The number of Yazidis returning from camps to their historic homeland of Sinjar in northern Iraq has dramatically decreased in recent months, as Turkish airstrikes and the ongoing threat of a ground invasion compound the long list of obstacles they face in going home.
The most recent bombings, which the Turkish government says are aimed at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group it considers to be a terrorist organisation, hit Sinjar just last week.
It’s not clear how many people were killed, or if they were civilians, but an October 2021 analysis by the New Statesman found that of the Turkish attacks in Sinjar province – which began in 2017, two years after a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK broke down – “60 percent resulted in reported civilian casualties.”
Almost all of Sinjar’s 400,000 Yazidis were captured, killed, or forced to flee when the so-called Islamic State swept into the region in August 2014, beginning a campaign of mass killings and sexual violence that the UN has called a genocide. This week, the UK House of Commons debated if its government should apply this same label to IS’ actions against the ethno-religious minority.
Yazidi survivors scattered to camps across territory run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, taking refuge wherever they could. Even though IS was defeated in the area by late 2015, many Yazidis have been reluctant to return, given that Sinjar town still stands in ruins, and abandoned outlying villages are overgrown with foliage. Job opportunities are scarce, as is care for a mental health crisis that erupted in the aftermath of the genocide. Many people are reliant on whatever support aid groups can offer.
But some Yazidis have returned – locals estimate the total to be about 30 percent of the original population, and UN statistics tell a similar story.
The pace of returns has ebbed and flowed over the years. That is, until airstrikes intensified in 2020. Then came an early 2021 indication by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he was considering boots on the ground in Sinjar in a joint operation with Iraq, and many Yazidis put their plans to go home on pause. This was followed by two consecutive airstrikes in August 2021 – one in Sinjar’s town centre, the other at a clinic in a nearby village – that cemented fears and brought returns almost to a standstill. Locals say the attacks, although sporadic, have left the Yazidis in Sinjar feeling as if they are still living in a conflict zone.
According to data from the UN’s migration agency, some 38,000 Yazidis returned between June 2020 and December 2020. However, between February 2021 and the end of last year, that figure was less than 5,000.
“When returns started in earnest [in 2020], families were returning every day and businessmen were planning to reopen shops in Sinjar,” said a Yazidi activist, speaking on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns, which were shared by the majority of people who spoke to The New Humanitarian.
“Even the 2,300 families living [in the sprawling makeshift camp high on Mount Sinjar, where they stayed after fleeing IS] had decided to return to their villages… But then Erdogan announced the joint security operation, the families in the mountain decided to stay in the camp because they felt safer there, and Yazidi returns slowed,” the activist continued. “After the 2021 airstrikes in Sinjar town, returns stopped completely and people cancelled plans to reopen businesses.”
Bombs and fear
In December, the Yazidi town of Khanasor, north of Mount Sinjar, was rocked by an alleged Turkish airstrike. It hit the car of Marwan Badal, commander of the Yazidi Resistance Units (YBS). Turkey considers YBS – which helped fight IS and is part of an umbrella group of Iraqi state-sponsored armed brigades known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or PMF – to be an affiliate of the PKK.
Locals ran to the smouldering vehicle and pulled out Badal’s body and his two children, who survived unhurt, before the vehicle caught fire. Badal had been widely respected. His death, and the manner of it – driving in a car with his children – rocked the community. “Marwan was a good and humble man, not aggressive like some other military commanders,” an acquaintance told The New Humanitarian, speaking on condition of anonymity. “No one here had a bad word to say about him.”
Four days later, another missile flattened Khanasor’s Lalish Cultural Centre, which was used for civilian events such as weddings, as well as YBS meetings. It was due to host Badal’s funeral condolences the following day.
No casualties were reported in the second attack, but these airstrikes freshly terrified Sinjar’s residents, most of whom are Yazidi, and hang heavy over the community, according to a 23-year-old female student, who returned to a Sinjar village in 2019 and asked that her name not be published.
“We were in a refugee camp in the KRG for five years, so it’s good to be back. But life is not so good,” she told The New Humanitarian. “Before, it was like paradise in our villages here; a simple life, but like paradise to us. We had no problems or fears before. Only after IS did we become afraid.
“Now, we are afraid of only one thing really, and that is the Turkish military. Everybody here is afraid of Turkish airstrikes.”
Belkis Wille, a conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The New Humanitarian this fear was among the major barriers to Yazidis going home.
“There are many reasons why some Yazidis have not returned to Sinjar, and one of the biggest is the feeling that it remains an unsafe and unstable area,” she said. “The most prominent reasons for this are the PKK presence on the ground and these ongoing Turkish attacks, which include airstrikes but also, given the presence of Turkish military inside northern Iraq, even fears of Turkish ground presence in the area.”
