A long convoy of Turkish military vehicles crosses a road in Duhok region, Iraqi Kurdistan. “Those could be the preparations for the invasion of the Shingal Region (Sinjar), where I lived with my family.”
The words of Ibrahim, an Ezidi (Yazid in English) taxi driver, reflect a constant fear that terrifies the Ezidi population in Northern Iraq. I was at the start of a journey to the Shingal region, where these people live. It’s a land battered by millennial conflicts and lately by the fury of Islamic State, and has been crossed by thousands of people fleeing from the violence of jihadists.
Ezidis are a religious group of about half a million people, native to the Iraqi province of Nineveh, which shares the same language and much of the culture of the Kurds of Turkey and Syria. Precisely because of their adherence to a gnostic and pre-Islamic cult, they have been, with Christians and Shi’ites, one of the main victims of the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Islamic State in recent years in the area.
Ibrahim is one of those people who managed to escape a few hours before the siege launched in the Shingal region by IS in August 2014, but the territory and many of his friends are still in the hands of their IS persecutors; he has since lost any contact with them. Most are missing; the men and children who were caught, if they rejected conversion to Islam, have been killed, the women abducted to be enslaved or prostituted.
During those terrible days of 2014, thousands of people found shelter in the Shingal (Sinjar) mountains where, surrounded by the IS militiamen, they spent seven days without food, constantly struggling between life and death. Salvation arrived thanks to the JPG/YPJ and PKK militants, who opened two humanitarian corridors to the Kurdish majority area of Rojava (Northern Syria), saving women and children first, and then offering the men weapons to fight alongside them.
An hour away from the capital of the Duhok Region and a few kilometers from a huge refugee camp where thousands of Ezidis live, there is a checkpoint for entry to the region of Shingal. This control is a real frontier, which actually represents one of the old borders between Iraq and the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KRG). Here it’s the access to an area officially occupied by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, mostly close to the PDK (Democratic Party of Kurdistan) group led by Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Mas’ud Barzani – though its independence has been disputed with the central government of Baghdad for several years.
The wait in this area is long. Smoke from dozens of cigarettes choke our breath and the early morning mist settles in the waters of the Tigris river. The checks are tight, but after hours of investigations, the military allow us to pass.
Shingal region manifests itself after a few kilometers as a vast semi-desert plain, dominated by a mountain range – considered sacred by the Ezidis – which runs from east to west, with the western extremity in what is currently Rojava.
Along with the massive presence of Peshmerga in the area, there are also the Shingal Resistance Units (YB?) and Ezidxan Women’s Units (YJ?), both of which are under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an organization that brings together all the groups that are inspired by PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Close to the the Shingal mountain range there is a very important village, Khana Sor. Here, during March, there were clashes between Roj Peshmerga – Kurdish soldiers from Rojava paid by the Iraqi Kurdistan Ministry of Interior – and the YB?. Shortly after this fighting, the local population, along with Ezidis from the refugee camps of Rojava, organized a rally against Rojava Peshmerga’s incursions into the village. During this peaceful gathering Iraqi Kurdistan’s security forces attacked , injuring some civilians and killing a local journalist.
This action, in the opinion of Sinun, the father of a local journalist, appeared to be dictated by the desireof the Iraqi Kurdistan’s authorities to disrupt the Ezidis’ attempts to create self-government, an effort indissolubly linked by a common thread to the political experience of the neighboring Confederation of Rojava. “It almost seems they want to isolate us, prevent us deciding what we want for ourselves. We do not belong to the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, we just want self-determination,” says Sinun.
The results of the battles in this village are still visible, but despite the destruction, much of the village population has returned home after the IS withdrawal and participates in the collective life of the community. Some shops in the central Bazaar have been reopened, and despite the tensions, the village seems to be slowly recovering.
The YB? compound in Khana Sor offers tea and a warm welcome. The commander of the area, Saeed Shingali (an alias), despite tiredness from a night on duty, joins us and with humility recalls having saved thousands of Ezidi in August 2014 “They [IS] fired from every corner, we were easy targets and the space to move was minimal. With heavy losses and tremendous effort we managed to open a breach between the enemy lines, allowing thousands of people to save themselves,” he sayaid with some emotion.
It is Saeed who, after a well-deserved break, guides us through what is still the southwestern Shingal frontline facing IS militias.
A field of flowering red poppies stretches between the green of the plains and the background of the Shingal mountain range that bursts upward into the spring sky. “Let’s stop for a photo,” the captain suggests, “and enjoy the beauty of the view.” If it were not that IS is just a few miles away, in one of the little southern villages, it would seem a quiet morning to relax amid the wild, unspoilt landscape. Yet amid such apparent serenity, the destroyed bridges, remains of exploded cars and improvised concrete walls to block the raids of IS militants, illustrates that we are at the frontline of a war.
To the northeast, the main road connecting Iraq, Syria and Turkey was taken over by YB?/YJ?. “The Islamic State and Turkey used to use this road to exchange oil for weapons,” some YB? fighters explain. “Today, in order to do this, IS has to make a longer journey. We have documented it! Turkey sends arms and receives oil,” adds Khalil, a young militiaman at a surveillance post guarding a village just a few miles away, still occupied by IS.
The surreal silence of the trench line is broken by the sound of radio communication. “At the village there is movement from time to time. IS could launch some mortars.” It is time to go … the situation could become dangerous. So after farewells, we take the road back to the mountains.After a few kilometers of dirt roads we reach the slopes of the impressive mountain range, crossing the PKK’s first checkpoint. We leave behind a giant picture of Abdullah Ocalan, painted halfway across a rock and pass an impressive monument with an adjoining cemetery adorned by giant images of martyrs who died in the battle against IS in 2014.
