Despite Turkish bombings, the continued threat of the Islamic State terror organization and the global Covid-19 pandemic, Yazidi refugees are returning home to Sinjar six years after they were forced to flee genocide.
Some 250 families have returned to their homeland in northern Iraq in recent days, sick of suffering and waiting for help that never arrived in the camps for internally-displaced people dotted around the region.
They’re looking to restart lives that were suspended on 3 August 2014 by a brutal IS attack on Sinjar.
“I think we will have a good future if someone provides us with safety and security,” 58-year-old Saad Hamad Mato tells Efe, adding that he is “tired” of being displaced and just wants to start his life again.
In 2014, he spent eight days wandering through the wilderness to escape the IS onslaught in Sinjar. He said he saw the bodies of Yazidi elders, murdered by IS, as well as children who died from a lack of food and water.
On 3 August, some 6,500 Yazidis, mainly women and children, were abducted by the IS.
The Yazidi people, whose belief system has links to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, can trace their roots in Sinjar province to 2,000 BC, in which time they have suffered 74 sectarian genocides.
The IS extremists executed at least 5,000 Yazidi men and older women and sold many young Yazidi women into sexual slavery and trained young boys to fight.
Around 400,000 Yazidis fled and hundreds or thousands — the exact figures are not known — died of hunger and thirst as IS surrounded Mount Sinjar.
Saad and his family were able to escape through a secure corridor opened by Kurdish forces.
He said he would never forget what happened to the Yazidi women and children.
The same applies for Nada Selo Shekho, 37-year-old mother to four children aged 18, 15, 13 and nine.
“ISIS killed and enslaved many Yazidis including 28 members of my husband’s family and my sister with her children and we do not know anything about their fate,” she tells Efe.
Saad described his experience in the refugee camps as a “struggle for life.”
He said people spent their days “thinking about our homes all the time, we were like prisoners who were waiting for execution.”
Ahmed Khudida, joint director of the NGO Yazda, which was created in the wake of the genocide, says: “Life in the camps is very difficult especially during coronavirus pandemic.”
“People were waiting for a rebuilding plan for Sinjar, justice and reconciliation but nothing has happened now and there is no plan for that.”
Many have grown tired of waiting.
Nada tells Efe: “We should return and restart our life and rebuild our destroyed homes.”
She calls on the international community to step in and help with the rebuilding of Sinjar.
Some 350,000 Yazidis live in the camp for IDPs in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, who specializes in post-conflict trauma and has treated over 1,400 young people who were held as sex slaves by the IS, has been to speak with those displaced there.
“From the many conversations I have daily with the Yazidis in the camps, the readiness and motivation to return to Sinjar is very great. But they need security and support,” he tells Efe.
THE DREAM OF RETURNING
It is this motivation that has seen many Yazidis return to Sinjar in recent weeks, despite the absence of essential services in their homeland.
Khudida says: “Sinjar lacks basic services including electricity, water, education and so on. Sinjar is one of the poorest areas in Iraq even before ISIS attacks as it was systematically persecuted for many years.”
His NGO is working to rebuild infrastructure in the region and is carrying out projects developing a mobile health clinic, a women’s center, psychological support groups and a department to document the genocide.
Sinjar’s healthcare system is unprepared to properly deal with the Covid-19 pandemic but Saad insists it is “the only place that reunites us with our families, neighbors, and community.”
Security is another concern for the returning Yazidis.
On 15 June, Turkish warplanes killed several civilians in an operation against militias in the zone, while the IS has launched several new attacks in Iraq, despite having lost almost the entirety of its former territory.
“We have many concerns about recurrent Turkish attacks, but I don’t think they will launch a military operation on the ground. We are condemning any attacks on our territories from anyone,” Saad says.
Nada adds: “The Yazidi people in Sinjar have suffered a lot, and it's time to stop all conflict and escalation over their land, especially Turkish attacks, also the international community shouldn’t let Turkey bomb us.”
Kizilhan says the United Nations should station personnel in the region to help keep peace while Sinjar recovers, a suggestion that NGO director Khudida agrees with.
“The presence of UN troops will prevent Turkish airstrike attacks, eliminate the role of the militia groups, and decrease the possible attacks that ISIS may have plans for,” Khudida says.
AN OPEN WOUND
There are still some 2,800 Yazidis unaccounted for after the genocide, according to Iraqi Kurdistan regional Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.
“They are in ISIS families camps such as Al-hol, missing within communities in Iraq and Syria, Turkey and other countries,” Khudida says.
The missing and the perceived indifference of the international community is an open wound for many Yazidis.
Saad says: “The international community didn’t do too much regarding the Yazidi case, they observed the genocide that took place without intervention, mass graves remain without exhumation, still, Yazidis have about 3000 missing at ISIS captivity.”
Kizilhan says an “international support community, similar to the Afghanistan Conference, is needed to provide financial and structural support to enable the people to return home, to rebuild their homeland and to have a dignified perspective.”
“The Iraqi and Kurdish governments must also do much more in this regard and support the Yazidis with necessary reparations. That is a political and moral duty.”
Despite the tricky path ahead, Nada remains optimistic about the future.
“I feel that I was able to bring back my memories when I returned to my home.”EFE-EPA