Sinjar rises from the dead but future in doubt

Friday 18/12/2015
Yazidi drivers in vehicles after looting area of Sinjar, Iraq

Erbil - Sinjar is divided into two parts, both dismal with little hope for a better future for its Yazidi minority population of nearly 100,000 people who have inhabited the area since the 12th century.

One part, estimated by Iraqi Yazidi inhabitants at 40%, is controlled by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, who suddenly captured Sinjar in August 2014 and committed atrocities there, including raping and enslaving women and children.

The remainder was recaptured by peshmerga and Yazidi forces on November 13th.

There, mass graves holding dozens of bodies, mostly women, have been unearthed. Houses and government offices have been either demolished or planted with explosives. Some homes are marked as belonging to Sunni Muslims and are being looted and torched. And streets are filled with landmines that ISIS left behind.

Following a three-day aerial US attack that provided cover for advancing peshmerga and Yazidi forces on the ground, nearly every home in Sinjar’s recaptured areas had been damaged, roads pockmarked with craters and power lines criss-crossed rubble like fallen spider webs.

“People are living in fear, the fear of the unknown,” a Yazidi politician, insisting on anonymity because of safety concerns, said

“Sinjar is home to various ethnic groups, each now fears revenge from the other,” the politician added in a telephone interview after visiting the recaptured part of the city. Sinjar’s population is mainly Yazidi, with smaller Arab and Assyrian communities.

Iraqi TV stations have been broadcasting footage of Yazidis looting and burning scores of houses marked with the Arabic letter س, (S), pointing to its Sunni inhabitants. In some footage, looters said they were getting revenge from Sunnis, whom they accused of collaborating with ISIS by pointing out Yazidis to the militants.

Yazidi activist Shirzad Khalil confirmed the looting to The Arab Weekly. “I can’t deny that there were such actions, yet they are very few,” said the activist, one of many Yazidis who returned to Sinjar to inspect the remains of their destroyed property but decided to stay away until it is safer to move back in.

“Not many Yazidi families are back to live in Sinjar,” he said. “Almost all houses are destroyed and there are others which ISIS planted with explosives.”

He said ISIS demolished the mosques of the rival Shia sect in Sinjar. However, Khalil dismissed Iraqi media reports that the main al-Rahman and two other mosques frequented by Sunni Muslims were damaged by angry Yazidis. “They’re intact and guarded by Yazidi fighters,” he said.

Khalil and other Yazidis said about 40% of the city remains under ISIS control. “The remainder of the city will be liberated when the battle to recapture Mosul starts,” Khalil said, noting that is analysis is based on information from Iraqi officials and peshmerga forces.

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city to the east, which is linked to Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, to the west through a passage, known as Highway 47. The route, which cuts across Sinjar, had served as a main supply line for ISIS.

Iraqi officials, meanwhile, announced that a handful of mass graves were discovered near Sinjar containing the remains of hundreds of the slain Yazidi men and women. The officials said the graves were unearthed days after Sinjar was recaptured.

Yazidi fighter Khudr Ali said he saw in one of the graves “80 bodies, most of them belonged to women. They could be the old people who remained behind when ISIS invaded the area in August 2014.”

“Another 110 bodies were found in a separate mass grave near Kojo village, where ISIS committed massacres,” Ali said, referring to an area where the militants had purportedly killed tens of people who refused to convert to Islam.

Ali reported “difficulties” digging another mass grave, about 10 km west of Sinjar, where ISIS is suspected of having planted improvised explosive devices.

A witness who visited Sinjar recently said tunnels were discovered under the city. He said it was widely believed there that ISIS had used the tunnels to avoid aerial bombing.

Sinjar had come to define the war for northern Iraq since ISIS seized it and ultimately ruled it for 15 months. The militants killed, enslaved or kidnapped thousands of Yazidis, in­cluding women and children.

About 50,000 others fled but were trapped on Mount Sinjar above the city without food or wa­ter for days until they were rescued by Syrian Kurdish forces. ISIS con­siders Yazidis infidels who should convert to Islam or be killed.

Sinjar’s fall not only laid bare ISIS’s depravity but also exposed the shortcomings of the Kurdish forces, who had been tasked with protecting the city but retreated as danger neared.

War intricacies aside, ISIS’s occupation of Sinjar had scattered across the plains of the northern Iraqi Nineveh province in the Mount Sinjar areas minorities that had coexisted since the dawn of civilisation. But clearly they could not bear the thought of living under the invading militants.