As Yezidi Genocide Remembrance day approaches, our dear staff share their stories, reminding us that for the sake of all, we must not look the other way.
The heat is up to 46 celsius (115f) this week, add another 10 degrees for the temperature inside the tents. The atmosphere is tense and charged as the sixth memorial of the ongoing Yezidi genocide draws close. The pace is slow. Looking at people is like looking at dead men walking. The grave beckons. The finger of death points and counts its numbers, never satisfied. The Grim Reaper grins playing his death dirge, lulling his listeners into the slumber of the grave. Until August 3rd passes, it is a daily hell.
Behind our blue gates you will find a hive of activity as we work on our theme for the memorial event which we will hold on that day. Our theme is one of life “Graves into Gardens”. We are busy preparing the gardens, planning for a rooting of life. A stark contrast to the mass graves where many of our students' families are buried. Life. Life. Life. We can not get enough of it. Life.
This week in our update we will take a deliberate and yes painful walk into the escape from ISIS. For those of us who have dared to breathe the words uttered in the post- Holocaust generation, Never Again, we will read. We can not choose to look away, to return when the subject matter may be more to our taste. We dare not be apathetic or indifferent. We dare not ignore baseless hate. We would be fools to shrug another genocide off as happening to “some people over there in the Middle East”. We simply are our neighbor's keeper and we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
In reference to the Holocaust, Ralph Webster in his book, “A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other”, wrote “Nothing about these times makes any sense. Putting it to words only makes it sound too simple“.
Today, I will refrain from using my words. The words that you will hear are those of my team, those who fled Sinjar running for their lives. Those who live in our quiet village and witnessed the refugees arriving. Those went out to help, not believing their eyes, unable to comprehend that which was taking place. Namely the 73rd Yezidi Genocide.
“He told me that what he owned and accumulated didn't matter. He still had his family. We still had our future. Go forward. You can't look back. It will destroy you if you do“.
“August 2nd is a holy day but that day in 2014, we could not celebrate because of the rumours that ISIS were advancing towards Sinjar. The men in my family took their rifles and went out with the villagers to watch and protect if anything should happen.
That night, the night that led into August 3rd, we could not sleep. We heard the sound of the bullets from inside our village and also bullets and firing from further away. We called relatives in the next village and agreed to meet in the early morning and make a plan. We decided to head to the mountain for immediate protection and make our way to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
We knew we may never meet each other again
My Father wanted us all to split up and take different routes, we are a large family but none of us agreed. We actually argued for three hours about where to go. We had to split up into the vehicles that we had. That was the moment when it became real. I was leaving my home, being separated from my family. My brother and I went with my uncle. My sisters with someone else, in all the confusion, I don't even remember with whom they went. We did not speak our thoughts but we knew that we may never meet each other again.
ISIS was now in our village, taking its captives, shooting with heavy weapons. We were terrified and in a hurry to escape. Bullets were flying everywhere, ducking your head was of no use, as they were coming thick and fast from every which way. I was in a pick up truck that could barely drive, maybe one hundred people were piled in. Like cattle, we didn't care, we just had to get out, hopefully alive.
Our vehicle crashed, it went off the road, of course it would, being so overloaded. We were all crying and screaming. By our overturned pick up there was a bombed car with dead bodies trapped inside. Then it became even more real. This was a fight for life and death and we did not know which would win. We had to walk. We had no water. We knew nothing about our family, we had no cell phone, we had no time to ask, we just had to keep going.
The next day by chance we found my family. My mother was pregnant, we didn't know if she would make it, if her baby would live or die. Her condition was so bad that we thought she would miscarry en route to safety. There was no guarantee of anything.
We piled into another of the relatives' vehicles and drove until we crossed the border and came to Shariya village. One family opened their home to us, gave us mattresses and food. We stayed with them for one week. We were in shock, reliving every moment, and hearing news of nothing but death and captivity. We didn't believe that we were alive.
ISIS is Coming
Then the news came that ISIS was just five minutes away from the village. Now it was the villagers who were running screaming “ISIS is coming”. Like one body the refugees and the villagers stood to their feet, and again we ran. This time to Zaxo. Our terror could not be measured. We had nothing, could trust no one, death was behind us and death was before us. We spent fifteen days in a wedding hall in Zaxo along with sixty other families, from Sinjar, from Shariya, Bashika and Bahzan. We sat in shock. The kids did not even have energy to cry.
After those days we returned to the village. For one year none of my family functioned. My mother gave birth to my sister, but even as a nurse, I remember nothing. We did not sleep, we could not speak. We were just there. Terrified of everyone and everything. Waiting. What for? Maybe death to finish us off.
