The Drama of Sinjar: Escaping the Islamic State in Iraq
Last week, thousands of Yazidis were evacuated from the Sinjar Mountains in Iraq, where they had fled due to marauding fighters from the Islamic State. Kurdish fighters from the PKK helped them escape, but it remains unclear if anyone can stop the IS jihadists.
On the eighth day up on the mountain, Bagisa gave birth to her first child, a girl. She named her Khudaida.
Bagisa and her husband Hadi had fled from the village of Sumari. The couple was lucky; they had left alone, allowing them to avoid the groups that came under fire from attackers. But being alone also meant that when they finally stopped running, in the shade of a cliff wall, they knew none of the others who likewise found shelter there. There was no one willing to share their valuable water with Bagisa. The couple now had a daughter, but they didn’t have anything to drink.
Other families with infants joined together in order to provide a modicum of shade for mothers and babies and they saved a few drops from the spartan amounts of water rationed out each day. Or they divided up the few sips of water they spent hours each day collecting from the hollows of dried out mountain streams.
But nobody helped Bagisa, Hadi and their baby. They had to withstand the heat on their own — until, on the day following Khudaida’s birth, three Kurdish fighters, members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), finally appeared and brought them to the Newroz camp across the border in Syria.
Those who managed to find shelter in the Newroz camp have vivid stories to tell of the horrors they left behind. They describe how men from the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) announced via loudspeaker in the village of Garzarik, “Put down your weapons and we won’t harm you,” and then turned around and shot at all those who sought to flee.
They talk about the sheep that desperate refugees beat to death with a stone so as to drink its blood. And about the elderly who they were forced to leave behind. They speak of the corpses of men on the streets and of the women who pleaded with their families to kill them so that they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the IS.
But they also have stories of neighbors who suddenly became turned into their enemies, becoming accomplices to the IS. This attack, it appears, followed a pattern established in previous offenses. First, a discrete network of informants was established over a long period of time, including Arabs from surrounding villages, Turkmens and even some Kurds. The informants then directed the Islamist fighters to the houses full of valuables and showed them where Sunnis, Christians and Yazidis lived. The result was that the IS knew how strong their opponent was and who they should kill first. It’s the same blueprint the group followed in their attacks on cities and villages in northern Syria and on the Iraqi city of Mosul at the beginning of June.
For almost two months, the people here thought they were safe, believing that the jihadist hordes would stay in the Arab regions. And initially, there seemed to be grounds for that belief. Having plundered materiel from the Iraqi army, the IS first took their new equipment to victory parades in Raqqa and continued to focus on the battle in Syria. But then, overnight, they returned.
On the morning of August 3, the first IS convoys attacked villages surrounding Sinjar. Some units belonging to the Kurdish peshmerga militia initially sought to slow the attacks. “But at dawn, one of the commanders suddenly said he had received an order to retreat,” recalls one village resident, the elderly Blindkas Khalaf.
All of them, more than 7,000 men from the cities and villages in the region, were pulled out and they took their weapons with them as they headed north. They had confiscated many of the arms from the Yazidis in June.
“There were about 1,600 soldiers from Sinjar in Maliki’s army,” says Khalaf. “When it disbanded following the fall of Mosul and the peshmerga arrived here, they confiscated all our weapons and promised to protect us.”
But then, on that Sunday morning, the peshmerga moved out of Sinjar. The Yazidis wanted to at least have their Kalashnikovs back so that they could protect themselves and they initially blocked the peshmerga convoy. But Khalaf says the Kurdish fighters turned their weapons on the Yazidis and fought their way free.
Brigadier General Holgard Heckmat, spokesman of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in Erbil, denies that an order was issued to retreat. “Our soldiers simply ran away. It’s shameful, which is why they apparently invented the order. But we are investigating the incident and those who allegedly issued the order,” Heckmat says.
The peshmerga appear to have left the Yazidis to themselves — later, their fate proved useful to push America and the world to finally intervene. That the peshmerga were unable to stop the jihadists — even had they wanted to — became apparent with the fall of Makhmour, a city in the Kurdish heartland that was held for several days by IS fighters.
It was a small unit of the Kurdish rebel group PKK, combined with US air strikes, that was decisive in retaking the city a few days later. But residents who returned to Makhmour for the first time last Tuesday didn’t come to stay. They just wanted to get the rest of their furniture.
“Everyone is afraid that the crazies will return,” said one man as he was unscrewing an air conditioning unit from the wall of his home. “If the Americans hadn’t bombed, they would already be in Erbil. Our peshmerga can’t protect us.”
