Afrin’s Yazidis: Millennia-Old Culture Edges on the Precipice

By Lazghine Ya’qoube 

The genocidal campaign perpetrated by fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) against the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar in 2014 brought the ethno-religious Kurdish minority in Iraq and Syria into the spotlight.

While Yazidis in Iraq are heavily concentrated in the Sheikhan district of Duhok and Sinjar, adherents of the faith in Syria have lived in two main yet non-contiguous regions in east and northwest country. Besides the one in Hasaka, and though unacknowledged, there lived in Afrin a considerable Yazidi population.

It is unknown when Yazidis first appeared in Afrin, however, the existence of Yazidi temples and shrines confirm their long-term historical claim to the territories in Afrin and elsewhere. Whatever the case, Yazidis are autochthonous to the regions they used to inhabit.

Sulaiman Ja’far, an Afrin Yazidi researcher and current co-chair of the Afrin Judiciary Council, argues that Yazidism in Afrin dates back to the time of the Medes. With the recession of Media, says Ja’far, Yazidis survived that great empire extending from Alexandretta on the Mediterranean coast in the west, up to eastern Iran.

During the Crusades, the Kurdish leader Saladin attached much importance to Aleppo for its strategic position and its vicinity to the autocephalous Patriarchate of Antioch. A large number of Saladin’s civil administrators and military leaders were known to be Yazidis.

In modern Syria, Yazidis remained marginalized both socially and politically. They were effectively erased from civic life. Legally, and under the Syrian law, Yazidis were considered as Muslims. Unlike other religious minorities, they had to go through Islamic courts rather than having their religious-personal status courts. The Yazidis were forced to comply with Muslim Sharia laws in many aspects of life. Politically, no Yazidi figure was allowed to occupy a high-profile office in succeeding Syrian governments.

However, Yazidis were to gain momentum following the Rojava Revolution. Under the egalitarian Charter of Rojava known as the Social Contract in effect since January 2014, Yazidis were treated on equal terms for the very first time with all religious denominations in north and east Syria.

Article 33 which stipulates cultural, ethnic, and religious freedoms marks the very first recognition given to Yazidism in history. In Rojava, Yazidism was recognized as an independent religion by itself. Based on the co-chairmanship system, Yazidis were allowed the chance to occupy high positions in their own administered bodies and of AANES. Numerous numbers of Yazidi bodies came into being. Yezidis have for the first time in decades experienced a status that meets their needs.

While the largest Yazidi enclave of Sinjar was hard hit by the extremist fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2014, their co-religionists in Syria were spared – though only temporarily – of such heinous crimes perpetrated in Sinjar thanks to the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and the all-female Women Protection Units (YPJ).

Afrin, that Kurdish region in northwest Aleppo had always been a medley of diversity where Kurds, Arabs, Alawites, Turkomen, Circassians, Arnauts and different Christian denominations including Armenians, Nestorians, Orthodox, Greeks, Arameans (or Syriacs), Melkites and others lived on peaceful terms in the city and mixed villages.

Historically, at the onset of the 20th century, there were nearly 58 Yazidi villages in the region of Afrin. However, with the passage of time, that number has been dwindling. Up to January 2018, Yazidis lived in 23 villages in Shera, Sherawa and Jinderis and in Afrin’s city center. Notably, out of the 23 villages, Bafloun, Qibar, Qatmeh, Basoufan, and, Shadeira were purely Yazidi.

Geographically, Yazidi settlements served as a security belt shielding Afrin as the majority of their villages were located in the east and south of Afrin extending from Qastal Jindo in the north, taking a southwest direction up to the village of Shadeira, close to Mount Leiloun (Simeon) in Sherawa in the south.

Prior to 2018, Afrin hosted the largest Yazidi minority in Syria and outside Iraq. It was the biggest and most contiguous Yazidi enclave in Syria.

Located in that historical corridor known as the Syrian Gates, or the Bailan Pass, where armies of the east and west have always met, Afrin had been an ample manifestation of a cultural diversity that straddled millennia. However, the tight knot was loosened in the crucible of a Turkish military invasion.

Since 2012 up to January 2018, and compared to Jazira and Kobane, Afrin was the most tranquil of the three Kurdish cantons of Rojava. However, as radical Islam was gaining ground in Syria and Iraq, that reality changed. Azaz in north Aleppo was taken by Islamists in July 2012. Further west, Qastal Jindo was the gate to Afrin. Azaz reflected repeated turbulences for that Yazidi village.

In October 2012, the very first attack was mounted. However, although skirmishes occurred from time to time between the Kurdish fighters and the opposition groups, they were never engaged in full-scale battles.

In 2013, the village was again under attack by opposition fighters, and though attackers were repelled Qasta Jindo remained the main friction point between Kurdish fighters and the opposition factions.

In March 2014, the Armenian predominant town of Kasab on the Mediterranean coast was attacked by opposition Islamist fighters. It was a clear indication how religious minorities were engulfed in dangers and squeezed into the corner. While Aleppo plunged into battles, Afrin was flourishing. But that was not to last for long. The bells of war were to ring soon.

