[A Close Point of View] The Yazidis. An ethnic minority or a nation?

10 November 2021 | Stories of survivors

Our activities are directed mainly at the Yazidis. It is the community against which ISIS carried out a genocide in August 2014. I would like to say a little bit more about them. Who are the Yazidis? What does their secretive religion hide and why have they become the victims of genocide?

This is not a scientific study. It is an essay from ‘A Closer Point of View’ series that aims at explaining certain topics and subjects related to our activities. It’s the author’s perspective on the on issues raised.

Who are the Yazidis?

I could write an encyclopedic definition that Yazidism is a monotheistic religion established in the 12th century by Sheikh Adi. That it combined Shiism and Zoroastrianism (the ancient religion of Persia), and that the central figure of the Yazidi beliefs is a fallen angel that was condemned to hell for his refusal to bow before the first human. He redeemed himself by putting the hellfire out with his tears and now rules the world as a Peacock Angel (Malak Tawus). But explaining it this way would be a mistake that oftentimes led to the Yazidis being persecuted by the Muslims. It is because they were perceived as Devil worshipers giving their tormentors an ideal pretext to murder them. Many researchers based their description of the Yazidis on literal translations of their beliefs, making them even more mysterious. But the story of the fallen angel is merely a legend. Many Yaizids outright deny it. Who are the Yazidis then?

We should start by explaining why they reside in Iraq. And here there is a problem as, according to the Yazidis, they’ve lived there since the beginning of time. They didn’t arrive in Iraq from faraway lands – they are indigenous people of the Middle East. That’s a dead end, so we need to start from a different side. Perhaps at least we can establish whether they are a religious community, an ethnic group, or a nation?

Yazidism is a religion, but the Yazidis are not merely its followers – they are also a distinct ethnic or even national group under the same name. But what is the difference between the two? According to definitions, in both cases we deal with a group of people with common cultural heritage, language, traditions, costumes, cuisine, and even characteristic physical traits. Statehood is not exclusively reserved for nations. There are also nations without states. But a nation needs to aspire to have one, and the Yazidis to some extent do. They have their own flag and self-government. It hasn’t been recognized, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Personally, I prefer to see the Yazidis as a nation, mainly to distinguish them from the Kurds. Most of those that write about the Yazidis define them as Kurdish. I will try to prove to you in this article that it’s not correct.

The Yazidis. Facts and myths.

I think many of us appreciate a juxtaposition of facts and myths on any given subject, so I will use this format here as well. Let’s start with the myths since there have been many and they should be debunked. The first: the Yazidis are “devil or Satan worshippers”. This phrase appears in almost every essay or article about them, a clickbait to attract attention to a mysterious Middle Eastern community that lights a fire during its mystical rituals carried out in a triangle-shaped temple. I’ve come across this rubbish many times. So I will start with explaining the “devil-worshipping” myth. One of the many names of the fallen angel that didn’t obey God’s wish is Shaytan. So the similarity with the Arabic “shaitan”, or simply Satan, seemed obvious enough to start sharpening swords in preparation for the murdering of the Yazidis. But Arabic and the language that the Yazidis use (a dialect of Kurdish) belong to two different linguistic groups. Kurdish is an Indo-European language, and I will share a curiosity about it later on. This one word led to a massive misunderstanding that was ultimately turned into a myth since there was no willingness to dive deeper into this subject. As for the use of fire, it is true that the Yazidis light it in their temples with the use of oil or wax. It looks exactly like lighting candles during the All Saints Day (a Catholic Christian religious festival in honor of all the saints – translator’s note). Very frightening, indeed.

