Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism

Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism

 Post-ISIS Yazidis….Immigrants in a ‘Life-and-Death Journey’ in Search of a Safe Haven

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Saman Noah ـ Bassem Francis

“It might be my last journey in this world… It might cost me my life and cost my household all the savings I have been making for years, but nothing will stop me, I might possibly find a land that can keep what is left of my dignity and humanity… a land better than a homeland where my whole existence is under threat almost every day.”

These were actually the last words uttered by the Yazidi youth, Da’oad Hesso, after bidding farewell to his Muslim companion, Mohammed Sulliman. He was on his way to the Turkish capital Ankara, and from there to the Turkey-Bulgaria borders. That was an illegal immigration risk supposed to end in Germany, the prime destination for dozens of thousands Yazidis searching for a safe haven, fleeing the over year-long annihilation operations that they had been exposed to in their historical territory of Sinjar and Nenoy Plain after the invasion Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi militants.

‘ A life – and – death journey’ as described by Hesso, represents ” the last salvation attempt for Yazidis, to rid  themselves of the ordeals from which they had been suffering for long decades, and today it has reached its final climax after the Islamic State Organization ‘ISIS’ had occupied their territories and considered it a part of their ” Caliphate Land’, with no place for Yazidis who are classified by them as ‘infidels’ and who have so far suffered heavy losses in lives amounting to some 3000 victims lost in mass annihilation operations, in addition to the detention of around 4000 others, mostly women and children, according to what Yazidi activists and officials indicate.

In the midst of Duhok, inside the house of the Yazidi Khayro who accompanied Hesso in the journey to the unknown, there sits his mother silently in the far corner of the living room, where the helpless family display anything fit for sale, while two women are seen in their long black abaya (Muslim attire for women) checking a carpet and a set of domestic utensils and insistently bargaining to purchase them at a lower price.

“We will sell it at any price to have enough cash that can cover the cost of travel for most of the family members. My mum has her own memory for each piece of such items, but that doesn’t matter now”, said Khayro after his mother had refused to speak and covered her face with the tip of her headscarf.

Some 350,000 Yazidis, who managed to flee the expected fighting, prior to the arrival of the extremist ISIS organization to their regions, are now resettled in Kurdistan’s cities, experiencing difficult conditions in their makeshift camps that actually lack most of the badly needed life requirements, not to mention the temperatures that rise to over 50 degrees in summer and then fall to minus zero in winter.

Among the reasons behind pushing Yazidi youth to plan immigration overseas as indicated by Hassan Akko, a Yazidi activist, are; desperation of being back home quickly, fear from the future of coexisting among a stringent Islamic community which is actually ‘sharing in their annihilation and rejecting their mere existence and culture’, as well as the problems of poverty and unemployment overspreading in their makeshift camps. He said, “Immigration rates escalate both through smuggling networks across the west northern borders of Turkey and through the illegal immigration mafias across the Mediterranean.”.

Khalaat Sammo is another Yazidi getting ready to immigrate to Germany, says while recalling the early hours of the fall of Sinjar city by ‘ISIS’ on August 3, 2014, “I was actually lucky that day. Both I and my family survived the random slaughter operations perpetrated by our Muslim neighbors. I was also fortunate when I escaped being starved to death in Sinjar Mount which had been under ten-day siege by ISIS. But I don’t really know if I would be lucky enough to survive my new journey or else meet my end.”

 

Horrendous Immigration Rates

Risks of illegal immigration whether across the seas or by land are so many, in addition to being under the fire of border guards and ‘the greed of immigration mafias’, who do not hesitate to kill if their interests are exposed to any danger. But, like thousands of Yazidis, Sammo is insistent on taking the risk. “I’ll keep on seeking a new homeland where I can regain my already stolen dignity, and perhaps I can be able to erase from my mind any memory of slaughter, treason, captivity, and deadly thirst.

And as per a questionnaire carried out in June 2015 by a Yazidi establishment in Al Sheikh Village, affiliated to Kurdistan province, where Yazidis co-exist with Muslims, around 3000 Yazidis emigrate monthly from Kurdistan, a rate considered quite enough to end the Yazidi existence within a few years.

That same questionnaire indicates that 96% of Yazidis are willing to immigrate to Europe, leaving the land that has been long bracing their temples, their holy shrines and their entire historical heritage.

