She tucks her long blond ponytail into her flak jacket, slings her shiny new Kalashnikov over her shoulder and strides confidently to the sandbagged wall at the edge of her post. First Lt. Adiba Saydo, 25, is making history. She became one of the first Yazidi women to bear arms when she joined the peshmerga, the military forces of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. What’s more, she’s serving at the front line on the liberated side of Shingal Mountain in northwestern Iraq, the ancestral home of the Yazidi people.
“It’s an honour to be a Yazidi girl and a peshmerga soldier,” Saydo says. “ISIS killed our people, raped our girls and sold them. They slaughtered our children. I joined the military to defend our honour and our homeland and to make sure this never happens to us again.”
ISIS (also known as Islamic State, Daesh and ISIL) attacked the city and villages in the region of Shingal, in Nineveh province, on Aug. 3, 2014. For almost a week, until the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party from Turkey) created an escape corridor, ISIS scorched the Yazidis’ emotional earth, beheading men, taking girls and young women as sex slaves, and killing older women, younger children, the elderly and the disabled — anyone considered unworthy of their hateful caliphate.
More than 40,000 Yazidis fled up Shingal Mountain to escape the onslaught but were trapped there without food, water or shelter while ISIS forces guarded the base. Babies died of starvation and dehydration; girls jumped to their death to avoid capture. Five days passed before western countries airdropped food and water. Survivors describe the horror of calling for help on cellphones, beseeching the international community to rescue them from the mountain, and waiting days and nights while their desperate pleas were ignored.
Estimates put the global number of Yazidis at about one million. Before the violence in 2014, the vast majority — 700,000 — lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, many along the Shingal Mountain range.
Today, an estimated 360,000 Yazidis are displaced and living in crowded camps on the outskirts of Duhok, two hours northeast of Shingal. They’re asking anyone who will listen why the world chose not to rescue them and when it will be safe to go home and restart their lives.
Yazidis claim that this is the 74th genocide they have suffered. History records their persecution as far back as the early Ottoman Empire. They have lived along Shingal (also known as Sinjar) Mountain for centuries, keeping to themselves and practising an ancient religion. Their enemies call them devil worshippers and infidels and therefore fair game for elimination. This time, the slaughter landed them on the world’s radar. When the Canadian government announced in February that 1,200 survivors of ISIS would be brought here to resettle, many wanted to know more: Who are the Yazidis, and why has this happened to them? What is the world doing to right this terrible wrong?
There are about one million Yazidis in the world today. Before the violence in 2014, the vast majority — 700,000 — lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, many along the Shingal Mountain range, which runs east and west for about 100 kilometres. The Yazidis consider it a sacred place and claim it has sheltered them since the beginning of time. No one’s done a head count since the attack, and many have fled to Turkey, Germany and elsewhere, but what is known is that about 450,000 are dead or displaced or being held by ISIS.
“Genocide is a deep wound that needs a profound form of restorative justice among people who need to live together and move on when they are no longer the flavour of the day in newspaper headlines and the UN Security Council has forgotten about them,” says Payam Akhavan, a former UN prosecutor at The Hague and presently a law professor at Montreal’s McGill University. But the stage for the truth-telling can’t be set until the guns are silenced in this fractious corner of the Earth.
Nineveh province is a hardscrabble place where modern architecture is plunked against cement-block houses on rocky foothills with thin topsoil and scrubby shrubs. Morning has just broken as we drive toward Shingal Mountain in late February. Trucks laden with cauliflower and tomatoes, onions and dates line up at checkpoints. Long-haired sheep bleat their discomfort from pickup trucks while grim-faced guards disappear with the passports of those who wish to proceed. It feels like a chess game. Waiting for the rook to make its move. Deals are made, many are turned back. We’d been told: if you get through the checkpoint after the Khabur River, your chances of getting to Shingal City are much improved. Every insurgent in Iraq has a piece of these hills, including ISIS and the PKK, considered terrorists by some and rescuers by others.