After that year, I stopped to look around me one day and saw that life was continuing. I saw that the people of Sinjar are strong and ready to face anything. That’s when I came to Springs of Hope Foundation and connected with life.
But dark thoughts never leave me. They are always lurking there, waiting for their moment to surface. I saw death but now I see hope. That makes me happy“.
- Bassima, Yezidi refugee from Dogre, Sinjar, Iraq. Nurse, Springs of Hope Foundation
“Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness“.
-Elie Wiesel, 2002
“My name is Evan. When I saw what was happening to my Yezidi brethren in Sinjar my heart broke. I thought that this is the very end of humanity. How could men and women, children and girls be slaughtered in such a way and no one respond? How could our girls be taken captive to be trafficked and made into slaves? Murder is forbidden. The taking of life is forbidden. I thought that the end of the world had come. How could this be?
The Yezidis from Sinjar lost everything, from their homes, to their wealth. They were stripped of everything. ISIS forced them to change their religion and still they murdered them. Six years later, I still can not begin to understand or process this. It is beyond human comprehension.
As the refugees began to arrive in my village of Khanke, I went to all my family members, and together we collected clothes, food, any medical supplies we had, bedding whatever we had we went out on the streets and gave them. We opened our homes to them. We did whatever we could.
I cannot let the world forget
As a TV cameraman and journalist I began to do that which I knew. Document. I went out and about to be a witness, to see, it was so painful but I had to see and I had to document all that I saw and heard. I reported non stop for Kurdistan TV and posted hundreds of social media posts everyday. I was determined that the world would see and would hear the voice of the refugees from Sinjar. Six years later I still do this, every week I make two TV reports about those now called “displaced“ and their life in the tents. I cannot let the world forget.
During the first weeks of their arrival I documented hundreds of hours of video and took thousands of photographs, documentation, proof of this genocide. I gave all of my documentation to the Lalish office in Shariya who gave it to the Office of Genocide in Duhok where it is now being used for legal hearings.
We thought that ISIS was coming to Khanke, they were advancing. My family decided to stay, we made a plan that we would stay and protect our women and children. We were all terrified but we were determined not to flee. They were halted and did not come.
On August 3rd, 2020 I will be filming both for KTV and for the Springs of Hope Foundation where I teach film and photography to the refugees. Some of my photos will be used in the event, but somehow I know that it will be full of hope, not death“.
- Evan Haji. Khanke , Kurdistan. Cameraman Kurdistan 24 TV, Photography teacher, SOHF.
“I can tell you that events were incremental. That the unbelievable became the believable and ultimately, the normal“
“I was studying in the Department of Sports in Mosul University, when ISIS overthrew Mosul in June 2014. They were on a rampage, killing everyone in their path. They were looking for Yezidis. They wanted our blood in particular.
Some of my friends and I escaped from our student dorm in the middle of the night. It suddenly became too much and we knew that we had to run for our lives. We took nothing. I was barefoot and ran that way for hours. We ran from Mosul to Kurdistan. We dared not stop for any reason until we arrived there.
I then went to Sinjar to be with my family and as we know ISIS invaded Sinjar on August 3rd. The previous night the fear was mounting as rumours were increasing. We ran to our holy shrine in Shex Tel Qassim. I went to look for some simple food for my family which was a terrifying experience as I knew that ISIS was there, but we had no choice, if we did not eat a little something, we would die. I knew that my life was in danger but I still went.
I saw a dead man, he was about 60 years old, he lay across my path, dead from either thirst or hunger. I knew that if I did not find food for my family, they too would die like him.
After about seven days a way was opened up from the mountain into Syria and from there into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As we headed towards Syria we came across the body of a four year old boy. This was my hardest moment, the pain of the tragedy overwhelmed me. His family were unable to carry him, so they left him and he died. His body was just lying there, it wasn't even buried.
On the way to Syria, my brother was caught by ISIS when he went to look for food for us. Thank God, after two days in their hands they took his cell phone and his money and amazingly released him. He found us in Kurdistan.
We came to Shariya where the village received us well and everyone helped. We moved into Shariya camp as soon as it was opened. This was a hard period. Yes we were safe but our suffering continued. We knew that we were lucky to be alive and not in the hand of ISIS but we had nothing. We were all in trauma, try to imagine all the camp in the same trauma. We were exhausted, unable to help ourselves, as hopeless ones. We were so tired, yet no one slept. We were all so worried yet no one spoke. We were simply terrified. Thankful that my family was safe, I wanted to return to Sinjar and be part of the resistance movement but my family did not allow me. I had to respect their wishes.
