Slowly not surely: Reconstruction lags in Sinjar seven years after Yazidi genocide
On the seven-year anniversary of the genocide at the hands of the Islamic State group (IS), Farhad Barkat, a Yazidi activist and translator, is posting on Twitter in memory of the thousands who died during this time.
The northwestern Iraqi town of Sinjar and its surrounding areas, where Farhad lives and works, was the epicenter of the Yazidi genocide. Sinjar, called Shingal in Kurdish, made international headlines when what would be widely recognised as a genocide began, but has since fallen off the radar.
Sharing glimmers of hope, Farhad posts photos of sunlight bouncing off of black tarmac of new roads, and new schools with gleaming windows.
However, much of Sinjar is still in ruins. Houses lie bombed out, mines remain hidden waiting in rubble, and water supplies have been left dry, so that hundreds of thousands of Yazidis - many of them still living in IDP camp tents - are not returning to their ancestral homeland.
"The process of reconstruction is so quiet. If it is done like this, then it will take dozens of years," Farhad told The New Arab.
After clearing debris, repaving, and installing road signs, #Sinuni’s main road is ready for traffic! Now, it’s time for the finishing touches: building sidewalks and planting trees along the road.#USCGERBIL— Farhad Barkat (@farhadbarkat0) July 27, 2021
USAID Middle East
USAID ICRI-Ta'afi pic.twitter.com/KwNg85I9eD
IS began to tear through the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar on 3 August 2014. Thousands were abducted, with many women and girls enduring sexual violence at the hands of IS captors. Yazidis are heretics, IS said, so anything could be done to them.
After years of fierce fighting between IS on the one side and local forces and the US-led Coalition on the other, the extremist group was declared territorially defeated in Iraq in December 2017. IS left horror in its wake - nowhere more so than in Sinjar. At the last count, more than 2,800 Yazidis were still missing, and more than 200,000 remain displaced.
Pari Ibrahim is executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), a non-governmental organisation that works with Yazidis living in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. FYF holds a seminar on what can be done for the Yazidi every year on 3 August, "as the impact of the Yazidi Genocide remains", Ibrahim told The New Arab.
"Yazidis are now largely in recovery and rebuilding mode, but this is also not easy. Homes are destroyed, there are few jobs, immense individual and community-wide trauma, and many Yazidis are still missing. So even though there is not an active war, the community still faces many grave challenges," Ibrahim said.
Some advances have been made this year on getting recognition for the Yazidi genocide, most notably the passing of the Yazidi Survivors' Law in March of this year. The law means that Iraq recognises what happened to the Yazidis was a genocide. It promises victims psychological and medical care, compensation, housing, jobs, and education to female victims of captivity.
Baghdad has yet to implement the bill, or other promises it made to the Yazidis, including reconstruction in Sinjar. Local and international NGOs are working hard to breathe life back into the area, but they say they cannot do it alone.
Many of the Yazidis displaced in Iraq are living in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Canvas tents do little to protect against cold, wet winters and sweltering summers. Job opportunities are scarce, and a mental health crisis is gripping the displaced.
At the end of last year, the Iraqi government began to push for the closing of camps across Iraq, including Iraqi Kurdistan, because of poor safety - including the fire that ripped through hundreds of tents at Sharia camp in Dohuk province. The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have broadly refused to shut the camps.
Some Yazidi families have left the camps to return to Sinjar for good, but some moved back to the camps as soon as they could because of the poor living conditions in Sinjar. Others have sought refuge abroad, feeling that there is no future for them in Iraq.
"Those who have returned to their areas of origin and those who are intending to do so are in need of education, healthcare, housing, clean water, job opportunities, legal aid, and mental healthcare," said Abid Shamdeen, executive director for Nadia’s Initiative, founded by Yazidi Genocide survivor and human rights advocate Nadia Murad.
"These needs are compounded by a lack of local governance and social support services."
Sinjar, a territory claimed by both the federal and Iraqi Kurdish authorities, is home to several armed groups vying for control.
In October 2020, Erbil and Baghdad reached an agreement so that the only arms in the Sinjar area would be those of the federal government. As part of the agreement, 2,500 local people are to be hired to form a security force. Little of the deal has materialised.
"Yazidis continue to suffer from poor local governance in the region and a lack of integration of the community into the local police forces and federal security forces," Shamdeen told The New Arab.
"The only way Yazidis will be able to ensure both their safety and security in the long-term is if they are empowered to participate in both institutions… restoring the Yazidi community's agency means enabling them to have a say in their own governance and security."
To make matters even more complicated, Sinjar currently has not one, but two local governments: one appointed by authorities and located in Sinjar; the other is being led by the mayor elected by the provisional council, who works in exile from Dohuk. The agreement says that Erbil and Baghdad must decide on an independent mayor.
The uncertainty around the administration and security has meant efforts to rebuild the area are taking place in slow motion.
"For Nadia’s Initiative and many other INGOs/NGOs working in the region, having the Sinjar mayor based in Sinjar and having functioning government offices would make implementing projects a lot easier," Shamdeen said.
For Ibrahim, "reliable, professional security in Sinjar" is among the most important factors for reconstruction in the short and short-medium term.
Sinjar is part of Nineveh province, which is rich in religious and ethnic minority groups, all of which were targeted and left obliterated by IS. The province has suffered from wide-scale corruption in recent years, with former governor Nawfal Al-Akoub arrested and jailed for embezzling tens of millions of dollars from state coffers.
But Nineveh's current governor, Najm Al-Jubouri, in April decried the amount of money allocated to the province in the 2021 federal budget, saying it was insufficient for reconstruction.
Yazidis say that what happened in 2014 was one of 74 genocides they have survived. Some say the genocide is ongoing, because of the unknown fate of those still missing. For a people who have suffered so much, the reconstruction of their ruined homeland might be able to restore a little of their faith in the future.
"The reconstruction of Sinjar would give the people confidence in a better future, which is very important for coping with the trauma and genocide," Dr. Jan Kizilhan, a Yazidi psychologist who has worked with survivors of the genocide told The New Arab.
"Reconstruction of Sinjar also means that the injured roots get a chance to grow again, which psychologically means that it can help heal the traumatic wounds. In this way, a broken community can grow again in the hope of peace and security and hopefully reconciliation with its Muslim and Arab neighbours."
For Shamdeen, "the only way to end the genocide against the Yazidi people is to facilitate their safe and dignified return home to Sinjar".
Shahla Omar is a staff journalist at The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter: @shahlasomar