The IS advance has shattered the peshmerga’s self-confidence. It has also, at least for the moment, brought together erstwhile adversaries. The PKK, which originally formed in Turkey, and the Kurdish leadership in Iraq have mistrusted each other for years, but now they have joined forces out of necessity. Kurdish President Massoud Barsani even traveled to Makhmour to personally thank the PKK commander there.
Indeed, it is largely thanks to the guerilla fighters of PKK — a group that had recently seemed stuck in the past — that up to 50,000 people could be evacuated from the Sinjar Mountains within a week. Prior to the Sinjar operation, the PKK had seemed exclusively focused on continuing their training for a war against Turkey — a conflict which hasn’t seemed likely for years.
‘Everything That Could Drive’
But it was the PKK fighters who controlled the region on the Syrian side of the border and who liberated the road to Sinjar, establishing a series of camps for the refugees along the way. They reached the thirsty mountain refugees by foot, carrying down older women and children on their backs before loading them into small trucks and pick-ups for the rest of the journey.
“We used everything that could drive,” says Alvar Khalil, head of the Newroz camp, which provides Yazidis shelter as they wait for transportation to continue their journeys. Most only remain for a few days before they are taken onwards into Iraq. Every day, huge numbers of people arrive at the camp while equal numbers leave. At the end of last week, estimates for the number of people being cared for by the PKK there ranged from 3,000 to 6,000, with exact numbers being hard to come by.
At the same time, the US Pentagon was considering ways to rescue the Yazidis from the ridge by way of an airlift. But when US Special Forces landed there last Wednesday for a closer look at the situation, they were surprised that the number stranded there was much lower than expected. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that a US rescue mission was less likely as a result. It says something about the chaos in Kurdistan that even the US military appears to have been largely unaware of the systematic evacuation of those stranded in the mountains.
Last Wednesday evening, what were thought to be the final groups of refugees arrived in Newroz. Most of the trucks returning from the Sinjar Mountains were empty; one of them had loaded up nothing but a few lost sheep. Mabada, the first intermediary camp located just behind the border, had been instrumental in previous days in providing water and first aid to the fleeing refugees, but it too was largely empty.
“Nobody knows if more people will come down from the mountain,” says one doctor. “The ridge covers an area of 100 square kilometers and nobody can search all of it. But we will stay here a few more days to wait and see.”
Despite the PKK’s success, the precision air strikes launched by American F-18 fighter jets have not stopped the IS. To be sure, the partial recapture of the Mosul dam, which was taken by IS on August 7, was possible only with the help of massive concentrated US air strikes on IS positions there. But a Peshmerga commander at the site warned that “without heavy weaponry we will not be able to hold the dam.” Furthermore, assault weapons and rocket-propelled grenades have proven ineffective in stopping the jihadist fighters, equipped as they are with armored Humvees, rocket launchers and artillery captured from the Iraqi army. It is weaponry that was initially delivered to the Iraqi military by the United States.
On Thursday, US President Barack Obama announced that the siege of Sinjar had been broken. But at almost exactly the same time as he made his statement, IS fighters once again closed the circle around the town for several hours.
A SPIEGEL team was on the road into the Sinjar Mountains at the time and suddenly mortar rounds struck near the street, kicking up large clouds of dust that were then carried off by the wind. Truck drivers swerved across the road and shouted at oncoming vehicles: “They’re shooting!”
On the morning of August 14, the tiny daughter of Bagisa and Hadi stopped breathing. Khudaida was four days old.
The exact cause of her death was impossible to determine, says the doctor who treated Khudaida in the Newroz camp. “Everything,” is his diagnosis. The heat in the mountains, thirst, wind full of dust and excrement, hunger. She was already too weak when she arrived at the camp, the doctor says.
Hadi used a piece of plastic to dig a grave a few meters behind the tents of the camp. A Syrian medic saw him there with the small bundle in his arms. Wanting to help at least provide them with a measure of dignity, the medic asked at the village cemetery nearby if there was room for little Khudaida. Just a small grave.
As the refugees in the camp climbed onto trucks heading for Iraq, Hadi and his wife Bagisa were sent back-and-forth for a half a day between the cemetery management, the PKK security service and the camp leadership. Nobody wanted to be responsible for a dead Yazidi child from Iraq in Syria.
But finally, in the late afternoon, the cemetery gave in. And allowed Hadi and Bagisa to bury their daughter.