The above figures are consistent with the figures and indications issued by the Directorate of Yazidi Affairs of Kurdistan’s Government, which speaks about the immigration of some 100,000 Yazidi daily. “Around 40,000 Kurdish Yazidi emigrated from Kurdistan during the first six months of 2015.” Said Haddi Doubanni, an official with the directorate, who also confirmed that the majority of immigrants are youth, attributing the reason behind their departure to their desperation. “They find no job opportunities, and their cities are still subjugated to the domination of ISIS with no apparent possibilities of their liberation.” He said.

 

Underlying motives behind Immigration

Jassim Khudeda, who was exchanging a sum of money to the Turkish lira at the money exchange market in the city of Zakho on the Turkish border, said, “I have no other option. I can realize how risky this decision is, but I no longer have any relation with this homeland”. He kept speechless while nodding his head, looking at his identity documents, including his Iraqi passport that he has just photocopied.

” We were stabbed twice, one in the back by the inhabitants of some Arab villages who sold us out, and the other in front by some military leaders who are supposed to be in charge of our safety, but instead they decided to pull out leaving us defenseless with our destiny in the hands of a barbaric gang. I wonder how trust can be regained anew. It’s actually the 73rd genocide striking us on this territory.” Khudida, who exceeded his fifty, said while touching his thick mustache and beard.

Yazidi historians say that Yazidis were actually exposed to as high as 72 genocides, in attempts to force them convert their faith, the last of which was perpetrated by the Ottomans in the early twentieth century. That was before ISIS militants invaded our territory and committed their last genocide, the victims of which, as estimated by some Yazidi activists and representatives, reached as many as 3000 men, slaughtered and buried in mass graves. This, in addition to over 4000 women and children, 2000 of which are still unaccounted for.

“I just want to forget the land which gave us nothing but death for the seeds of goodness we’ve been sowing in it for long years. I also want to forget the land we fled to, in our attempt to escape ‘ISIS’, the land where we are looked upon as pariah citizens with eyes chasing and blaming us for seeking jobs and be satisfied with less wages to support our families and protect them from the evils of need and beggary.”, said Jamal, Khudida’s cousin and one of those preparing themselves for immigration.

“Religious persecution, harassments, and the difficult life in makeshift camps, in addition to the overwhelming insecurity sensations as a result of losing trust in both Kurdish and Federal governments which failed to secure their protection, are all among the causes behind pushing Yazidis towards immigration.”, says Yazidi activist, Nareen Shamo.

“Yazidis are suffering from being oppressed and being dealt with as normal refugees and emigrants which is not fair enough. They were exposed to mass killing and intimidation and tasted the bitterness of death under siege in the mountain. This, besides the loss of their beloved ones some of whom are still missing. Despite all such hardships, they face humiliation if they just dare to protest against their tragic humanitarian plight, a state of affairs that consequently generates frustration in the soul of everyone.” exclaimed Shamo.

 

Smuggling Mafias’ Pliers

In the course of her talk about Yazidis, Shamo who has been devoting all her life to follow up the humanitarian conditions of Yazidis since August 3, 1914, and the channels used for their immigration, she said, “Yazidis fled fighting leaving all their belongings behind except the attire covering their bodies. Some households get money from their relatives in Germany to empower any of their members to immigrate, whereas others rely on borrowing. All the money in their hands goes to the greedy smuggling mafias without having any guarantees from them. That what also happens in Turkey’s refugee camps. All of them, including women and children, are facing unknown destiny.”

During her visit to Germany, the Yazidi activist was monitoring the arrival of 30 Yazidis to this country almost daily through risky illegal journeys which at times require either walking on foot or staying overnight in forests for several days or confronting border guards or being stacked in small rubber sailing boats used to carry refugees and face the risk of drowning almost daily. “I came across two youths in the German city of Kutinkn. They talked about their long tiring journey and how they walked dozens of kilometers on foot after they were exploited by smuggling gangs. And in spite of the risk of death they had faced, they considered their risky adventure worthy of being made as the only way that can get them out of Iraq’s quagmire.” She said.

” The two youths were expecting the arrival of 40 of their friends and relatives who had already entered Turkey to take the same risky journey regardless of what might happen to them…”.” Leaving your homeland, your life and your whole history and move to the unknown.” said Shamo describing it as a real dilemma.

The Directorate of the Yazidi Affairs in Kurdistan admits that the situation is awful and considers that ‘ the alarm bell sounds’, in view of the fact that families settling in the areas which have not fallen into the hands of ISIS started ‘selling their belongings ready for departure’. They warn against the consequences of the daily immigration; “it has become an increasingly escalating phenomenon, particularly after some European countries started to offer facilities for the reception of refugees.’

