Despite Kurdish forces retaking Sinjar and its neighboring towns in northern Iraq last November, few of the region’s historic residents are returning. Most fear a looming reprisal by the ISIS militants that captured the city two years ago.
SINJAR, IRAQ – A dust storm lashed the mostly uninhabited city just south of the eponymous mountains that has been in existence as a settlement since at least the 4th century.
But since the so-called Islamic State took over Sinjar, located in northwestern Iraq, on August 3, 2014, it has been cleansed of a majority of its civilians, most of whom belong to the ancient Yazidi religious minority group that has called these mountains home for over eight centuries.
‘‘We can’t go to the front right now, and it’s best not to go out at all,’’ a member of the Asayish, the security forces and primary intelligence agency for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told Refugees Deeply.
“They shoot at us whenever they think coalition aircraft will have a harder time targeting them, due to weather conditions. I’ve received information they will be attacking soon,” the officer added.
Deeming Yazidis “non-believers,” ISIS imprisoned civilians who failed to escape during its attack two years ago and killed at least 5,000 others, leaving the bodies in mass graves. The Sinjar massacre, where men were rounded up and shot and their wives and children abducted, raped and tortured, has left a harrowing imprint in the minds of residents who fled.
In November 2015, the city was retaken by a massive operation involving Kurdish and Yazidi forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition. But with the frontline only a few miles away, very few of the town’s Yazidi inhabitants have returned.
Much of the city has been destroyed, with sandbagged entrances to tunnels running under former homes, covered markets turned into crumpled masses of rafters and abandoned wares and rubble awaiting removal. Graffiti extolling the virtues and might of the ISIS “jihadists” remain on many of the buildings.
When walking around the streets, there is no semblance of home or community. Desolation and tension hang heavy in the air.
Many of the Yazidis who had been living here have left for Europe or are still in the hands of ISIS. Others remain in IDP camps in the areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Getting to Sinjar entails a few hours’ travel after passing through a military checkpoint that requires special authorization. After passing through, one option is a road winding through mountains still scattered with internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, tents and children running around. The alternate route is menacingly close to Mosul, pockmarked with crater-holes left by bombs and sporadic triangular signposts to warn drivers.
After spending a night in the city, during which rockets hit outlying areas in three places, Refugees Deeply spoke to a man from the area named Fares Elias. The 27-year-old was trying to connect his welding shop to electricity from a utility pole that was among those still standing.
No services have been restored. But various security forces present in the city – including the Asayish, the Peshmerga and the PKK-linked Yezidi Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) – have generators and the Peshmerga provide water to the few inhabitants that have returned.
Elias’ family’s home is the only inhabited residence on the street. A protective wall prevents those on the street from knowing whether anyone is inside the house, a feature that saved the family when they were trapped for a week after the city was captured by ISIS in August 2014.
‘‘Not even our neighbors who joined ISIS knew we were here,’’ Elias’ mother, 56-year-old Manje Murad, explained, adding that they didn’t go out at all and baked bread in the basement to prevent the smell from wafting too far.
Their chance for escape came when an ISIS position was struck about a week after the group took over the city, which had nearly 90,000 inhabitants in 2013. There are no reliable figures for the number of people who have returned.
‘‘We gave the children Valium (tranquilizers) and left, carrying them and walking through the night, through a valley and up a mountain, trying to be as quiet as possible,’’ added Elias’ father, Kheiri.
He said that they were later helped by Kurdish armed groups to get to Malikiyah in neighboring Syria and then later to Zakho, in northern Iraq.
‘‘As soon as we heard that [our] town had been retaken, some of us came back. We now take turns being here,’’ Kheiri explained.
‘‘But for now, it’s not safe. One night, six rockets fell in the area within 20 minutes. I didn’t sleep until 2 a.m., waiting to see if we should leave [again],” Elias pointed out.
Desperate for outside assistance, some of the more prominent members of the Yazidi community have contributed their own money, resources and time. However, they express doubts that any large-scale return will be immediate or certain, especially without substantial international support.
Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi MP who became well known in the wake of the conflict-induced displacement for using her own money to ‘‘buy the freedom’’ of several women taken as sex slaves by ISIS, spoke to Refugees Deeply at her home in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan.
She claimed that she had had to pay as much as $20,000 for some families, and that she had seen girls as young as nine years old who had been raped.
Some of the Yazidi survivors of sexual violence have been sent to Germany for medical and psychological rehabilitation, and Dakhil said that many of women and girls say now that they would like to return afterwards.
Refugees Deeply also met with Mirza Dinnayi, head of the Germany-based humanitarian organization Air Bridge Iraq and a Yazidi community leader, when he was in Erbil.
He said that approximately 1,100 Yazidi girls and women were taken to Germany for treatment and that ‘‘many of them have lost most of their families’’ – thus, ‘‘even if a girl wants to come back, it would be to a camp, alone.”
Dinnayi, whose organization was tasked with interviewing the women and girls prior to their transfer to Germany, said that returning to the camps with no prospects for the future was not a feasible option.
Khidher Domle, another prominent member of the Yazidi community who has written a book about the mass kidnapping and enslaving of Yezidi girls called ‘‘The Black Death,” explained that the offensives that liberated ISIS-held cities – such as Shaddadi in northeastern Syria – led to many Yazidi families losing contact with family members in captivity.
Over 3,000 Yazidis remain in ISIS hands, he said.
Domle added that several hundred boys have reportedly been taken to ISIS training camps in both Syria and Iraq and are currently being “radicalized.”
“They are being taught to kill their own family members,’’ he claimed.
Sheikh Ido Baba, a brother of Baba Sheikh, the Yazidi spiritual leader, explained that there are hundreds of thousands of Yazidis living away from their homes.
“Close to Erbil, close to Dohuk, some in Zakho – everywhere,” he specified, adding that it is not just the Yezidis who are leaving.
“The Christians, the Muslims and the Kurds’’ also want to go, he said.
“Some 40 percent of the area around Sinjar is still in the hands of Daesh,’’ he explained, using the Arabic description for ISIS. “And the people here are afraid of the Daesh mentality, which is still here, among the people living here.’’
Back in Sinjar, one of the Asayish security officers recollected how the town had once been a place of refuge for Iraqis fleeing other cities.
“First in 2004, when the Sunnis escaped’’ to Sinjar following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, he said. “And then in 2014 when the Shia [fled an ISIS onslaught].’’
“The schools [in Sinjar] were filled with IDPs then,’’ he recalled.
For now, the schools and most of the homes in the city are empty and will remain so, as long as the possibility of an ISIS take-over remains a threat.
Meanwhile, the U.N. officially recognized the Yazidis as “victims of genocide’’ based on their findings from the Sinjar massacre and related events, which were released in a June 2016 report.