By Jenna Krajeski
February 26, 2018
Growing up in north-western Iraq, Hadi Pir often went to Mt. Sinjar for solace. As a Yazidi, a member of an ancient religious minority, he believed that the narrow mountain was sacred, central to the Yazidi creation myth. Aside from the mountain, the region where the country’s six hundred thousand Yazidis live, also called Sinjar, is flat and desert-like. To Yazidis, it seems clear that God created the mountain because He knew that they would need a place to hide.
Yazidis have suffered centuries of religious persecution, based largely on the false idea that they revere the sun as God and worship a fallen angel. Though Yazidis pray toward the sun, and worship seven angels, they are monotheistic, and there is little to distinguish their God from the Muslim or the Christian one. Under the Ottomans, Yazidi villages were raided so often that the word firman, which means “decree” in Ottoman Turkish, came to mean “genocide” among Yazidis. When Saddam Hussein was President of Iraq, Yazidi villages were razed, and their inhabitants were resettled in planned communities and compelled to identify as Arabs. By the time that Pir was in college, in the early two-thousands, the Yazidis counted seventy-two genocides in their history.
Pir’s family were caretakers of a shrine in a northern valley, and if he read something disparaging about Yazidis in an Iraqi newspaper he would cool off in its stone rooms. If a neighbour returned from Mosul to Khanasour, Pir’s home town, saying that he had been mocked by Arabs or Kurds for wearing traditional Yazidi robes, Pir might sit in one of the mountain’s orchards and read Western philosophy—Hegel’s “The Philosophy of History” was a favourite—before walking home.
Pir planned to write a novel about Yazidi persecution with his friend Murad Ismael, an engineering student who loved poetry as much as Pir loved philosophy. In their book, whose events would take place in the nineteenth century, Yazidis are chased from their homes by Ottoman soldiers. The slowest among them are killed, but the lucky ones hide on the mountain until it is safe to descend.
After 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Pir and Ismael, like many Yazidi men, took jobs as interpreters for the U.S. military. Because they were a targeted religious minority, there was little opportunity outside the Army, and they were unlikely to join the Iraqi insurgency. In the military, they befriended another Yazidi, named Haider Elias, who, in spite of his poor background, spoke nearly perfect English, with a TV-made American accent.
The three men worked with the U.S. for years, often with the Special Forces. Being an interpreter was dangerous—Pir carried two guns, an automatic rifle to kill insurgents and a pistol to kill himself if he faced being kidnapped. On one mission, Pir, working undercover to collect locations of insurgents, met with a Sunni fighter who later became a high-ranking isis militant. On another, his best friend was killed. “We were soldiers, basically, more than interpreters,” Pir told me. After their service, they received special visas to come to the U.S. Elias and Ismael went to Houston, along with a dozen Yazidi families. In 2012, Pir and his wife, Adula, and their daughter, Ayana, ended up in Lincoln, Nebraska, whose Yazidi community, with about a thousand members, is the largest in the U.S.
Pir started working for a non-profit that assisted refugees—the group had helped resettle his family—and he and Adula had another daughter, Yara. Iraq was consumed by sectarian violence, but their lives in America were stable. They studied English, and on warm weekend evenings they joined other Yazidis in a park near their home. Even the source of the despair that sometimes overtook them could be identified at a clinic in Lincoln. Adula’s listlessness was postpartum depression; Pir received a diagnosis of P.T.S.D. He enrolled in a creative-writing class, where he wrote an essay about Mt. Sinjar. He wanted his classmates, who talked about the U.S. as if all of it belonged to them, to understand that all Yazidis had in Iraq was the mountain.
On the evening of August 2, 2014, Adula’s brother called from Khanasour. “We’ve heard villages south of Mt. Sinjar have been attacked by Isis,” he told her.
“Is he sure?” Pir asked. The Islamic State had recently been taking territory in Iraq, which its leaders vowed to make part of their caliphate. In June, Isis had driven the Iraqi Army out of Mosul, but Sinjar, which was about eighty miles west, was guarded by soldiers from Iraqi Kurdistan.
“No,” Adula said. Yara had a fever and Adula was depressed again. “I have to go,” she told her brother. “Be careful.”
When Adula’s brother phoned again, at midnight, they were taking Yara to the hospital, so they ignored the call. At three in the morning, when they pulled into the parking lot of their apartment complex, dozens of their Yazidi neighbours were outside on the lawn, talking on their cell phones and crying.
