MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq — Blue and white tents line the top of Mount Sinjar, communities of the displaced clustered together by tribes on the flattened peak. While most fled, around 10,000 Yazidis refused to abandon their ancient homeland on Sinjar Mountain when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) tore through the mountain community six months ago.
ISIS militants took the city of Sinjar and surrounding areas on Aug. 3, prompting an estimated 200,000 people to flee. Several thousand Yazidi residents who did not make it out in time were captured, and then either executed, imprisoned or enslaved by the extremists in what has been described by the United Nations as an attempted genocide on the Yazidi population, who ISIS declare are “non-believers” and devil worshippers.
The Yazidis, an ancient ethnic and religious group with ties to the region that date back 4,000 years, found themselves fleeing to the mountain for the 73rd time in their history, a number every Yazidi on Mount Sinjar recounts in sorrow.
The mountain camps of Sinjar at first sight appear similar to any other refugee or IDP (internally displaced persons) encampment in Iraq — tired, worn-down faces peek out of tarp tents, young children turn over empty jugs one after another in their search for any water that may have evaded the gaze of their elders.
Yet there is one jarring difference from other camps. Here, young men and women mingle between their families’ tents wearing olive green military garb, mismatched and covered in the mud that has clung to everything since the rainy, cold winter begun three months ago. They wear Kalashnikov assault rifles slung around their shoulders and ammunition strapped around their chests. They aren’t government guards — they’re members of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), the Yazidi militia formed from the displaced community on the mountain that has combated hopelessness and fear through arming themselves and organizing.
The YBS works independently but under the training of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). From the top of Sinjar Mountain black smoke can be seen billowing from Sinjar city below, as Kurdish militia groups and the YBS battle ISIS militants in the now-crumbling streets. Yet Sinjar Mountain and the displaced community atop it have been kept safe, holding ground and preventing further ISIS advances and destruction.
“That’s why I have a gun now”
Hannah Elyas, a 19-year-old from Sinjar who has been training with the YBS since October.
Hannah Elyas, a 19-year-old from Sinjar, has been training with the YBS since October. Elyas stayed on the mountain when thousands of Yazidis fled because she and her family believed that if the whole of their community left they would risk losing their historical homeland.
“I’ve stayed here on the mountain to protect my city. We knew that if all the Yazidi people left this place, we wouldn’t have it anymore,” Elyas told MintPress News while standing outside her family’s tent during a day off from fighting in the city below. Wearing yoga pants and a thin hoodie pulled over her head, she looks like any average teenage girl — except for the fully-automatic machine she clutches. “That’s why we decided to stay, and that’s why I have a gun now.”
While many of the surrounding villages on the western side of the mountain have been liberated from ISIS rule, residents are unable to return. When pulling out, ISIS wired areas with explosives and bulldozed entire blocks of houses. Most of these villages have been reduced to rubble. On the eastern side of the mountain, however, fighting rages on. If any of the displaced on the mountain wishes to leave, their only viable route leads through destroyed Iraqi villages to a broken piece of border fence where they can cross into the rough terrain of northeastern Syria.
ISIS still controls most of the city of Sinjar, but the YPG and PKK are beginning to regain some ground, pushing deeper into the town with the help of the displaced Yazidi fighters of the YBS.
For the first time in months people on the mountain feel hopeful that ISIS will be pushed out of their area completely, and the community is starting to make its own plans.
The beginnings of an autonomous region
In the second week of January those Yazidis on the mountain who have taken up leadership politically, convened to speak about the future of Sinjar. The outcome of the meeting was a provisional announcement stating that the Yazidis of Sinjar would be looking to create an autonomous region similar to that of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Northern Iraq.
Sa’id Hassan Sa’id, a leader of TEVDA, a Yazidi political group that sponsors and affiliates itself with the YBS, told MintPress that the Yazidi militia force is ready to step up its role and become completely autonomous as well. While political leaders move to create a canton for Yazidis, the YBS is fully prepared to be that canton’s defense force.
“Right now we can’t make this decision, there are thousands of Yazidis not here. Right now there are seven or eight leaders but we have to wait for everyone else to return in order to really make this decision. But, personally, this has happened to us 73 times in history before, where we’ve been pushed onto the mountain, and I think it’s time we protect ourselves and stop depending on anyone else,” Sa’id said.
The initial decision and meeting concerning the future of the Yazidi population in Sinjar has been met with approval by most who have stayed on the mountain, who see it as a step toward halting a string of persecutions against the religious minority that has blighted Yazidi history.
The YBS sees its role as the new defense force for the autonomous region, giving the Yazidi population an armed protection unit where none existed before, Sa’id explained. An important development, born out of the previous reliance on Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops for protection from the advancing ISIS militants – protection that crumbled as the extremists advanced.
“When ISIS came, the Peshmerga left us,” Sa’id said bluntly, with nods of agreement from the men, some armed, that flank either side of him. “Because they [Peshmerga] have families, too, and these people in the Peshmerga, for them, it is a job. They’re coming to make money, they aren’t coming to fight. Sinjar wasn’t their fight.”
With specks of snow still dotting top and sides of the mountain, the signs of a cold, hard winter linger, but there is an atmosphere of hope and one of purpose amongst the Yazidi community here. In a defiant tone, one young man tells MintPress that ISIS has failed to kill the Yazidis and destroy their religion.
The encampments and their residents may look down on their smoldering hometown below, the deep-toned noises of airstrikes and mortar fire shuddering through the valleys and down the mountain sides, but Yazidis from Sinjar are beginning to feel that a return to normalcy – and the chance to govern and protect themselves – will soon become a possibility.