By Amy L. Beam:
CONUNDRUM: a dilemma without a solution. Since the genocidal attack by Daesh (Islamic State) upon Yezidis in August 2014, I have asked every Yezidi whom I meet what he or she thinks is the solution for their future in Shengal.
Their demoralized answer is unanimous: “There is no solution. Shengal can’t be fixed.”
The central question is whether Arabs and Yezidis can once again live together in Shengal. Should Shengal embrace western ideals of equality and secularism or enforce sectarian separation along tribal divisions?
Shengal: Disputed Territory
Iraq is populated by a predominance of Shia Arabs in the south (Baghdad), Sunni Arabs in the center (Mosul), and Kurds in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in the north. The disputed territory of Shengal, homeland of the Yezidis, was under the governance of Mosul until Daesh seized control of Mosul. It is the fault line between Kurds in the north and Arabs in the south.
If a referendum is held, as promised, Yezidis are divided on the question of whether their disputed territory should become part of Kurdistan or part of Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has already dug trenches around Shengal establishing its borders inside Kurdistan.
Since Daesh attacked Shengal, the Iraqi Army is gone. Shengal is under the control of Kurdistan Peshmerga and Iraqi police.
Most Yezidis want an autonomous Shengal region with international protection, but neither Baghdad nor Erbil discuss this as an option; so Yezidis have been petitioning foreign governments for protection or immigration .
A majority of the residents of Sinjar city (Arabic name for Shengal) were Sunni Arab muslims. They fled from Saddam Hussein to the safety of Sinjar where Yezidis protected them. They built expensive homes which now stand empty, looted, and burned out.
There are also dozens of empty Arab villages from Rabbia on the north side of the mountain to more than a dozen villages surrounding Kocho on the south side. On August 15, 2014, Kocho was attacked by their neighboring villages. All the women and children were kidnapped and the men killed.
When Daesh took control of Mosul, June 9, 2014, without resistance, half-a-million Sunni Arabs and minorities fled to Kurdistan. When doctors and nurses trapped in Mosul failed to show up at work in the hospitals, Daesh went to their homes and killed them. Displaced Sunnis from Mosul remind the world, “Don’t forget us. We lost everything, too.”
Many of those Sunni Arabs trapped inside Mosul were forcibly conscripted into Daesh. When Daesh is defeated, it will be unclear how to identify the Sunni victims from those who were Daesh collaborators. Twenty years of ICC tribunals will not resolve this problem.
The Peshmerga Retreat
The entire Shengal Yezidi population of approximately 400,000 people fled to safety in Kurdistan when Daesh attacked. The Kurdish citizens and the Kurdistan Regional Government continue to provide them with food and shelter in camps near Duhok and Zakho. Although the Yezidis are grateful to the Kurds for saving them, they refuse to trust their security to the Peshmerga after Daesh is defeated.
It was the Kurdish Peshmerga, the official military protecting Kurdistan, who abandoned the villages and cities of Shengal between 4 AM and 7:30 AM on August 3, 2014, leaving the Yezidis to suffer a genocide. Yezidis woke up to discover they were defenseless. The unanswered question that few dare to ask publicly is, “Who ordered the Peshmerga to leave?”
Whether or not by explicit order, when Peshmerga commander Serbast Bapiri and other commanders left Shengal at night, only hours before the attack, their soldiers left, too. By 9:30 AM all the Peshmerga were on their way to Kurdistan with their guns and doshkas. Following this retreat, over 9,000 Yezidis were killed or kidnapped by Daesh. Yezidis do not forgive this betrayal.
President Masoud Barzani promised an investigation. After interviews with 200 commanders, no Peshmerga commanders were held accountable. They claimed they did not have the military strength to have defended Shengal from Daesh with 11,000 Peshmerga forces.
Our Arab Neighbors Joined Daesh
Gerzerik was attacked at 2:15 AM on August 3, 2014, by Arabs living only 10 miles to the south in the city of Baaj. After a fierce five-hour battle to defend Gezerik, the Yezidis fled to Shengal Mountain when their ammunition ran out. Only the elderly Yezidi men stayed behind along with the Arab residents who collaborated with Daesh.
A Yezidi who escaped to the mountain called his trusted Arab friend to go to his house and check on his father and uncles. The Arab answered, “The old men are dead.” Before the uncle was killed inside his house, he reported the names of two Arabs living inside Gerzerik who were leading Daesh house to house to kill the old men. The Arab helping Daesh was their own trusted friend. These Arab residents of Gezerik are now living in Duhok.
Sunni Arabs living inside Sinjar raised the black flag of Daesh in the early hours of August 3 even before Daesh arrived in their four-wheel drives from Baaj, Tal Afar, and Mosul. The Arab Daesh imam of Sinjar had lived there since 2007. He killed the elderly father of his Yezidi neighbor by driving over his body as a lesson to any other captives who tried to escape.
