The Yazidis and their future at home
The Yazidis are the one of the oldest minority groups in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. They do not just have their own ethnic classification but their own religion as well, which dates back before Islam and Christianity. Although they are monotheists, the differences between their religion and Islam has been a cause of tension between them and their Muslim neighbors for centuries. Numbering approximately 700,000 people, throughout their history the Yazidis have been centralized in Northern Iraq and more specifically, in and around the Sinjar region.
Traditionally, minority groups have had a history of ambiguity in terms of security throughout the Middle East. For the past two years, due to the rise of Islamic State (ISIS), the Yazidis are facing potential annihilation or expulsion of their entire community. The possible decimation of the Yazidis has been termed a genocide by the United Nations because it is not just a matter of numbers of those who have been murdered; the entire community might be destroyed as well. ISIS’s territory consists of Syria and Iraq. Ninety percent of the historic Yazidi territory is based in the Mosul province, while the city of Mosul has been one of the most significant ISIS strongholds. Parts of the Sinjar region for example have only recently been recovered by the Peshmerga forces (Iraqi Kurdistan’s military forces) after being conquered by ISIS in August of 2014. With such ongoing contested land-grabbing, one of the few Yazidi sites which was never under ISIS is the city of Lalesh, perhaps their most sacred holy site.
Despite such victories, 25% of the Sinjar region is still under ISIS control. For the areas which have been liberated, much of it has been deemed a military zone. Also, much of the infrastructure of these historic Yazidi villages has been destroyed by fighting. To make the logistics of returning even more complicated, when the ISIS fighters fled, many left behind shrewdly-made mines hidden throughout the villages. Now, in addition to rebuilding, the Peshmerga have to demine the villages as well. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has declared rebuilding the Yazidi community a priority, particularly its holy places. Unfortunately for the Yazidis however, the KRG is currently struggling to produce the funding needed and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad has refused to assist, on top of continuing to withhold the 17% of the constitutional budget the KRG is entitled to.
In addition to the obstacles that comes with regaining Yazidi territory as mentioned above, the community faces another predicament. The community at large is fearful of such a threat returning. Many from the community sought refuge elsewhere, such as Europe, Canada and the United States. A reported 75,000 people have already fled abroad since ISIS’s establishment. According to KRG member Khari Bozani, the Yazidi community associates its neighbors, predominantly Sunni Arabs, with religious fundamentalism.
In places such as Lalesh however, the Yazidis have found both spiritual solace and security during times of persecution. The focal point of Lalesh is the sanctuary and the shrine-tomb of the great Yazidi reformer Sheikh Adi. Lalesh also has the tombs dedicated to six of the Great Angels who took incarnation with Sheikh Adi.
Every year, there is a pilgrimage in Lalesh for the Yazidi New Year, which takes place in spring. It is called “Charshama Sur” which means “Red Wednesday.” The holiday is a joyous event. Along the way, entire families gather along the road setting up picnics and smoking shisha (hookah). In the heart of the city itself, which is only about 200 meters in diameter, people are jammed together, rubbing shoulder to shoulder. There is no main activity; no one dancing or singing. People just hang out and enjoy each other’s company.
What was significant about this year however, despite the community’s dispersion in the past two years, was that Lalesh had a record-breaking turnout. KRG member Bowzani’s rationale for the high attendance was the accumulation of a few factors. The first being that since ISIS, many of the Yazidis who did not flee abroad were forced to move into displacement camps located near Duhok, which is conveniently near Lalesh. In the beginning, most of the camps were poorly organized and lacked basic services such as access to electricity and water. The camps were also unclean and plagued with incessant dust and garbage. Most importantly, the camps lacked basic health services which resulted in complications such rampant skin disease.
The second reason for the high turnout during Charshama Sur is the remaining community’s dedication to revival. Making the annual pilgrimage to Lalesh has become a symbol of resilience which many feel is part of their national identity. Yazidi leaders are trying to do several things simultaneously, and particularly to reunite the community and prepare against future threats. “Not the first time... not the last” is common phrase used among the community with regards to their persecution. The number 74 is another symbol of significance in the community, representing the approximately 74 times they have had to flee and then return. For such reasons, 7,500 Yazidis have joined the Peshmerga. These measures to take control of their future are small in comparison to the challenges they face. When asked if the Yazidis could ever feel safe in their homeland, KRG member Bowzani answered, “In the near future, no.”
The author is a writer and teacher working in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. He has a bachelors in psychology and a masters in conflict resolution and mediation from Tel Aviv University.
WHERE WILL she return to? Yazidi female fighter Asema Dahir, 21, poses with a teddy bear in a bedroom at a site near the frontline of the fight against Islamic State militants in Nawaran near Mosul, Iraq, in April.