After the checkpoint, the road is scattered with villages: some Christian, some Muslim; some Kurdish, some Armenian. Oil wells dot the landscape as we skirt the Syrian border. Total destruction lies ahead, the sort of military pounding that comes from revenge. It’s not enough to take out the bridge or disable the power plant — it’s about smashing the place until the past is obliterated. The stripped carcasses of vehicles and the looming mountain signal the beginning of the Yazidis’ escape route. It is also ground zero for the genocide.
The biggest village along the route is Snuny, tucked in under the mountain where signs of life — ducks wandering on the road, a donkey braying from its tethered post, a bit of laundry hanging on a clothesline — suggest some have taken a chance and returned. There are road blocks, more checkpoints, a PKK camp and plenty of tension ahead in what could be either a viper’s nest of terrorist soldiers or a ruined city, deserted and waiting for the return of its people.
The road leads to the place where the Yazidi women’s peshmerga brigade is working today. They are such a mix of proud defenders and horror-stricken survivors that it’s hard to know when to cheer and when to gasp. Saydo tells a story about her cousin, 15, being bought by an ISIS man who said, “I’ll feed her until she’s [older] — then I’ll have her.” She managed to escape. Saydo explains, “They wanted all of us to convert.” While many did, to no avail when it came to saving their lives or their daughters, most refused. Says Saydo, “We’d rather be killed and have our own religion.”
The violence of ISIS was so brutal, so swift, that even now, two-and-a-half years later, Saydo’s face flushes when she recounts the day in summer 2014 that ISIS soldiers arrived at Mosel University, where her cousins and friends were students. Her story highlights the fact that Yazidis were not the only target of ISIS. “They separated the Yazidi girls and the Shia girls from the Sunni girls. Then a Daesh fighter brought two Shia girls together — face to face so their noses were touching each other. In front of everyone, he killed both of them by firing a bullet into the back of one girl’s head.” Her cousin collapsed and couldn’t speak for two days. She was locked in a room with three other girls but still had her cellphone. When she could talk, she managed to get word to the peshmerga soldiers, who helped all four of them to escape.
Stories from other Yazidis at the displacement camps in Duhok confirm the psychopathic modus operandi of ISIS. A young adolescent says the man who owned her as a sex slave would leave her at the end of his prayer rug when he turned to the east and prostrated himself to pray, and then he would turn around and rape her. Some young girls say, “I can’t even tell you what they did, as I don’t know what it is called.” They say their captors, who beat them and raped them repeatedly, were smelly, filthy men with huge ragged beards. Older women recount tales of unspeakable brutality. “They did everything to us that was morally dirty,” says one woman, age 37. About 2,600 girls and young women managed to escape. But 3,500 are still in the hands of ISIS. Their escapes — out windows at 4 a.m. into the black night, slipping behind sleeping guards, ducking into a shepherd’s hut, being betrayed and recaptured — sound like medieval horror tales. An interview with a captured ISIS fighter in a Duhok prison reveals the barbarous attitude of the captors: “Every fighter is entitled to four girls.”
Saydo was finishing high school and preparing to go to university that summer but joined the peshmerga instead. “I never thought about these things before, but after we saw the killing and the persecution, I lost my fear. I’m not scared.” In fact, with a conspiratorial look on her face, she beckons the translator to come closer as she wants to share another story. “Daesh are scared to be killed by a woman because they think they won’t go to paradise,” she says with an enormous grin. “The day of the liberation of Shingal by the peshmerga, all the girls picked up their guns and went to the front line to let them know they’d never go to heaven.” Then she adds ruefully, “ISIS will never get to paradise, no matter who kills them, because of what they did.”
There are 137 Yazidi women in peshmerga uniforms and another 400 registered and waiting to start their training. The clarion call the women issued after the genocide — never again — is being heeded at last. “We are determined this time to stop the genocide,” says Saydo, “to defend our people and to keep our land.”