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Yazidis safe from ISIL in their mountain refuge

A year after an ISIL militant rampage forced them to flee up Mount Sinjar, many of the Yazidi religious community in Iraq say they feel protected there.
 Faris Salih Faris, 48, is ready to defend his people with his WWII-era Soviet rifle. Florian Neuhof for The National
Faris Salih Faris, 48, is ready to defend his people with his WWII-era Soviet rifle. Florian Neuhof for The National

MOUNT SINJAR // The sun is about to set over the craggy ridge behind the cluster of tents that have been home to Ezdin Sharo Bro’s family for the past year.

The 40-year-old takes a drag on his cigarette, looks at the smoothened earth of the sitting area in front of his tent, and reflects on his 12 months at the top of Mount Sinjar.

“We think that we will be protected on this mountain because of what we have heard from our ancestors,” he says. “Our religious leaders have always told us that genocide will happen again, and that we need to go to the mountain to be safe.”

Mr Bro and his family are Yazidis, part of the small religious community that fell prey to ISIL when the extremist group swept across the plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq and into the area around Mount Sinjar on August 3 last year.

ISIL’s offensive devastated Iraq’s Yazidi population, which is estimated to number between 300,000 and 700,000.

Aid agencies believe that about 200,000 Yazidis were displaced during ISIL’s surge.

About 7,000 others were captured by ISIL, many in their villages but some as they tried to reach the safety of the mountain top. Most of the men were believed to have been killed, while the women and children were enslaved.

Mr Bro’s family were among an estimated 130,000 Yazidis who fled to the 75-kilometre-long plateau that rises from the rugged landscape.

ISIL soon had Mount Sinjar encircled, but a desperate defence by poorly armed Yazidi villagers and the launch of US-led coalition air strikes prevented the extremists from taking its top. More than a week after the Yazidis escaped to the mountain, battle-hardened Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria briefly broke the extremists’ siege, opening a temporary corridor into Syria through which most of the villagers escaped.

Despite the hardships on Mount Sinjar, several thousand Yazidis chose to remain on the remote plateau, and stayed there even after Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) troops finally ended ISIL’s siege last December.

“We believe we are safe here and we don’t want to leave our land,” says Khalid Sabri, 30, who lives with his wife and two daughters in the tent next to Ezdin.

As he speaks, the faint roar of an aircraft can be heard in the sky above, a reminder of the international air campaign pounding ISIL.

But the perceived safety comes at a price. The families have no access to electricity and running water, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with the searing summer heat. Aid agencies do come to the mountain, but due to the proximity of ISIL their deliveries are infrequent, and food is in short supply.

Home to many places of Yazidi worship. Mount Sinjar was a place of refuge for the community before: they fled there during bouts of persecution during the Ottoman Empire. The Yazidis also have a strong attachment to their lands, where they have lived for countless generations.

“We don’t want to leave our culture. Our temples and holy places are here,” says Khader Saleh Faris, 38, who lives with his wife Jani and four children in a makeshift camp near the top of the mountain.

Mr Faris’s village is still held by ISIL, and the family have been on the mountain for the past year. During that time his children have not been to school, and received only basic schooling from relatives. They are given basic foodstuffs such as flour by aid agencies, which they supplement with the modest crop of tomatoes and cucumbers that the arid landscape yields.

Driving up Mount Sinjar on the winding road from the city below, which is still contested between the Kurds and ISIL, visitors can see burnt out cars and piles of clothes strewn by the wayside, reminders of the Yazidis’ desperate flight to safety.

Higher up, shallow valleys, ravines and flat ground alternate, each providing room for small tent settlements that are interspersed along the road cutting across the plateau.

The men in these camps still grab their rifles and head down to repulse attacks by ISIL, which controls the area to the south of the mountain, where Yazidi villages now lie abandoned. Many of the men have fought on the mountain since they slowed ISIL’s advance last August. They carry only basic weapons, some of World War Two vintage, but they feel safer here than in the refugee camps and unfinished buildings deep inside Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, where many Yazidis now live.

For all their determination, the real military muscle keeping ISIL at arm’s length comes from members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish resistance movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency within its native Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds also contribute forces to the mountain’s defence.

The militants, who see members of the minority group as devil worshippers who must either be killed or converted, forced thousands of captured Yazidi women into sexual slavery, in some cases marrying off girls as young as nine. Meanwhile, boys as young as seven have been separated from their relatives to be indoctrinated in so-called “sharia schools”, where they are brainwashed into becoming ISIL’s future fighters.

The extremists’ swift attack had taken the Yazidis by surprise, and they were left defenceless when the Kurdish militia units that had pledged to defend them took flight without firing a shot. Many were overrun in their villages, others were caught while trying to reach the safety of the mountain top.

The Yazidis still on the mountain are determined not to let history repeat itself

“We are free to protect ourselves here, we can carry our weapons openly,” says Mr Faris.


Updated: August 2, 2015 04:00 AM



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