Photo: Andrea DiCenzo

Another myth is the belief in the Peacock Angel called Malak Tawus. I have to admit that I am still trying to fully understand this aspect of the Yazidi faith, but I’m quite sure the peacock is not worshiped as a god or an idol. It is not used as an object of worship at all, and although you can see its replicas in many houses, its divine status is doubtful. I have never seen anyone stopping in front of a peacock’s representation to carry out rituals or prayers, or even looking in its direction if it’s somewhere in the public space. I suspect that at some point in the ancient past some Indian rishi or philosopher visited the Yazidi land bringing the peacock symbol with him as well (or vice versa). What’s interesting is the origin of its name: Malak Tawus. It can be translated as “a ray of God” or “a power sent by God”. In Christianity, we sometimes speak about God’s power or gifts of God associated with the Holy Spirit. Similar to Christianity, Yazidism uses many symbols with meaning that’s difficult to explain. It can be understood as a human attempt to understand the essence of the Divine with the use of objects derived from the material world. How could one explain the nature of God? The easiest way was to point to the sun that gives light and obliterates darkness. The sun was perceived as good as it was giving daylight allowing people to work, in contrast to the night which is dark and hides many dangers such as wild animals or the risk of getting lost on a pathway. I’ve digressed into theological deliberations, but what I’m trying to say is that Christianity and Yazidism are not worlds apart from each other. The Yazidis convey their beliefs and traditions verbally. If you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know that the message delivered at the end of the line is often very inaccurate. Here we deal with hundreds of thousands of people throughout the ages trying to pass the same message on. The easiest way to remember any story is to use concrete examples derived from our surroundings or nature as a parallel. That’s why sometimes the Yazidis are also described as nature worshippers (that’s when something positive is said about them).

Now time for some facts. The Yazidis are not Kurds. The Kurds are not Arabs. Here it can get a little bit confusing, so I will focus exclusively on the Yazidis. Ancient Mesopotamia was a meeting point for different tribes establishing several imperia. There were the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and many more. They were coming from various places, bringing their own traditions and customs. They often fought with each other over the land where they created their civilizations. The origins of the Yazidis are unknown. Some say they are descendants of the Sumerians or belonged to that empire. It is possible they had lived in those lands long before the Sumerians, simply watching all those rising and falling imperia from a distance without joining their structures. Surely they were drawing a lot from them, although at the cost of losing their land. Today the Yazidis can be found in Armenia, Turkey, Russia or Georgia. It may suggest that in the past they were spread around a large territory. Assigning them to the Kurdish nation today has a very political dimension. The Kurds enjoy autonomy in Iraq, but they also constitute a large group in Turkey and Syria. But they cannot be regarded as a unified political force and they are not the largest nation without a state, as it is sometimes described. The Iraqi Kurds are not on good terms with the Syrian ones. For sure, there is currently no national movement that would aim at unifying all the Kurds. Both the Syrian and the Iraqi Kurds want to see the Yazidis as part of their own communities to increase their demographic statistics. That is why all sorts of fractions are currently present in the indigenous Yazidi lands, namely Sinjar, starting from Iraqi police, the Kurdish Peshmerga (the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government) as well as Syrian and Turkish units that describe themselves as Kurdish. It’s a cauldron with the Yazidis right in the center of it.

Sinjar – Shengal

Here I should add a short description of the indigenous Yazidi lands – it will serve as an introduction to the next paragraphs. Sinjar lies on the Iraqi-Syrian border, close to Turkey. Its central point is the Sinjar Mountain – a 100 kilometers-long mountain range. The top of the mountain is crowned with a massive plateau with many curvy roads. People mainly inhabit small towns and villages on the south and north of the mountain. Some live in small villages located in the center of the region. The largest urban center is the town of Sinjar which had tens of thousands of inhabitants before the incursion of ISIS. The main sources of livelihood for the region’s inhabitants are herding and agriculture.

Fun fact: Between the 2nd and 4th century AD Legio I Parthica, one of the Roman legions, was stationed in Sinjar.

‘Seyfo’ means ‘sword’

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the region of Mesopotamia became a battlefield for the fight between the Ottoman Empire and Persia. During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire started ethnic cleansing of the Armenians and the Assyrians living in its territories. The Assyrian genocide is known as ‘Seyfo’, meaning ‘sword’ (or ‘time of sword’). It is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of Assyrians were murdered during that time. Add to that the Assyrian and Greek genocides, leading to the extermination of up to two million people. The European powers, preoccupied with the Great War, did not react to those atrocities.

