Over the past year the area of Sinjar in northern Iraq has been the site of many dramatic and violent scenes. In early August last year the extremist group known as the Islamic State attacked the area, killing and kidnapping thousands of the locals, most of whom are members of the ethno-religious group known as the Yazidi.
A combination of airstrikes and ground action by a number of different forces has seen the Islamic State, or IS, group expelled from parts of the territory. And supposedly those areas would now be safe enough for the residents to return to, if they were alive and able to. However, as is happening in other areas of the country where the IS group's activities only deepened existing enmities between different ethnic and religious groups, there are acts of revenge occurring and extrajudicial “justice” being meted out.
Yazidis who lived in the area say that their Arab neighbours didn’t help them when the IS fighters arrived and, in fact, in some cases, collaborated with them. The Iraqi Kurdish military have been faced with similar accusations and criticised for using the security crisis for their own ends – that is, claiming more land in northern Iraq under the guise of protecting locals.
As a result the situation in the Sinjar area is extremely confused. The upshot of the IS group's murder, kidnapping, abduction and destruction is more murder, kidnapping, abduction and destruction.
“All the houses in our village look as though a violent earthquake destroyed them,” says Ahmad Ali, who is originally from the Arab village of Sibaya, north of Sinjar mountain.
In January the 34-year-old fled the village along with 14 members of his family because Yazidis attacked them.
Amnesty International reported at the time that the Yazidi militia “killed 21 civilians, half of them elderly men and women and children, in what appear to have been execution-style killings, and injured several others, including three children. The gunmen also abducted some 40 residents, 17 of whom are still missing and feared dead”.
Ali now lives near the Rabia district and in a telephone interview he told NIQASH that he recently watched acts of vengeful destruction with binoculars.
“In the space of a week, bulldozers, protected by the Yazidi militia, demolished all the village houses, including the school, the health clinic and the mosque,” Ali reports. “Then they went to a nearby village called Sayer. There are other villages that will have the same fate,” he concluded.
Abdul Satar al-Taha, an Arab and one of the local tribal leaders, was on television last week, saying that, “the armed Yazidis and members of the [Syrian Kurdish militia] PKK have bulldozed 22 villages in the past seven months, displacing over 10,000 Arabs from the area. They have also confiscated large areas of agricultural land.”
Locals say crops and buildings have also been burned.
Al-Taha did not only accuse the Yazidis of wrong doing. He also said that the government of the nearby semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan was also responsible. The Iraqi Kurdish authorities, whose military control a lot of the terrain in this area, were allowing the Yazidis to get away with it because it fitted in with Kurdish plans to push Arabs out of the area, he said. The Iraqi Kurdish have their own region with its own borders, legislation and parliament and they have often been in disputes with the Iraqi government about which parts of northern Iraq belong to this zone and which belong to federal Iraq. Al-Taha says the Iraqi Kurdish military are not doing anything about the Yazidi violations because they want to see the area become more Kurdish.
The population in this area consists mostly of Yazidis and Arabs who are Sunni Muslim with a far smaller proportion of Kurdish people and Shiite Muslim Arabs. Some Yazidis identify with the Iraqi Kurdish and say they would want to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan whereas others say they want their own independent Yazidi area.
NIQASH contacted several different Arab locals from the area and they, along with al-Taha, said that one Yazidi leader in particular was responsible for the destruction of the villages. They say that a militia leader named Ali Murad has targeted these villages deliberately and systematically. And several suggested that a fact finding mission was needed, where representatives from the Iraqi government, from Iraqi Kurdistan and the provincial authorities visit the villages to see what was happening there.
NIQASH asked Murad, who is leading an armed group of Yazidis stationed near the Arab villages in question, about these accusations. He denied them and heatedly asked: “Why didn’t you call and ask us questions when they took our women? Why are you asking questions now?” Then he hung up.
However the following day Murad called back, wanting to comment on pictures of the demolished houses that were being circulated in Iraq. “I am the one responsible for what the Yazidis are doing in the Arab villages in the north [in the Sanouni area],” he told NIQASH. “These persons were involved in the kidnapping of our women, the looting of our property and the destruction of our homes.”
Murad then added that the villages were built on his family's ancestral land and that he had proof that the land was rightfully his. Murad noted that he was going to try and reclaim the land legally.
Other confusing stories and comments came from military leaders in the area. Qassim Shasho, a well known Yazidi leader and fighter, who headed his own Yazidi militia and is also part of Iraqi Kurdish military forces in the area, told NIQASH he was aware of acts of destruction. But, he said, this was only happening rarely and that the houses that were destroyed for revenge did actually belong to those who were either members of the IS group or who had collaborated with them.
Meanwhile Qassim Sammo, who is responsible for the intelligence services and security – known as the Asayesh - in Sinjar, rejected that claim. “Acts like this in liberated areas are a violation of the law and we wouldn’t hesitate to arrest those responsible,” he told NIQASH. “The Asayesh will deal with the perpetrators in accordance with the law.”
The situation of tit-for-tat is complicated even further thanks to tribal groups and tribal allegiances in this area. There are calls for mutual revenge after each criminal act – an eye for an eye is a common policy in tribal justice systems - and the intensity of these calls is increasing. The Yazidis in the area are themselves split in their loyalties. Some are allied with the Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party and their fighters. Others prefer to cooperate with the Iraqi Kurdish political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, which is in power in nearby Iraqi Kurdistan and their military, commonly known as the Peshmerga.
And while tensions between all the groups seem to be ratcheting up, there have been hardly any calls for dialogue. Meanwhile the Arab tribes and villages on the southern side of Sinjar mountain remain under the control of the IS group – one imagines that they're not sure where they would be better off: With the extremists and their draconian regime or at the mercy of vengeful militias who will accuse them of cooperating with the extremists?