The Sunni Arab leaders of the dozen Arab villages surrounding Kocho were honored luncheon guests on August 2, 2014, of Ahmed Al Jaso, the Al Mandkany clan leader of five Yezidi villages. After eating at his table, these same Arab leaders joined in the barbaric attack of Shengal the following morning. Nayef Al Jaso, the manager of Kocho who was in Istanbul on the day of the attack, explained, “We were friends for generations. Our grandfathers were friends. We danced at one another’s weddings. We shared meals together. We worked together. We never had problems between Arabs and Yezidis before Shengal was attacked.”
Saeed Murad Pisee, who survived six bullet wounds in an execution line in Kocho, looked up to see the face of the man who shot him. They had once worked together.
Three families from Gohbal village, comprising about 50 Yezidis, took refuge with Arab neighbors who called Daesh to come and get them.
Saloa Khalef Rasho, a Yezidi girl who was kidnapped for eight months before escaping, was taken as a slave of an Arab man whose wife was the daughter of Saloa’s father’s friend.
Saloa explained, “I grew up under the principal of co-existence with all societies within the community, regardless of one’s religion or sect, because the values of my religion do not allow to hate others and discriminate against them. Therefore, Sinjar was well known as the city of tolerance and ethnic diversity. What happened was shocking and unexpected, because we saw Daesh as our brothers. With this, I mean the Arab clans of the villages that belong to Shengal. Suddenly, they became monsters and wolves. They collaborated with Daesh when Yezidi women and children were enslaved and men were killed. ”
As Daesh grew in power and took control of a large region of Iraq and Syria, their leaders recruited foreigners from every corner of the world with the enticement of money, drugs, and sex slaves. Many recruits moved to Iraq and Syria with their family. Daesh gave them nice houses that once had belonged to Shia Arabs.
The majority of Daesh, however, were home-grown terrorists. They were the Arabs who lived in the house on the next block or one mile away in the Arab village. Now many of them have shaved their beards, grown a mustache, and are living freely in Kurdistan.
Because it is impossible to differentiate between the innocent Arabs and the Daesh collaborators, the only way that Yezidis say they can feel safe in Shengal is for all Arabs to be excluded. Excluding Arabs is not enough to ensure there will not be another genocide. Yezidis ask for international protection, but pleas fall on deaf ears.
The Yezidi Peshmerga
In the weeks that followed the attack, thousands of Yezidi men got their families to the safety of Kurdistan or Turkey, and then returned to Shengal to fight Daesh. Eventually, their independent militias officially became Peshmerga. By 2016, there were 8,000 Yezidi Peshmerga and only 200 Kurdish Peshmerga defending Shengal under command of Qassim Shesho. His nephew, Haider Shesho commanded another 3,000 in an independent militia.
What To Do about the Kurdish Militias?
The KRG, under President Masoud Barzani, wants the PKK and YPG/YPJ to leave Shengal, but no Yezidi civilian or Yezidi Peshmerga commander will force them to leave. To do so would be unthinkable ingratitude toward their rescuers. It was the PKK and YPG that opened the corridor off of Mount Shengal, August 12, 2014, when 50,000 Yezidis were trapped there. Then they transported the Yezidis to Kurdistan and Turkey. They continue to rescue Yezidis being held captive by Daesh.
President Barzani declared that only the Kurdistan flag will fly in Shengal. A year after Sinjar was retaken from Daesh, the Yezidi flag as well as the YPG flag were still waving from the street lamps.
Both Turkey and the United States list the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from Turkey as a terrorist group in spite of wide Kurdish support.
The YPG/YPJ is fighting Daesh in Rojava (Syria) and Shengal. The United States is arming the YPG at the same time that Turkey has declared them terrorists and is bombing them.
Yazidis Are Not Kurds
At least 80% of Yezidis refuse to identify their ethnicity as Kurdish after having been abandoned by the Kurdish Peshmerga. They want to be recognized as a distinct ethno-religious group. Yezidis are not muslims, do not read the Quran, and do not share muslim religious practices.
Kurds, on the other hand, insist the Yezidis’ ethnicity is Kurdish and their religion is Yezidi. Kurds will not stop infuriating Yezidis with the label of “Kurdish Yezidis”. There is no more divisive issue than this. If Kurds would just refer to Yezidis as Yezidi instead of Kurdish, this problem would go away.
The Kurdification of the Yezidis and denial of the Yezidi ethnic identity is why the Yezidi genocide is considered “on-going.” Historically, Islamic conquests forced the Yezidis to flee or choose between conversion to Islam or being killed. From tens of millions of Yezidis, their population is now below one million after 74 recorded genocides.
