Ezidis are a religious group of about half a million people native to the Iraqi province of Nineveh who share the same language and much of the culture of the Kurds of Turkey and Syria. Due to their adherence to a gnostic and pre-Islamic cult, they have been, along with Christians and Shiites, one of the main victims of ethnic cleansing by the Islamic State.
In 2014 thousands of people found shelter in the mountains of Shingal where, surrounded by ISIS militiamen, they spent seven days without food, constantly struggling between life and death. Salvation eventually arrived thanks to JPG / YPJ and PKK militants who opened two humanitarian corridors to the Kurdish majority area of Rojava (Northern Syria), saving women and children first, and then offering men weapons to fight alongside them.
Along the massive presence of Peshmerga, linked to the regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan, there are also Shingal Resistance Units (YBŞ) and Ezidxan Women’s Units (YJŞ) in the area, both of which are under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an organization that brings together all the groups that are inspired by the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Close to the the Shingal mountain range there is a very important village, Khana Sor. In March there were clashes here between Rojava Peshmerga, Kurdish soldiers from Rojava paid by the Iraqi Kurdistan Ministry of Interior, and the YBŞ. Shortly afterwards, the local population, along with Ezidis from the refugee camps of Rojava, organized a rally against Rojava Peshmerga’s incursions in the village. During this peaceful gathering Iraqi Kurd security forces attacked the people, injuring some civilians and killing a local journalist. The action, says Sinun, the journalist’s father, appeared to be dictated by the political will of the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities to isolate the Ezidis’ attempts to create self-government, indissolubly linked by a common thread to the political experience of the neighbouring Confederation of Rojava.
The YBŞ give us a warm welcome in the village over mugs of tea. Despite tiredness from a night on guard duty, the commander of the area, Saeed, joins us and, with humility, recounts the memory of saving thousands of Ezidi in August 2014. “They fired from every corner,” he says with a thread of emotion, “we were easy targets and the space to move was minimal. With heavy losses and tremendous effort we managed to open a breach between the enemy lines, allowing thousands of people to save themselves.” It will be the commander who, after a well-deserved break, will guide us through what is still the southwestern Shingal frontline facing ISIS militias.
A red poppy field stretches between the green of the plains, in the background the mountain range bursts out beneath a spring sky. “Let’s stop for a photo,” the commander says, “look at the beauty of this panorama.” If it were not for ISIS just a few miles away, in one of the southern villages, it would seem an idyllic morning to relax in uncontaminated and wild nature. Yet even amidst such apparent serenity, destroyed bridges, exploded car remains and improvised concrete walls betray the proximity of the war front.
Soon we are the heart of the highlands in an immense valley immersed by the summits of the surrounding mountains, where there is an endless expanse of tents and small houses of masonry and straw. These are the homes of some 35,000 Ezidis from the surrounding areas, who, after escaping from Islamic State’s harassments, have decided to remain in the mountains to “defend their sacred identity.”
We stop in one of the tented areas and an old man reveals himself to us from the door of a small house covered with UNHCR waterproof tarpaulins. His name is Şerwan and he built that modest structure with his own hands with the help of some friends of the area. He lives there with his wife and some of his younger daughters. He speaks in broken English, much of which he has forgotten since the genocide, just one of the side-effects of the trauma he has suffered. His older daughters are still in the hands of jihadists. After a while the conversation breaks down and his voice fills with anger: “Why is the international community not interested in women being kidnapped and sold as sex slaves? What about our children who are trained to become human bombs? Where is the law?”
Since January 2015 the mountain population has embarked on a way of administering the territory through an autonomous organization led by a council elected by representatives of the various areas. The KRG authorities do not recognize this form of self governance, maintaining that they are the only authority which can control the area. It is very cold during the evening. Hassan, one of the spokesmen of the Ezidis Democratic Movement and part of the Council of the Mountain, expresses his thoughts with firmness during a frugal meal: “The mountain population is ready for self-government, Shingal itself is already, but the Iraqi Kurds are opposing us in every way.”
“The situation is complicated for civilians who have resisted within their land for years,” continues Saeed. Then, pointing to the south states “there is the Islamic State there. To the North and East KRG authorities have closed the borders with Rojava, which is also isolated internationally by an embargo. Meanwhile in the West there is a check -point which gives access to the Duhok region, but for most people this does not seem not crossable. We do receive aid from Rojava, but due to the closure of the border it doesn’t arrive regularly.”
At dusk we finally reach the city of Shingal located at the bottom of the southeast slope of the mountain. The bendy road leading to the town is a cemetery of cars abandoned and burned by ISIS, the last remains of the civilians who escaped three years earlier. We will be hosted by one of the one hundred and fifty families who courageously returned to live in the city after its liberation from the Islamic state. Agid, his wife and two of the youngest daughters tell us how the family was torn by the massacre. Some of them, after fleeing, managed to successfully reach Germany and others later to the United States. Offensive words, slogans and the Isis flag have been painted on the walls of the house by militiamen. “For nearly a year this place was a headquarters for Islamic State in the region”, says Agid’s wife shortly before bed, “we do not even want to know what was happening in our house.”
We wake early and the city is desolate. A surreal silence cuts the fresh air as we move toward the centre. The historic centre and old bazaar have been reduced to a bundle of rubble. The ISIS occupation lasted less than a year, until November 2015, but the shadow of its presence is still present in the streets, especially around the old central hospital. During the occupation, a local doctor’s wife had the task of drafting a detailed report on women who had been kidnapped by ISIS, so that they could later be offered to the sex market in the occupied cities. Inside the semi-destroyed hospital fingerprints from those who were likely to flee are still imprinted on the walls as indelible signs of those memories.