By Jenna Krajeski
February 26, 2018
Missing their families, and fearing that they would lose their jobs, many of the Yazidis left Washington after a week, vowing to send information from home. Soon, only Elias, Pir, and Ismael remained in the motel.
Their room became a wreck of papers and maps. They kept the door closed, avoiding the other guests and the cleaning staff. Isis targets had been hit at checkpoints in the north, and an Isis headquarters in Sinjar City had been destroyed. Aid drops were reaching many more Yazidis.
Elias, Pir, and Ismael struggled to resist the politicizing of the crisis. If they suspected a journalist of trying to use the Yazidis to support partisan talking points—“Fox News always wants to take the argument of the Yazidi genocide to be anti-Islamic,” Ismael said—they pushed back. In the motel room, it was harder to resist. Their resentment toward the Kurdish soldiers simmered. They also worried that they wouldn’t be able to suppress their own prejudice; Ismael couldn’t bear to talk to his Muslim friends. One afternoon, they ordered sandwiches and opened the door to find a deliveryman with a dark beard. Though they knew they were being silly, even offensive, the sight of the deliveryman scared them, and they asked to change rooms.
“We were basically blind,” Ismael recalled. “You get to the edge of your emotions, to the edge of everything.”
Pir couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone in Sinjar was going to die. One night, he had watched an Isis video in which Yazidi men were forced to convert; later, he heard that they were killed anyway. Pir, Elias, and Ismael felt guilty that they were safe in America. More than once, they offered to go to Iraq. “We the former interpreters present in DC today are ready to conduct these operations with the US Special Forces, or to go to Sinjar on our own to rescue what can be rescued from our people,” they wrote to Padgett and Cannon.
Pir and Elias were also increasingly concerned about their remaining family members in Sinjar. Yazidis had begun leaving the mountain through a safe corridor guarded by a Syrian Kurdish paramilitary group, the Y.P.G. The corridor began in Karse, a town on the north side of the mountain, followed a paved road for seven miles to Sinoni, which was guarded by Yazidi militia and Y.P.G., and then eight miles north to the Syrian border. Once Yazidis were inside Y.P.G.-controlled Syria, they could either stay in a refugee camp or continue north and eventually cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Adula’s family were still in the valley, charging their cell phone on car batteries and eating small rations of mutton. Pir told his in-laws that they had to go over the top of the mountain, a journey of more than ten hours for a healthy person. He worried that they would be shot, that Adula’s mother would collapse, that her sister-in-law would give birth prematurely. They left on the morning of August 10th, stopping often, drinking a little water and watching for danger; twenty-four hours later, they reached Karse. Pir tried not to show his relief; he didn’t want anyone to think that he cared more about Adula’s family than about the other Yazidis.
Elias’s family had reached Karse and were making their way to the Tigris River, which marks the border between Syria and Iraq. He gave them instructions culled from his military experience. “Fall on the ground when you hear shots,” he said. “Run when you don’t.”
Elias slept on the floor, not wanting to be comfortable. He quickly lost ten pounds. One day, he went to the airport to exchange rental cars; on the way back, his phone died. He got lost on the highway, which was full of signs to places he had never heard of. Overwhelmed, he pulled over and wept.
After Elias’s family crossed the Tigris, they no longer had cell-phone service, so he distracted himself with other calls: two villages in the south, Hatamiya and Kocho, where Elias had spent part of his childhood, were under siege, and he felt sure that all the inhabitants would be killed or kidnapped unless the U.S. intervened. But, to the military, the south was a mystery. “We had no idea what was going on in Kocho,” the intelligence officer told me.
A day later, after his family started walking, Elias got a call from a friend. The family had stopped just beyond the checkpoint into Iraqi Kurdistan. Relieved, Elias and the others went to a McDonald’s. “Let’s relax,” Pir said when they sat down. “Just for an hour.”
A moment later, Ismael’s phone rang. “We have to go back,” he said. “Daesh”—the Arabic acronym for Isis—“have given an ultimatum in Kocho.”
On August 3rd, during Isis’s initial advance on Mt. Sinjar, the militants had laid siege to Kocho and Hatamiya, blocking the roads and killing anyone who tried to escape. Once Yazidis began leaving through the safe corridor, isis turned back to the villages. The Sinjar crisis team warned Padgett and Cannon about the impending tragedy on August 8th, the day after they arrived in D.C., writing, “Women are fearful of rape and forced sexual slavery.”
