Yezidi activists return to Shingal to commemorate the genocide. Photo by the author.
SHINGAL, Kurdistan Region – On the second anniversary of the beginning of the Islamic States’ (ISIS) genocide against the Yezidis of Shingal on August 3, 2014, a group of displaced Yezidis returned to the devastated city for the first time to commemorate that atrocity.
On Tuesday night, the eve of the anniversary, a candle lit vigil was held at Bajed Kandal Camp No. 2 in honour of those massacred by ISIS and the 3,770 Yezidi women who are still in ISIS captivity. The event was put on by the Swedish Specialist Hospital’s charity Joint Help for Kurdistan, which runs a clinic to care for the camp’s residents.
The following day, four buses took 180 of the Yezidis from Bajed Camp back to Shingal. While it was the second anniversary of the beginning of the genocide it was the very first anniversary they were able to hold in Shingal city itself.
We first went to Sharfadin, home to the sacred 800-year-old Yezidi temple of the same name, where the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) Peshmerga marked the anniversary with a ceremony.
En route to Sharfadin the concentration of the different forces who fought ISIS in the area was quite striking. Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) murals of their revered leader Abdullah Ocalan were present along with flags of the Yezidi militia trained by that group, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS).
The KDP Peshmerga ceremony saw speeches given before standing armed female Peshmerga, a clear symbolic stance against any further atrocities being committed against the region’s women by ISIS. Qasim Shesho, the famous Yezidi who has fought in the Peshmerga since the 1970’s, was also present at the ceremony. The Peshmerga maintained a large force of well-armed guards in Sharfadin throughout the event.
After the ceremony the Yezidis had a respite at a large meeting hall near the temple where they were generously served a meal of lamb, rice, and vegetables.
Afterwards, the buses left Sharfadin for Shingal city itself. There again the multitude of different anti-ISIS forces present in the area was evident. KDP Peshmerga soldiers guarded the city, the Iraqi Federal Police had a presence as did a handful of Syrian Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Graffiti reading ‘PKK’, ‘YPG’ and ‘YBS’ were ubiquitous across the ruined city.
Most of Shingal remains in ruins. In some parts of the city where houses remain intact there are a few families. But for the most part the city is a barren ruin. Buildings look more like they were shaken to rubble by an earthquake as opposed to bombings and clashes. The majority of the city’s buildings were ridden with bullet holes, especially in Shingal’s now barren marketplace. When you wander through the city alone you don’t hear a sound and get a sense of just how desolate it is.
Dr. Nemam Ghafouri of Joint Help for Kurdistan had long waited for the day the Yezidis could revisit Shingal. She had also worried about any trauma they might have felt revisiting the scene of the crimes committed against them two years earlier.
Defiance and resilience, however, overcame remorse and trauma – although there were clear signs of the latter two emotions also. The Yezidis marched through the city’s ruined streets holding banners demanding an end to the genocide and help for Yezidi women. They also carried photos of Nadia Murad – the famous Yezidi girl who escaped from the militants and spoke out against them at the United Nations after they murdered her family and repeatedly beat and raped her in captivity.
They also chanted loudly against the genocide, resolute in their determination to stop ISIS’s hell-bent desire to eradicate them and their culture. Young children gave impassioned speeches without reading from a script.
Most Yezidis who talked to Rudaw English were saddened by the ruin their city had become. One young man, As’ad, pointed at a small empty corner shop with its windows shattered from the fighting. It was one of many gutted shops but its significance for As’ad was sentimental. He ran the shop before the attack two years ago.
Beside that tiny corner shop was Shingal’s remaining working hospital. A rare intact and functioning structure nestled between two ruined buildings. A member of the Iraqi federal police was also present outside it.
Other young men and women Rudaw English spoke to lamented the widespread destruction, but nevertheless hoped they could return and rebuild their city someday.
From Shingal, the 180 Yezidis traveled up Mount Sinjar by bus, stopping on a few occasions to observe the panoramic view of the city below. It was up this mountain they had fled in August 2014 when they tried to escape ISIS and became trapped in the crippling heat. The mountainside was still dotted with dozens of burnt out cars that had been driven by Yezidis trying to escape ISIS’ onslaught.
A large picture of the Kurdistan Region’s President Masoud Barzani stands on the mountaintop where he gave a speech marking the liberation of Shingal city from ISIS last November. While PKK, YBS and YPG militiamen and women had fought ISIS in Shingal for well over a year beforehand, it took the large-scale KDP Peshmerga offensive in November to rout the group completely from that city.
It is evident that the Yezidis will not be able to return to their city for some time. ISIS militants are reportedly still in the mountains a short few miles away and reconstruction will be a considerable arduous and costly endeavor – especially given the economic crisis in the Kurdistan Region and the ongoing war.
However the fact they could mark the anniversary at the scene of the crime itself for the first time was a considerable step forward towards this ultimate goal.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.