Khairry Bouzanni, the official of the Yazidi affairs at the Ministry Of Endowment in Kurdistan Government sees that “the pessimistic look overpowers the Yazidi Youth, being suffering from frustration after finding themselves refugees devoid of any entity or honorable life. They have not yet woken up from the nightmare of treason and the stab that treacherously struck them in the back from some of the population of the Arab villages. They can no longer trust any possibility of coexistence there after the tolerance spirit that has been for decades one of the major pillars of the society seems to have been lost after ISIS invasion.”

Bouzanni sees that the plight of the Yazidi refugees in the province cities is relatively better than their peers who are being sheltered in Turkey’s makeshift camps. “The humanitarian conditions there are horrendous, something that pushes the refugees, particularly youth to seek any means to leave for Europe, even with the risk of facing death, and smuggling mafias. Some youth lose huge amounts of money, while others meet their ends in seas or on land routes and many cases of death and disappearance have been recorded.”

 

Fall into Trap

Mahmoud Mardin, a specialist in the religions of the ancient orient and minorities, reveals ‘an escalating rise in the rate of Yazidi youth refugees from Turkey to Greece by sea and then to Italy, through human smuggling networks, who most often use boats unfit for sail, boats that are threatened to get sunken in dark seas swallowing with them immigrants’ dreams and turning their human carcasses into feed for fish.”.

Mardin, who closely monitors the new immigration waves in Kurdistan, refers that some mafias use land routes not less dangerous than the sea voyages, where the immigrants fall preys to the exploitation of greedy smugglers who abandon them soon after any threat, leaving them helpless to face the risk of detention or disappearance in mysterious circumstances or even death.

Mardin speaks about ‘a third immigration option, where many Yazidis purchase European Travel Visa at a high cost ranging from

$ 9,000 and $ 12,000 with the possibility of increasing such amounts by the smuggler, taking advantage of the immigrants who might have reached advanced stages of their immigration that make it hard for them to change their minds.’.

Meanwhile, Mardin criticizes the negligence of the province and Baghdad authorities in dealing with the phenomenon of the immigration of Yazidis and the other minority components such as Christians, clarifying that their existence on their historical territory has actually been threatened, so long as the attrition continues and all concerned authorities are just watching.

He said, ‘ In Turkey, 3,000 refugees have tried to spread within the makeshift refugee camps south east of Turkey including Deyar Bakr. That happened weeks before the mass immigration to Bulgaria in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of their dire living conditions, but they were beaten and humiliated and even famished for a couple of days before they were forced to return to their camps.”

Yazidi activist and journalist Khedr Khalat, thinks that one of the causes behind immigration is the delay in the process of liberating Yazidi areas. ” That filled them with desperation after living a whole year in tents without any hope of salvation, whereas world powers say that the war against ISIS would extend for another ten years, a state of affairs that pushed most youth to seek any means to immigrate to Europe.”

Khalat shares Mardin’s vision that ‘immigrants face ‘the most horrendous exploitation by the smugglers’. He says, the average cost of a journey is approximately $10,000, and the amount is determined according to how difficult or easy the journey might be and the seriousness of the routes that need to be taken’.

Smuggling networks and immigration mafias actively transfer immigrants along the northern and southern borders of Turkey or across the sea.

“Some immigrants risked their lives by crossing the sea to Greece, being cheaper than being smuggled into Bulgaria, and from there to Serbia through land routes not void of the risk of facing ferocious and poisonous animals in the forests or dying of severe cold. Others were exposed to beating and came out with broken limbs at the hands of the Bulgarian border guards, or being intimidated by the police dogs.” said Sa’doun Megdel, a Yazidi who has experienced the situation in Nassiben makeshift camp in Turkey.

 

Death on land or deep into Sea

Murdan Shenkali, a youth from Zourafa Compound, affiliated to Sinjar, tells how he had lost his brother and two friends during their risky journey to Bulgaria, ” In spite of our bad financial position, the family supported him so as he can get there and help us to follow him. We managed to collect $ 6,000 for his journey, but he had never arrived there. We heard nothing of him, and after some days, some acquaintances found his dead body with bruises and wounds in the head and abdomen.”

But according to Dlear Muhammad, who is used to transfer many Yazidis wishing to immigrate to Turkey in his car, the fate of others was better for being exposed to only spillage by highwaymen. “You have to expect any and everything on these roads, including the mafias engaged in human trafficking and all illegal acts.” He said.