That night, they reported that villagers were threatening mass suicide. “We are trying to reach them,” they wrote. They suggested that the U.S. conduct air strikes on isis positions, and then land a small force to protect the civilians.
“Murad, unfortunately, I don’t believe any U.S. planes would be allowed to land there so this is probably not a feasible option,” Cannon wrote back. “I’m sorry.”
“OMG,” Ismael replied.
“Murad we are sending every bit of information you give us to very high ranking officials at State and DoD,” Padgett e-mailed. “Write to Ben Rhodes,” he continued. “In some ways your voice is more powerful than ours.”
“Here is the plan we are thinking about,” Ismael wrote. Isis was not yet inside Kocho; its forces were guarding the paved road to the mountain. If the U.S. provided air cover, villagers could escape on foot or in cars. They had kept some guns hidden from Isis, and were ready to use them. The Americans didn’t even have to drop bombs; just flying over the area would scare the militants away. “We are looking at the map now,” they wrote. “There is no Isis present in the northwest side of the towns all the way to the mountain.”
“O.K., coffee break’s over.”
As the days went by without U.S. action, the e-mails became more urgent. On August 9th, the men suggested air cover so that Yazidi fighters in Syria could go into Kocho. Ismael wrote, “I think this is a wonderful plan and we can undertake it tonight as isis is under the shock of our air strikes (Murad Opinion).”
On August 10th, the villagers of Hatamiya escaped on foot. Villagers from Kocho wanted to follow, but they were still waiting for the U.S. to intervene. “The people of this village would like to get this following question addressed and time is running out: what should we do?” the Sinjar crisis team wrote.
By August 14th, the men hadn’t slept in days. They had reported more than ten Isis locations between Kocho and the mountain, but the locations hadn’t been hit. They suggested, again, that they go themselves, and asked for air cover. Ismael threatened to light himself on fire in front of the White House.
Cannon and Padgett read every message, but not even the Yazidis’ intelligence could compel the military to take action. “Helping an individual village amidst a conflict is a more complicated endeavour than dealing with an isolated area like a mountain,” Rhodes said. Kocho was more like Syria, where Obama had resisted intervening in part because of the difficulty in distinguishing between militants and civilians. Then, on the morning of August 15th, the team sent Cannon and Padgett an e-mail with the subject line “Kocho massacre taking place.”
“Help Help Help,” the message read. “Isil killing men in mass and taking women in Kocho. have airplanes go there.”
Isis marched Kocho’s fifteen hundred people to the village school and separated them by age and gender. The men were lined up and shot. The women were taken to a nearby town, where the younger ones were separated from the older ones.
A military contact of Cannon’s watched the massacre unfold on satellite imagery. “We saw guys getting shot in the back of the head and pushed into the ditches,” he told me. “Couldn’t do a damned thing about it.” U.S. forces didn’t have airplanes at the ready, he explained, and even if they had it was too difficult to save the villagers while killing the militants. “What happens if we go whack a bunch of guys who are gonna get shot in the head, but they don’t have to get shot in the head because we killed them?” he asked. “What does isis say? ‘Americans killing innocents.’ ”
Ismael called Padgett, screaming. “They are saying just to bomb the whole village,” Ismael said of the people of Kocho. “They would rather they all die.” Padgett was silent. Ismael didn’t seem to understand that he and Cannon worked for the human-rights department. The real power of the U.S. government was far above them.
After the women were taken from Kocho, Padgett wrote to Pir and the others, “Have you lost all cell connection with them?”
“We lost everything,” they replied.
The disillusionment was severe, both for the Yazidis and for many of the State Department employees. “I think when we did Sinjar their hopes were very high,” the intelligence officer told me. “I don’t think we followed through on those hopes.”
A few days later, Pir and Elias decided to go home. Abid Shamdeen and Ziyad Smoqi, two Lincoln-based former interpreters, would relieve them. Before they left, Padgett and Cannon asked to meet. At a café in Alexandria, Virginia, the Americans and the Yazidis talked about their personal lives for the first time. Padgett and his wife were choosing a school for their eldest daughter. Cannon told them about her nieces and nephews. Elias and Pir made fun of Ismael for living with his mother. “We called our wives every day,” they said. “We had to remind Murad to call his mom!”
Padgett asked if they thought that the U.S. occupation had precipitated the attack against the Yazidis. Pir didn’t want to assign blame, so he said that to Yazidis, who were poor and always under threat, it didn’t really matter.
