Safe Return

Five Years after ISIS: The Yazidis’ Quest for Justice and Recovery

Interview with Ido Babasheikh, Former Member of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq Parliament and former adviser to the president of Iraq.

This is the second of a series of interviews we had with representatives of various minority communities in Ninewa that will be published in the following weeks.

In July, EPIC traveled to Iraq and visited Erbil and Ninewa provinces as part of our work on Safe Return, a USAID project designed to enable the safe and sustainable return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their homes in Ninewa. While in Erbil, we had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Ido Babasheikh, a prominent figure of Iraq’s Yazidi community, who is a former member of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) Parliament and served in the past as an adviser on Yazidi affairs to late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Mr. Babasheikh shared his views on the plight of his community, of which thousands continue to deal with displacement and severe trauma, five years after Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists rampaged across their towns and villages. In August 2014, ISIS carried out a genocide against Iraq’s Yazidis, killing some 5,000 civilians and taking thousands more, mostly women and children, captive. As of writing this, nearly 3,000 Yazidis remain missing. Politically, the community straddles the fault lines between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), between Syrian Kurdish forces and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and between the KRG and Baghdad, contributing to both external pressures and internal divisions. Against this backdrop, finding purely objective voices can be elusive. Nonetheless, Mr. Babasheikh’s remarks offer valuable insight into the affairs of his community. Here’s our conversation with him, edited for clarity and length.

EPIC: What are the roots of the challenge facing Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities?

Ido Babasheikh: The problem facing Iraq’s [ethnic and religious] minorities is both historical and geographical. Minority communities are concentrated in the borderlands between the KRI and Iraq proper. Before the last [ISIS] conflict, we were not assisted by either side. When we asked the KRG for services, we were considered to be the responsibility of the federal government because we were outside the three provinces that are officially recognized as part of the KRI. When we went to Iraq, we were considered to be the KRG’s responsibility because [Baghdad did not control security in Sinjar and other disputed territories].

Many members of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities, including the Yazidis, have traditionally resided in districts straddling the borders between the KRI and rest of Iraq. The competing claims to these lands by Baghdad and Erbil to these so-called Article 140 districts have been one of Iraq’s most intractable disputes since 2003.

Over the years, some Yazidis have identified as Arab while others have identified as Kurds. What accounts for such a conflict of identities and how do most Yazidis see themselves today?
Saddam’s regime tried to force all minorities, especially Yazidis, Shabaks, and Turkmen, to register as Arabs. When it comes to rights, it’s better to be [seen as] Arab because Arabs receive greater protections. However, one cannot abandon one’s nationality. People change their beliefs and religions, but it’s harder to change an ethnic identity. Now, Baghdad doesn’t care about Arabization so long as minorities don’t identify as Kurds.

When it comes to language, about 90% of Yazidis speak Kurdish, not just in Iraq, but in Syria, Georgia, and Armenia. Yazidi religious ceremonies are in Kurdish too. They also usually reside in Kurdish areas. So, Yazidi ties with Kurds are old.

Recently, [the linkage to Kurdish identity] is diminishing in response to the behavior of some Kurdish actors. Levels of tolerance [toward Yazidis] differ. Dohuk is more tribal and religiously conservative, so they often reject Yazidis. Sulaimaniya and Erbil are more tolerant. Yazidis in Kurdistan now identify solely as Yazidis, neither as Kurds nor Arabs.

How has being in the disputed territories impact services and local economy?
There has always been a severe lack of services. Before 2014, a lot of urban population centers [in Sinjar district] had between 22,000 and 30,000 people. These places had no hospitals or Primary Health Care Centers, sometimes didn’t have even clinics. There were also no ambulances, and shortages of medical supplies were chronic. As a result, Yazidi women had to go to Dohuk for medical attention or to give birth, which led to many deaths. Also, there is little family planning among Yazidis, so there are many children and not enough schools. The schools that are available often run two or three shifts to accommodate so many children, who sometimes have to sit on floors [due to a lack of desks and overcrowding].

Yazidis have always suffered from limited economic opportunities, such as high unemployment and underemployment, even before the ISIS campaign. For example, there was a cement factory in Sinjar with hundreds of workers, but fewer than 3% were Yazidis.

