After Sunni Muslim extremists attacked Yazidi majority towns in northern Iraq, causing a major humanitarian disaster, the distinctive ethno-religious group is asking itself existential questions, says one of their
Aruba Esmail Bek is one of the female leaders of the Yazidi people. She is the daughter of a former prince of the Yazidis and the granddaughter of one of the pioneers of the Yazidi cultural renaissance. As such she has been extremely pro-active on behalf of her people, an ethno-religious group with its own closed religion. She worked as an advisor on Yazidi affairs for the governor of Iraq’s northern Ninawa province and also edits the first website specializing in Yazidi feminism.
NIQASH conducted an emailed interview with Aruba Esmail Bek about her thoughts on what is happening to the Yazidis in Iraq and whether there has been enough humanitarian aid after the group were pushed out of their homes by the Sunni Muslim extremists group, the Islamic State. Bek also talks about where the Yazidi people can seek refuge, whether overseas or in a special area within Iraq, and how they feel about their Arab and Kurdish neighbours now.
NIQASH: Firstly what can you tell us about what happened in Sinjar? And why do you think the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State, is targeting Yazidis like this?
Aruba: When the Islamic State group entered Sinjar on August 3, people tried to escape, leaving everything they owned behind. Many went to Dohuk in [the semi autonomous region of] Iraqi Kurdistan while others went to Sinjar mountain. Only the old and the sick remained behind.
The reason the Islamic State is targeting us is because they are trying to build an Islamic state with no others in it but themselves. The organisation considers Yazidis to be unbelievers. The organization believes everybody except them is apostate – even though that is actually against the Islamic faith which says one should leave others to do their own thing in peace.
NIQASH: It has been a difficult time for your people. What stands out for you?
Aruba: Each Yazidi family in Sinjar has its own uniquely sad and painful story. One of the worst stories is that of the village of Kojo. Fighters from the IS group besieged it for more than a week and gave the people of the village one week to surrender. If they didn’t, they would be killed. When the deadline expired, the IS fighters raided the village and abducted all the males there above the age of 12. They killed many of them and also took the women.
One of the stories I found most tragic was about a woman who had just had a baby after trying for a child for ten years. However her happiness was not long lived. She escaped Sinjar and went into the mountains where her newborn son died. The woman refused to bury him; she held him for three full days and nights.
NIQASH: What are your thoughts on the reactions of the different communities around you – for example, the Iraqi Kurdish government and the international community?
Aruba: The Iraqi Kurdish government failed to protect the Yazidis. Their military, which was in control of the district at the time, withdrew from Sinjar and left the whole region and the unarmed civilians within it at the mercy of the IS group.
Having said that the Iraqi Kurdish people of the Dohuk province as well as other towns in Iraqi Kurdistan have provided Yazidi refugees with all of the help that they could afford.
Assistance from the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and from the international community came much later. They only began to help when people were already trapped in the mountains.
We still need more humanitarian aid though. And the Yazidi communities in other parts of the world have also played an important part. They have demonstrated and have made it possible for Yazidi voices to be heard. So the world is aware of the IS group’s genocidal tactics.
NIQASH: What options do Yazidis in Iraq have now, in your opinion?
Aruba: Yazidis today have two options: mass exodus so that they can avoid a repeat of these tragedies. Yazidis today want to see those who remain on the mountains rescued, humanitarian assistance for those who have been displaced and the facilitation of immigration to places like Europe. Countries there know how to preserve people’s dignity and they do not distinguish between their population on the basis of sex, colour or creed.
The other option is that Yazidis – and the many other smaller ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq – should be provided with a safe zone in which they can live. This is because of the failure of both the Iraqi Kurdish government and the Iraqi government to protect them.
International law allows for this to happen, with protection provided by United Nations peacekeepers after the United Nations Security Council makes a decision supporting this. This wouldn’t require the approval of the Iraqi government. And if international protection isn’t possible then the men in those areas should be allowed to form their own military forces to protect themselves and their people.
NIQASH: If all Yazidis decided to immigrate though, wouldn’t you be worried that they’re giving up on their homeland?
Aruba: Immigration is a very difficult option because Yazidis will be leaving a land that’s been irrigated with their own blood, sweat and tears. But in a country where these is no cultural dialogue and no space for differences, where Yazidis are somehow considered enemies, I don’t see how we can have any future there anyway.
NIQASH: So let’s look at the other option: If Yazidis were to be given their own region, how would you suggest that it be administered?
Aruba: Any such safe area for minorities would be in the Ninawa Plain area and would require two separate administrations, because the two main areas where Yazidis form the majority population, are distant from one another and are surrounded by different groups. Sinjar is surrounded by territory mostly populated by Bedouin Arabs and Shikhan and Bashiqa are areas surrounded by the Iraqi Kurdish and the Christians.
NIQASH: Recently the Iraqi Kurdish authorities stopped some Yazidis from demonstrating in Dohuk. Can you tell us anything about this episode?
Aruba: A group of young, displaced Yazidis in Zakho organized a peaceful demonstration. They had signs that said things like “stop killing Yazidis”. But the Iraqi Kurdish military stopped them from demonstrating and beat them.
So I would like to ask the following questions. Do these young, defenceless individuals constitute a danger to the security of Iraqi Kurdistan? What about those in the region who hold radical, extremist ideology and whose hearts are full of hatred? They appear regularly on TV to incite hatred against Yazidis. And they are present in Iraqi Kurdistan. Don’t they constitute a danger too?
NIQASH: Throughout history the Yazidi people have often been targeted. Why didn’t you prepare yourselves better for this kind of event?
Aruba: Before the IS group attacked Sinjar, our areas had been protected by the Iraqi Kurdish military. We felt we were well protected. However those forces withdrew after the first confrontation with the IS fighters and that was a surprise for everyone. Nobody ever expected that. So we’ve lost confidence in those we thought were close to us. Today the Yazidi are re-evaluating their relationships with other Iraqis.
NIQASH: So does this mean the end of the “kreef”, or blood brother, relationships that the Yazidis have traditionally had with Arab and Kurdish neighbours in their areas?
Aruba: There is no hard and fast rule that can apply to all members of one ethnic group or religious component. Not all Arabs or Kurds are bad. There are good Arabs and there are good Kurds and these people will continue to be our kreefs. We will continue to have good relationships with them. However Yazidis have realized they must be more careful.