We heard the rumours that ISIS was close to Shariya, that they were just down the road in Faida. We could not believe how death was running after us. We did not have the energy or the willpower to run again. Thankfully they somehow were turned back. I think that my story is hard, and it is, but now that I work with the boys who were taken into captivity, I realise that my story is nothing compared to their loss and suffering“.
- Sirwan Haji, Director of Sports. SOHF.
These people do not want you to exist. They want us to disappear. I can't adapt to death“.
-Amy Harmon: From Sand and Ash.
“On June 10th, ISIS took control of Mosul. Everyone in Mosul was afraid, especially the minority groups. ISIS immediately launched a terrifying propaganda campaign. As soon as they began with their propaganda both the Muslims of Mosul and the Yezidi communities in the villages around, began to flee. The writing was on the wall.
So by mid June, Yezidis from Bashika, Bahzan, Barbire and Khatari were pouring into the Yezidi villages of Shariya, Shekhan, Baadre and Khanke. Most of them had relatives in the villages so homes became extra full as they fled Mosul. Many of our homes in the village were hosting four of five additional families. We did all we could.
Less than two months later, Shariya became the doorway to Kurdistan for 70,000 refugees fleeing Sinjar. We saw them coming on foot, on donkey, piled into pickup trucks, coming over the mountain from the direction of Alqosh, coming from the direction of Shekhan.
The village schools became shelters. We opened our homes even more and took them in, giving them bedding, clothes, food and cooking facilities. Then came the news that ISIS was down the road in Faida.
Shariya began to move. My family went to stay with Muslim friends in Amediya, this is a family who had protected us from Saddam Hussein. Blood brothers. Most of the refugees from Sinjar began to run yet again, this time to Zaxo. Some continued on and crossed the border reaching the Yezidi community in Diyarbakir, Turkey.
I remember sitting in my garden, examining my life, my study in the University and knowing that if I were to run, it would all end. I called some of my friends and we decided to stay. Our families had cleared out, we were alone. We had some rifles and bullets. We turned one of the shops into our headquarters and hung out there, each taking guard duty .
The village was close to empty. It was silent. No electricity, darkness and silence. Whoever was there, hid at home. It was terrifying. The unknown lurking out there. Not knowing when it would happen. We could not sleep. We did not allow ourselves to speak for fear of our voices drowning out something we needed to hear. For three days we were on constant alert.
On August 7th, the villagers and the refugees began to trickle back. Our homes opened to them again. Every school, every empty building was used to give them safety and shade.
We all began to collect food, blankets, bake bread, draw water from the wells to give them.
Now there was a sound but it was not the normal sound of life. The Sinjaris were sitting in the streets, sitting on the steps of the houses, sitting wherever they could rest and weep. Shariya was full of the sound of tears.
Pregnant women were giving birth anywhere, on the streets, in a field , by the side of the road. There was no emotion. Emotion was dead. We all just functioned. Help this one. Help that one. Some we could not help. It was an ongoing death. It had suddenly become our new normal. A people wiped out by hate. Even emotion had died.
No one could sleep. Neither the villagers or the refugees. We were all afraid of what would happen next. We could not trust anyone. We had no idea of what the next day would bring.
In February 2015, Shariya camp was completed and 25,000 people moved into the camp. Many however preferred to remain in their tents outside the camps. Some stayed in the schools which became a long term temporary home until 2019 when they were given tents.
Life has only just begun to return to the village and then the pandemic struck us and yet we are all afraid, not knowing what the future holds“.
- Musa Asaad. General Manager, SOHF
The Genocide is Ongoing
We swiftly approach the commemoration of six years since ISIS invaded the ancient homeland of the Sinjari Yezidis. We pay honor today to those whose lives were mercilessly taken from them. To those who fought for sanity and survival whilst enduring the hell of captivity in the Islamic State. We continue to stand close to our girls and young women who are now released but remain in deep mourning, struggling with identity issues. To our young boys who know what it is to fight on the front lines but have no idea how to be a child or a teen.
The genocide is ongoing. Until the last woman and boy and girl comes home, the genocide is ongoing. That means 2878 people. Until that day, the genocide is ongoing. Until every mass grave, every corpse is identified and accounted for, the genocide is ongoing. Until every baby born in captivity is restored to his birth mother, the genocide is ongoing. Until every young man and every young woman can speak their mother tongue and embrace their Kurdish name with joy, the genocide is ongoing. Until every returnee knows who they are, the genocide is ongoing. Until every rescued woman and child can embrace the Yezidi feasts, the genocide is ongoing.
I return to the powerful words spoken by Dr Saeed which I paraphrase “I had two choices. Block it out or act. I chose to embrace the pain and act“ and close with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “ Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. G-d will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act“.
Photos by Evan Haji Khanke