“isis has taken over Sinjar,” a neighbour said. “Everyone is running to the mountain.”
Isis came into Sinjar at dawn, with the intention of wiping out Yazidism in Iraq. The group’s Research and Fatwa Department had declared that, unlike Christians or Shia Muslims, Yazidis were a “pagan minority.” The Kurdish soldiers retreated without warning, after determining that their position was untenable. Yazidis ran from their homes and scrambled up the rocky slopes of Mt. Sinjar. Trucks jammed with people overturned on narrow roads. Homes north of the mountain quickly emptied; with the roads controlled by isis, thousands of Yazidis were trapped in the southern villages.
In Lincoln, Adula stayed on the phone with her family as they packed a change of clothes, some photographs and papers, and cookies that they had baked for an upcoming holiday. As they walked along the dirt road leading to the mountain, their voices were drowned out by the sound of car engines. Adula worried most about her mother, who had arthritis and high blood pressure, and her sister-in-law, who was seven months pregnant.
Pir couldn’t bear to take the phone from his wife, or to talk to Ismael or Elias when they called. He was sure that all the Yazidis in Sinjar were going to die. If they made it to the mountain, they would die of thirst. If they didn’t make it, they would be killed by isis. Elias, who was studying biology at Houston Community College, spent the night calling his family but was unable to reach his youngest brother, Faleh. In the morning, he found out that Faleh had been executed, along with dozens of other men from their village. When Elias closed his eyes, he imagined his brother’s phone ringing the moment the gun was fired.
Early the next morning, Yazidis across America began to organize. In Houston, they protested in front of the Galleria mall; in Lincoln, they marched to the governor’s mansion. But it was a Sunday, and the mansion was dark. After two young Yazidi men were restrained by the police for banging on the gate, everyone went home.
On the morning of August 4th, Pir was going to work when a neighbour from Khanasour called from the mountain.
“Hadi, we’re still alive,” he said. “Me and my brothers have a few AKs and we’re guarding a shrine.”
Pir began to cry.
“Don’t cry,” the neighbour said. “You have to do something. No one cares about us.” Pir thought, If we are his only hope, then there’s no hope. “Be strong,” his neighbor said. “There are a lot of families following behind us.”
Elias, Ismael, and Pir hadn’t always agreed with how the U.S. military operated in Iraq. Pir would listen to soldiers propose ransacking villages in search of a single insurgent. “I know it’s not going to work,” he said. “But they will not take my opinion.” Still, without other allies, Yazidis clung to the belief, long after it evaporated for most Iraqis, that the Americans would help them. “A lot of people would call us and say, ‘No one can rescue us but the U.S.,’ ” Ismael said.
Pir wrote on Facebook, “We are planning to go to Washington,” and implored Yazidis to join them. Then he reserved a fifteen-passenger van. A few hours later, seeing the responses to his post, he reserved four more.
The next day, Yazidis wearing shirts that read “Save the Yazidis” boarded airplanes in Houston. Others came from Arizona, Virginia, West Virginia, and Canada. In Lincoln, Pir sat behind the wheel of a van at the head of a convoy of cars. He entered “The White House” into his G.P.S. and started out on a twelve-hundred-mile drive.
The Yazidi group called itself the Sinjar Crisis Management Team. “We, a group of more than one-hundred interpreters, worked for the U.S. military in Iraq and our people are under attack by terrorists,” Ismael wrote to every lawmaker and journalist he could reach. He also e-mailed photographs of Yazidi children, weakened by thirst, and a video of a mountaintop burial.
“It slices! It dices! It drives a wedge between you and your wife, because you stored all the unsold units in her writing nook, not like she was using it anyway but whatever!”
On August 7th, about a hundred Yazidis gathered in front of the White House. Their permit allowed them three hours, after which they had to make way for a protest for Palestinian rights. The story had begun to dominate the U.S. media, and a group of Yazidis from Virginia and Canada had arranged for a meeting at the Office of International Religious Freedom, a division of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour (D.R.L.).
With a dozen other Yazidis, Pir waited to be escorted to the meeting. He hadn’t thought to bring a tie; he wore sandals and a powder-blue polo shirt, damp with sweat. An elderly Yazidi dressed in a traditional white robe cinched with a red cummerbund was so overcome that he could barely walk. They were led to a conference room, packed with State employees. Doug Padgett and Leanne Cannon, two early-career officials who had been fielding calls from the Yazidis, stood by the windows, and Thomas O. Melia, their boss at the D.R.L., sat at a table. The Yazidis told stories of families killed by isis, homes destroyed, and the unbearable conditions on the mountain. Ismael noticed that Padgett, a six-foot-five-inch former Navy officer, was crying. “I didn’t think that the U.S. will care that much about us,” Ismael told me. “To be honest, we are a small minority in the middle of nowhere.”
The Yazidis had a three-point plan. The U.S. must drop food and water on the mountain, then help a Yazidi militia that had been formed in Sinjar. Finally, the Americans had to persuade the Iraqi government to track the growing number of Yazidis held captive by isis. They were convinced that, without pressure from the U.S., nothing would happen. “When the big guy is in, everybody’s in,” Pir said.
The Yazidis asked to see the State Department’s maps of northern Iraq; they found them to be hopelessly unspecific, marking only major towns and roads. Though President Obama had decided to intervene in Sinjar, the limited U.S. assets in northern Iraq were focussed on protecting the U.S. consulate and the U.S. oil companies in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The State Department was struggling to track the fleeing Yazidis and the militants.
In Sinjar, everything had a name: family homes; a fig tree and the well used to water it; a crevasse that might, on satellite imagery, look like a hairline fracture but was big enough to hide a family. In some cases, there were three names for one spot—an Arabic one, a Kurdish one, and a Yazidi one. Ismael, who had received a master’s degree in geophysics from the University of Houston, had begun aggregating information from Sinjar onto maps, marking fleeing Yazidis with stick figures in wheelchairs and isis positions with red octagons.
“Can I use your whiteboard?” Pir asked at the meeting, and began to draw Mt. Sinjar. “Like, O.K., this is Iraq, this is Syria, this is the K.R.G.,” Ismael recalls, using the acronym for Iraqi Kurdistan. “The south is basically impassable,” Pir told the group. isis occupied the roads out and the area’s Sunni villages. “Those people need to be able to make it to the north if they have any chance of surviving.” He tried to avoid politics: although Kurdish soldiers had abandoned Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan was a U.S. ally. “Our message was, These people could die and you can do something about it,” Pir said.
The Yazidis were “the antithesis of Washington advocates,” Melia told me. “They also—and this is what may have helped them make the case—knew way more about the U.S. military than any of us did.”
Later that day, Melia attended an interagency meeting, where an official said that no one knew if anyone was left on Mt. Sinjar. “She was explaining that all the cell phones were dead,” he told me. “I said, ‘No, the phones work. We just got information in the last hour.’ ” Melia found Padgett. “Call Haider or Murad,” he said. “Ask them if their cell phones are still working.”
Padgett contacted Elias, who said that he had just spoken with his family. “We are in D.C., trying to do something,” Elias told his relatives, urging them to give his number to anyone who wanted it.
The Yazidis checked into a nearby hotel, where they stayed five or six to a room. That night, Obama announced that he had authorized aid drops and air strikes in Sinjar, calling what was happening to Yazidis there a “potential act of genocide.” In celebration, the Sinjar crisis team ordered pizza, their first real meal in days.
When the first pallet of supplies was dropped, Adula’s cousin called Pir from the mountain. “We can hear the airplanes, but where is the food?” he asked. Adula’s family had made it to a large northern valley, where they joined hundreds of others, exhausted and terrified. Pir and Ismael knew the valley; there were two small temples and a deep well. In the spring, Yazidis went there to grill meat and drink beer. In the summer, though, the valley was scorched. The water, shared among the Yazidis, would soon become silty and putrid.
Pir realized that the Americans were dropping aid near structures where farmers stayed only during the harvest. The team bought a cheap printer and the next morning returned to the State Department offices with their maps.
“These are empty,” Pir said, pointing to the buildings. It alarmed him that the U.S. knew so little about Sinjar. When he worked with the Army, officials seemed to have eyes in every corner of Iraq. Now they needed him to tell them where to drop food? He pointed to where Yazidis had gathered—places where there were wells, and far enough away from Isis. “A lot of people are too tired now to walk,” he said. “The closer you can drop them, the better.” He was elated when, later that night, he learned that aid had reached many of the Yazidis.
