Teenage Gunfight With ISIS

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This blog was written by Brian Germain and previously appeared on the author's blog.

Basil is your normal, everyday 16-year-old boy. He likes to scroll through his Facebook newsfeed, hang out and laugh with friends, and kick around the soccer ball. His raging hormones manifest themselves in crude hand gestures and he often requires a little extra encouragement to do certain chores around the camp--like washing a pot--as he is visibly distracted by all the action around him. He is respectful, honest and the type of motivated, hardworking kid I would want to have in my classroom or in my own circle of friends.

This typical teenager is from the village of Shingal, one of several Yazidi settlements in the desert climate of Sinjar District surrounding a mountainous landscape in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. In the unfortunate draw of the geo-political lottery, that happens to be smack dab in the middle of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria--the established capitals of ISIS in each respective country. For ISIS to establish a seamless supply line would require the control of Sinjar. Everyone in Sinjar knew this, and everyone knew ISIS would eventually come. Luckily, the people had their own protective force, called the Peshmerga who, with basic military supplies, uniforms, weapons, and soldiers, were tasked with the protection of the at-risk region.

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as it has become widely known, actually prefers to go by its official name: the Islamic State. In 2014, it declared a caliphate (a political-religious region run by a Muslim leader and successor of Muhammad). Essentially, it established control of a real physical area on a map. Signaling that it would be violently expanding its power and perverse views of a peaceful religion, it dropped the geographically specific part of its acronym. However, monsters shouldn't be empowered by being addressed as requested. Most people around the world afflicted by its reign of terror refer to them simply Daash, which is a derogatory term sounding similar to its name in Arabic.

In true keeping with its unconscionably horrific vision, Daash has been marching forward with a genocidal effort, specifically targeting Yazidi people whom it believes to be devil worshippers. Yazidis are not Muslim and practice some customs, including pagan ones that are misunderstood and leveraged as hate by Daash. These practices basically equate to a Christian displaying a Christmas tree. Daash made no attempt to hide that it was coming to Sinjar to destroy the Yazidis, of which, different reports estimate around one million are a part of this ethnic and religious minority group.

Basil didn't give too much thought to this as a then 14-year-old boy. A low, substandard wall of protection had been built and Shingal was halfway up a mountain. Additionally, the Peshmerga were there to protect them. They had fortification, elevation, and soldiers on their side.

On August 3, 2014, everyone was just about falling asleep on their rooftops, a common practice in an area with extreme heat and no electricity. From this vantage point, just around 1:00 a.m., people from Shingal could see lights moving in the distance, a clear indication that something was going to happen that night. As residents watched on, within a half hour, they could see the lights split into three distinct groups and slowly start coming toward the village at different angles of approach. Just around 2:00 a.m., the first shots rang out, mixed with a slew of incomprehensible shouting. The neighbors were yelling, but only the sounds of confusion and fear were audible. Before Basil could stand up an explosion, likely from mortar fire, turned the top part of his neighbor's home into rubble. His female neighbor was killed instantly, and her husband badly injured.

Basil climbed down off the roof and ran into his home, where his four brothers, three sisters, and mother already were, for safety. Bullets flew in the village in a one-way assault. According to Basil, and echoed by another Yazidi man from two villages south of Shingal, no Peshmerga shots were fired. In fact, the military force the villagers were relying on was nowhere to be seen that night. The villagers thought they were doomed; they had all heard about the brutal strength of Daash and knew that it had the support from the surrounding Arab region.

Basil's father ran to fetch the injured neighbor's Kalashnikov and, with gun in hand, hurried down the mountain with other villagers in a heroic sprint to meet the enemy. As volleys of bullets were exchanged, the children looked on through the darkness to see the hot metal streaking through the sky.

Between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., silence fell over the village. Unsure if any fighters were still outside and convinced their father had been killed, the family moved out to the car they were lucky enough to own. Basil's mother told his older brother their only hope was to take the one road out of the village and go up the mountain. Into this small vehicle they squeezed three families--a total of 17 people. They followed the road to link with the up-mountain pass.

As they puttered on in their overloaded automobile, a cell phone rang. It was their father, who was clearly shaken, but alive. He asked the car to turn around to come get him. For a moment, when they pulled up to him, they weren't sure who they were looking at. In the desert, Basil said, it's impossible to tell who you're fighting because everyone's faces get so dirty. Basil's father was thrown through the air by an RPG that landed right next to him. Just like you see in the movies, Basil explained, trying to put the horror in a context I could understand. They gave dad water and loaded him into the packed car next to a cousin's wife who had been shot in the arm and was in deteriorating condition.

They headed over the mountain pass towards Kurdistan, which was still a three-hour drive on the other side. Headlights that had been following close behind them pulled up at the first allowable spot and shared news that the Peshmerga were not at their posts securing the road and it had been taken over by Daash. At this point, everyone was convinced that the Peshmerga were paid to simply not show up to their posts that night. Basil, his family, and several villagers were completely surrounded. Without hope or an actual plan, they drove back to his village of Shingal as Daash forces continued up the mountain to make contact again.

