plague of suicides in north may actually be murder
The number of suicides in the Sinjar area among the Yazidi religious minority has risen. Some blame poverty, others television. But at least some of the suicides are being used to cover up crime and honour killings.
Their stories are immeasurably sad. The money that Firyal made from sewing did not cover her family’s expenses and the young woman was unable to help improve her crippled father’s life. To her family’s shock, Firyal killed herself by immolating herself inside her mud house in Sinjar, a town in north western Iraq near the border of Syria.
Nizar, a young man in his twenties, shot himself at a large hall only a few hours before his wedding - his wedding was to be held in the same hall. Nizar’s friends say he killed himself because he was being forced to marry a woman he did not love, due to strict familial and religious traditions. Meanwhile Nizar’s father, Khader, says his son killed himself because he was unable to finish schooling due to a lack of money.
Shamma Shammo Murad was another unexpected suicide – she was apparently sitting in her room, studying, when she just grabbed a Kalashnikov gun hidden in another room in the house and shot herself. Although Shamma seemed to be fine and was not under any financial pressure, her younger sister says she was very stressed during the previous week.
And these are just a few of the suicide stories being told in this area. From the beginning of 2011 until the middle of last year, there were more than 50 recorded suicide attempts in Sinjar and the surrounding area. Most of the suicides in the Sinjar district came from within the Yazidi population; the Yazidi are members of a Kurdish religious minority with some fairly strict and exclusionary tenets and they make up almost 9 per cent of the population of the state of Ninawa. And most of the suicides and suicide attempts are by women, usually aged between 16 and 30.
Some of the reasons for the suicide attempts become apparent when talking to those who survived. Hanaa, 18, still bears a scar around her neck after she tried to hang herself. According to one of her friends, Hanaa, who sells onions by the roadside for a living, tried to kill herself because – and apparently still threatens to – because “there is nothing in life that makes her want to hold on to it. She is extremely poor and her family does not treat her well.” Hanaa was saved by her brothers and sisters who untied the rope around her neck.
Only a few meters away, one finds Khatoun, 30 and crippled. She lives in one of the many Yazidi houses nearby and she set herself on fire after hearing her brother had been killed by terrorists in the nearby city of Mosul in March 2011. She too survived the attempt.
Waad Matto, the head of the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress, believes poverty is to blame for the attempted deaths. “Unemployment in these mountain areas is up to 80 per cent,” Matto said, “and often the only jobs available are the security-related jobs which are considered dangerous.”
At one stage, local media reports suggested that the suicides were being encouraged by the dramatic soap operas, many of which are imported from Turkey and which have many enthusiastic watchers in the area. “Most of the families who lost their daughters in what were claimed to be suicides are actually extremely poor and they don’t have television, let alone satellite television,” Matto explained. “Usually they only speak Kurdish and do not understand Arabic,” he added; the soap operas are usually in Arabic.
Additionally many of the Yazidi villages are becoming more and more isolated with locals avoiding the nearby city of Mosul since 2003, because of the precarious security situation there. Yazidi society is also conservative and because suicide is seen as a sin by the Yazidi, killing oneself is also a major kind of rebellion.
In a 2011 study, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) surveyed locas about the suicides. “Many of those who responded cited cultural and social factors, particularly those regarding marriage, for the young Yazidi suicides,” IOM’s report said. “Multiple respondents had either personally experienced or had a close relative who had entered a relationship or marriage of which their fami-lies did not approve, leading to the suicide of one of the young individuals.”
But Hassou Khadida, a government employee in Sinjar, believes there may also be more sinister forces at work. “Poverty is not always the reason. And some of the stories told about these suicide attempts are not even true. Many of them are actually premeditated crimes.”
According to Khadida, the way that Yazidi society functions puts pressure on both men and women. The communities are isolated and the young people are not supposed to marry outside of the religion. “Parents dominate and that kind of mentality gives male family members the right to kill female members to protect the family name,” Khadida said. “In reality, many of these suicides are honour killings.”
“Parents just claim that their daughters have committed suicide to cover up their own crimes,” Khadida continued. “This happens because of the state of security in the area. If anyone investigated these incidents, then they would soon find the real motives behind them. There’s no doubt that a lot of these alleged suicides would be proven to be honour-related crimes, similar to the incident of Du’a some years ago.”
Here Khadida is referring to the tragedy around Du’a Khalil Aswad, 17, a Kurdish Yazidi girl who was stoned to death in public in 2007 for allegedly having some kind of relationship with a Muslim boy (although the truth about what the pair’s relationship was, remains unknown). A video of the stoning caught on mobile phone was broadcast on the Internet and caused protests, international condemnation and possibly was also the reason behind a deadly attack on Yazidi people by Sunni Muslim extremists.
Khadida says that before 2003, when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was still leading the country, the law against honour killings was actually put into practice. Yazidi women did used to marry outside their religion but because the law was enforced, it was more difficult for families to carry out honour killings. “But after the fall of the former regime, the police force was weaker and honour crimes became more prevalent again.”
In May 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a military campaign, Operation Umm al-Rabiain (the name, mother of two springs, is the city of Mosul’s nickname) in the area in order to increase security and push terrorists out of the city. “At that stage,” Khadida tells, “the security forces started to become more active and efficient. Some of the people behind Du’a’s murder – including her cousin – were trialled and convicted. And that is why locals have begun to fabricate stories about suicide – to cover up their crimes and escape prosecution.”
Local criminal lawyer Suleiman Atto backs up Khadida’s theory. Often the witnesses to the individual’s suicide are family members and even when the cause of death seems suspicious, autopsies are hardly ever done or investigations pursued. "The body is buried in a hurry. Condolences are offered and the thing ends there,” Atto says.
Waad Ibrahim, a professor of social sciences at the University of Mosul is more circumspect/ “The difficult conditions in which people live and the backward nature of the rural society, where women are treated as inferiors, puts lots of pressure on the women,” Ibrahim says.
He says he has heard females in rural villages threatening to kill themselves if they are not treated better – and in some cases, he says, those threats are put into action. Additionally Ibrahim believes that in some cases, television programmes may have something to do with the suicide attempts. Young girls may see a whole other kind of lifestyle on the television that gets them comparing their own lives and freedoms and becoming more unhappy.
And finally, Ibrahim says he doesn’t rule out a criminal element playing a part in the rising numbers of suicides either.
The saddest part of the whole story is the silence that remains around the suicides, or attempted suicides, of these young women and men. The suicides that succeeded have disgraced their families and will forever remain so. And the suicides that didn’t succeed have disobeyed their families and are therefore also considered pariahs.
This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq.