Memories of Yazidis and Lalish on World Refugee Day

Several Yazidis pose for a photo in Lalish in 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Several Yazidis pose for a photo in Lalish in 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commemorated World Refugee Day in New York on Thursday, recalling the estimated 70 million people today who are forcibly displaced across the globe. It is an unprecedented number. Recent years have seen record levels of human misery amid this displacement. I spent the last five years reporting on many of these refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). One memory that haunts me is my trip to Lalish in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2015.
That June, like every summer in Iraq, was scorching. ISIS was still powerful in June 2015, and a threat to Iraq, Syria and the world. Its legions of local and foreign fighters had marched into Ramadi near Baghdad a month earlier. It also captured Palmyra, the ancient oasis city in Syria that it then targeted for destruction.
By June, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, largely cut off from Baghdad and the Iraqi security forces, had stabilized its hundreds of kilometers of frontlines.
Several million refugees had fled Iraq’s battle zones, and many of them were living in the Kurdistan Regional Government-controlled areas.
Worst hit were the hundreds of thousands of Yazidis who had been forced to flee their homes around the mountain of Sinjar in August 2014, when ISIS attacked the minority group. ISIS kidnapped thousands of Yazidis, separating the men and women, and murdering many of the men. The women were sold into slavery. This was the ISIS plan for the region: Genocide for minorities, including Christians, Shi’ite Muslims and others, and mass murder of anyone who got in their way. The horrors of ISIS crimes were known in 2015. These included systematic mass rape, and selling of women and children as sex slaves. The crimes are so horrific that even writing about seeing the victims’ mass graves renews my four-year-long trauma.
In June 2015, I traveled north of Erbil to the Harham Camp that formed a kind of suburb of the city. It housed 1,430 people in 299 pre-fab buildings. Most of them were Arabs who had fled areas around Mosul. The camp kept clear data on them: 531 came from Mosul itself, and 12 from Tal Afar, a city where ISIS had forced the Shi’ites to flee. In all, 1,385 came from Nineveh province in northern Iraq.
The refugees had no possessions apart from tents and huts, and a communal oven to bake bread. Sewage leaked into a nearby construction site. A sign explained how to keep the camp more sanitary. The people were in collective shock. Their lands and houses had been ripped away from them in the summer of 2014. A year, later they didn’t know if they would ever go back. Many had loved ones still living under ISIS control.
A day later, I went north from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, toward the front line against ISIS. In a small Christian town called Telskuf, the Kurdish Peshmerga had fortified the front with sandbags and earthen berms. Many of the Christians had fled when ISIS sacked the town in August 2014, but some had returned six months later to form their own armed unit. They posed with their rifles. A walkie-talkie permitted us to hear the ISIS fighters chatting on the other side of the berm. Strange to hear the enemy so close.
On the way back from the front, the Yazidi holy site of Lalish beckoned to pilgrims. Nestled in the hills, the site had survived the previous persecution of Yazidis by Islamist extremists. I drove there just before sunset. A helpful man in a red and white keffiyeh head covering and several women sat next to a spring that formed one of the sites of pilgrimage. Everyone was barefoot to show respect for the area. Some of the people living at the place, or who had come to observe their traditions, were refugees who had fled areas ISIS had attacked. One of the men recounted the ISIS attack on Kocho, a Yazidi village where most of the residents had been kidnapped.
As someone who was raised hearing Holocaust stories, it was always hard to understand how the Shoah might have looked in places like Belarus or Ukraine, where Jews were massacred. What did Babi Yar – where 33,000 Jews were murdered in two days in 1941 – look like? Holocaust movies often depict the deportation trains and concentration camps. Few movies depict the bloody massacre by bullets of around 1.3 million people carried out by the Einsatzgruppen.
Speaking to the refugees, I began to understand what it meant to survive, to escape and to flee, and to know that one’s entire family was gone.
It has taken years to learn the fate of kidnapped Yazidis. While a few women and children are still being found in Syria, some 3,000 people are missing. Up to 100,000 Yazidis may have left Iraq because of the genocide, and hundreds of thousands are still in camps years later. ISIS is still threatening Sinjar, where they left behind mass graves. There are some 80 mass graves of Yazidis around Sinjar, and 68 holy sites of the religion were destroyed by ISIS. According to the KRG’s statistics, there are 2,745 orphans due to ISIS crimes.
But data are just numbers. The real story is that years later as we sit through another World Refugee Day and listen to rhetoric about refugees, we see how little has been done.
The Yazidis were a clear and obvious case of victims who could be helped. It wouldn’t take much to help them rebuild or to provide their basic needs. But at every step of the way since the 2014 genocide, little has been done. Few resources have been invested by the international community in finding missing people. Few resources have been invested in documenting mass graves. It took until this year for some international forensics to look at them. Years too late. There has been no Nuremberg-like trial for the perpetrators. In fact most countries, including European countries where 5,000 ISIS members came from, have taken back the murderers and rapists. Only in Iraq are some being tried. Justice is slow, and victims are rarely invited to testify. The camps the refugees live in still lack basic infrastructure. For years in Sinjar there was barely a medical clinic. There is little help for women who survived rape. And even when it comes to child victims of sexual assaults, there is little help given. I saw a photo today of a woman who volunteers to help the orphans and children put up for adoption. Those little kids have almost nothing.
Genocide and the crimes that produce refugees do not end when the refugees reach the camp. The horror continues as long as there is no help for the victims. The Yazidis numbering several hundred thousand are the tip of an iceberg of 70 million. But if help can’t even get to the most vulnerable, impoverished and targeted minorities, it won’t get to the rest.