In January 2018, Turkish armed forces and the affiliated factions of Syrian National Army (SNA) under the false pretext of Ankara’s “security concerns” launched an air campaign and ground invasion ironically codenamed “Operation Olive Branch” apparently to dislodge YPG & YPJ fighters from the area, but this narrative was not the real version of the story. Afrin was the closing part of a territorial concession deal.

One day into the operation, a poultry farm located in the village of Anabke in Shera in the north was bombarded by Turkish fighter jets. At least eleven people were killed including a whole family of seven members which had been displaced from Idlib. The incident revealed how arbitrary targets were chosen.

In February 2018, Turkish fighter jets bombarded the Iron Age Syro-Hittite and Hurrian- styled Ain Dara Temple (Solomon’s peculiar parallel) which was built in 1300 B.C. Prior, the savage murder, beheading, breast shearing and mutilating the body of the female Kurdish fighter Emina Mustafa (nom de guerre Barine Kobane) had astounded the world. It was a bad omen of what was actually taking place and of what was to come yet.

After nearly a two months uneven engagement, the full capture of Afrin was announced on March 18 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Afrin was in their full control. However, before March came to a close, reports of vandalizing and looting religious sites began to emerge from the occupied Kurdish canton. And there were many.

After the entire region was taken, Turkish forces and SNA fighters engaged in vandalism and looting throughout the city. One of the most appalling acts in the operation was the defacing of the symbolic statue of Kawa Hesinkar (blacksmith), the heroic figure in the Kurdish mythology who embodies resistance to repression and plays a large role in the story of the Kurdish New Year; Newroz. Using ropes, SNA fighters pulled the defaced statue to the ground.

The destruction of the statue which occurred three days before the Kurdish national day of Newroz lent insight into the mentality and ideology of factional groups supported by Ankara.

While presumably hostilities were brought to a halt, a new and yet more ruthless and calamitous campaign of human rights abuses was commenced. Arbitrary detention, abduction, rape, enforced displacement, murder, forced disappearances, deportation and hostage taking for ransom, have since become common occurrences against those chose to remain at home.

In contrast to Rojava where Yazidism was recognized as a faith independent from Islam, the growth of religious freedom in that part of Syria has been stymied dramatically under “Olive Branch.” Following Ankara’s occupation, Islamist militia groups have enforced Sharia law on Kurdish locals. There are countless and yet grim reports of forced conversions of Yazidis and kidnappings of Yazidi women and girls, the exact policy adopted by ISIS towards the Yezidis.

The Kurds among others were hopeful that the announced territorial defeat inflicted by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on ISIS’ last pocket in Deir Ezzor would bring peace and heal wounds but that did not happen. Prior to, and fallowing the fall of Baghouz in 2019, many ISIS fighters had averted arrest and managed to relocate to Afrin.

Most Islamist fighters embracing exclusionist ideology put the blame for the fall of the self- proclaimed “caliphate” on the Kurds. Vengeful, many have been operating under different colors for retaliation against the remaining civilian population. They consider the Kurds as aiders and abettors to the fall of the Caliphate. The case of Ahrar al-Sharqiya- whose fighters are mostly from Deir Ezzor- is a case in point.

SNA factions mined and blew up the Yazidi Cultural Union on the Velat Street in the city of Afrin and destroyed the symbolic Lalish Monument Dome and the statue of Zoroaster both in place since 2014.

The Union, which was founded in 2013, housed countless books and manuscripts of the Yazidi faith. Following the demolition, the site remained untouched and unchanged for more than two years until a new school was built on the spot.

The largest Yazidi shrine in Syria located on Mount Sheikh Barakat- overlooking Darat Izza- was seized by Turkish armed forces and turned into a military barrack. Ancient and historical monuments such as the Sheikh Jineid Shrine in the village of Feqira, Melek Adi Shrine and that of Sheikh Hussein in the village of Qibar and the Cilkhane Shrine in Shadeira were all desecrated.

SNA fighters also destroyed the grave of the Kurdish national figure Nuri Dersimi, located in the cemetery of the village of Mashale.

Islamist groups propagated the false myth that Yazidis are devil worshippers. Groups promoting jihadist ideology who participate in violations and breaches in Afrin include Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Fayleq al-Sham, Hamza Division, Jaysh al-Sharqiya, Ahrar al-Sham, Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amshat), the Military Police, and, Sultan Murad Division.

Without bases and mostly driven by religious hatred , five Yazidi men — Omar Shamo Mamo, 66, for refusing to convert to Islam, Nuri Jimo Omar Sharaf, 63, Khaled Abdo Elo, 55, Abdo Fuad Nasser and Fuad Abdo Nasser (both by land mines), and three women — Fatima Hamke, 66, and Nargis Daud, 24, Zahida Nabo Hussein (in detention), were killed on separate occasions. Three families lost their lives in a landmine explosion while seeking safety elsewhere.