That same horrific picture is assured by Kamal Sadou from the city of Sinjar, who said, “After waiting for a week, the smuggler said that we must move quickly, and when we reached the border, we were told that the Bulgarian border guards were stationing there. So we stayed waiting in the forest for a couple of days, and to our shock, the smuggler suddenly disappeared. Later on, we were discovered by the guards, simply because we were entrapped and didn’t know the way out of the forest. My leg was broken after being attacked by police dogs and we were forced to get back. It was difficult for me to walk, but the Turkish police rescued us.”

Another youth from Khansour Compound, affiliated to Sinjar, tells the details of his rescue story of his journey to Greece. “We sailed to Turkey on a small boat carrying 90 passengers on its board. The boat sank a few minutes after setting off the shore, but to our good luck, the Turkish police rescued us. Dozens of others were not that lucky.”

“We charge each person an amount ranging from $ 7,000 and

$ 10,000 each according to the smuggling routes… orders received are too many, and smugglers whose businesses were impeded during the last ten years, are now living the most prosperous time of their trade.”, said one of the smugglers who succeeded in helping seven Yazidis to arrive in Germany after a rather two-week risky journey.

 

Reassurances and Slogans

“Yazidis, like other minorities, are desperate. They feel they are being forgotten for over a year since the breakout of the catastrophe. They lost their land and all the things they had been collecting for decades, and they also lost many of their beloved ones.” said Sardar Ali, an activist monitoring the immigration of the minorities to the unknown.

He said, “Neither the rhetoric used by Iraq’s authorities on coexistence, nor their reassurance rhetoric about equality and citizenship and joint life, would stop immigration.”

He also uncovers the sense of uneasiness overwhelming the Yazidi community and how they are seen by Muslims as second class citizens. “There are people who publicly speak about the non-admissibility of social dealing with the Yazidi community, banning any exchange of visits or sharing any food with them. You can listen to the ‘fatwa’ given by men of religion about this, and you can realize that the Yazidis here cannot work in many sectors and their work is mostly focused on the service sector. Such societal discrimination is felt by every Yazidi.” He said.

Such look extends to the authority itself according to Ali. “The formation of a party by some Yazidis is faced by a wave of suspicions and hindered by lots of security and political obstacles… And the talk of some Yazidis about forming special forces to protect their regions after being liberated is regarded as a crime threatening the unity and security of the region.” Ali said.

“The selection of Yazidi and Christian faces and getting them engaged in the ruling parties and giving them some small positions, and the talk about the embracement of the minorities or the healing of their wounds, are all formative affairs that would not solve the chronic complexes… Perhaps the stability of security and the development of economy will cut the immigration rates, and tempt many to stay. But worrying about the future will still exist in the mind of Yazidis, so long as they are looked upon as second-class citizens, and so long as social and cultural values remain distorted.”, said Ali.

 

Destinies of Death and Annihilation

A former member in ‘Lash’ which is considered the most prominent Yazidi cultural center in Kurdistan warns against the end of their existence. He said, “The situation is rather catastrophic. Everyone thinks about immigration without any deterrence, since the future is ambiguous. Only elders will be found in a matter of years.”

The member who refused to be identified for fear of being scolded by the authorities also said, “The youth are desperate. They no longer believe that this land can accept them or understand their own privacy. Anyone possessing $ 5,000 plans for immigration, the rich and the poor alike… Istanbul, Aderna and several other Turkish cities have become stations for their final immigration.”

The Yazidi extinction from their historical territory is regarded by a Yazidi journalist getting ready to immigrate as an evitable matter. “Yes the continuation of immigration with its present rates will eventually mean the end of our existence on this land. But is there another option?… We are between the jaws of the oppression of ISIS and hardliners, and a society paying no attention to our privacy”

The journalist who lives in a small room inside a building under structure within the outskirts of Dahuk said, while embracing between his knees his daughter who was born weeks after ISIS invasion, whereas his mother sitting next to him in her white Yazidi attire. “We are now living in a dark tunnel with no glimpse of hope. We have thousands of victims buried in dozens of mass graveyards, and about 2,000 missing women and the world is just watching and talking about war plans that might extend five years. We don’t know what the future holds for us. The only option left is to rescue the future of the survivors and help them immigrate to a secure world.” He said.

This report was accomplished with the support of Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ), and under the supervision of KumayAl-Mulhim.

August 2015