Having fled genocide, some 2,700 Yazidis unable to go home or find asylum abroad
Stephen Starr In Midyat, Turkey
Kochar Ismail Khalaf will never forget the day she heard the gunfire that told her Islamic State militants had arrived at the gates of her town in northwest Iraq.
It was August 3rd, 2014, a day of terror for the Yazidi-inhabited town of Khana Sor. Within hours, it would be overrun with radical jihadists bent on wiping out the entire Yazidi religion. As the town residents scattered to pack up and flee to Mount Sinjar, Khalaf was forced to stay. “My husband was paralysed, I couldn’t leave him,” she says.
Just 12km from the Syrian border, Khana Sor was one of the first Iraqi towns to have been overrun by the jihadists. Members of Khalaf’s extended family were lucky to make their escape. Today they find themselves – with Khalaf – sitting on the floor of a canvas tent outside Midyat in southeast Turkey, telling of the worst week of their lives.
“We had no car to escape and my uncle couldn’t walk, so we couldn’t leave when they [Islamic State, also known as Isis] came,” says Khalaf’s nephew, Mahmood al-Haliqi. “My father urged us to go; he and my aunt [Khalaf] stayed with his brother.”
Haliqi and his extended family walked for 40 kilometres to Mount Sinjar in the stifling heat. On the mountain, Haliqi’s brother soon ran out of milk for his six-month-old baby.
“I could talk by phone to my father, who said his brother’s condition was worsening, and there were clashes outside. They had no food, water or gas,” says Haliqi. “My brother decided to try to find milk and to get our father; he went back in a group of 10; four of them were killed fighting Isis.”
After seven nights on Mount Sinjar, Haliqi says air strikes by the US-led coalition drove Islamic State out of Khana Sor. But it was too late for his uncle, who died without his medication, and for many others. “My friend’s mother was taken by Isis. No one knows what happened her.”
Two years since the massacre and enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and men by Islamic State in Sinjar in Iraq, this ethnic group no longer garners headlines. The constantly shifting whims of international attention give rise to fears that they are being being forgotten.
About 2,700 Yazidis live in limbo in Turkey having not been granted official refugee status by the Turkish authorities. This means access to benefits such as free healthcare are being denied to them.
“If we want to go to the hospital, we can’t,” says Haliqi, who was a dental assistant in Iraq. “If we want to emigrate to the West we first need Turkish residency, and they won’t give us that.” The office in Ankara of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) did not respond to requests for comment.
Some Yazidis have been victims of the fallout of the renewed Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Since the Turkish government began cracking down on the Kurdish-centred terrorist threat, hundreds of suspected critics have been detained and arrested and dozens of local Kurdish administrators and mayors have been sacked.
This led to the closing of a camp hosting 1,200 Yazidis outside Diyarbakir, 130km west of Midyat, in January. With the political and municipal leaders that had supported Yazidis fired or imprisoned, many found themselves uprooted once more.
“If we have [Turkish] residency and we want to return to Iraq, we are barred from coming back to Turkey for five years,” says Daoud Murat, the principal of the Iraqi school in the Midyat refugee camp. Murat is one of seven Iraqi-Yazidi educators here.
“In the Diyarbakir camp the children had no schooling for 2½ years. Three hundred students came [from Diyarbakir in January] so now there are not enough classrooms,” he says.
The irony for Mahmood al-Haliqi, his family and many other refugees centres on the fact that their not being in immediate danger means they are largely overlooked by international resettlement programmes. If they had remained within proximity of the Islamic State militants who were determined to wipe them out, their prospects for resettlement would likely be far better, but so would the threat of enslavement or death.
Many have embarked upon the perilous migrant route to Europe, but with about 70 Yazidis stuck on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea and, in another instance, the Greek government preventing Portugal from resettling several hundred due to accusations of “cherry-picking”, their prospects are poor.
Canada has offered a glimmer of hope, resettling 400 Yazidis and promising to take 1,200 more by the end of the year. Yazidi campaigners, such as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Nadia Murad, who at 19 years old was kidnapped, raped and beaten by Islamic State militants in 2014, have called on Ireland to open its doors to Yazidis.
“As Yazidis are victims of genocide and many EU countries have recognised Isis crimes against Yazidis as genocide, Ireland, the EU and the international community should take responsibility to save Yazidis and open their doors for victims of genocide,” she says.
Back in the Midyat refugee camp, many pass evenings on a walkway thronged with groups of idle young men and women walking listlessly back and forth. Predominantly ethnic Kurds, Yazidis are able to converse with several camp administrators to air their concerns. The biggest issue, they say, is obtaining permission to temporarily leave the camp. Visitors, be they family members or others, are not permitted to enter.
Their new year celebrations known as Sere Sal falls this month but will be muted at best, they say.
“At home we would paint eggs red, blue, green and yellow,” says a teenage girl sitting next to Mahmood al-Haliqi. This would be done in celebration of the central figure of Yazidi faith Melek Taus, the peacock angel who descended to Earth millions of years ago.
“We’re not thinking about celebrating; we feel we can only do that if we return home,” says Haliqi. But Iraq is no longer safe, he says.
“We can’t trust anyone; the [Kurdish] peshmerga and the Iraqi army left us,” he says. “We have two choices: either our homeland is made a protected area or we emigrate.”