The family stowed their car in a safe place. They gathered food and water and started up the mountain, on foot, toward a point of safety; all the while, the sun was rising and the temperature was growing unbearable for physical activity. Eventually, shouts from Daash hit them. They had reached another group of militants who set up a line to stop people from escaping.

Finding an alternate way to avoid the blockade of bullets, Basil--who was carrying his sister on his shoulders--and his companions reached the top of the mountain around 8:00 a.m. He had no water because the small amount they were able to bring was being saved for the youngest children. When they summited, his dad nearly collapsed. Basil told him to stay put, and the 14-year-old ran back down the mountain with a group of friends, not knowing what they would encounter.

He didn't have a weapon, but Basil recovered a Kalashnikov on top of a Peshmerga uniform at an unmanned post on the way down. With three clips of ammunition and an estimated 10,000 people now fighting, Basil and a friend took their position across from a blockade of cars. Daash militants stood on top of vehicles, firing at them while other fighters fired from a shielded position behind them.

Daash was clearly outnumbered, but they had fire superiority. The Yazidi force that had gathered to repel the invasion contended with numerous high-powered assault rifles with seemingly un-ending ammunition, as well as RPGs and various other heavy artillery.

Basil described the scene as being like a dream, an event for which he wasn't actually there. When he squeezed off the last bullet from his third and final clip, he ran back up the mountain to where his family was. On the way up, throat closing from thirst, he said he wished he was dead so he didn't have to see what he had. People on both sides of him were killed. Hurrying upwards as lines fell back, many people were too exhausted and had to stop for a rest. They too would be killed shortly.

Peshmerga forces began showing up in the morning wearing plain clothes, allegedly so Daash wouldn't kill them. They were targeted anyway by RPGs. After making significant progress up the mountain by around 9:30 a.m., Daash fell back to the line of the villages and raided them, taking animals, money, gold, and valuables. It had secured control of the road leading to another village and forces moved for it at that time.

Basil and his family returned home to shower and change, and then immediately left for Turkey. They started walking to Kurdistan from Sinjar with no food. The three-hour car ride they were originally trying to make seemed like a lifetime ago. While Basil's English was not great, and my Arabic was too poor to get a direct quote, one thing he said very clearly without the translator: "In the mountain, there is nothing."

They reached their destination of Turkey the next afternoon as many people, including countless young children dropped to the ground and literally died of thirst all around them. As news of the attacks spread, roads clogged with traffic by people fleeing for safety. Basil's family then spent almost two years in a refugee camp before coming to Kara Tepe a transit camp for refugees in Lesvos, Greece, where they currently reside, one step closer to their goal of settling in Europe.

Basil's older brother was quick to make it into Germany before Europe closed its borders. While the rest of the family waits, a state of being all too familiar to refugees, they try to keep their hope up. Today, they heard through that UNHCR told another Iraqi about an EU deal just passed. The agreement says that anyone from Iraq who is in Greece and seeking asylum in Europe must either shelter in Greece for 5 years before they can apply or return to Turkey.

Official announcements of this policy could not be verified so, even though I don't think it's legitimate, Basil's reacted to hearing such hope-crushing news was very real. After escaping from a place where he was targeted for the belief system of his people, he just wants to get back to the life of a regular teenage boy. Still, his fate is better than the Yazidis who have not made it out of Iraq.

Following the road from Shingal, Daash did what it has done to all Yazidis they seek to destroy. In a course of actions the UN has labeled a genocide, a label not used lightly, Daash brutally and immediately slaughtered all of the men and babies. Sometimes, if Yazidi men agree to convert to Islam, they are spared. Often, they can pledge their allegiance and are still murdered anyway.

All of the women were abducted and forced into a number of channels, all of which are beyond unbearable. Sex slavery is the most probable fate Yazidi women face. Daash has set up online slave auctions as well as slave farms where women are bought like sheep, an analogy one purchaser used to abuse and degrade a rare escapee after he had purchased her. Other women are given as sexual gifts to fighters, or traded and sold off to different militants repeatedly. Almost all are raped repeatedly, even at the age of nine. Many have killed themselves to escape the suffering.

This pattern of activity Daash clearly celebrates is what compels mere children to sacrifice their innocence to fight, so that they may keep their lives in exchange. The unimaginable plan to wipe an entire people from the planet is what has Basil and his family slowly moving through red tape to find safety on the other side of the world.

America has taken a hardline stance refusing to put boots on the ground for this conflict. It has also scaled back drone activity even after Obama's promise to "degrade and destroy ISIL." However, the push into Sinjar starting on August 3, 2014 was enough to warrant a U.S. response in the form of an airstrike. An international coalition airdropped food, water, and medical supplies to the cut-off region and, through the use of force, established evacuation routes for some of the trapped people. Shingal has since been taken back from Daash control and now has a robust Peshmerga presence protecting it.

For now, Basil does what many refugees have confronted as the long enduring reality of their situation: He waits.