DOHUK, Iraq — Not the least of the cruelties inflicted by the so-called Islamic State that has conquered large parts of Syria and Iraq is the suspense suffered by its victims before they are shot or beheaded, raped or imprisoned. When the IS fighters arrived in the village of Kucho in northern Iraq a week ago, they told the locals, most of whom are members of the Yazidi sect who follow an ancient faith, that they had 48 hours to decide whether to convert to Islam or die. When the 48 hours passed, the villagers were given another five hours, and that was extended to three days. Then, on Friday, time ran out. At noon — at what would have been the call to prayer for Muslim worshippers — the cell phones that villagers had used to stay in touch with relatives went silent.
Since then there have been a few sporadic accounts of what happened. One man claimed all the villagers were herded into a school. Another who managed to call out said he survived the massacre because he was hiding under the bodies of other victims. He’d escaped with only a wound to his leg. He was calling on a shepherd’s phone, he said. But nothing has been heard from him since.
Between 80 and 100 men are believed to have been killed. Scores of women and girls were taken away in trucks, possibly to be sold off as slave-wives to IS fighters.
Such incidents have attracted world attention, helping to draw the United States back into military operations in the Iraq, most recently with bombing raids on IS positions near the vital Mosul Dam now occupied by the jihadists. The Americans are flying close air support for the peshmerga warriors of what is formally called the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq but is more commonly known as Iraqi Kurdistan.
Indeed, Washington is betting heavily that arming and supporting the KRG’s fighters will be the key to winning back much of the territory taken thus far by the soldiers of IS (formerly known by the acronym ISIS or ISIL).
Interviews with survivors of the IS onslaught in the region of Sinjar this month suggest that the peshmerga and the political leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan misled them about the threat and abandoned them when they came under attack. Perhaps worse, still, many of the their Sunni Muslim neighbors, with whom they had lived and farmed for centuries, turned against them.
For years, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two ruling parties in the Kurdistan region, has poured money into the pockets of Yazidis in Sinjar who were willing to join the party. They also offered protection. The Yazidis’ arcane religion, which mingles Zoroastrianism and belief in fallen-and-resurrected angels, is incorrectly but commonly called “devil worship” by outsiders and is precisely the kind of “idolatrous” faith Muslims have sought to extirpate since the days of the Prophet Mohammad. In areas outside of Kurdish control, like Mosul, jihadists targeted Yazidis even before the recent offensive by IS. But in Sinjar, nestled at the southern foot of a large isolated mountain that rises like a vision from the surrounding plain, the KDP assured the residents — including Yazidis and a smaller Christian population — that they were safe.
In return Sinjaris voted for the KDP in elections, paving the way for Kurdish political power in Ninewa province (sometimes called Ninevah province) where, otherwise, there was not much of a non-Yazidi Kurdish presence.
After Mosul fell to ISIS two months ago, many Yazidis in Sinjar wanted to leave, and for good reason. But they were pressured to stay by local KDP officials. The sense of foreboding mounted by the day as IS fighters surrounded the Sinjar district on three sides. Only the border with Syria, to the west, was open. IS was in Baadj to the south, Tel Afar and Mosul to the east (between Sinjar and the Kurdish capital of Erbil), and Rabiaa to the north of the mountain.
Rabiaa is home to the powerful Sunni Arab Shammar tribe, who have been friends and economic partners of the Yazidis in Sinjar for centuries. Yet some are now suspected of collaboration with IS against the Yazidis.
Despite the danger and fear of attack, locals consistently were discouraged from leaving Sinjar by local KDP and Kurdish government officials who reassured civilians that the peshmerga would keep them safe.
A local KDP official, whom we’ll call Amina because of potential security threats she may face, says that higher-ups in the party told representatives to keep people calm, and that if people in their areas of coverage left their salaries would be cut.
Sarbast Baiperi, head of the KDP’s Branch 17 in Sinjar, could be seen in KDP media and on Facebook posing with various weapons and claiming that “until the last drop of blood we will defend Sinjar.”
But Sarbast Baiperi was one of the first to flee Sinjar, according to several sources. He rolled out of town the night before the attack had even started because he heard IS was on its way to the outlying villages of Seebaya and Tel Banat. And not only did he flee, but he fled in a single vehicle, telling no one but his guards. Late the next morning when townspeople fled in panic only minutes ahead of the advancing IS fighters, Baiperi was waiting at the Tirbka checkpoint north of the mountain near to the Syrian border.
Baiperi, unfortunately, was part of a greater trend.
Firsthand accounts from Sinjar paint a picture of withdrawal without a fight and without warning the local population.
The first quiet retreat was in the southern villages, which bore the brunt of the initial attack. Late into the night of Saturday, August 2, IS first launched mortars into Seebaya and Tel Banat, close to the militant group’s positions in Baadj district. In the early morning of August 3, Yazidi men, not peshmerga, stood and fought thinking that the Kurdish forces would soon join in the battle. When they realized that wasn’t going to happen, many tried to escape over the mountain. While it is difficult at this point to estimate how many were killed, locals say the number was around 200.
If the Yazidi men had known the peshmerga would withdraw, they might have fled earlier as well. Alone, they were no match for the IS army.
North of the mountain, locals received no warning from peshmerga or KDP and government officials regarding the attacks, said Amina, who worked for the party in that region. She heard about attacks from her aunt who lives south of the mountain, and she called her sub-branch director. She was told to stay calm and that there was no withdrawal. But when she called Sarbast Baiperi’s guards they said he had left the night before and they themselves were already gone, and they confirmed the troop withdrawal.
Others from northern villages had similar stories: foggy information about the nature of the attacks south of the mountain, unaware of peshmerga withdrawal.
So it was as late as 10 a.m. on that Sunday, after fighting had been going on for hours south of the mountain, that people in towns north of the mountain like Snuny, Khana Sor and Dugre started to leave. Many were only minutes ahead of IS. Ahmed, a 70-year-old man from Khana Sor, says he heard the first gun shots behind him just as he left town — and running and driving alongside the fleeing civilians were the peshmerga forces. As they drove down the one safe from north of the mountain toward Dohuk, under firm Kurdish control, the peshmerga abandoned each checkpoint, joining the exodus.
Soon the twin columns of refugee civilians and peshmerga came under sporadic fire, but the Kurdish government forces by then were neither positioned nor inclined to fight back. Amina’s cousin was shot in the hand. Bullets and richochets blasted through care windows and windshields.
There were Kurdish fighters who stood their ground, but they were from neighboring Syria, members of the so-called People’s Protection Units of a militia, affiliated with the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, that goes by the initials YPG. The group is famous for its many women warriors, and they were much in evidence fighting back against IS forces during the flight from Sinjar.
As the refugees approached Dohuk, furious at the spectacle of the peshmerga who had fled ahead of them, they hit a checkpoint where peshmerga were confiscating unauthorized weapons. The Sinjaris sent word back down their convoy: “Give your guns to the YPG!”
Other Sinjaris who had fled to the mountain eventually were extracted in a combined operation in which, once again, Syrian and Turkish Kurds of the PKK (which the United States and European Union define as a terrorist organization because of its long war against the Turkish government) played a central role.
Why were the Yazidis not better protected to begin with? In Iraq’s complex mosaic of sects and ethnicities it’s fair to say that the Yazidis are not quite as Kurdish as the mainstream Kurdish population would like them to be. They tend to see themselves first as Yazidis and only secondly as Kurds, whereas most other Kurds (who are largely Sunni in their faith) put their ethnic identity first.
Added to that is a long tradition of social discrimination, with derogatory stereotypes of the “devil worshipping” Yazidis shared by Iraqi Muslims, Kurds and Arabs alike. I have been in many a conversation with drivers and merchants on the way to Yazidi towns over the years when I’ve been told, “Be careful, they are dirty and they do not shower many times for 40 days,” followed by warnings: “Don’t drink their water,” and, “Don’t drink their tea.” But somehow I managed to survive.
Sarbast Baiperi and local KDP offiials, in their own defense, say they were ill prepared, under-supplied and under-staffed. In an interview with a Kurdish publication Baiperi said the fall of Sinjar was not his fault, and that he had called for more weapons and support in the weeks and days before IS arrived, but his requests were denied.
Either way there is enough blame to go around: local peshmerga and officials should have helped evacuate people instead of simply withdrawing with the little ammunition and military vehicles they had. Higher-ups should have seen the obvious likelihood of an attack, with Sinjar being surrounded by IS.
Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, promised to investigate and punish peshmerga officers and KDP officials who left Sinjar.
But for the time being a reprimand will not be enough to for the thousands of families from Sinjar spread huddled in makeshift shelters in the Dohuk region, who vow they will never forgive the KDP, Kurdistan and peshmerga or live under their political or military authority again.
The plight of the Yazidis may have been one of the triggers that brought the United States and European powers into the war to fight IS and support the Kurds, but what the Yazidis really want now is get out of Kurdistan, to get out of Iraq, to find asylum in the West. “The peshmerga ran away; they left us and we can never trust them again,” said one of the new Yazidi refugees. Noble pronouncements about their defense do not sit well with them. As another said, quoting an old Arab proverb, “Don’t kill me and then walk at my funeral.”