Including 15 women, nearly 60 Yazidis were arbitrarily arrested, and, while some were released others are still held. Ghazali Salmo, 45, from the village of Birj Avdalo has been serving her six- years sentence.

While desecration and destruction of non-Muslim (Yazidi and Christian) and Muslim (Alawite) sites, monuments and graves among others could be justified according to the exclusionist ideology of extremist Islamist groups. However, destroying and bulldozing a number of cultural heritage sites including the archaeological site of Ain Dara were out of vandalism, contempt and disrespect.

Afrin countryside was dotted with unlimited number of religious shrines visited by Yazidis, Alawites and other Muslim Sufi followers representing religious tolerance and cultural diversity. All the 19 Yazidi shrines which have been under “Olive Branch” occupation have been desecrated or vandalized.

The pyramid-roofed, hexagonal Roman-era mausoleum shrine of Nabi Huri (Cyrrhus) was ransacked by SNA fighters ostensibly looking for treasure. In November 2020, Nabi Huri that dates back to the Hurrian Kurdish culture has been turned into a mosque with extensions added to the site.

While vandalization acts could be pushed by strict religious zealot, searching for “gold and antiquities,” placed in such shrines by devotees provides an incentive for plunderers. Among others, this was the case of the Yazidi Shrine of Sheikh Rikab, in the village of Shadeira.

The once tree- covered and strategically important Mount Bursaya (Parse Khatoun), in north Qastal Jindo, which has an altitude of 848 meters and notable with its dominant location to command Kilis province and Syria’s Azaz and Afrin, has been turned into a large military base by the Turkish armed forces since January 2018. Prior, Yazidi religious festivals and celebrations were held on Mount Parse Khatoun.

All the 75 houses in Bafloun of Shera are denied access to its owners and remain taken by settlers. A large settlement has being built on Mount Bafloun commanding Azaz and a mosque in the village. None a Bafloun resident is allowed to return home.

Two big mosques have also been built in Qastal Jindo. In Basoufan, out of 3500 population there remains today hardly 200 people, mostly elderly. Earlier, the home of an elderly Yazidi woman was confiscated and converted into a mosque. Yazidi religious sites, burial grounds, and other cultural locations continue to be desecrated and destroyed.

More recently, on December 16, as residents of Basoufan were visiting their graves in the early hours of the morning to celebrate the breaking of a three day fast, known as Ezi Day, they were appalled by the desecration of their burial sites.

Although it contravenes international law, the demographic decline of Afrin’s Kurds in general and that of Yazidis in particular proceeds. While a systematic Turkification is engineered by the Turkish state in curricula, public places, and basic facilities, a heavy-handed Arabization policy is introduced by Arabs who are originally from Inland and Eastern Syria, mostly religiously driven.

While abuses are committed against all indigenous people as a way to enforce displacement, accusations against Yazidis could easily be fabricated and consequently gain credence under the false myth of being Non-Muslims; that is infidels. Among other acts to harass Yazidis, contempt, maltreatment, appropriation and deprivation of economic resources that earn a living are included.

Before the Syrian Crisis, there were roughly 60,000 Yazidis living in Syria with almost all of them residing in Afrin. In 2018, there remained nearly 30,000. However, today less than 1,000 remain living there, mostly elderly people. Since March 2018, 90% of the Yazidi population has been driven out of Afrin, some fled and others were forced out of their homes.

Human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Afrin, amid the already introduced demographic engineering, forced conversion, deportation and subsequent and continued migration the Yazidi presence and culture is threatened unless rapid and deterring action is taken.

Afrin remains a silent murder case for it was part of a tit-for-tat political bargain and a territorial compromise involving regional (Turkey) and global (Russia) powers. In exchange, Eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus in south Syria and the eastern part of Aleppo city in the north were already evacuated by the Turkish- backed opposition and handed over to the control of the Russian- supported Syrian regime forces.

Being a non-missionary faith, and owing to religious persecution and conversion, Yazidism has been dwindling almost to the point of extinction. Afrin Yazidis are faced with cultural and territorial displacement from their ancestral lands. Unless action is taken, in less than a decade the Yazidi culture could disappear from the land it resided in for millennia. In Afrin, and elsewhere, the world seems to have forgotten about Yazidis. A grim reality prevails.

Author

  • Lazghine Yaqoube

    Based in Rojava, Lazghine Ya’qoube Atteh is a translator, author and researcher into the modern history of Mesopotamia with a special focus on/ and an interest in Kurdish, Yazidi and Assyrian affairs in Turkey, Syria and Iraq prior to, during and in the aftermath of World War I. His articles have appeared on Hawar News Agency, Rudaw English, Kurdistan 24, North Press Agency, and, the Levant News. Among others, he has written on the Islamic State’s 2014 Yazidi Genocide, Hasaka’s al-Hal Camp, the October 1998 Crisis, the Adana Agreement of 1998, and, Syrian- Turkish relations prior to and following the Syrian Crisis. He can be reached at [email protected]

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