Aug 23rd 2014
A CENTURY ago, the Yazidis of Sinjar saved hundreds of Armenians and Assyrian Christians as they were being slaughtered by the forces of the Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish proxies in what a growing body of scholars considers the 20th century’s first genocide. “They built a colony for these people, with houses, a church and a clinic,” says David Gaunt, a British historian. In 1918 the Ottomans retaliated by sending a small army to Sinjar, destroying the buildings and capturing a revered Yazidi leader, Hamo Sharro, who was sentenced to five years of hard labour.
Now, in an ironic twist, thousands of Yazidis are seeking refuge in Turkey as they flee the savagery of the jihadists who overran Sinjar on August 3rd. Some 2,500 members of this ancient sect, whom Muslims label “devil worshippers” because of their adulation of an angel in the guise of a peacock, are said to have crossed into Turkey. Most are in a camp erected by Turkish authorities in Silopi, a border town in the mainly Kurdish south-east. But a growing number are heading to villages dotting the barren plains around Batman, a province that hosted a vibrant mix of Christians and Yazidis before the bloodshed of 1915.
One of these is Yolveren, where some 31 Yazidi refugees are crammed into a house with four rooms. Little Yazidi boys, wearing a single golden earring to protect them from the evil eye, cling to their mothers, their eyes filled with fear. “Three of my cousins, all of them girls, were kidnapped,” says Harbiye Khalil, who escaped with her three children. Hundreds of others were less lucky. “Our women are being paraded on the streets, sold to Arab men and raped by Daish [the Kurdish and Arabic term for Islamic State],” says a teacher of English. “We are helpless.”
Many blame Iraq’s Kurds for failing to protect them. “We begged them to give us weapons so we could defend ourselves. They refused and abandoned us without firing a bullet,” says a Yazidi economist. Others point fingers at their Arab neighbours. “Muhammad al-Aser, the sheikh of [a neighbouring Arab] Hasawij village, led Daish to our homes to kill us,” rasps an elderly carpenter. “We feel utterly betrayed. But the YPG, God bless them, they have a permanent place in our heads,” he adds, patting his white turban. He is referring to the People’s Defence Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in south-eastern Turkey. The YPG has been battling IS in northern Syria for two years and has led tens of thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar to safety in the past few weeks.
Batman’s Kurdish mayor, Gulistan Akil, promises to build homes for the Yazidis. “We must make amends for the past.”