Mosul is the largest city close to Yazidi communities. How did the poor security conditions there affect Yazidis before 2014?
After 2003, Mosul saw the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq [the precursor to ISIS] and the city became increasingly unsafe. Between 2006 and 2014, Yazidis were gradually denied the right to live or work in Mosul. Many Yezidis were killed during this period. In 2007, 24 workers were killed in Mosul solely based on their ethnicity. As a result, Yazidis avoided Mosul and sought work further way in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

On August 14, 2007, our community was hit by three truck bombs. The attack targeted the towns of Tel Ezer (Qahtaniyha) and Siba Sheikh Khidir (Jazirah) [in Sinjar district], killing over 300 residents and wounding more than a thousand. Many children were orphaned. It was traumatic for the community. From then on, things continued to deteriorate.

How did the ISIS attacks on the Yazidi communities in August 2014 unfold?
On August 3, 2014 we woke up to ISIS in our villages south of Sinjar, close to Baaj.

Saddam had previously [in 1975] pushed Yazidis away from the mountains. Communities on the northern foothills were pushed further north and those on southern foothills were pushed further south, exposing them and making them defenseless.

When ISIS came, they gathered Yazidi men and demanded they convert to Islam or die. During the ensuing massacre, ISIS killed about 5,000 Yazidis.

What are conditions like for those who fled or survived the genocide? And how many Yazidis remain missing?
About 3,000 remain unaccounted for, mostly children and girls. Every now and then two or three [abductees are freed and] return. Some of those missing may be in camps or abroad, or hidden by ISIS families.

It has been five years since the atrocities, and the majority of people [who survived] still live in camps in decrepit conditions. Some of the tents at the camps are four or five years old, have not been maintained and sometimes catch on fire [due to hazards from heating and cooking inside tents]. Those still in camps await their return to Sinjar. Other families have emigrated to Canada, Europe, and Australia.

What are the conditions like in predominantly Yazidi towns and villages that had been held by ISIS? For families seeking to return, what damage or security concerns remain?
Beyond the people, ISIS destroyed homes and places of worship. What ISIS did not destroy themselves was later devastated by subsequent fighting.

As part of ISIS’s genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi community, ISIS militants deliberately targeted the livelihoods of Yazidis. In Bashiqa (pop. 42,000), we met with a Yazidi elder and life-long resident. According to him, 250,000 olive trees in Yazidi-owned orchards were burned down to the ground, while the olive trees of surrounding non-Yazidi villages were left untouched. It can take 10 to 15 years to restore an olive grove.

Services are at an unacceptable level. This is because some district managers and subdistrict managers are from outside Dohuk, while others are appointed by either Baghdad or the PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces). We are caught in the middle of a power struggle between competing parties.

Sinjar, especially the southern part, has not been cleared of explosive remnants of war (ERW). Moreover, all the homes and shops in the region remain destroyed.

There are organizations working in the northern side of Sinjar, but there is competition between the forces that exist there, mainly the PMF, PKK, Peshmerga, and Iraqi army.

An office of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a powerful Iran-backed Iraqi militia, in Bartella, a historically Christian town adjacent to Bashiqa. During our travels across the Ninewa Plains, we must have driven by the offices of a half dozen or more different militia groups, reflecting the area’s fragmented security architecture.

What is the economic picture like within the community?

Economic life varies from district to district. In Bashiqa and Bahzani, many people are civil servants or work in small industries. They have rebuilt their homes and temples.

In Shaikhan, there are many day laborers and farmers. There is also a lot of olive farming in the villages around Tel Kaif, Alqosh and Bashiqa and Bahzani.

In Sinjar, before the ISIS incursion, people mostly worked as laborers or farmers as well. Sinjar grows wheat and barley, and other crops that survive in arid conditions. Irrigation projects never reached Sinjar.

Since 2003, we have asked that irrigation projects extend to Sinjar. Farmers have suffered serious setbacks due to the field fires that burned their crops. We lost three men who died trying to put out fires.

During the summer of 2019, numerous field fires were reported across several Iraqi provinces. The fires, most of which occurred close to the harvest season, destroyed more than 13,000 acres of farmland in the months of May and June.

What can you tell us about these field fires?
Most of the fires have occurred in border areas [between Iraq proper and the KRI] like Sinjar, Salah ad-Din, and Kirkuk. This could be a manifestation of the power struggle there.

Talking to you, we sense certain hopefulness. Five years since the genocide, what sources of hope do you see for your community’s future?
[Despite the suffering] there has been some positive progress. While other social groups that ISIS attacked have denied what has happened to their families and women, ours has dealt with it. Our religious leadership has accepted the female survivors and made them feel welcome.

