Yazidi Migration Sounds the Alarm Bell at Home
By Lazghine Ya'qoube
A report recently released by the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) revealed that 120, 000 Yazidis (Êzidî) have fled the country since the genocidal campaign by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) perpetrated against the Yazidi enclave of Mount Shingal in August 2014. Many have chosen relocation in countries such as Germany, Sweden, UK, Australia, Canada and America.
Relatedly, the alarm was substantiated elsewhere when later reports suggested that 80 Yazidi migrants – apparently en-route to Europe – were stuck for days on an islet in the Maritza River (between Turkey and Greece). They were finally rescued by Greek authorities after sending repeated SOS appeals aired on social media outlets.
While on the surface it appears poverty, instability and unemployment could be behind the dreadful rates of the migration of Yazidi youths and families from their ancestral home, the multifaceted nature of the Yazidi plight, for all intents and purposes, is much deeper than it appears.
ISIS, for one, has shattered the Yazidi community in the truest sense of the word. Ever since the tragedy of the 2014 ISIS attack on Shingal (Sinjar), the vast majority of Yazidis have been living in dire conditions in camps scattered across the KRI. Increased migration waves threaten the future of Yazidis as one of Mesopotamia’s most ancient and autochthonous peoples. Much worse, reports suggest that migrants sell their properties to afford the process, thereby permanently and irrevocably changing the demography and ethno-religious makeup of the ancient home of the Yazidis.
Yazidis, Ottomans, & Territoriality
The Yazidis are an ethno-religious Kurdish minority, who are extremely attached to the historical land they have lived on for millennia. The Yazidi plight nonetheless seems to have its roots established in a vulnerable geography determined by the colonial powers. Consequently, the history of the non-missionary faith has been marked by persecution, repression, and displacement.
In a blatant breach to the geology of territory extending between Syria and Iraq, and in stark contrast to the flatland scenery and the nature around, the Yazidi stronghold of Mount Shingal poses interesting questions pertaining to its geological formation and early human occupation. With the recent waves of immigration, it’s very future as a Yazidi territory is challenged.
Geographically isolated, Mount Shingal commands a vast and yet a strategically important position beneath the confluence of Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi border covering an area extending up to Deir Ezzor further south. This strategic importance is twofold. On the one hand, while the mountain has always served as refuge and provided protection at times of conflicts for the Yazidis, it has on the other hand, always been a contested territory.
Shingal’s rugged and barren mountain, its proximity to the Turkish border, immediate geographical continuity with the Turkmen-majority Tal Afar, its location within the disputed areas between the KRI and the Iraqi central government, and its isolation, has ensured that it has always been a target for regional and global powers.
In retrospect, until 1869, Shingal was administered as a Qadha (Province) of the Sanjak of Mosul, which had been attached first to the Eyalet of Amed, than to the Vilayet of Van and later to Hakkari and from the beginning of the 19th century, to the Eyalet of Baghdad.
In 1864, the Ottoman Vilayet Law was passed as part of the reform process initiated by Sultan Abdul Aziz. For nearly a decade (between 1869-1879), the district of Shingal was included within the boundaries of the newly created Mutessarifat of Deir Ezzor, which was ruled then independently and directly from Istanbul.
In 1879, when Mosul was constituted as an independent vilayet, Shingal was re-attached to Mosul and remained as one of its Qadhas until the British occupation of the Mountain in 1919.
Although Yazidis (like the Druze and the Alawites of Syria) had a kind of non-territorial autonomy within the empire’s jurisprudence, Ottoman armies could occasionally – at their commanders discretion – march on the Yazidi Mountain to subdue its population.
In this context, the campaign of Hafez Pasha in 1837 and that of Omar Wahbi Pasha in 1899 have been infamous for the most abominable of acts against the Yazidis. However, while Wahbi subdued Sheikhan and converted the shrine of Sheikh Adi to a Quranic school, he failed to penetrate deeper into Shingal .
During the four years of World War I, Shingal was spared the hostilities as the area was serving as the rearguard of the Ottoman Forces in Mesopotamia. Contextually, we first hear of Shingal in the political sense of the word in a reply letter sent by the Yazidi religious chief, Hamo Sheiro, head of the prestigious Fuqara religious class, to Sir Arnold Wilson, Chief Political Officer in Baghdad. In the letter dated November 5, 1917, Hamo Sheiro expresses his readiness to cooperate with the British forces in Iraq.
The nebulous Article Seven of the Armistice of Mudros authorized Great Britain to occupy Shingal as one of “strategical points” outside the armistice lines.
By a British decree issued in August 1920, Shingal was constituted as an independent Qadha composed of two sub-districts; the Shingal Nahiya, which included the south of the mountain, and the Shmal Nahiya, whose headquarters was located in the village of Karsi, in the northwest of the mountain.
In October 1920, Great Britain and France signed a convention to demarcate the boundary between Syria and Iraq in deference of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, and France’s session of Mosul to Great Britain a year earlier.
In a straight southward line extending from Rumeilan Koi up to Abu Kamal, Article One of the convention bisected the Yazidi Haskani and Qirani heartlands in the north somewhere between the villages of Khane Sor and Sinune, and in the south between the villages of Jaddale and Majnune.
However, demarcating the boundary continued haphazardly up to the late 1920s. The pending status of Mosul and the potential exploitation of oil, among others, were the driving force in the delayed demarcation process between the powers.
Throughout 1920, 1921, and 1922, Turkish forces under Sheikh Ahmed Sharif Senusi of Cyrenaica, Libya, threatened to storm Shingal. Having fought the French in Chad, the Italians in Libya, and the British in Egypt, Senusi attracted Muslims of different backgrounds to his cause. In 1922, he was sent on a secret mission to Mosul to gather support. However, the League of Nations’ decision to dispose Mosul to Iraq on December 16, 1925, dashed Turkish hopes in Shingal.
The British Government revised the frontier as defined in the Convention. The French made no protests. Shingal’s inclusion in Iraq was discussed and hastily finalized in the same session Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations.
Tactically, at the time, the issue of oil was gaining ground. Strategically, however, by pushing the Syrian boundary further eastward up to the village of Khanik, the French (and Syrians) were given access to the Tigris, and most importantly, the Turks’ road to Shingal was blocked. The French thought that west Shingal – as a geological extension to Mount Shingal – was replete with oil resources.
Iraq as a British Product
In the game of geopolitics and empires, Mount Shingal was incorporated in Iraq mainly as part of a territorial exchange. In return, Abu Kamal, the entire Khabur Basin and Mount Qara Chokh – the latter in south Derik – were included in Syria.
The boundary was demarcated to the disadvantage of the Yazidis, many of whom that had remained on the Syrian side of the border were forced to migrate to the Iraqi side. Prior to the final demarcation of the border, the Yazidis of Shingal would sell their goods and products in the then town of Hasaka, whose market depended largely on Yazidi products and items. Likewise, Yazidi migrations could reach Tal Brak, Khatouniya, al-Hol in east Hasaka and up to Mount Abdul Aziz (Kazwan) in the west where they met their coreligionists seasonally.
In October 1935, two years after the British mandate over Iraq was terminated, the pan-Arabist Iraqi army unleashed its brutality on Yazidis who rejected the imposition of the Conscription Bill. Nearly 200 Yazidis were killed and 11 villages were destroyed. Shingal was put under martial law. Not only this, but captives were taken to Mosul where they were paraded and humiliated. In 1939, Shingal and Sheikhan were put under ongoing military control.
When the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein launched its ruthless Arabization campaign against the Kurds in 1970s, more than 150 Yazidi villages – primarily huddled at the mountain’s foothills – were systematically targeted. Yazidi villagers were forcibly relocated to eleven housing compounds erected specifically for that end a few kilometers away on flat lands. Much worse, no deed titles were issued for the Yazidi occupants.
Ironically, the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003 played into the hands of Yazidis’ oppressors. In 2007, nearly 800 Yazidis were killed in two simultaneous bombings in the two villages of Tal Izer and Siba Sheikh Khudur in Shingal. Almost 1,500 others were injured.
The intent to the carnage has its roots allegedly in the stoning to death of Dua Khalil Aswad, a Yazidi girl who had allegedly eloped with a Sunni Arab youth. The Yazidis deny the act.
Consequentially, in an act of retaliation, some 23 Yazidi workers were killed by a Sunni Islamist armed group on April 22. The sequel to bloodshed would resume with more havoc.
The Islamic State & Beyond
In a Hulago-styled assault, and with anarchy sweeping Syria and Iraq, ISIS converged on Shingal in the early hours of August 3, 2014. During the first days of the campaign, around 1,293 people were killed outright and over 6,417 people (mostly young girls and women) were abducted.
Thousands fled their homes seeking shelter on Mount Shingal, then in KRI, and Rojava thanks to the humanitarian corridor secured by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Those who remained at home formed their own units known as the Shingal Resistance Units (YBŞ) that gained a foothold in Shingal to defend its local population. In November 2015, Kurdish forces liberated Shingal from ISIS. Hostilities incurred extensive damage on the infrastructure in Shingal.
Relatedly, in September 2017, then Iraqi Prime Minster Haider Abadi announced Iraq was free of ISIS. Yet, the rehabilitation process has been exceedingly a slow one.
Nonetheless resolvedly, in January 2020, the displaced Yazidi people – though on a very limited scale – set to return home. According to data from the United Nations Migration Agency, some 38,000 Yazidis returned between June and December 2020.
However, that figure dwindled drastically to 5,000 between February 2021 and December 2022. But for what reasons?
On January 22, 2021, the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – following a Friday prayer held in the Uskudar quarter of Istanbul – warned that his country and Iraq may conduct a joint ground operation to clear Shingal of “terrorists”.
While any incursion could draw criticism and entail losses, Turkey has instead resorted to the employment of advanced drone technology: specifically the Bayraktar TB2. In the summer of 2021, Turkish aerial bombardment (largely drone strikes) intensified against Shingal. Areas in the north of the mountain resembled a conflict zone. Relentless air strikes against Shingal have brought the prospects of a peaceful life to a halt.
The breakthrough came at the end of that year, when on December 7, 2021, YBŞ’s military commander Marwan Badal was killed in a drone strike in Khane Sor. Turkish drones do not make distinction between civilians and military personnel and often bomb indiscriminately.
On June 15, 2023, a 12- year-old child was killed in a drone strike against Sinune. Four YBŞ members were also injured. In mid-May, three YBŞ members were killed in Khane Sor in a similar act. Drone strikes have become common occurrences in Shingal with the YBŞ being the frequent target over alleged links with the PKK.
This has brought desperation to Yazidis who seem to have lost hope to lead a safe and peaceful life on their ancestral homeland. Nine years after the genocide, many destroyed Yazidi villages remain derelict and desolate.
In a sense, with the systematic sex enslavement of Yazidi girls and women, ISIS has imploded the Yazidi community, and where many of members of this ancient faith struggle to cope with the extensive dilemma.
The international community needs to deliver on its pledges to make compensation for the victims and to hold the perpetrators accountable for the brazen crimes they committed which have been recently recognized as a genocide. Shingal has yet to recover from the ravages inflicted by the genocide – socially, emotionally, economically, and infrastructure wise. Recently, on June 3, 2023, six Yazidi girls were rescued eight years after being abducted from home. Yet, nearly, 2,700 people (largely females) remain missing, an indication that the carnage still trails.