and unemployment have increased.
On a separate note, the legal adviser mentioned that, based on recent meetings Harika conducted with government officials, there are currently attempts to pull out and move support services for IDPs from Duhok to their areas of origin suggesting a “new policy” to indirectly induce people to go back to their homeland.
Giving his opinion on the situation in Sinjar, Khaled highlighted its complexity: “All the conflicting sides there have made it impossible to rebuild, rehabilitate essential services, and let people live in a normal way.”
Any potential returns are correlated with security and access to basic services. Much of Sinjar's town remains destroyed, it lacks schools and hospitals, basic infrastructure and services are inadequate, and jobs are scarce.
Chatting with a friend while sitting on a bike on a side street in a housing complex in Sharya, Ahmad Hala, 19, gave a welcoming smile and invited us to follow him.
Living with his parents and three siblings in a rented three-room house, he explained that they initially stayed in the town’s IDP camp until the landowner asked them to move out for building work.
Taking a seat on one of the mattresses put on the floor in one room, he began to talk to The New Arab.
In his final year of high school, Ahmad looked more like a young man, with his older appearance almost implying that life events made him grow up quickly. Like many Yazidis, he has suffered from long years of displacement following the brutal domination by the Islamic State group.
“We were displaced eight years ago and we haven’t gone back home ever since,” the youngster said. He retains clear memories of the 11 days that followed the IS invasion of Sinjar. He and his family fled to the mountains at night time along with other residents after their village came under attack.
During that period, they survived without water and food or anything to sleep on.
“We had nothing. Some people who were with us got sick, others even died,” he recalls. When men from the Islamic State group found their hideout, the family was forced to leave and walk toward the Syrian border. From there, they made it into Kurdistan with the help of a van that drove them straight to Sharya camp.
“Today, it causes us hard feelings to see our people pushed out once again," Ahmad says as he sighs. "Some of them had returned to Sinjar only two or three years ago, they wanted to restart their lives, but their lives have been turned upside down yet again."
The 19-year-old goes to a school at the IDP camp where he reveals how classes are understaffed and the teaching quality is unsatisfactory.
As for medical assistance, he and his family members would normally go to a health centre in the camp for primary needs, otherwise, they have to resort to going to Duhok for other check-ups and treatments which adds up the costs.
"On the one hand, we want to return to Sinjar because it’s our land. On the other, the future there looks very unclear"
The living conditions of IDPs in KRI remain precarious. Inside camps, for the largest part, people are still residing in tented accommodation. Running water and electricity are intermittent. To help meet basic needs, the World Food Programme (WFP) provides monthly food assistance.
UN agencies and NGOs support the government’s efforts to serve IDP students through staffing shortages supplemented by untrained community members, which translates to inadequate quality of schooling.
Minimal health services are provided in camps and it is very difficult to obtain basic medical necessities in areas of displacement, obliging IDPs to seek medical aid elsewhere, mostly in Duhok.
“On one hand, we want to return to Sinjar because it’s our land. On the other, the future there looks very unclear,” Ahmad expressed his divided sentiment. “If the situation gets better we’ll go back, but not for now.”
His father, working as a police officer in Sinjar, knows well about the ongoing instability in their Yazidi heartland. The high-school student is said to be mistrustful of all rival parties who claim to protect Sinjar, maintaining that their intention is to control the area instead.
At the Enterprise & Training Center (ETC), just outside the Khanke IDP camp – run by the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF) – Almas Ibrahim, 35, is knitting in a group of Yazidi women artisans. She shyly comes forward after making a phone call to have her husband's consent in order to talk.
“When I heard the news about the recent wave of displacement, it brought back the painful days when IS committed genocide against the Yazidis and people were fleeing to IDP camps,” she told The New Arab speaking in another room inside the centre’s building.
Her husband works as a guard at the FYF while she earns a little income from selling hand-crafted scrub cloths after receiving vocational training from the Yazidi women-led civil society organisation.
“In Sinjar, there’s conflict every so often. At least we feel safer here. Even if there was any rebuilding there, I wouldn’t go. Security comes first.”
Almas along with her spouse and three children (between the ages of 10-14) were among the many families who ran away when IS militants began to attack Yazidi villages in the Sinjar district in August 2014.
At that time five of her relatives were kidnapped, and one of them is still missing today.
As soon as they heard IS was approaching their village, the family of five sought refuge in the mountains and stayed there for a week. “It was very hard. There was no food or water. I had heart disease, and my youngest kid was only two at the time," she recounted.
Afterwards, they spent one day walking until they reached the Syrian border to finally make their way into the neighbouring KRI and settle in the Khanke camp.
Displaced for almost eight years now, Ibrahim has been coping despite the dire living conditions at the camp. Dwelling with her four family members in a 4m x 2m nylon tent, she endures terribly hot temperatures during summer and very cold weather in winter months.
Power outages and shortages of drinking water are frequent. For any non-basic health needs (like her underlying heart condition) she has to travel to Duhok every time to get the treatment or test needed, which becomes unaffordable.
But her biggest worry inside the camp – like in other displacement camps – is the constant hazard posed by fire incidents.
“We’re not asking for anything other than 1having tents converted into concrete blocks,” the woman in her mid-30s said, voicing the collective demand of the IDPs. “We’re scared of fires and casualties. I often can’t sleep at night because I fear that an electrical short circuit could cause a fire."
Last week, local media reported that the Duhok provincial administration had agreed to convert the tents in the camps into blocks in all IDP camps affiliated with the governorate.
Dozens of fires have been reported in the IDP camps, the largest of which occurred on 4 June 2021, when more than 180 families lost some 400 tents and their belongings in the Sharia camp for IDPs.
Referring to her future plans, Almas showed no hope at all expecting the situation to remain the same. “Sinjar will be still an unsafe place, we Yazidis will continue to stay here, and nobody will take us out of this country,” she said with great pessimism.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec