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In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide before Our Very Eyes (Part One and Two)

By Seth Frantzman

FEBRUARY 11, 2016

The two bullet casings are already beginning to rust. Sheikh Nasser Pasha plucks them from the ground. “Look, one is from an AK-47, one from an American M-4.” The casings are strewn on the ground atop a long mound of dirt with a few bits of white sticks on it. It would appear unremarkable if one were walking by it. A closer look, however, reveals the white objects are pieces of human bone: arms, legs, and a single human skull. Nasser plucks up the skull and points to a half circle at the base where the bullet entered. “When they had shot the Yazidi people here, they covered the bodies with dirt from a bulldozer.” That was last August. Then the rains came, and then dogs, he says.  They dug up the human remains, and the bones dried in the sun.

Here lies one of the seventeen mass graves found so far in Kurdistan, Iraq. Yazidi leaders like Nasser expect to find more than twenty more, based on testimony from survivors and intelligence work by security officials. Many of the graves lie beyond the frontlines, in areas still controlled by Islamic State. If the Kurds are successful in their efforts against ISIS, they will take back the Yazidi villages and unearth the full extent of the crime.

The Yazidi are a religious minority in Iraq whose ancient religion is indigenous to this area.  Their holy shrines dot the landscape. The Yazidi religion is complex and secretive. Due to centuries of persecution by varying Islamic regimes, they are reticent to go into detail about their religion or history. Yazidis live in a large area that stretches from the Syrian border through the Nineveh plains, around Mosul to the foothills of the mountains of Kurdistan. This is a diverse countryside, with many Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs. It is also a heartland of ancient civilizations.

At the centre of the Yazidi district is a long mountain with craggy approaches called Shingal in Kurdish and Sinjar in Arabic. Below the mountain to the south lies Shingal city, and around the city are numerous Yazidi villages. Shingal itself was inhabited mostly by Arabs and some Kurds before the war. The Yazidi describe a history of persecution numbering what they describe as 73 genocides in the past. But memories of persecution fade and people didn’t expect genocide would befall them, say Yazidis I spoke with. They trusted their neighbours before last year. Now the mass killings in 2014 are being remembered as the 74th genocide to befall them.

Yazidis and Kurds in this region all look back to August 3, 2014, as the date that changed everything. In just one day, ISIS — well-armed with thousands of hummvees captured from the Iraqi army — rolled across Kurdish checkpoints, scattering what resistance there was, and captured a huge swath of territory in northern Iraq. Then the massacres of civilian Yazidis began, as well as the selling of women and children.

ISIS hasn’t only been targeting Yazidis. It has also murdered untold number of Christians. And in July, ISIS carried out a massacre of Shia Iraqi army cadets they had captured at Camp Speicher. They proudly published videos of men being machine-gunned, or having their throats slit and thrown in a river. As with genocides and mass-killings in the past, such as those of Armenians, the Holocaust or Rwanda, the build up to systematic slaughter and ethnic-cleansing comes in stages. Now it is clear the expulsion of Christians and killing of Shia was a prelude to the attack on Yazidis.

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers have thrown ISIS out of the areas it conquered in 2014, liberating one after another of the Yazidi villages.

One of the only villages to which some residents have returned to is Snune. This was once a sizable market town at the centre of a large district. The government had invested in the area, building new street lights adorned with gold flowers and drooping lamps at the top.  It had a stately central boulevard. Now it is all hulks of buildings, abandoned, and mostly deserted. Only the street lamps remain intact. Some men sell vegetables and fruits on the side of the road. Here and there are a few women and children.

When I arrived in the town the men selling fruits gathered around to listen and intently describe their experience. A shopkeeper named Adar, wearing a long black coat and with a broad smile, says he fled in August. “We knew what they would do; they had killed people in Mosul. We came back a year ago on December 17 when Peshmerga liberated this area.”  But many families could not return due to lack of basic services such as schools and a hospital. “They live in Zakho, Duhok, Syria, or Turkey.”

After they fled, many of the people signed on to fight with the Peshmerga, and some joined a communist guerrilla force run by the PKK, a Kurdish political party from Turkey. “We had no training before,” says another man. “We lost ten people here. It’s like a genocide, they killed thousands on the other side of the mountain in places like Kochko village.” Adar points across the street where some men are unloading a truck. “They beheaded my uncle there. Later, when we came back, we took his body to a cemetery two hours from here to be buried.”

The men were preparing for a holiday on December 18, but they argued among each other over whether one should celebrate this traditionally festive time or not. “Some want to celebrate due to the liberation, others say we cannot,” says a man named Hussein. “We don’t receive anything here; we don’t have a generator for electricity often and use lamps.”  The men agree they cannot speak of a future life here. “We are surrounded by Arabs, who joined ISIS, we are afraid of them. We are asking the international community to free the kidnapped girls and women, and recognize the genocide. Many people fled to Europe and are dying at sea and the international community will not help them either.”

The drive over Shingal Mountain at night is interrupted only by several illuminated posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish PKK leader. Out in the darkness are thousands of Yazidi refugees, huddled in tents, a year and a half after they fled. There are no electric lights. At the top of the mountain stands a model of a truck with a large double-barrelled machine gun on the back. The truck and plaque next to it are new. It commemorates the truck that fought off ISIS during their rapid advance on August 3, and the Yazidi commander Qasim Dorbu, who stood at this location.

In the morning, after a night sleeping with a Kurdish Peshmerga de-mining team, we travel into the abandoned city.  The de-mining team, which works with rudimentary equipment to clear ISIS booby-traps, IEDs, and TNT is a reminder of why people cannot return. Most of the city is in total ruins, houses blown up from coalition airstrikes, or by ISIS. Shops owned by Yazidi were marked ‘Yazidi’ in graffiti by ISIS and then burned. The appointed mayor, who is Yazidi, lives in a tent next to the destroyed municipality building.

Across from the mayor’s office several Yazidi men have opened small shops. They sell foodstuffs to the Peshmerga and also some beer and Ouzo.  Like others, he describes the perpetrators of the massacre. “It was Arabs from our region that did these crimes.” He says some of the residents of Shingal put up ISIS flags before August 3rd. The Iraqi army had abandoned the region and when it was clear that the Kurdish peshmerga and  local Yazidi men could not defend the people. He walked 9 hours into the mountains to safety.

“My father and brothers were with me but my uncle’s daughter was kidnapped by ISIS who sold her and she is in Raqqa.” Another of his relatives was killed by the extremists. “766 people from my village were killed or captured by ISIS.” Many of the women he says are in alive and kept as slaves, forcibly married to ISIS fighters or others. “We want to return to our village but there is no interest to go back without freeing the women. I don’t think they will all be free, some of them were sold and taken to Saudi Arabia.”

Zalud says that the Yazidis have sought to identify the people in the mass graves that have been found, but that because dogs and animals got at the victims and the rain washed bones away, he doesn’t know if it will be possible. “There is someone who kept a book and list of the names, but I was not involved in that.” Zalud fought in the mountains against ISIS, but he’s not sure life will be much better with the Kurds in charge either.



In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Genocide before Our Very Eyes (PART TWO)

By Seth Frantzman

FEBRUARY 18, 2016

Nothing can prepare one for the level of destruction found in Shingal. The streets are strewn with rubble, housing blown inward, walls broken in half, pieces of trucks and vehicles everywhere.

One of the leaders of the KDP party here and a representative of the Kurdistan regional government in this region is a man known locally as Sheikh Nasser. In the Yazidi culture, there is a strict caste system between sheikhs, Pirs, and Murtids. When ISIS attacked, Sheikh Nasser was in his village north of Shingal. “We fought to the last bullet,” he recalls. After the Peshmerga were pushed back towards the Tigress, he agreed to be helicoptered to Shingal to continue to fight with the people who had stayed behind.

“The women and children suffered a lot and there was no water, and it was cold and the people were starving and there were terrible conditions; we couldn’t even make bread — it was not edible. There were just two helicopters that came to help and take people out.”

Nasser says that the Arab neighbours of Yazidi villagers tried to trick the people into staying. “Just raise a white flag,” they said before coming to kill the Yazidis with ISIS. Nasser recalls being on the mountain and learning that men were lined up, shot, and then buried in the mass graves.

Driving out to the area of the graves, there are still ISIS flags spray-painted on some walls; they are scrawled over, but the unmistakable black flag is still there. Seven kilometres east of Shingal, the road runs strait towards Syria. Houses owned by Yazidis here were blown up by ISIS, but those of Arabs remain on the plains, intact and empty. We pass the large bulldozed earthworks the Peshmerga set up as frontline positions when they liberated this area in November 2015. The mass graves are near the frontline positions. Explosions from coalition airstrikes can be heard in the distance.

We exit Nasser’s pickup truck. He slings his Russian-made sniper rifle over his shoulder. Then we come to a low, dry streambed. Here are the graves — the bones bleached white, the clothing of the people poking from the dry earth. In one mass grave there are elderly women. In another, men and a young boy’s purple Emirates soccer shirt. Even the matted hair of the murdered sticks up from the soil.

Nasser believes the genocide will lead to a mass refugee flight from the area, with many Yazidis moving to Europe, where they will assimilate. He knows that any return will be difficult. “This city feels like a cancer.  We want this to be a historical place of memory and build a new city. We don’t want the Arabs back we can’t trust them anymore.”  He thinks the government should build a wall of security around the Yazidi areas, “like Israel has.”

A long drive through the ruined city brings us to another grave east of the city. Here men were killed. The blindfolds used are on the surface of a small pile. Red tape has been placed around the area that measures ten feet by thirty. Striking to the eye are two patches from an Iraqi security forces uniform. Nasser explains that these men likely served in a local police unit.

“Because of the blood nothing will grow here,” he says, pointing to the area around the graves. They have not excavated this or the other 17 graves, preferring to wait for experts and international observers to do so. So far no one has come.

The worst killing took place in Kocho, where out of 1,400 people, only 400 survived. Nasser relates a chilling story. “First Arabs came from another village and told them not to leave, nothing will happen. Three days later on August 6 they came and asked for the weapons in the village and told them to convert to Islam. The people asked for time to decide. Eventually, they said no. The Arabs separated women, children and men and in groups of 35 they shot and killed the men.”

“Two men came out of this mass of bodies – having miraculously survived — and made their way to the mountain and the Kurdistan regional government to bare witness to this crime,” says Nasser.

The killing was not finished. The women were taken to a pink building near Shingal, which was once used for technological training. ISIS took 78 elderly women away “who could not be used for sex or sold” and shot them. The boys who had not been killed were sent to be indoctrinated by ISIS’ fanatical version of Islam.

One of the symbols of Yazidi resistance to ISIS is a man named Qasim Sheshu. Today he commands a Yazidi Peshmerga unit of 7,500 men, splitting his time between soldiers closer to the front and a holy Shrine called Sharfadin that sits just north of Mount Shingal. The Shrine itself is a small stone enclosure with a cone rising 40 feet above it. As people prepare for holiday, a young boy poses on it in fatigues. Some elders go in for prayers. Down a dirt road is a compound guarded by armed men. Inside, the yard is full of military vehicles.

Sheshu is a big stocky man with a thick large moustache. His hands are rough and meaty. He is a living reminder of several Yazidis famous in Kurdistan for fighting against various regimes in the last 100 years. Born in 1953, he joined the KDP, today’s ruling party of the Kurdistan regional government, and was a frequent target of Saddam Hussein’s regime for his political activities.

His tales of fighting in the mountains, being imprisoned, and the several times the regime tried to kill him, could fill a book. In one instance, he says he killed a well-known deputy of Saddam’s intelligence forces from Mosul.

A constant smoker of Marlboro Golds, he enjoys telling his life story. “I was against Saddam from the 1970s and I came back  [from exile] to this region and since then I have been fighting terrorism such as al-Qaeda, and then Daesh [ISIS] and I say they are all coming from [Saddam’s] Ba’ath party. I had returned in 2003 and I came with my family and we came back to live here.”

In April 2014, he was injured in a car accident and was in a hospital in Germany when ISIS appeared on the border of Shingal. He checked himself out, and, still walking with a cane, travelled back to his hometown.

“On the August 3 at 3:30 am, someone called me and said that ISIS was attacking two districts.” Sheshu tried to rally fighters to resist the ISIS advance. “We had no weapons to stand against them. They attacked us with two brigades worth of Iraqi army weapons and vehicles they had captured, and weapons from Syria.” He tried to convince the Kurdish Peshmerga to defend the area but the situation was hopeless and their forces were routed quickly.  “I decided not to leave the region; if we did not fight, more Yazidis would have been killed.”

There were 200,000 Yazidi refugees fleeing ISIS through the Shingal Mountain, and Sheshu says the stiff resistance that he and a few others put up helped save many lives. But tens of thousands of Yazidis remained on the mountain, starving and without food or water, refusing to leave the sight of their villages in the plains below. Even as ISIS overran all of Shingal city and moved through Snune to Rabiah, an Arab town on the Syrian border, they remained on the mountain, abandoned.

“In the beginning there were only 17 of us to defend this shrine. We had one heavy DSHK machine gun, one sniper rifle, and an RPG,” recalls Sheshu. Like the Jewish resistance fighters who fled to the swamps and forests of Belarus, Sheshu’s force slowly grew to thousands of men. Sixteen times he recalls that ISIS tried to break through their meager defenses. On December 3, four months after the catastrophe had begun, peshmerga forces were able to liberate the entire area of Rabiah and Snune, and link it up with Mount Shingal.

“We knew about the genocide,” recalls Sheshu. “It was like what Hitler did to the Jews, we couldn’t believe in this civilized world with this internet and technology that this could happen again. They came and they killed our people and they killed kids, they killed elders, and all kinds of people. They are doing that because we are not Muslim like them and our language is Kurdish.”

Sheshu places this genocide amidst the others of the past, but he notes today is even more extraordinary given the international community’s lack of action. He also argues the coalition airstrikes against ISIS are not designed to fully defeat it.

Sheshu says that the people want to return to their homes but they want security guarantees, protection, and better weapons. “Every nation has its land and we want to live and die here.”  One feels the memory of the Shoah in the experience of these people, watching their own neighbors turn on them and the vast majority remain silent as they were driven from their homes, and massacred.

Most importantly, these atrocities are still ongoing. According to Vian Dakhil, the Yazidi member of Iraq’s parliament whose impassioned speech awakened the world in 2014 to the massacres, there are still 3,600 women and girls held by ISIS. Yazidi men we spoke to say they still have contact via phone with those holding the women, and a special office of the Kurdistan regional government is devoted to working to free them. In the camps and in Dohuk, where survivors’ testimonies are written down, basic issues such as having women present to help rape victims deal with the trauma is lacking.

Soud Msto, the lawyer who helps run one of the refugee camps, says he is working towards a future commemoration for the massacred Yazidis. “I hope it will be commemorated, but most of the mass graves have still not been liberated. It was a genocide, a million percent it was, and according to human rights law, it also was. I am a lawyer and we are working with the office and court here and with the Kurdistan regional government to get it recognized as a genocide. We and Jews are cousins, so yes it is like the Holocaust, and there are many similarities; they killed people.”