As Yazidis commemorated the ISIS attacks on their community six years ago, activists demanded support for their fragile minority in Iraq.
Last week, in the mountainous province of Sinjar in northern Iraq, a historic heartland for Yazidis, locals gathered on the main road and outside public buildings to light candles and commemorate the dead.
In 2014, ISIS militants invaded the province and deliberately targeted the community killing hundreds and kidnapping thousands.
Half a million Yazidis were displaced. The attack was described as a genocide by the United Nations in 2015 and an UN-funded international investigation into ISIS war crimes was launched in 2018.
Yet six years after the initial attack, the community in Iraq still faces tremendous challenges. About 250,000 Yazidis still live in camps in the Kurdistan region, and over 100,000 migrated out of Iraq. Three thousand people are missing or unaccounted for, with hundreds known to be in refugee camps in Syria.
At the commemoration, mourners held banners demanding international justice and greater security for their homeland.
“We don’t see any movement from the Iraqi authorities. It’s as if nothing happened to us in the last six years,” said Naji Khadida, 28, a resident of Sinjar.
The sentiment was echoed globally. “How can our community heal and return? Sinjar is left behind and continues to regress without long-term investment,” asked Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, who fled IS captivity in 2014.
A lifetime in camps
Though ISIS was defeated in 2017, less than a third of its displaced Yazidis have gone back to Sinjar.
“There is no water or electricity, basic services are limited,” said Khadida, a recent returnee. He described his neighborhood to Al Arabiya English on the phone.
“There are school buildings with books and pupils, but few teachers.”
Khadida spent six years in a refugee camp outside the city of Dohuk, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, with his parents and siblings.
“We lived in a small tent with no kitchen or bathroom,” he said. But for years, this was better than returning to his devastated homeland.
“We had an obligation to go back to Sinjar to preserve our community. Our language and culture were changing in the camps,” said Khadida.
Coronavirus forces camp exit
A coronavirus outbreak in the Kurdistan region compelled an estimated 3,000 internally displaced people (IDP), including Khadida and his family, to leave the camp once and for all.
“They had been living in camps for six years, and in the days of the pandemic it became more difficult for them to travel in and out,” said Saoud Misto, the director of an IDP camp, which at its peak in 2015 hosted 19,000 families.
“It was a voluntary, unplanned and spontaneous return. The authorities in Sinjar were not ready for this and did not provide any services,” he said.
Instead of moving back to his original house, Khadida lives in a rented apartment in a different part of Sinjar province.
“Our old neighborhood was destroyed and our home was looted, even the doors and windows were missing. There were no visible attempts to rebuild or reconstruct.” he said.
He and his family feel like strangers here, he added: “It’s like being displaced again. We want to go back to living in our old neighborhood with our local community.”
Meanwhile, life in the camps has become increasingly precarious.
“With the economic crisis and the current coronavirus crisis, our supplies and medical equipment could run out soon,” said Misto.
Some have anticipated another wave of returnees.
“We are on the verge of a blessed return of Yazidis to Sinjar,” said Saeb Khidr, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, at a conference dedicated to the commemorations.
But there will be little infrastructure to support them, he added: “Where are the services? Where are the radical solutions?”
Unresolved security issues
Unresolved security issues are preventing the voluntary return to Sinjar.
Since 2017, the province has been under the control of non-state armed groups allied to Baghdad, including the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Sinjar Resistance Units, a Yazidi militia affiliated to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
“While visiting mass graves in Kocho, I was shocked to find PMU flags flying higher than the Iraqi flags,” said Joey Hood, a former US general consul to Saudi Arabia, who spoke at the same commemoration event.
He was describing a visit to a Yazidi town whose population was decimated by ISIS.
“The state should take care of security. Sinjar should be under rule of law that is enforced by local police,” said Khidr.
Yet attempts to restore Iraqi rule of law by training a local police force have so far been met with silence from Baghdad.
“There are too many forces in politics and the military trying to block these solutions,” added Hood.
These armed groups fought ISIS alongside Iraqi, Kurdish and international coalition forces. Many are viewed sympathetically in Sinjar.
Today, their presence hampers humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts. “Many international organizations are hesitant to operate in Sinjar. We don’t have enough qualified professionals on the ground,” said Khidr.
Their competing agendas also interferes in forming civil life in the province.
“We tried to appoint the director of a hospital, and every faction got involved,” said Khidr. “The negotiations resembled the appointment of a prime minister.”
They also attract hostilities from regional conflicts. Turkey, which views the PKK as an existential threat, has targeted the militia’s bases close to Sinjar since April.
In July, locals protested against the PKK’s presence in Sinjar.
“We don’t want to become another Qandil,” said a banner held by protestors, referring to a mountainous region on Iraq’s border with Turkey that has been occupied by forces loyal to the PKK since the 1980s.
Locals have also expressed concerns about the PKK’s recruitment of minors.
“Children are compelled to join them out of hunger,” Ibrahim Kasso, a journalist living in the displacement camp of Sardasht on Mount Sinjar, told Al Arabiya English.
Days after joining the protests, Kasso received threats from politicians affiliated with the militia, he said.
At the heart of this crisis is a territorial dispute between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Though the Nineveh plains, where Sinjar is located, are under the Iraqi government’s authority, Erbil has laid claim to the territory since 2003.
“The simplest of services and facilities get caught up in politics between Baghdad and Erbil,” said Khidr, “Each side places its burdens and responsibilities on the other.”
Erbil, which currently funds the majority of humanitarian aid for IDPs in its territories, blames the Iraqi government for the current neglect and lack of services in Sinjar.
“We are ready to collaborate with Baghdad to come up with a solution,” said Falah Mustafa, an adviser to the Kurdistan regional government.
Meanwhile armed forces close to Baghdad have claimed the Kurdish administration failed to protect Yazidis from ISIS in 2014.
The result is that Yazidis are left feeling sidelined from the political process, and helpless as to their fate in Iraq.
“We are a small community of less than a million, in a country of 40 million,’ said Khadida. “Our voice is drowned by more powerful political actors.”
Sinjar’s Yazidis once embraced Kurdish nationalism, but today, many of them feel betrayed by the leadership in Erbil.
“Yazidis suffer from the domination of Kurdish policies which are inconsistent with our culture, identity and aspirations,” said Kasso, reflecting this backlash.
Yet turning to Baghdad yields little results.
“We are second class citizens,” said Khadida.