Before ISIS, we had ten or twenty activists. Now we have hundreds advocating for the rights of all survivors. Some of those women have written books and received international recognition for their advocacy. Nadia Murad – who was co-awarded a Nobel Peace Prize – is a good example.

Notwithstanding the difficult conditions, our students have been high achievers, especially in Mosul and Dohuk Universities. This year alone, we had about 20 students at the top of their classes.

Bashiqa (pop. 42,000) is surrounded by 51 villages that include Shabaks, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen. Bashiqa itself has a majority Yazidi population. As one resident told us, “The people of Bashiqa love their lands and their shrines. More than 90% of families have returned to Bashiqa’s town center and surrounding areas. It did not take long for people to return and rebuild. It happened quickly.”

Recently, we have heard heart-breaking
stories about Yazidi mothers being forced to abandon their children in Syria in order to return to Iraq. Do children who were born under ISIS to Yazidi women captives have a future in the community?
There are about 200 women who face this, and there are two problems. First, children in Iraq cannot be registered under their mothers’ names. Also, every child whose lineage is unknown is considered Muslim [by default]. Second, the fathers of these children likely killed Yazidi families. It is difficult for mothers to accept these children, and some reject them, because they were fathered by murderers.

For those who want to raise these children, I have two suggestions. One is to establish a shelter to host women and children. The other is to help them find a new life in Europe where they can register the children in their mothers’ names and integrate more easily. In our society, even if the family accepts the children, it is difficult for them to blend in.

We understand that some Yazidis were able to fight ISIS and resist ISIS militarily.
Yes, the over 2,000 families that lived on Mount Sinjar organized themselves and fought ISIS, both men and women. The people of Sinjar are not new to resistance; the ISIS genocide is the 74th genocide they’ve faced over 1,000 years.

How would you describe the situation concerning political rights today?
The representation of Yazidis in the KRG and the federal government does not reflect the demographic weight of the community. In Baghdad, we still don’t have a minister or deputy minister, and the only Yazidi director general is the director of Yazidi Religious Affairs.
The same is true in Erbil.

How many Yazidis have left Iraq?
Since 2003, roughly 100,000 Yazidis have left. (Some would say 100,000 fled to Germany alone, although immigration to Germany began in 1991). Over the next 25 years, other minority communities in Iraq may diminish as well. The number of Christians dropped from 1.5 million to 250,000, and the numbers keep dwindling. It’s more extreme for Mandaeans; fewer than 10,000 of them [compared to their pre-2003 population of perhaps 100,000] remain in the country.

It is difficult to acquire accurate demographic figures in Iraq because the last census was conducted in 1997, and it excluded the three predominantly Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk.

Is justice being served when it comes to the crimes of ISIS?
So far, justice has not been served. There have not been any trials [concerning the Yazidi genocide] that we know of in Iraq. We hear about evidence being collected but we have not seen any action. The President of Iraq, Barham Salih, tried to push legislation through Parliament but it still hasn’t passed.

Iraq’s Parliament discussed in February a draft law that provides aid and protection to Yazidi survivors. Among its provisions, the draft law removed statutes of limitations on the prosecution of ISIS crimes against Yazidi women and required authorities to pursue the perpetrators and protect witnesses.

Yazidis are also pushing for trials by the International Criminal Court. I visited the court in the Netherlands and we lobbied for our case, but because Iraq is not a member, the trials cannot proceed.

What about relations with other communities? Any progress in rebuilding relations?
Before 2014, Yazidis comprised about 80% of Sinjar’s population and many non-Yazidis, about 20%, were Muslims and lived  among the Yazidis, not only in the town of Sinjar but also in the other centers. The Shammar Arab tribes had close relations with the Yazidis. Some Muslims were Kurds who  spoke the same language and had very strong ties to the Yazidi community.

Unfortunately, when ISIS came, some of these people joined ISIS and turned against their Yazidi neighbors and were harsher than ISIS.

We asked the Arab Shammar tribes for a list of names of those who committed crimes and requested that they be tried. So far, there has been little cooperation.

How do you feel about proposals to establish a Ninewa Plains Province?
We [Yazidis] are different. Christians and Shabaks have contiguous areas in the Ninewa Plains, but we are dispersed [throughout Sinjar, Shaikhan and Bashiqa]. If Sinjar became its own administrative unit, that would work well for Yazidis.

This interview is part of Safe Return, a project to support the safe and voluntary return of IDPs who have survived severe human rights abuses to their homes in Ninewa. Safe Return is made possible with the generous support of the American people through USAID in partnership with Heartland Alliance International.

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