The region of Sinjar, home to the ethno-religious Yazidi minority in Iraq, has seen fresh fighting, more refugees and a new attempt at peace. On May 2, the Iraqi military launched an offensive against the Yazidi militia 'Sinjar Resistance Unit' (YBS). In the following days, there was heavy fighting and at least one Iraqi soldier and a dozen Yazidi fighters were killed.
About 1,000 Yazidi families decided to flee and seek refuge in camps in the surrounding Nineveh region. According to news agency AFP, the number of Yazidi refugees could be as high as 10,000 people. "It was an unbelievable nightmare," 34-year-old Murad Shangali from Sinjar told DW . He said that on May 2, "Iraqi security forces attacked the local militia with heavy weapons. We knew, we would be the next victims." So he and his family packed a few clothes, their IDs, and fled in their car to the Cham Mishko refugee camp.
Despite a cease-fire between the Iraqi military and the Yazidi YBS militia on May 5, hopes for a lasting peace are limited. "I expect the recent deal to be fragile and we will see skirmishes again," Qasm Shasho, a commander of the Kurdish peshmerga forces who fight alongside the Iraqi military against the YBS, told The New Arab.
Shangali has decided to stay at the camp for now. He doesn't trust the cease-fire and feels safer in the camp, despite the extremely poor living conditions. However, for most of the Yazidi families in the camp, including Shangali's, it is not the first time they had to leave everything behind to save their lives.
The trauma of genocide
Back in August 2014, when the so-called Islamic State (IS) had captured Sinjar, Shangali also had to flee. Those, who didn't make it out on time were either massacred by IS or enslaved as sex workers. According to the U.N., around 5,000 Yazidi men were murdered and up to 7,000 women and children were kidnapped. Thousands are still missing. Both the UN and the European Parliament have described the events as genocide.
The surviving Yazidis have since carried a double trauma: the IS killings and the fact that neither the Iraqi army, nor the peshmerga fighters of the Kurdish semi-autonomic region — who controlled the area back then — had defended or protected them. And those who eventually came to help the Yazidis in 2014 brought their own set of problems into the region. Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the PKK-aligned Kurdish Self-Defense Unit (YPG) came to the help of the Yazidi side, much to Baghdad's and Ankara's dismay.
Home, but far from a safe place
After the IS was driven out of the Sinjar region in 2015, two years before IS was defeated in 2017, the PKK-aligned YPG fighters had started training the Yazidi YBS militia. But the YBS never managed to provide a real sense of security for the population, and they never got a hold on other local factions who also sought to control the region. In turn, the battered population never got over the feeling of being at the mercy of other powers in the region.
This week's attack by the Iraqi military further highlighted the fragile security situation of the Yazidi home base. "We haven't been able to live happily after we returned home and now we are scared that the situation is getting as bad as it was, with us being the victims again," Shangali told DW , asking "What on earth is our mistake? Being an Iraqi Yazidi?" Also, Murad Ismael, co-founder and president of the educational Sinjar Academy fears that the lack of security in Sinjar will cause more problems. "The most realistic scenario is that the status quo continues with sporadic clashes that will cause more partial displacements," he told DW .
The timing of the Iraqi military strike against the YBS earlier this week was no coincidence but rather in keeping with a string of attacks that aim to weaken the Yazidi militia. Trilateral talks in early April between Turkey, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government had concluded with an agreement: joint collaboration against the PKK — and the YBS. Prior to that, in October 2020, the Iraqi and the Kurdish Regional Government had struck a deal under U.N. auspices that included the withdrawal of the YBS militia from Sinjar. The deal was — unsurprisingly — rejected by the YBS and the Yazidis who had not been included in the talks.