'Yazidi Are Divided But We Still Want Our Own Region'
Yazidi MP, Haj Kandour al-Sheikh, updates NIQASH on his people's security situation a year after thousands were kidnapped or killed by extremists. He also talks about what the Yazidis of Iraq really want now.
In a certain house in central Baghdad, around 520 kilometres away from their traditional homeland, there are clear signs of Yazidi occupation. One of the security staff in front of the house wears a Yazidi costume and others wear elements of it. Iraq's Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority and up until last summer and the start of the secuirty crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, mostly made their home in northern Iraq. They have their own religion but are often considered to have much in common with those of the Kurdish ethnicity.
Among this group is Haj Kandour al-Sheikh, a politician and the legal representative of Iraq's Yazidi people in Parliament in Baghdad. Notably al-Sheikh is also a member of the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress, which supports Iraq's federal government and which, despite perceptions of shared ethnicity, is opposed to the Yazidi people being ruled authorities in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
In an interview with NIQASH, al-Sheikh discussed the current security situation in the Mount Sinjar area, which was attacked by the Islamic State, or IS, group last year, as well as how over a thousand managed to be freed after being kidnapped by the extremists.
He also spoke about whether, given the current situation, he is really the best representative of his own people, why he's opposed to Kurdish rule and what the Yazidis in Iraq really want now.
NIQASH: There are fighters in Iraq who claim to be the legitimate representatives of the Yazidi people. Yet there are also politicians, such as yourself, who say they are the Yazidis' best representatives. Who's right?
Haj Kandour al-Sheikh: At the moment there is chaos and confusion and a lot of division among the Yazidis. Politically speaking I represent the Yazidi people in Iraq's Parliament and I was elected to do this – but before the security crisis took hold. Speaking in military terms there are a group of leaders. There is Haider Shasho and his uncle Qassim Shasho. There are also spiritual leaders like Prince Tahseen Saeed Bek.
NIQASH: But the situation is so different now to when you were elected. Who do the Yazidis listen to now?
Al-Sheikh: (laughs) Actually they don't listen to anyone. They are divided between the political parties of Iraqi Kurdistan [the Yazidis traditionally have close links to the Kurdish ethnicity] and the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress, which is opposed to the Kurdish parties. Recently a more neutral party also emerged; it's called Yazidi House.
Yazidi MP, Haj Kandour al-Sheikh.
NIQASH: Who is currently in control of Sinjar Mountain?
Al-Sheikh: Chaos is in control of Sinjar mountain. The biggest problems are the conflicts between the Iraqi Kurdish military and the PKK there as well as ongoing fighting against the IS group. None of this serves Yazidi interests as Yazidis themselves are becoming divided, some following one party and others following others. The Iraqi Kurdish military want all forces in their area under their control.
NIQASH: And when was the last time you visited Sinjar?
Al-Sheikh: June 1, 2014. I haven’t been back since then.
NIQASH: You don't want to?
Al-Sheikh: I cannot go back to Sinjar because the only open road leading there passes through Iraqi Kurdistan. And Iraqi Kurdish forces won't allow me to pass through their territory. That's because of political conflicts between our party and the Iraqi Kurdish political parties. We refuse to be governed by Iraqi Kurdistan. We believe we have our own ethnicity and our own religion and these are different to the Iraqi Kurdish.
NIQASH: How do you feel about the presence of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations, in Sinjar?
Al-Sheikh: When the Iraqi Kurdish military left their positions at the beginning of August last year, they left thousands of Yazidi families at the mercy of the IS extremists. The PKK saved thousands of them, providing a safe exit to Syria and from there through to Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey.
NIQASH: But does that justify a non-Iraqi group interfering in Yazidi affairs?
Al-Sheikh: I believe that ultimately the Yazidis themselves should decide the fate of Sinjar.
NIQASH: Do you think that Sinjar will go back to being controlled by the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad?
Al-Sheikh: It's very complicated and it's very difficult to tell. There are so many influences on the ground there.
NIQASH: In January a group of Yazidis said they were forming a council to administrate the Sinjar district, that would be separate from both Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. Do the Yazidis want autonomy?
Al-Sheikh: We reject the idea of autonomy or of independence from Iraq. We want to stay part of Iraq and be ruled from Baghdad. However after our areas have been freed of the IS group we want to form a region within Iraq that would cater for the different people here – the Yazidis, the Shabaks, Christians, Turkmen and even Shiite Muslims. Within that region we want a province for Yazidis.
NIQASH: At last count, how many of your people were kidnapped by the IS group?
Al-Sheikh: We do not have a final figure. However we do know that number has almost reached 3,500 and that most of the kidnapped are women and children. Around 1,500 of the kidnapped have been released but we still have almost 2,000 missing women and children that we know nothing about. Additionally some whole families disappeared and there is nobody to report on them, so numbers could be higher. We got these numbers by going to the affected villages.
NIQASH: Can you tell us how over a thousand Yazidis who were kidnapped by the IS extremists, managed to be released?
Al-Sheikh: Some were able to escape during bombing raids by the international coalition on IS strongholds, especially in the city of Tal Afar, and also when bombing occurred as they were being moved around. The majority of them were released thanks to a deal done by the Iraqi Kurdish government and the IS group, that was organised by Arab negotiators from Mosul. The one you probably heard most about was the one done to free around 200 mostly elderly women.
NIQASH: Arabs in some areas of Sinjar say that Yazidi militias are now taking revenge on them.
Al-Sheikh: The Yazidis were subjected to massacres and humanitarian disasters. But they shouldn't commit acts of reprisal against anyone. We want the law to prevail.
NIQASH: Six months have passed since the IS group were expelled from many of Sinjar's villages and towns. Why haven't your people returned home yet?
Al-Sheikh: The Sinjar mountain area is about 70 kilometres long and the IS group are still nearby, so it is not completely safe or protected. There is still a lack of services such as electricity, water and medical services. Additionally the IS fighters looted many of the properties here. None of this makes people particularly motivated to return quickly.
NIQASH: It has been an extremely difficult year for your people. After all of this, do the Yazidis still trust? Can they trust?
Al-Sheikh: I can safely say that most Yazidis have no confidence in any party. They don't trust the Iraqi Kurdish government nor do they trust Kurdish militias of any kind. They don't trust the federal Iraqi army either. Our salvation lies in the formation of our own armed force to defend ourselves.