MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq — Singled out for genocide by the so-called Islamic State and abandoned by the Iraqi Kurds, young Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq are flocking to the militias and ideology of a quasi-Marxist group blacklisted as a terrorist organization in the West.
Formed into what they’re calling Sinjar Protection Units, or YBŞ, the Yazidis—both male and female—have sworn to defend their homeland and to avenge ISIS’s campaign of rape, kidnapping, and murder.
It’s been just a year now since the jihadists launched their assault on the Yazidis at the beginning of August 2014. ISIS had taken the second-biggest city in Iraq, Mosul, weeks before. But Washington, slow to react, did not begin a bombing campaign to try to stop the group’s offensive until August 7, when President Barack Obama announced the United States would commence airstrikes “to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.”
So began America’s reentry into the complex and baffling war in Iraq and eventually Syria as well.
But the operation failed to save thousands of Yazidi men summarily executed and women sold as jihadist slaves, and this small ethno-religious group regarded as infidels and even devil worshippers by the militants of ISIS is still haunted by the shadows of genocide.
When an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, offered them the chance to train as fighters, they vowed never again. That Ankara, Brussels, and Washington brand the guerrilla organization “terrorist” matters not at all.
“I came because I got the chance to protect my people, because this isn’t the first time there’s been a Yazidi genocide,” says 16-year-old female YBŞ fighter Ari. She says the Yazidis count 74 times others have tried to wipe them out. “I have found a chance to protect us and prevent a next time.”
Dressed in khaki fatigues and a woodland camouflage vest that holds her AK-47 magazines, Ari is relaxing beside half a dozen of her comrades in a house turned barracks on the north slope of Mount Sinjar. Similarly dressed and sipping tea, many are also still in their teens or early 20s.
They all say the Erbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its troops known as Peshmerga, closely allied with the United States, abandoned the Yazidis when ISIS attacked their heartland surrounding this mountain in northwestern Iraq.
“We’re going to stay in the YBŞ because the Iraqi army already left us and the Peshmerga ran away,” Ari says defiantly. “When our enemies came no one took care of us. The next time they come, we’ll be the protection force for the Yazidis.”
KRG officials, especially those of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party of KRG President Masoud Barzani, had long courted the favor of the Yazidis, who mostly speak Kurdish and live in a stretch of Iraq’s ethnically mixed Nineveh province claimed by Erbil in its competition for territory with Baghdad. But KDP officials reportedly were among the first to flee when ISIS approached the mountain. Without the Peshmerga to defend them, the Yazidis were massacred.
After taking outlying villages just days before, ISIS seized Sinjar City at the southern base of the mountain on August 3, forcing upwards of 200,000 people to flee. As many as 5,000 Yazidi men were executed by the group, and 5,000 to 7,000 women were enslaved.
Yazidi activist Khalil al-Dakhi, who has specialized in orchestrating rescue missions for ISIS-captured Yazidis, told The Daily Beast in mid-July that children taken by the jihadists are placed into military academies to be brainwashed into ISIS ideology and used as future soldiers. “They have 300 children in a Sharia school in Tal Afar,” Dhaka says. “They teach girls about becoming jihadi brides.”
As the Sinjar tragedy unfolded, an estimated 40,000 Yazidis fled up the mountain for safety. Their survival appeared dire. ISIS was closing in and the top of the mountain offered scorching summer temperatures and little water or supplies.
But buoyed by the American-led airstrikes, PKK-allied Kurdish units from neighboring Syria, known as the YPG, along with the PKK fighters from Turkey fought through ISIS lines, and by August 10 had secured a corridor to allow many of the stranded Yazidis to cross into Syrian territory.
“The YPG were the first to come and rescue us. They helped us and opened a humanitarian corridor and gave us weapons,” says 20-year-old Sozdar, one of Ari’s comrades on Sinjar’s north side.
“They trained us how to fight ISIS and many have been killed fighting for us,” she adds.
Although the PKK and YPG ostensibly operate as different political bodies, they all share a belief in “Apoism,” a near-cult-like reverence for PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, jailed on an island in Turkey. Shrines to Ocalan—who’s nicknamed Apo, the Kurdish word for uncle—have been erected on Sinjar. Plastered in bright red, green, and yellow, the colors of the PKK flag, with Ocalan’s face surrounded by the faces of martyrs in this fight, the monuments are now guarded proudly by PKK fighters and their Yazidi recruits.
Built on Marxist-Leninist ideals and Kurdish nationalism, the PKK took shape in the late 1970s in the fight for autonomy against the powerful Turkish state. By the 1980s it was waging guerrilla war and its tactics—which included bombing civilian as well as military and police targets—got the PKK listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and its NATO allies, including the United States.
It’s pointless to sketch the nominal differences among the acronym-afflicted sub-groups. The line between YPG and PKK units, including the PKK’s HPG armed wing, is in practice nearly nonexistent on Sinjar today. YPG and YBŞ units are mixed and often given PKK/HPG commanders.
All those fighting ISIS in the region are also furious at the thought they are considered terrorists in the West. “We have saved many people and many children. If we were terrorists we’d be like ISIS,” says Vian, Sozdar, and Ari’s 18-year-old PKK commander and training instructor.
“We don’t listen to these people. We fight for humanity,” she continues, fuming. “Anyone who comes to see us will know who we are, and we are not terrorists!”
A peace treaty was signed between the PKK and Ankara in 2013, but this year events escalated. The killing of two Turkish police claimed by the PKK’s HPG in July set up Turkey’s current bombing of PKK targets.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “took steps deliberately to provoke the PKK,” David L. Phillips, the director of the Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University and a former State Department and UN adviser, told The Daily Beast. “By responding, the Western countries are going to put on the back burner any talk about taking the PKK off the FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organization] list.”
“I would say it’s only a short matter of time before [Erdogan] starts bombing YPG facilities in Rojava,” Phillips added.
Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, is terrain Vian knows well. A five-year veteran of the PKK, she says she’s fought in Turkey and against ISIS in Syria before coming to Sinjar three months ago. Her YBŞ recruits are given courses in reading, writing, and weapons before being allowed to fight. Learning the works of Ocalan is also required. “Of course Apo, Apo is everything,” Vian proclaims.
She goes on to say the PKK will stay on Sinjar as long as it takes to make sure the Yazidis are secure, but the PKK has no aspirations of incorporating the mountain into its territory and will leave when ISIS is no longer a threat.
Perhaps. But the group’s presence is a problem for the Iraqi Kurdish government in Erbil, which claims Sinjar and is opposed to the PKK’s ideology. Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has previously demanded all PKK and YPG units leave Iraqi Kurdistan, and has renewed those calls since the beginning of Turkey’s latest bombing campaign.
“We are not listening to him,” Vian says, scowling. “Who does he think he is? We are coming for humanity. He should remember those kids who were killed in the streets, and then speak.”
While supply drops and airstrikes kept the Yazidis stranded on Sinjar alive and ISIS at bay following the August offensive, it wouldn’t be until December when Kurdish forces—including the Peshmerga and the PKK/YPG—were finally able to break the group’s stranglehold on the mountain. The Peshmerga also employ Yazidi units—around two dedicated battalions at the moment—but support for the Peshmerga on Sinjar is, to say the least, limited.
On the other side of the mountain, YBŞ and PKK/YPG men and women conduct joint patrols in the bombed-out ruins of what remains of Sinjar City, most of which is still controlled by ISIS.
Leading these patrols is a man who goes by the nom de guerre Ager, which is Kurdish for “fire.” Ager, 24, is taking a small group of reporters to what he’s deemed safe areas of Sinjar City. Coalition airstrikes and ISIS car bombs and bombardments have taken their toll on the buildings there, now completely abandoned save for combatants and hostages that Ager claims ISIS is holding. Many structures have been reduced to skeletons of rebar and crushed cinderblock. Coalition aircraft are also constantly in the air, bombing ISIS sites in the remains of the town.