In the course of a few days, the Yazidis met with organizations such as U.S.A.I.D. and the Institute for International Law and Human Rights. They went to the White House to meet with the deputy national-security adviser, Ben Rhodes, and the adviser on Iraq, Andy Kim, in the Roosevelt Room. “That was as emotional a meeting as I think I had,” Rhodes told me. “Given the role we played in invading and occupying and being present in Iraq for so many years, we had to care about what was happening to the Yazidis.”
At every meeting, people seemed to be on the Yazidis’ side. Even a K.R.G. representative they met with, who tried to justify the Kurdish fighters’ withdrawal, was distraught about the plight of the fleeing Yazidis. “It frankly doesn’t get any more clear-cut,” Rhodes said. “There are people on a mountain. You can get those people food and water and you can bomb the people who are laying siege to the mountain.” But, without granular intelligence, the military couldn’t respond quickly enough. Sarah Sewall, the Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, told me that the Yazidis came with “what we would call in the policy world ‘actionable intelligence.’ That’s huge.”
A system developed. The Yazidis e-mailed and texted Cannon and Padgett reports that they received by phone from Mt. Sinjar. Cannon forwarded the reports to an e-mail chain that quickly grew to include some two hundred officials, including people far her senior, such as the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad.
She included officials who disapproved, at least initially, of using the Yazidis as sources, among them career diplomats who preferred their own sources and were sceptical that members of the Office of International Religious Freedom, who are not Iraq experts, understood the consequences of focussing on Yazidis. “Isis had already killed two thousand Shia,” one official, who was working on Iraq in August, 2014, told me. “They were killing Sunni imams for speaking out against them. They were pretty awful to a lot of people.”
“It was incredibly unconventional,” Colonel Chuck Freeman, a Department of Defence adviser at the U.S. consulate in Erbil, told me. Colleagues warned him that Cannon’s job was to emphasize human-rights abuses above long-term military and political gains. “They were concerned she was emotional,” he said. “Quite frankly, it was extremely emotional, once we started realizing what was going on.”
Ismael, Elias, and Pir learned how to transform G.P.S. coordinates into the grid system favoured by the military. An intelligence officer sent the men a high-resolution digital map, on which Ismael made layers for streets and temples, towns and villages, valleys and farms; a layer for people stranded on Mt. Sinjar and one for Isis Humvees; layers for water towers and cell towers, houses, sheds that looked like houses, and garages where militants hid when they heard airplanes.
At night in Washington, when it was morning in Iraq, twenty-two Yazidis pooled their phones and computers in a hotel room, where they processed the information they were receiving from Sinjar. When the hotel became too expensive, they moved to a motel, in Maryland, forty minutes from Washington. It was so grimy that they checked for bedbugs. They did not know when they would return home. They felt useful, and that feeling was a salve. “It was, like, now, yes, we have a job,” Ismael told me. “We are here, we can get the Yazidis’ voice to the strongest country.”
On August 9th, a Yazidi fighter in the northern town of Sharfadin called Ismael. He was watching the road with binoculars, and he noticed that Isis militants on a small hill were watching him, and they had better binoculars. “There are four trucks and a DShK”—a mounted machine gun—“aimed at the road,” he told Ismael. “If you are facing north, it’s on the left.”
“It’s a very good place for them,” Pir told Ismael. His iPhone was old and needed to be constantly charged, so he sat hunched by the bed, close to an outlet. “They are in control.”
Ismael called Attallah Elias, a Yazidi in Virginia whose uncle was leading the fighters in Sharfadin. He reported the same thing. In Lincoln, Khalaf Smoqi, a former interpreter, whose brother had friends who were fighting in Sharfadin, provided more information? “My brother is a hundred per cent sure they are about to attack,” he told Ismael. “If the DShK stays, no one will be able to escape.”
Ismael e-mailed Cannon and Padgett with the information, and a few hours later the fighter in Sharfadin called Ismael to tell him that isis targets were being hit in air strikes. Ismael e-mailed Padgett and Cannon: “Amazing, the attack took place. Love you America.”
“Any more confirmation or details you get would be great!” Cannon replied.
“The attack got three of them and the fourth one escaped eastward.”
“Three what—people trucks units?” Padgett asked.
“We felt like, O.K., so we’re not wasting our time,” Elias said.
One of Pir’s friends called him from the mountain. “I don’t like my wife,” he joked. “Can you give the coordinates to the Americans so they can bomb her?” Pir laughed and then jumped on the bed until he could feel Ismael’s disapproving stare and stopped.