Hope and dis­may as Kur­dish Ezidis mark their New Year

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE -

Ezidis throng the nar­row road lead­ing to the tem­ple here, the holi­est site of the an­cient re­li­gious com­mu­nity. Around the tem­ple, the crowd thick­ens, and then streams through the gate of the old stony struc­ture.

From a leafy court­yard, peo­ple push into the cav­ernous in­side, a se­ries of dimly lit, damp rooms, where they kiss brightly coloured cloth draped around tombs of de­parted spir­i­tual lead­ers.

The men, women and chil­dren have come to cel­e­brate 'Red Wed­nes­day', the day that marks the be­gin­ning of the new year in the Yazidi cal­en­dar. Piled into minibuses, packed into the back of pickup trucks or cramped into an­cient Opel Sedans, thou­sands of Ezidis from all over the Kur­dish re­gion have poured into Lal­ish for the oc­ca­sion.

New Years is a rare op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate for the em­bat­tled and trau­ma­tised com­mu­nity.

The bat­tered old Opels are the same make that can still be seen dis­carded by the side on the wind­ing road de­scend­ing into the town of Sin­jar, aban­doned by Ezidis des­per­ate to es­cape when the Is­lamic State (IS) group stormed into their heart­land in north­ern Iraq in Au­gust 2014. The mil­i­tants in­tended to erad­i­cate the Ezidis in Iraq, whom they con­sider devil wor­ship­pers.

IS fight­ers killed an es­ti­mated 1,300 men and old women that could not es­cape its rapid ad­vance, and ab­ducted more than 5,000 women and chil­dren. Of those, around 3,500 still re­main in cap­tiv­ity, the women abused as sex slaves and the chil­dren in­doc­tri­nated in the group’s schools.

IS has been pushed back by Kur­dish forces, but the mil­i­tants still oc­cupy many Yazidi vil­lages on the Nin­eveh plains, and are still close enough to Sin­jar to fire rock­ets filled with poi­son gas into the ru­ined town. Most Ezidis con­tinue to live in refugee camps around the nearby city of Do­huk in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan.

As the Ezidis gather at Lal­ish two years later, the roar of cir­cling coali­tion war­planes can be heard, a re­minder that IS still men­aces nearby. The trauma of their loss re­mains per­va­sive even dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tions.

"The sor­row is in the heart of ev­ery­one here," said Qasim Rasho, a with­ered 79-year-old wear­ing a white kan­dura and a che­quered head­scarf, who sits on the grass next to the road lead­ing to the tem­ple. Like most peo­ple here, he has lost fam­ily mem­bers to the IS on­slaught.

"I am sad even to­day. Many of our women and girls are still with Daesh. We won't be happy un­til all of them re­turn," agrees 44-year-old Badal Hamo Ase from the vil­lage of Khana­soor near Sin­jar, which con­tin­ues to lie empty af­ter be­ing lib­er­ated from IS in late 2014.

An iden­tity reaf­firmed

IS’s mur­der­ous at­tack on the se­cluded com­mu­nity has height­ened its sense of a com­mon iden­tity, says Mirza Diyanni, a Yazidi from Ger­many who works for the Kur­dish Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG), and who is in­volved in the ef­forts to free the cap­tive women and chil­dren. Lal­ish, a small ham­let nes­tled be­tween to hill­sides, has be­come an important fo­cal point of this re­vival, and Ezidis flock to the holy site through­out the year.

"The peo­ple that have been res­cued from Daesh come to Lal­ish im­me­di­ately," says Diyanni, stand­ing in the tem­ple court­yard. "Even for the young gen­er­a­tion, which isn't that in­formed about the re­li­gion, the re­li­gious fes­tiv­i­ties and hol­i­days are very important. The Yezidi iden­tity is be­com­ing more pro­nounced, not in a re­li­gious sense, but as a so­cial iden­tity.

Red Wed­nes­day now draws more vis­i­tors to Lal­ish than be­fore the IS at­tack, which was de­clared a geno­cide by the US gov­ern­ment last month.

