THOUSANDS of Yazidi men were massacred in August 2014, as Islamic State jihadists overran Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. The women were sold into servitude or handed to jihadists as concubines.
Some of those who escaped fled to places such as Idomeni, a village between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia. Alongside refugees from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries in Central Asia, Yazidis arrived via Turkey, to cross the Greek border into Macedonia (Macedonia forms part of the “Balkan route” that migrants take to reach Germany and other European countries).
The Macedonian authorities closed the border in 2015, causing a humanitarian crisis. Idomeni became an informal refugee camp. It now hosts more than 10,000 people, forced to live in appalling conditions. Immersed in rubbish, toxic fumes, and mud, more than 1200 Yazidis wait for the border to reopen.
Yazidis are a religious group of about half-a-million people, who originate from the Iraqi province of Nineveh. They share a language and much of the culture of the Turkish and Syrian Kurds. Because they endorse a Gnostic pre-Islamic cult, they have become, together with Christians and Shias, one of the main targets of the ethnic cleansing carried out by Islamic State (IS), or Daesh. They can easily be recognised among Kurds and Arabs by the red-and-white bracelets, symbolising their flag, worn on the wrists of elders and children alike. Their tattered tents, sometimes gifts from locals, are located in two sectors separate from the rest of the camp.
Khder, a 25-year-old man, arrived from Turkey on a boat with his wife, their two children, and his sister. Before leaving Sinjar, he was a security guard. With a hospitality typical of his people, he took us to a meet the community in a tent reserved for assemblies, where he offered sweet chai, and a rich breakfast of naan, olives, dates, and mast (yogurt). Seated cross-legged on a blanket — a gift of the UNHCR — his people showed us photographs of relatives captured or killed by IS; they presented their stories as a burning heat enfolded the camp.
Khder and a few others managed to flee shortly before IS besieged Sinjar, but their territory — and friends and relatives — are still in the hands of IS executioners. They have had no contact for months. Most of the people are missing. Men and children who refused to convert to Islam have been killed; the women have been abducted, to be turned into slaves or prostitutes.
Some, like Saif, a 28-year-old biologist, experienced the attacks directly, finding refuge with thousands of people on the Sinjar mountains. Surrounded by IS militiamen, they spent seven days without food. They were saved by YPG and PKK (Kurdish) fighters, who opened humanitarian corridors to the Kurdish region of Rojava. The soldiers rescued women and children, and offered weapons to men who wished to join the fight.
Selim, a 30-year-old engineer, recalled the stories about IS which circulated during the siege: “They separated the adults from their children, and after a few hours they brought food; when they had finished eating, the militiamen confessed, laughing, that they had just eaten their children.”
Khalaf, a former soldier of the Iraqi army, managed to escape his executioners: “They captured me in the combat between my regiment and the jihadists. I spent five days in their jails, and during my imprisonment I saw many being blindfolded to be killed. I was spared, probably because they could use another fighter, but during another skirmish I escaped.”
The Yazidis say that, from 1600 to the present, they have fled from their country 64 times. “Our relations with Christians have always been excellent before 2007, the year we had some attacks, and we had a good relationship with the local Muslims as well,” Khder said. “But, when the Daesh arrived, many of them helped to conquer the territory.”
Yassis comes from a village south of Sinjar. When IS arrived, he was in Baghdad for work. The jihadists killed his three sons, abducted his parents, and took his wife. She has been shut in a basement in Raqqa for nine months, forced into prostitution. Only his remaining, mentally handicapped child was spared — he is now in Germany thanks to a humanitarian organisation. Yassis’s only aim is to reach him. Saif, on the other hand, has a brother in Germany; he may be able to cross the ocean to join his father, who emigrated some years ago to the United States.
Even in Greece, the Yazidis continue to live in fear, convinced that they cannot freely practise their religion because there are IS sympathisers at the camp who insult and threaten them. They find it difficult to demonstrate their faith to the authorities because they lost most of their cult objects when abandoning their homes. The Iraqi government is still reluctant to recognise any massacre.
Yazidis count their people every day, and every night they place one sentry for every three tents — an “asaish”, who watches and does not sleep. The WiFi in the camp is unreliable; the information is scarce, and mostly in Arabic. The Skype connection, to request asylum, is not operative.
As evening fell, new bonfires were lit, and people gathered round them for dinner. The end of the Yazidi year was closing in. On a tent there was a red notice: “We are ezides, we want go in Germany.” Germany is their dream: a place in the world where they can finally live in peace, no longer persecuted for their creed.