Qasim Said (extreme right), housed with other Yezidi refugees at a makeshift shelter, says he never thought Arabs in Shingal would turn on their Yezidi neighbors. Photo by author.
DOHUK, Kurdistan Region – When fighters of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) entered Shingal they were joined by Arab neighbors in the looting and attacks on the majority Kurdish Yezidis, witnesses say.
That has raised fears of revenge against the Arabs once the Kurds push the militants out of the town, further fuelling the endless cycle of sectarian violence that has gripped Iraq for more than a decade.
“One of my neighbors, who was my friend, put a gun to my chest. ‘Get out,’ he said,” recounted Qassim Said, still in shock over the incident.
“We never thought that they would kill us one day,” said Said, a Yezidi who found refuge in the Kurdistan Region after 10 days on Mount Shingal with tens of thousands of fellow Yezidis fleeing the IS.
His story is common in the disaster that befell the Yezidis. Shingal had an Arab minority, and in the Yezidi village of Kocho that IS captured recently, Arabs from surrounding villages were involved, according to witnesses.
The people of Kocho were gathered in the local school and promised that nothing would happen to them because of the good relations between the Arabs and Yezidis. Yet, all of the villagers were taken away, the men killed and the women and children kidnapped.
“Their sheep drank our water, their sick went to our doctors,” explained a Yezidi tribal chief, one of the overwhelming number of Shingal refugees who have sought refuge in Duhok in the Kurdistan Region.
He sat drinking tea in a large reception room used by Noori Abdulrahman, from Shingal himself and a special delegate of Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in charge of caring for the Yezidis’ humanitarian affairs.
Many of the tribal chiefs visit Noori, whose reception is filled with men in the traditional long robes and bushy moustaches typical of the Yezidis.
“How can we ever trust the Arabs again?” wondered Abdulrahman. “They want to kill the Kurds,” he warned.
Abdulrahman is not himself Yezidi, but has “blood ties” acquired through partaking in family customs and rituals. These relations had also existed between Yezidis and their Arab neighbors.
Abdulrahman compares the devastation befalling the Yezidi community -– with tens of thousands fleeing the IS or caught in the fighting -- with Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign of the 1980s, which especially targeted the Kurds, destroying and gassing their towns and villages and killing 180,000.
The Arabic word Anfal means “spoils of war,” and that is how IS fighters regard Yezidis, seeing them as “unbelievers,” under their Quranic teachings.
Many Yezidis are convinced that their homes have been completely looted.
When Said came down the mountain in urgent search of water for his family, he said he spotted a truck parked in front of his house.
“They were Arabs from the city, they stole everything,” he said, convinced of their identity even though he could not really make them out from a distance.
Abdulrahman sees big problems looming, when Kurds succeed in liberating the Yezidi towns and villages.
“The Arabs cannot stay. I think they will surely run away, because the Yezidis will want to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.”
And the Yezidis are not the only ones to feel betrayed by Arab neighbors or friends.
When thousands of Christians left the region between the IS stronghold Mosul and the Kurdistan capital of Erbil, some Arabs from the surrounding villages drove in. They now guard the empty towns and villages in the name of IS.
Already, these reports have led to anti-Arab sentiments in the Kurdistan Region. In Erbil, young Kurds took to the streets to demand the departure of all Arabs, and started harassing Arabs on the streets.
Around 500,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from Arab towns like Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi have fled from the advancing IS armies to the Kurdistan Region.
It is a repeat of what happened during the 2006 civil war in Baghdad, when Arab businessmen settled in the safety of Kurdistan.
Some of the Sunni politicians leading the Sunni resistance against the Iraqi government reside in Erbil, and with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki forced out, they proclaim their readiness to work with his successor against the Islamic militants.
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has vouched to protect the Arabs in Kurdistan, calling them “our guests.” Abdulrahman added: “Those who live peacefully amongst us will have our sympathy and respect.”