"Last year, there were fewer peo­ple here, it was the first New Years af­ter Daesh came. But to­day, there are more vis­i­tors than ever be­fore," says Hus­sein Has­san, a 54-year-old, who lost 50 mem­bers of his ex­tended fam­ily.

Most of the vis­i­tors are young, and men and women with trendy hair­cuts and fash­ion­able clothes are busy snap­ping self­ies on their smart phones.

"Re­li­gion is more important to us now, as life has be­come more dif­fi­cult," says Ghaleb Dard­wesh, 19, who has come to Lal­ish with a group of friends.

There are no cer­e­monies to mark the Yazidi New Year, and the crowd that jammed the road through Lal­ish and pushed into the tem­ple could have passed as rev­ellers at an amuse­ment park. Only oc­ca­sion­ally the cus­to­di­ans of the tem­ple could be seen in white tur­bans and robes, mov­ing amongst the crowd or slouched against the walls, with older Ezidis lin­ing up to pay their re­spects.

The young were busy turn­ing re­li­gious rit­u­als into games. In a room deep in­side the tem­ple, a group of youth are clus­tered around a simple stone al­tar, nois­ily queue­ing for their turn to toss a piece of cloth onto the al­tar's ledge.

In Yazidi cus­tom, a suc­cess­ful throw will bring seven years of good fortune, but to the par­tic­i­pants that be­lief seemed to hold lit­tle more value than the prizes won at a fair­ground shoot­ing gallery.

In the ad­ja­cent room, vis­i­tors can throw peb­bles at two holes in the ground. Hit­ting the right one guar­an­tees you a place in heaven, the tra­di­tion goes, hit­ting the other lands you in hell. Few take this game of high stakes se­ri­ously.

Re­minders ev­ery­where

Within the car­ni­val at­mos­phere, the re­minders of re­cent hor­rors are not dif­fi­cult to find.

With KRG back­ing, a small group of Yazidi ac­tivists have been smug­gling Yazidi women out of IS cap­tiv­ity within months of the Sin­jar at­tack. One of the key play­ers in this deadly game of cat and mouse stands next to Diyanni in the tem­ple court­yard. Known to the Ezidis as Abu Shi­jaa, the be­spec­ta­cled, mid­dle-aged man with an avun­cu­lar de­meanour com­mands huge re­spect in the com­mu­nity.

A con­stant flow of men come to shake his hand and have their pic­tures taken with him, some kiss him on the cheek in grat­i­tude. Abu Shi­jaa and his part­ners have man­aged to free hun­dreds of women and chil­dren from ISIS strongholds of Raqqa, Deir Ez­zor and Mo­sul, but their work has be­come more dif­fi­cult of late.

"It’s harder to res­cue Ezidis now. Daesh is us­ing the his­bah to keep the women un­der ob­ser­va­tion," says Abu Shi­jaa, re­fer­ring to the fe­male mem­bers of IS’s re­li­gious po­lice. Yazidi boys that are kept apart from their moth­ers in IS schools are al­most im­pos­si­ble to smug­gle out, and some of the smug­glers who have tried have been cap­tured and killed, he says.

IS is only the lat­est in a se­ries of at­tacks on the Ezidis, who are con­sid­ered devil wor­ship­pers by hard­line Mus­lims. In 2007, a co­or­di­nated se­ries of bomb blasts in Yazidi towns near Mo­sul killed 500 peo­ple, the sec­ond big­gest ter­ror at­tack af­ter 9/11. Many Ezidis are con­vinced that Iraq of­fers them no fu­ture, and are de­ter­mined to make the per­ilous jour­ney to Europe.

If they have their way, the huge crowds ush­er­ing in New Years at Lal­ish could soon be a thing of the past. But com­mu­nity that has been per­se­cuted might not be so easy to dis­place from its an­ces­tral lands.

"There have been seventy-two pogroms against us, we will sur­vive this too," Abu Shi­jaa says de­fi­antly.

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