Sunni versus Shia Arabs
The Arabs in Iraq are divided between two main sects: the Sunni and the Shia. The Sunnis supported Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party. They killed 182,000 Kurds in 1988. Chemical Ali, Saddam’s cousin, gassed 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in one day.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam, the Kurds gave their unswerving loyalty to America. Paul Bremmer, the American commander, disbanded the Iraqi military and fired every mid-level and above government manager. Overnight the Sunnis were out and the Shia were in, creating lasting resentment. This resentment fueled the growth of Daesh to take back control from the Shias and establish their Islamic caliphate.
Sharia Law in the Constitution
Both the Iraqi constitution (Article 2a) and the Kurdistan constitution (Article 6), make Shariah law the official law. Both constitutions, also, establish equality before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status.
Shariah law has serious contradictions to protecting equal rights, especially women’s rights and those of non-muslims. Iraq and Kurdistan are not secular countries. Their official religion is Islam. Where does this leave minorities such as the Yezidis who are not Muslims? Extremely vulnerable.
In 2016 the Iraqi parliament outlawed the importation and sale of alcoholic beverages which are banned by shariah law, moving Iraq more toward Iranian-style suppression of human rights. The Minister of Higher Education issued a dress code for university students corresponding to modest Islamic dress with a head scarf. No more blue jeans, especially not on co-eds.
The handwriting is on the wall. The American policy to establish secular democracy in Iraq has failed.
Is Daesh Islam?
Yezidis insist that Daesh is Islam. Daesh ideology is rooted in extremist fundamentalist Sunni Islamic teachings which condone marriage to girls, the subjugation of women, and stoning to death of women for sex outside of marriage. In order to defeat Daesh terrorism, Yezidis argue that this extremist Islam ideology itself must be defeated. Human rights, religious freedom, and equality for all must be written into a secular constitution.
A Yezidi elder with a long pointed white beard and red checkered turban asked me, “Please explain to me why the Americans are letting muslims build mosques in America.”
“I can explain,” I answered. “The very essence of what it means to be American is the cherished values of religious freedom and equal opportunity for all people regardless of race, sex, age, religion, or sexual orientation. I spent my whole life fighting for these rights. It is why so many people want to go live in America where every individual has the right to be who he or she chooses to be.”
He shook his head in astonishment at my naiveté, and then proclaimed, “That stuff about religious freedom is the stupidest thing I ever heard. If you let Islam build mosques in America, your enemy will destroy you using your own laws. Then they will replace them with Sharia laws. Stop Islam before it is too late.”
Perhaps in the debate about Islam, we are framing the question wrong. What if the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi party had been registered as a religion? Would we have tolerated their ideology of racism and genocide? When ideology that violates human rights hides behind religious freedom, then society must condemn it without fear of being accused of religious intolerance.
Daesh ideology is the embodiment of extremist Islamic teachings which calls for jihad against “kafirs” (non-muslims), rape as a weapon of war, covering of women head to toe, banning of alcohol, denial of human rights of women and girls, and execution of gays.
Even if Daesh is defeated, its ideology will return under a different name. In order to defeat Daesh terrorism, one must defeat this extremist ideology of Islam. If muslims wish to defeat Daesh and have their religion respected by non-muslims, then they themselves must renounce this ideology.
Both Kurdistan and Iraq have sharia law as the basis of their constitutions. Regardless of the double-speak in their constitutional debates, sharia law cannot be reconciled with democratic principles of human rights, religious freedom, and equality for women.
Yezidis Want To Stay but Have To Leave
I have spent two years living with, listening to, and debating with Yezidis who were displaced. I would like to see identification of religion and ethnicity removed from all legal documents and IDs in Kurdistan and Iraq, as was done in Rwanda in 1994 after the Tutsi genocide, but sadly, I confess, the Yezidis have convinced me.
Yezidis cannot live with Arabs. For me to express this goes against everything I have fought and believed in for five decades.
I have to side with sectarianism, i.e., ethnic and religious separation rather than secularism or inclusion. It grieves my heart to face this reality. I cannot give up my belief that we must all learn to live together, without ethnic divisions. Ethnic divisions nurture hostilities, not healing.
But how can I expect a Yezidi man whose mother was killed by Daesh and whose wife was kidnapped and raped to ever live next to the Arabs who destroyed his family? What would you expect such a man would do?
If Yezidis are not given international protection and self-governance in Shengal, tragically, they will continue to smuggle themselves and immigrate to safe, secular countries. If they leave Iraq, what will happen to Yezidis? In two generations, Yezidis may vanish like the Urartians.
So all their choices are no good . . . a conundrum.
Dr. Amy L. Beam is Executive Director of “Amy, Azadi and Jiyan” (AAJ) humanitarian organization registered in Kurdistan. She is a researcher, writer, and human rights activist for Yazidis and Kurds in the Middle East. Since ISIS attacked Shingal in August 2014, Beam has assisted the displaced Yazidis, especially the women, girls, and children who have been rescued from ISIS captivity. She is currently writing a book on the Yazidi genocide and continuing to collect eye witness testimonies. Follow her on her public Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AmyLBeam . Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org