Not long afterward, Ismael left as well. “I am in the airport now,” he wrote to the officials. “Thanks for everything, Doug and Leanne, you’re both Yazidi angels in the time of their genocide. If we have a museum someday, your names will be honoured.”
Back home in Lincoln and Houston, the three men tried to resume their daily routines. They went to work and to school and participated in social events that had once been emblems of their American lives but that now felt irrelevant and guilt-inducing.
On September 10th, in a televised speech addressing the outcome in northern Iraq, Obama quoted a Yazidi survivor. “We owe our American friends our lives,” the quote read. “Our children will always remember that there was someone who felt our struggle and made the long journey to protect innocent people.” Elias and Ismael had helped solicit the quote, sending options to Cannon and Padgett, and although the sentiment was genuine, it felt premature. Most Yazidis from Sinjar were now refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan; thousands more were isis captives. Every day brought another story of a woman’s desperate attempt to avoid being sold into sex slavery, and every detail was e-mailed to Padgett and Cannon, along with maps, transcripts of phone calls, and plans.
Predicting the Kocho massacre had confirmed the men’s worth as sources, and they were visited by Army intelligence officials, who proposed setting up lines of communication that bypassed the State Department. They agreed, but saving the Yazidis now had none of the simplicity of early August. Captives had been taken far from home, many of them to Syria, and their confused descriptions were difficult to convert into precise coordinates. Laila Khoudeida, a Lincoln-based activist, had little to offer the women when they called. “I want you to be hopeful,” she said. “I want you to make sure your phone is always charged.”
At the State Department, officials tried to learn from the example of Sinjar, by cultivating sources at the D.R.L. and using them to undertake military operations that prioritized saving lives. “Once you put civilian protection into the equation of a military mission, you have to think differently,” Sarah Sewall, the State Department under-secretary, told me. But attempts to replicate the system in Syrian villages failed; in the chaos of the conflict, villagers couldn’t accurately relay information quickly enough. As the battle against isis escalated, so did the number of civilian casualties.
Many Yazidis lost faith in the U.S. government, which they felt had intervened in Sinjar mainly to justify re-entering Iraq. It wasn’t America that saved the Yazidis, a Yazidi militia commander told me; it was the Syrian Kurdish fighters, and even they had acted in self-interest, as a challenge to Iraqi Kurdish leadership in the region. “The Yazidis have no friends,” the commander said.
Pir, Elias, and Ismael acknowledged that the intervention had been imperfect, but they didn’t share the animus. They poured their optimism into working as activists. The Sinjar crisis team became Yazda, a Yazidi-rights organization. Dozens of Yazidis and non-Yazidis started working for Yazda, lobbying governments to take in displaced Yazidis; monitoring conditions in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan; and using their new contacts within the U.S. government to locate kidnapped women and to support them after they are freed. The activists were determined that this genocide, unlike those which preceded it, would leave Yazidis with the ability to defend themselves.
In early October, 2014, isis repopulated Kocho with captives. Seeing a second chance to save the village, Pir, Elias, and Ismael returned to Washington. This time, the Yazidis were granted a meeting at the Pentagon. Elias was amazed by how big it was. Pir wasn’t sure why Pentagon officials wanted to meet with them, except out of curiosity. “I think they were more interested how three broken guys, refugees in the U.S., how they got information,” he told me.
Ismael did most of the talking. As before, he brought maps with isis locations. “Yazidi fighters are ready to help,” he said. “If you provide air cover, you will scare isis. Just bomb the checkpoints.” He grew more and more animated, until, eventually, he was shouting and banging on the table. “We can do this,” he kept saying. “We can do this together! We can save them.”
Pir felt sorry for his friend. He turned to Elias, a tight smile on his face, and whispered, in Kurdish, “Who is this we?”
The Pentagon officials were sympathetic, but they told the Yazidis that it still wasn’t possible to intervene in Kocho. A few days later, Pir, Elias, and Ismael were home again. Pir met with his Army intelligence contact at a Lincoln café for the last time. He would still work for Yazda, and continue to send information to Cannon and Padgett, but he wanted to be a teacher, and to raise his children. “I want to be a normal American,” he said. “I want to have a family, a job. I can’t save the Middle East.”
“Before, I believed in destiny,” Ismael told me. “After the genocide, I think the world moves on very practical things. For a community to be able to defend itself, you should not rely on humanity, you should not rely on goodness. For a community to protect itself, it should have weapons, economic strength, media.”
“At the same time,” he continued, “if you believe the sun is sacred, go and say it.” ♦