Shortly afterwards we are the heart of the highlands in an immense valley immersed among the summits of the surrounding mountains, where there is a seemingly endless expanse of tents and small houses of masonry and straw. These are the homes of some 35,000 Ezidis from the surrounding areas, who, after escaping from IS in 2014, have decided to remain in the mountains to “defend their sacred identity”.
We stop in one of the tented areas and from the door of a small house covered with UNHCR waterproof tarpaulins a man over fifty appeas. This is ?erwan, and he built that modest structure with his own hands, thanks also to the help of some friends in the area. He lives there with his wife and some of his younger daughters. His voice is firm, he speaks a broken English, but he forgot much of the language after the genocide. This is just one of the effects of the trauma he suffered, a trauma intensified by his inability to defend the whole of his family in those terrible days; his older daughters are still in the hands of jihadists.
The conversation is interrupted, after a while, by his rising anger: “Why is the international community not interested in women being kidnapped and sold as sex slaves? What about our children who are trained to become human bombs? Where is the law? Where is the humanity?”
The mountain population, since January 2015, has sought to administer the territory with an autonomous organization through the mediation of a council elected by representatives of the various areas. Some channels of dialogue have been opened with the central government of Baghdad, which has not yet formally recognized it.
The evening has come and the temperature drops steeply; it is very cold thanks to the wind blowing from the east. Hassan Ezidi (an alias), one of the spokesmen of the Ezidis Democratic Movement and part of the Council of the Mountain, invites us to rest in one of the tents used as a meeting point and assembly for that area. During a frugal meal he firmly expresses his thoughts: “The mountain population is ready for self-government, Shingal itself is.” Then he continues, “The PDK ruling the region seems to be opposed to our projects in every way since winning the elections in 2013. Our situation has remarkably deteriorated. In 2014, its fighters did not defend us, took off their uniforms while escaping and refused when we asked them to leave us arms to defend ourselves from IS.”
“The situation is complicated for civilians who have literally resisted within their land by the years,” says Saeed Shingali. Then pointing to the south, he adds, “There is the Islamic State; north and east KRG authorities have closed the borders with Rojava, which is also isolated internationally by an embargo; and in the West there is the checkpoint that gives access to the Duhok region, which for most people is not crossable. We only receive aid from Rojava, but due to the closure of the border they do not arrive with regularity.”
As we emerge from the tent, some children run towards us. They study in the area’s small school, totally self-managed by the teachers who volunteer there.
At dusk we reach the city of Shingal located at the bottom of the southeast slope of the mountain. The winding road leading to the town is a cemetery of machines abandoned and burned by ISIS.
For the night, we are hosted by one of the one hundred and fifty families who courageously returned to live in the city after its liberation from IS. Our host Agid, his wife and two of the youngest daughters tell us how the family was torn apart by the massacre. Part of it, after fleeing, managed to successfully reach Germany and some later also the United States.
“It’s a form of resistance for families like ours who have come back into the town. With our presence on this ancestral territory, we defend the sense of a community that is otherwise likely to dissolve,” Agid says firmly.
Offensive words, slogans and the IS flag have been painted on the walls of the house by IS militiamen. “This place was for nearly a year the headquarters of the Islamic State in the region. We do not even want to know what was happening in our house,” says Agid’s wife before going to bed.
We wake up early in the morning and the city landscape is desolate. A surreal silence cuts through the fresh air as we move toward the centre. The historic part and the old bazaar is reduced to rubble. The IS occupation lasted less than a year, until November 2015, but the shadow of its presence is still in the streets of the centre, especially around the old central hospital. Here, during the occupation, a local doctor’s wife had the task of drafting a detailed report on women who had been kidnapped by IS, so that they could later be offered in the sex market of the cities they occupied. Inside the semi-destroyed hospital, fingerprints from those who were there are still imprinted on the walls, as indelible signs of those events.
As we leave Shingal behind us, we are left with the stories of the people there and Agid’s words of the previous night. Further northeast, beyond the Tigris check-point, there is a place which, according to Ezidis’ beliefs, is one of the oldest in the world, Lalish. Here Ezidis, in the last weeks of April, celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of the new.
The contrast with Shingal’s distressed area is evident straight away, as we witness smiles and an explosion of glittering colors. The surreal silence of the streets of Shingal are replaced by the jubilant voices of the hundreds of thousands of people present in Lalish for the celebration. The darkness is offset by traditional lumens fed by olive oil, which represent the warmth, energy and purity of Ezidis culture.
Leaving Lalish, like all the pilgrims, for more than four hours we are stuck in a traffic jam without knowing the cause. A boy approaches u: “Now you can better understand what it means to be Ezidis. Barzani’s government does not care about us, they have not yet sent anyone to manage the outflow of the people from here, even though they perfectly know that today we celebrate this holiday,” he says. Lalish religious authorities solve the problem with the help of some of the faithful. So, after several hours, we are at last flying back to Italy.
Back home, I receive a message: “Shingal Mountain Area has been bombarded by Turkish warplanes. The monumental cemetery is no longer there, the local population is terrified.”
Thus spring back to my mind the words of Ibrahim, the taxi driver in Duhok. His fears are becoming becoming a sad reality that threatens, once again, the life of the Ezidis.