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No return?

Hermione Gee, Lalish, IraqAugust 28, 2014

After their persecution by the "Islamic State," many of Kurdistan's 600,000 or so Yazidi are looking to leave Iraq, threatening to further diminish the community that has been native to the region for thousands of years.

Some of the 2,500 displaced people now living at Lalish wait for food at the makeshift canteen
Image: Hermione Gee

The Yazidi temple of Lalish in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq lies a few miles outside the town of Shekhan. Tucked into the hillside, the pointed roofs distinctive of Yazidi monuments rise up from between the treetops as visitors make their way along the unpaved road that leads to the entrance of the temple.

Kurdistan's small Yazidi community usually gathers at Lalish for its annual religious festivals in spring, summer and fall. But this month, they are there for protection, running in fear of their lives from "Islamic State" (IS) militants, who have killed and captured thousands of Yazidi since the beginning of August.

The Yazidi's persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists goes back centuries, to the first Muslim incursion into the Kurdistan region. A pre-Islamic, pagan religion, with its roots in Zoroastrianism, the Yazidi are considered devil worshippers by many Muslims, and extremist militants such as IS consider it their religious duty to either convert or kill them.

Most of the 450 families now living in the temple are from the western district of Sinjar that lies between Mosul and the Syrian border, and they all have terrible stories to tell of their experience at the hands of the IS militants.

"We were the last family to leave [the city of] Sinjar," says 24-year-old Khalida Burkat, sitting in the shade of a concrete security barrier at the entrance to the temple, her three-week-old daughter sleeping in a plastic storage crate beside her. Having given birth just two days before the militants overran the city, Burkat and her husband waited until the last minute to move their tiny new baby and three other daughters, all under the age of six.

Khalida Burkat sits on the ground with her children
Khalida Burkat spent eight days trapped on Sinjar Mountain with her days-old babyImage: Hermione Gee

As they fled the city for the nearby Sinjar Mountain, where tens of thousands of Yazidi sought refuge, Burkat says she saw IS snipers shoot and kill three men in front of her, as they rounded a bend on the zigzag path that leads to the summit. Once at the top, the family spent eight days without food and with almost no water, under siege from the IS militants. "What could we do?" she says, "We just asked God to help us."

Burkat's family was eventually rescued by the members of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Along with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the PKK established a secure corridor into Syria and escorted thousands of Yazidi to safety. From there, they trekked back into Iraq and made their way to Lalish.

At IS's mercy

Not everyone survived the ordeal on the mountain. Basee Elias lost her 50-year-old sister, Kamo. "She had a heart attack," Elias says. "She died of fear."

Elias is from the village of Siba Sheikh Khdr, which was attacked by the IS early on the morning of August 3. Her uncle-in-law, Khider Elias, was in the village as the militants entered.

Khider Elias sits with a family member in the Yazidi temple in Lalish
Khider Elias (left) saw the IS militants enter Siba Sheikh Khdr and raise their flagImage: Hermione Gee

"They came in about 24 vehicles," he says, "They raised their flag and were shouting 'Allahu Akbar.' There were five or six families left in the village, and I saw the IS just shoot and kill three men."

Other residents were abducted by the IS and no one knows what has happened to them. It's likely that some were taken to Mosul or Tal Afar, where hundreds of Yazidi women and girls are being held hostage, while many others have been sold in markets in Mosul and Raqqa, like slaves.

"We wish the US would bomb those places," says Hamat Khalaf, whose family is from Sinjar. "Those girls are raped, sometimes by 10 or 20 men. It's better for them that they die."

After everything that they have been through, many people say they don't want to return to their homes, even if the militants are driven out. "We've lost everything," says Khider Elias. "If we work for another 30 years to rebuild, in one hour it could all be gone again. There's no reason to go back."

Hope for a safe haven

The Yazidi feel particularly vulnerable because many of their villages in Sinjar are surrounded by Muslim settlements whose residents, the Yazidi say, collaborated with the militants against their Yazidi neighbors. "We would never sleep," Elias says, "we would never feel safe."

The villagers have also accused the Kurdish Peshmerga forces of failing to protect them.

"Before this happened, the Peshmerga took our weapons and said, 'Don't worry, we're Peshmerga - we'll fight,'" says Hamat Khalaf. "But they did nothing; they abandoned us. Only God knows why the Peshmerga didn't help us. It's shameful, shameful."

Many of the refugees at Lalish are now saying they want to leave Iraq and join the Yazidi diaspora in the West.

"Europe, America, Australia - I want to go anywhere where there are no Muslims, no Islam," says Khider Elias.

Men sit on the ground in the Lalish temple's courtyard
Religious rituals are held in the main courtyard that leads to the underground templeImage: Hermione Gee

The Yazidi's religious leaders are doing their best to keep their congregation in Iraq but accept that they need to be better protected. Yazidi monk Baba Chawish, who lives in Lalish, is one fo them.

"Kurdistan is our home: Our temple is here, our life is here; this is where the Yazidi were first created. When the Yazidi leave their homes, it's bad for them and bad for our religion," he says. "[But] if there's no security, how can we tell them to stay?"

He's pinning his hopes on the international community to provide protection in addition to local forces.

"We need America to help the Yazidi," Baba Chawish says, "America, the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan government. I think there will be a positive outcome. Everyone is helping the Yazidi today."

Luqman Suleiman, a schoolteacher and volunteer guide at Lalish, is also optimistic. "The future of Kurdistan will be good for the Yazidi. For the first time we've heard Obama say the word 'Yazidi,' Ban Ki-moon is talking about the Yazidi, John Kerry is talking about the Yazidi," he says. "The whole world knows about us now."

And he, for one, isn't going anywhere. "Where should I go? Germany? No, let the Germans come and visit us here. You can't just leave every time there's a problem. If we do that, how can we make a life?"