The massacres were taking place in towns and villages. Thousands of people were forced out in so-called ‘death marches’ towards the Syrian Desert. The trail led, among others, through Sinjar. The Yazidis, not wanting to stay passive in the face of that horrific crime, came to the rescue. They were attacking convoys and freeing the captives. They may have rescued up to 20,000 people. They offered them land, built hospitals and accepted them in their community as their own people. In August 2014, the descendants of those who survived those massacres were forced to flee from ISIS together with the Yazidis.

3/8/14 – The Yazidi Genocide

Under Saddam Hussain’s regime, the Arabs were resettled around Sinjar in the process of Arabization. They were meant to push the Yazidis out of their indigenous land. It’s important in the context of what happened in 2014.

On the morning of the 3rd of August 2014, Sinjar was surrounded by ISIS. The organization called Islamic State was created a few years earlier, but only in 2013 and 2014 it gained enough strength to launch a territorial expansion. Terrorists surrounded towns and villages on the southern side of the Mountain. I wrote it with a capital ‘M’ because to the Yazidis it has an important symbolic significance, but I will write about it in a while. The terrorists divided men from women and elderly women from the younger ones, children and infants. They were killed on the spot those they didn’t need. Young women, girls and boys were packed on trucks and driven away to parts of Syria and Iraq under their control. Once there, women and girls were forced into sexual slavery. Boys were taken to training camps where after a long indoctrination through tortures, beating and Quran lessons they were turned into suicide bombers – machines deprived of feelings and willpower going to their death without blinking an eye. That was the fate of thousands of women and children captured by ISIS. To this day, around 3,000 are still missing.

During the Kojo massacre, terrorists murdered all men from the village and captured women and children. Before that, they kept them in a local school for twelve days trying to force them to convert to Islam. All of them refused.

I mentioned the role of Arabization carried out under Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first ones to take up arms against the Yazidis were their Arab neighbors. The Arabs envied the Yazidis for the land their owned, and that long-hidden envy and hatred found a way to be released. ISIS added fuel to the fire, encouraging them to murder their neighbors in the name of Quranic rules.

Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis rushed to flee to the mountains. They believed their Mountain would defend them. It was not religiously motivated, but in such moments people search for hope everywhere. The young were carrying the elderly on their backs. The mothers were carrying their children. The older siblings were often carrying their younger ones. With no food or water, they were marching up the rocky path to the top in scorching heat reaching 50 degrees Celsius. The Sinjar Mountains do not resemble our Swietokrzyskie or Beskidy Mountains. They aren’t very high, but not covered with many trees that could provide shadow. On top, there is an open space entirely exposed to the sun that can be compared to a frying pan. The younger and stronger would often go back to search for some food and water. Many men took up arms to fight the invader. But they had neither artillery support nor enough ammunition. They were destined to perish buying the time for the weaker ones to escape.

It is difficult to describe the fate of girls and women in captivity. They were sold at slave markets where everyone could place a bid for a chosen girl. The highest price was put on the youngest ones. A “price for a virgin” could sometimes reach thousands of dollars. Before this disgusting spectacle, the girls were forced to put make-up on to look prettier. They were stripped of human dignity and psychologically broken. In the households which they were sold to their status was lower than that of animals. When a girl’s ‘purchaser’ was staying home, he would continuously rape her. When he was absent, she would be subjected to torture by his wives. In Islam that practices polygamy, the Yazidi girls were considered to be slaves. Their lives equaled the amount they were bought for. They were merely objects and they were treated accordingly.

Internally displaced

Many died of thirst and exhaustion during the harrowing march to the top of the Sinjar Mountain. The slope they were climbing up was shelled by mortars. With no chance for any medical help, the wounded would bleed to their death. Those who reached the destination were forced to walk even further towards Syria where they finally found some rest. With the help of the Syrian Kurds, they were transported to Iraqi Kurdistan. Some people were also picked up from the plateau by helicopters. But many remained. Although it’s difficult to believe, they created an informal camp for internally displaced people (IDP) there called ‘Sardashty’ (literally ‘a plateau on top of a mountain’). Thousands of families have been living there to this day.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, camps were swiftly created for internally displaced persons. The tents were provided by the United Nations. Their first version was very faulty – an entire tent could burn down within forty seconds. An estimate proving that was done by one Yazidi who participated in the relocation of the refugees to the camps. Later that was amended, and now it takes roughly two minutes for a tent to be destroyed by fire.