Over these ruins the PKK-allied fighters man a series of checkpoints and vantage points. Sniper fire is a constant threat. Short, predictable exchanges of inaccurate fusillades ring out every half-hour or so.
“We have snipers,” Ager brags, laughing. “Maybe you saw them and didn’t know it.”
Fighting in Sinjar City has ground into a deadly routine for the Kurds and Yazidis. Those coming back from patrols and sniper duty are clapped on the back and embraced by their comrades when they return to safe houses hidden in the city’s anti-ISIS pockets. Both men and women when not on duty relax by drinking tea and smoking.
“There are two things we’ll never run out of,” Ager jokes as one of his fighters offers a smoke, “cigarettes and enemies.”
Over 6 feet tall and muscular, Ager’s frame stands in stark contrast to the men and women in his charge, who are mostly teenagers. Ager says he’s a Yazidi, but also to have participated in past PKK campaigns in Turkey. He bristles at any criticism of the group’s use of children, saying that he too fought as a youngster, and, given the situation, it’s a necessity.
“I really don’t like the question, all of us are the same,” he retorts when asked about the age of his fighters. “They are part of the strategy, we must all face the enemy.” Then he considers his answer and says he tries to keep the youngest fighters on guard duty and away from patrols until they’re ready. “Sometimes they want to patrol, but we don’t allow it,” he says.
But at least some of the parents are more than proud their kids are becoming combatants.
“I like the teenagers and young people who join any force,” says 39-year-old Yazidi Kadir Saleh, a father of three whose eldest daughter has just joined the YBŞ at age 17.
Dressed in a clean and pressed blue pinstriped dress shirt and wearing a well-trimmed mustache, it’s hard to believe Saleh has been living atop Sinjar in a tent since ISIS overran his village a year ago. He says even though he’s free to leave today, many of the Yazidis prefer their tents on Sinjar over a crowded refugee camp in the lowlands. Here they can graze sheep and goats and maintain some semblance of community amid the chaos of the war below.
Saleh says he and the other civilians in this ad-hoc community owe everything to the PKK/YPG intervention, and their children have their full support in joining the YBŞ. “They protect us. Most of them have had family members killed or kidnapped, so they have to fight, and take revenge and fight terrorists,” he says. A group of Saleh’s male neighbors who gathered while he spoke to The Daily Beast agreed with him, and said they too had allowed their children to join the militias.
Their support of youth participation in the YBŞ—especially for women and girls—is made all the more striking by the fact Yazidis in rural Sinjar are often part of traditional patriarchal families. So-called honor killings of Yazidi women believed to have shamed their families have even survived into the present. A gruesome video that drew headlines and condemnation in 2007 showed a 17-year-old Yazidi girl named Dua Khalil Aswad being stoned to death by her own people on suspicion she converted to Islam to elope with a Muslim.
But the PKK/YPG model preaches equality of the sexes, something gaining ground among the Yazidis rescued by the militias.
Vian, the teenage PKK commander and drill instructor, claims for her part that the threat to ISIS fighters they’ll be killed by women gives coed units a psychological edge. “We have heard ISIS is afraid of fighting women,” she says. “We think ISIS is saying ‘If not for women, we’d control all the world.’”
“They don’t want to be killed by us,” she adds smugly.
“My family is happy I joined,” adds female Yazidi fighter Sozdar. “I have three sisters and a brother who have joined too.”
And so it’s come to pass on Sinjar that ISIS might have inexplicably become an agent of gender equality, albeit through the Yazidis—cornered and friendless save for the PKK and YPG—coming to terms with the recruitment of child soldiers.
“Before, in other genocides, the women fought the enemy, but in smaller numbers. If before women knew about weapons and defense and how to fight, maybe not so many of them would have been kidnapped and killed,” Saleh says. “I know our traditions, but it’s a good idea to let the women kill ISIS next to the men.”