ISIS May Be Gone, But Yazidis Fearful Of Returning To Their Iraqi Town

Nov 13, 2015
Originally published on November 13, 2015 9:26 pm

Kurdish forces raised their flag Friday as they advanced into the center of the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, facing little resistance from Islamic State fighters who have held it for 15 months. Kurdish officials called it a liberation.

But for the Yazidi minority who were driven out of Sinjar by ISIS in an orgy of sectarian violence, the victory may not be the prelude to a homecoming.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled Sinjar and the villages around it in August 2014 as ISIS killed, enslaved and raped thousands of members of the small community, which follows a religion that ISIS calls heretical.

The assault was a key factor in President Obama's decision to launch the U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq.

In a camp for the displaced Yazidis, a couple of hours away near the city of Dohuk, there's a sense of permanence with clean rows of white huts on a hillside, strings of bright-colored laundry and women washing dishes outside.

Most of roughly 250 families here are Yazidis from villages around Sinjar. A man named Khodr Sabri invites us for tea and tells us about his village, Tel Benet.

"It's the place where I was born. I miss every corner of it," Sabri says. But when I ask if he's excited to go back, he says he's not.

"If my village will be liberated, I will still be worried because many Arab villages are around us and we fear there will be a genocide again," he says.

He fears those Arab villages as much as the invading ISIS fighters. Most of the Arabs are Sunni Muslims, like ISIS, and he says they collaborated with the extremists.

"We were living for 30 years together and we were like brothers, and we didn't expect such things would happen," he says. "It was like they were stabbing our back after what happened."

Sabri is a nurse and tells me he had a Sunni Arab colleague, who was also a nurse. They had been friends for 10 years.

"But when ISIS came along, he shouted, 'Allahu Akbar (God is greatest),' and joined in the killing," he adds. He couldn't believe someone who had spent his life helping people would suddenly be so inhumane. "It was a disaster, psychologically."

Sinjar and the plains around it have for millennia been a mosaic of faiths and ethnicities. To hear the Yazidis in the camp talk, it feels like that mosaic might now be shattered beyond repair.

Outside the huts, a dominoes game is in full swing. The players are from different villages but say they're close now. They seem settled here. One of them is a soldier, Suleiman Saal.

His sister was held by ISIS in Syria for more than a year. The family paid a mediator $20,000 to get her and one of her children back. They don't know what happened to her husband and three other kids.

"Yes, I want revenge," he says. But he wouldn't have his family go back to the village. He doesn't trust the Sunni Arabs in the area either. He wants a peacekeeping force to protect the Yazidis.

Many are torn. They are afraid to go back but feel Sinjar is where they belong. In another hut, a mother breast-feeds while her daughter sings a song about what happened last year.

"There was a genocide in Sinjar, they took our sisters," she sings. "We are away from our homeland and humiliated."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When the U.S. started airstrikes against ISIS last year, it was the ISIS attack, mass murder and displacement of the Yazidi people of Iraq that prompted those strikes. Soon the Yazidis might be able to go home. Kurdish-led forces backed by these U.S. airstrikes have forced ISIS out of much of the town of Sinjar, which is the Yazidi homeland. But NPR's Alice Fordham reports that many are afraid to return.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: There's a battle going on for their homeland a couple hours' drive away, but in this camp for displaced, there's a sense of permanence, with clean rows of white huts on a hillside, strings of bright-colored laundry, women washing dishes outside. Most of about 220 families here are Yazidis from villages around Sinjar. A man named Khodr Sabri invites us for tea and tells us about his village, Tel Benet.

KHODR SABRI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "it's the place where I was born. I miss every corner of it." But when I ask if he's excited to go back if ISIS is pushed out, he says no.

SABRI: (Through interpreter) If it'll be liberated, my village, I will still be worried because many Arabs village around us so we fear there will be, like, a genocide against us again.

FORDHAM: He fears those Arab villages around him as much as the invading ISIS fighters. Most of the Arabs are Sunni Muslims like ISIS, and he says they collaborated with the extremists in an orgy of violence against Yazidis that left thousands dead, kidnapped or raped.

SABRI: (Through interpreter) We were, like, living for 30 years together so we're like brothers, and we didn't expect such things will happen, and they were, like, stabbing our back after what happened.

FORDHAM: Sabri's a nurse and tells me he had a Sunni Arab colleague, also a nurse. They'd been friends 10 years, like brothers.

SABRI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: But when ISIS came along, he shouted, allahu akbar, and joined in the killing. Sinjar and the plains around it have for millennia been a mosaic of ancient faiths and ethnicities. To hear these Yazidis talk, it feels like that mosaic might now be shattered forever.

Outside the hut, there's a dominoes game in full swing. The players are from different villages but say they're close now. They seem settled here. One of them is a soldier, Suleiman Saal.

SULEIMAN SAAL: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: His sister was held by ISIS in Syria for more than a year. They paid a mediator $20,000 to get her and one of her children back. They don't know what happened to the husband and three other kids.

SAAL: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Saal wants revenge, but he wouldn't have his family go back to the village. He doesn't trust the Sunni Arabs in the area either. He wants a peacekeeping force to protect Yazidis.

Everyone's torn. They're afraid to go back but feel Sinjar is where they belong.

In another hut, as a mom breastfeeds, her daughter sings a song about what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Singing foreign language).

FORDHAM: It goes, there was a genocide in Sinjar. They took our sisters.

GIRL: (Singing foreign language).

FORDHAM: "We're away from our homeland and humiliated." Alice Fordham, NPR News, Dahuk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.