As Clashes With Kurdish Fighters Erupt, Yazidi Militiamen Harbor Bitter Memories
There’s little love for the Peshmerga near Sinjar
by A CONTRIBUTOR TO WAR IS BORING
Ibrahim and his wife Sevi sit in a dark concrete room in the Yazidi town of Khanasor under the shadow of Iraq’s Sinjar mountain. Despite her bright scarf and colorful clothing Sevi’s solemn expression clouds the room.
“My wife was pregnant when ISIS came to Sinjar,” Ibrahim, 23, explains. “We ran away to the mountain and brought food with us, but when we saw all the hungry people, we had to share our food with them.”
“After my wife gave birth in the mountain she got really sick. Now I don’t see a future for myself let alone my son. There are no schools, electricity and the water we drink is dirty,” Ibrahim says, reaching for his AK as our fixer enters the room.
For Yazidis like Ibrahim, the memory of August 2014 refuses to dissipate. The scars of violence lie strewn across the streets of Khanasor, and from the smashed wedding shop fronts to the territorial flags of rival Kurdish groups, the threat of war hangs heavy in the air.
Part of an independent Yazidi militia, Ibrahim speaks bitterly about the U.S. backed Peshmerga troops who are attempting to gain a foothold in the disputed plains of Ninevah.
“The night ISIS came, the Peshmerga ran away with their weapons. When we asked them ‘why are you leaving us?’ They said they had orders from Duhok and that we should stay here. The Peshmerga left us all to be slaughtered,” he said.
On March 3, 2017, the Kurdish Peshmerga and YBS — a PKK-backed militia of Yazidi and Kurdish fighters — clashed after the Peshmerga attempted to cross through YBS controlled territory, leading to deaths on both sides.
For Yazidis — who claim to have experienced 74 genocides — bloodshed in Sinjar is nothing new. But this new spat of violence has spotlighted their calls for international protection after the recent clashes forced Yazidis to leave the homes they had just returned to after months in squalid refugee camps.
Practicing one of the oldest religions in the Middle East, the Yazidis’ refusal to convert to Islam and Christianity has cost them heavily and led to a general disdain among their Kurdish and Arab neighbors who refer to them as “kefirs” and “devil worshippers.” This hatred reached a bloody zenith in August 2015 when the Islamic State, supported by their Arab neighbors, murdered thousands of Yazidi men and kidnapped thousands of Yazidi women, selling them into slavery.
For Yazidis, that horror is one they will never forget. And as Peshmerga troops dug trenches in Sinjar, they provoked the ire of furious locals.
Full video of Ezidi mothers confronting KDP/Peshmerga in Xanesor town today #Shingal #Sinjar https://t.co/YAkUSlBXWx
Ibrahim’s anger last year led him to join an all-Yazidi militia.
“I am a member of Independent Yazidi fighters. We don’t belong to anyone and we will never leave these lands. The Peshmerga left us for the Arabs to kill — who can I trust? No one is helping us,” he lamented.
Ibrahim’s distrust for the Peshmerga is an uncomfortable fact for the U.S. government, which has pumped resources into Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government hoping it will restore stability to the chaotic region.
A recent meeting between KRG President Masoud Barzani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen by commentators as the spark that lit recent clashes between the Peshmerga — loyal to Barzani — and the PKK, a socialist militia which has fought a brutal insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.
In 2014, the PKK opened a corridor for Yazidis to evacuate Mount Sinjar where thousands had fled to escape the Islamic State. Locals, although skeptical of the PKK’s motivations, signed up en masse to join the YBS, a PKK-led militia charged with defending Sinjar from another I.S. attack.
The PKK’s presence is unmistakable in the region as images of the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, hang throughout Yazidi villages.
Over in a shaded valley deep in the mountains, Dilser pulls his “keffie” over his head. The aged PKK guerrilla is sweltering in the sun, but the garb seems to be more of a media screen as journalists face scrutiny by the militia’s leadership.
“When ISIS arrived there were only 12 of us living in the mountain. We had no weapons and had split into pairs. We spread ourselves all over the mountain,” Dilser says.
“When Mosul fell on Aug. 10 , we went to the Ministry of the Peshmerga and said they needed to send people to Sinjar. We asked if PKK could come and they said no. The 12 of us went back to the mountains and hid there. When ISIS attacked we managed to block them by closing the northern route to Sinjar with help from the locals. At that stage the Peshmerga had left.”
Memories of the Peshmerga leaving Sinjar have roused those affected by the recent clash between the PKK and the Peshmerga. Recent videos of Yazidis filling up trenches — dug by the Peshmerga — with their bare hands have circulated on social media.
The dispute recalls earlier clashes between Yazidis and the Peshmerga. At one checkpoint near Zovava, Yazidis claimed that as the Peshmerga fled in 2014, fighting erupted after Yazidis demanded the Peshmerga leave their weapons behind. The fighting led to deaths on both sides.
Whether Dilser and the 12 PKK led the original resistance to the Islamic State is debatable, but it’s indisputable that without the PKK — a listed terrorist organization in the European Union, Turkey and the United States — thousands of Yazidis would have starved to death on Sinjar mountain.
Accounts vary in detail, but hundreds of Yazidis scattered across the KRG concur that the U.S.-backed Peshmerga ran and took their weapons with them. This is why the recent arrival of the KRG-backed Peshmerga has been met by an enraged Yazidi population.
For Yazidis still living in Sinjar, governance by the current Barzani-led KRG will surely exacerbate their already vulnerable situation. And, as KRG monuments appear throughout Sinjar, so too does local condemnation.
A DShK machine gun taken by the PKK and used to defend the road from the Islamic State now holds pride of place in Sinjar, but is now draped in the flag of the KRG — something Dilser now jokes about.
“We asked the locals to help us build soil and rock barricades to block the road, and Yazidis who had fought in the Iraqi army and had weapons were asked to go to the mountains and shoot ISIS as they arrived.”
“After that ISIS tried to attack from the south, when the Peshmerga left, we took a DShK from them. That helped us a little, but it didn’t save the Yazidis. Turns out now the Peshmerga did,” he says dryly.
For the Yazidis who left, any hope of returning to Sinjar is rapidly fading as international agencies look the other way. Ibrahim’s refusal to swear loyalty to the PKK or the Peshmerga has also cost him dearly, and he travels amid the rival Kurdish groups without protection.
“Who can we trust? We wanted international forces to come and protection but they let us die on the mountain and the Kurds will use us for themselves,” he said.
“Still, I don’t want to go. Sinjar belongs to the Yazidis.”