Turkey did not respond to The New Humanitarian’s request for comment, but Erdogan has long been clear that he would take on the PKK inside Iraq: In 2016, the leader said Turkey would not allow Sinjar to become a new Qandil, referring to another mountainous area of northern Iraq that has long served as a PKK hideout. Two years later, he warned Baghdad: “If you can deal with [the PKK], deal with them, or else we will come to Sinjar and deal with them,” adding that the militant group could run but not hide from the Turkish military.
A contested territory
Unrest in Sinjar is nothing new: Although it technically falls under Baghdad’s control, Sinjar has long been at the centre of a tug-of-war between Iraq’s central government and the KRG, based in the northern city of Erbil. It even has two mayors: one affiliated with Baghdad, and another with Erbil, who lives in the KRG.
That means there are a variety of forces on the ground. Most checkpoints on the way into Sinjar province are manned either by the Iraqi Army or by the PMF, including Yazidi units like the YBS. Inside Sinjar’s towns, the most visible forces are Yazidi police and Yazidi PMF units.
While Turkey maintains that the YBS is a branch of the PKK, the presence of the PKK itself is hard to ascertain. Some civilians harbour sympathy for the group, if not direct affiliation, largely due to the PKK’s role in fighting off IS in 2014 and in helping to secure safe passage for civilians out of the area.
“We have no problem with the Turks, and we don’t think they have a problem with Yazidis. We also don’t have any problem with the PKK, but equally we are not responsible for them,” Sinjar’s Baghdad-affiliated mayor Khodad Hussein told The New Humanitarian. “But if Turkey has a problem with the PKK, we just don’t want this happening in the Sinjar area, especially these airstrikes, because we have already lost so much.”
“He was an innocent civilian killed while trying to do something good for his people.”
Among those killed by the recent airstrikes are YBS members, like Badal. In August, Said Hassan, another senior YBS figure, was killed, along with his nephew and driver, as they drove through Sinjar town. Three civilians were reportedly injured. On that day, Hassan had been due to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadami, who was visiting Sinjar.
The following day, Turkish airstrikes hit a primary healthcare centre in the nearby village of Sikeniye, killing eight – four YBS members, three hospital staff, and a 21-year-old civilian, student Haji Khader.
“That day he was working in the hospital, teaching first aid. He wasn’t a doctor, but he had some medical qualifications, so he was able to teach basic first aid,” a relative said. “He was an innocent civilian killed while trying to do something good for his people.”
The pull of asylum, the pull of the mountain
Four months after parliamentary elections, Iraq is in the process of forming a new government, which some hope could bring change and even movement on the 2020 agreement, which was intended to bring some measure of peace to Sinjar. But lawmakers are deadlocked, and this week failed to vote on a new president, suggesting a long road ahead until the formation of a new government.
Sinjar’s remote location, and the Yazidis’ limited parliamentary representation, generally keeps their plight low on the list of priorities for the Baghdad government, overwhelmed in recent years by a range of crises, from civil unrest to coronavirus. Apart from occasional mentions at press conferences, Baghdad has been largely tight-lipped about the airstrikes.
“Attacking any place in Iraq is against the constitution and international law, and we have not seen any real steps to address this. It’s not enough to make a statement to the media,” Ali al-Bayati, a member of the government-affiliated Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, told The New Humanitarian, suggesting that the matter needed to be addressed at an international level.
For now, Iraq’s long-persecuted and impoverished minority looks set to continue either living in long-term displacement or in fear of further aerial attacks.
“We cannot accept more conflict, more bloodshed, and more killing. As a community, we have already paid such a high price,” a Yazidi medic said. “We are already traumatised and, seven years after IS' genocide, we are still living in a conflict scenario.”
He said the airstrikes – along with the Iraqi government’s general neglect of the community, its needs, and its ruined homeland – had destroyed Yazidi hopes of a decent future in Iraq.
“As a community, we have already paid such a high price.”
“There is currently a huge number of people fleeing Iraq, especially Yazidis,” the medic said. “Many have reached this extreme point of disappointment. Nothing has been done for them and, after seven years, the situation is almost the same and they don’t want to stay. People are selling all their possessions and trying to reach Europe illegally, by paying people smugglers.”
In September, 32 Yazidis were reported to be among those stranded on the border of Belarus and Poland, attempting to enter the European Union. But leaving Iraq is only an option for those with enough funds to pay people smugglers. For many Yazidis who lost livelihoods and homes, as well as family members, there is no option but to stay.
On the outskirts of Sinouni, in the foothills of Mount Sinjar, some small new homes are being built. “People believe this sacred mountain, which saved thousands of lives in 2014, is the only thing protecting them,” said the Yazidi medic. “For those unable to leave Iraq, living close to the mountain, in case they need to flee again, is the best option.”
The reporter’s name is being withheld due to security concerns.