The situation was expected to be solved within several weeks. ISIS was to be pushed out of Sinjar and people were to return home as soon as possible. But that didn’t happen. Sinjar was recaptured one year later, but the fights continued there for many more months. The terrorists destroyed all towns and villages under their control. They plundered and looted everything of any value. Shops and houses were blown up or burned down. The entire region was turned to rubble.

You can notice that in this text I use the phrase ‘internally displaced people’ and not ‘refugees’. The terminology used depends on a place which people from a dangerous territory flee to. The term ‘internally displaced people’ defines a group of people that has found shelter in a region with no military activities but within the same country, while ‘refugees’ means those that have fled to the nearest safe country. Accordingly, the Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan are therefore defined as ‘internally displaced people’. To this day, thousands of families live in tents or makeshift shelters that serve as a substitute for a home. Seven years have passed, and they still have nothing to return to. Some have returned to Sinjar, mainly because they were fed up with living in camps. Those camps can be divided into formal and informal ones, the latter colloquially called ‘wild’. The difference is that when they were created, they had limited capacity. Hence many people that couldn’t be sheltered there settled in the fields right next to the official camps. They still live there, and these ‘wild’ encampments are still growing.

Can we help them?

Here we are reaching a point where human life is mixed with politics and money. Assistance for the camps’ residents has decreased over the last years. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, many large international organizations had government funds at their disposal to help people in Iraq. But they have run out. Of course, there are smaller organizations that continue helping but it’s a drop in the sea of needs. Some people live in the camps because they count on external help. They do not want to do anything to change their lives. But it’s a tiny minority and most are dreaming of going back to Sinjar and starting their lives anew. But how to go back, if, for example, it’s impossible to send children to school because it hasn’t been rebuilt yet? How to go back to a house with no roof, doors and windows? How to find a job if there are very few workplaces? A systemic solution is needed with the large involvement of the Iraqi government. Unfortunately, this government doesn’t do much – practically it does only as much as is needed not to be accused of complete passivity. The Yazidis in Iraq are treated as second-class citizens. They have problems with getting enrolled in universities although for years they’ve been occupying the highest places in all educational rankgings. No one wants to hire them for professional jobs even though they are exceptionally hard-working and upright. They are an ethnic minority with no full citizen rights enjoyed by the dominant majority. It is not a coincidence that they have become victims of persecution and genocide.

What can we do for them? How can we help them? Does help make any sense?

Of course it makes sense and we are able to help them. First of all, we need to talk about what they went through. But we should stop presenting them exclusively as victims and start appreciating them as people. Many of you have been following our activities for a long time. You have got familiar with many Yazidis that have been mentioned in our reports. You can see they are not much different from us. Some of them even resemble us physically. I know some Yazidis with green eyes, red or blond hair and similar to ours face features. I have mentioned in one of my previous articles that they speak an Indo-European language. Do you know that in their language ‘five’ is ‘pendz’ and ‘six’ is ‘szesz (in Polish ‘pięć’ and ‘sześć’ respectively – translator’s note). ‘Ram’ is ‘baran’ and ‘beans’ is ‘fasolija’ (in Polish ‘baran’ and ‘fasola’ in respectively – translator’s note). A little linguistic curiosity.

The Yazidis are very open people. They love football. They also like to gather in a group of friends. Sometimes they argue. First and foremost, they are people whose lives are priceless. While helping them here and now, we are not trying to predict their future. What we can do is to help them stand back on their feet. Not all of them, but at least some selected families. Maybe this will enable them to create a better future for others. Let’s focus on one person at a time so that we could step-by-step save all the others.

Author: Dawid Czyż

Help the Yazidis to go back to normal life

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