Anger haunts ruined Sinjar, years after ISIS ousted

Overrun by ISIS in 2014 and liberated the following year, little has been rebuilt in Sinjar and only a fraction of the population has returned.
Thursday 28/02/2019
A Yazidi man raises the rubble of his damaged house, which was destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, February 5. (Reuters)
Still in ruins. A Yazidi man raises the rubble of his damaged house, which was destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, February 5. (Reuters)

SINJAR - It's dawn in Sinjar and the only sounds are the footsteps of guards patrolling a golden-domed shrine on a hill overlooking a vista of collapsed rooftops.

More than three years after the Islamic State (ISIS) was driven out of this city in northern Iraq, all that remains in the once bustling market are the bomb-scarred facades of shops. Dozens of streets are blocked by metal barrels -- a sign of unexploded ordnance yet to be cleared.

In a city whose former occupiers slaughtered thousands of Yazidis, water is scarce and electrical power intermittent. The closest hospital is a 45-minute drive away. There are only two schools.

The physical devastation is extreme but it is not the city's only challenge. Caught in a power tussle between Iraq's central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the city struggles with a political impasse.

"It is in ruins. There has been no progress at all," said Ibrahim Mahmoud Ezzo, 55, the Yazidi owner of about a dozen shops, all of which were damaged. "There is no mayor and no local council. People are losing billions of dinars in lost business and property every year. They don't know who to turn to. "How long are we supposed to wait?"

Overrun by ISIS in 2014 and liberated the following year, little has been rebuilt in Sinjar and only a fraction of the population has returned. Residents said neither the KRG nor the Iraqi central government has made any effort at reconstruction.

Before the jihadists overran it, Sinjar had a population of about 100,000. They included Yazidis, a religious minority whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions and who considered the city the capital of their heartland, as well as Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others.

Only about one-quarter of them have returned, all of them Yazidi. The Norwegian Refugee Council said none of the members of the other communities have returned because of a lack of reconciliation.

The Yazidis, 3,000 of whom were killed in an ISIS onslaught described by the United Nations as genocidal, said nearby Sunni Arab villages and townspeople aided the jihadists.

People are also put off returning by tensions arising from the presence of rival armed groups.

Sinjar lies in a sensitive area straddling the borders of Iraq's Kurdistan region and Syria, Iran and Turkey.

"The [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK is here. The police are here. The Popular Mobilisation Units are here. The army is here," Ezzo said, listing the various units of the Iraqi government forces and militias in and around the city. "We don't understand what the situation is."

The KRG controlled the region without much objection from Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 until 2017 when, in retaliation for an independence bid, the central government pushed out the KRG, its peshmerga forces and allies and brought in their own.

These included a Shia paramilitary force, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the national army and the police.

At their hilltop post, PMF personnel guard a shrine with a golden dome that can be seen from many parts of the city. ISIS destroyed it along with all other religious landmarks.

The shrine, believed to be the burial site of a daughter of Imam Hussein who died in 680, has been rebuilt, a shining contrast to the devastation around.

Despite the hardship, farmers and villagers from Sinjar gather daily for a sheep auction. Trader Khodida Qassem lit a cigarette as he watched villagers argue about price.

"What you see here is a lot of sheep but no one has the money to buy," Qassem, 40, said.

Nayef Yazdi, 26, who reopened his store six months ago, said he does not expect things to improve soon. "It is all political," said Yazdi, who lost a brother and two uncles in the fighting in 2014.

Dindar Zebari, the KRG coordinator for international advocacy, said "in Sinjar today, there is no legitimate authority, there are no official and decisive security forces."

"The KRG is not ignoring the problem in Sinjar," he said, urging Baghdad to share responsibility for this area with Peshmerga and ensure the removal of militias including the PMF.

A central government spokesman could not be reached for comment. Officials privately attribute the slow pace of rebuilding to security problems in the area and red tape in approving a reconstruction budget for Nineveh province.

Outside the city, armed groups appear entrenched. At a cemetery for fighters of the separatist PKK, which set up an affiliate to fight ISIS in 2014 and 2015 and then stayed on, one fighter said the job was not done yet.

"For sure, they (ISIS fighters) are not gone and we will remain in the mountain to offer help and support and we will go wherever needed," he said, standing beside graves bearing names of the dead from Sinjar, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

Not far away, Yazidi commander Qassem Shesho said he is still prepared to fight. Shesho and his men gave up their arms when the KRG lost control to Baghdad but they are angry at what he called "threats" by armed groups he declined to name.

"They are strangers to our land and they want to bring back Daesh under a different name," he said. "God willing, they will fail like Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State)."