Read caption TRAUMA. Thousands of Yazidi children are in need of mental health care. Through our education programmes in the camps, we help them process their trauma. Now, we are starting up a similar program in the war-torn town of Sinjar. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

Peace Prize 2018: NRC on the ground in Sinjar

Roald Høvring|Published 10. Dec 2018
Three years after the Iraqi town of Sinjar was recaptured from Islamic State group, the Yazidis have begun to return. The town is in ruins and the population has largely been left to its own devices. The Norwegian Refugee Council is the only international humanitarian organisation with a permanent presence in the town.

“Unlike other places in Iraq, which are slowly but surely being rebuilt, there has still been no progress in Sinjar,” says Tom Peyre-Costa, NRC’s media coordinator in Iraq. He fears that the world is starting to forget the Yazidis.

Facts about the Yazidis

5 things you should know about the Yazidis

On 3 August 2014, Islamic State group attacked the Yazidi community in Sinjar, northern Iraq. Thousands were imprisoned or killed, and close to 100,000 people fled to Mount Sinjar. The UN has referred to the attack as a genocide.

Here are five things you should know about the persecution of the Yazidis:

  1. Religious minority

The Yazidis is one of many religious minorities in Iraq. They follow Yazidism, a religion combining elements from, among others, Christianity and Islam. At the centre is the teaching about a fallen angel who is forgiven by God and set to govern the Earth in God’s place.

It is this story of a fallen angel as a figure of worship that has led to the more than a century-long persecution of the Yazidis. In both Christianity and Islam, the devil is presented as a fallen angel, which has led them to be perceived as devil-worshippers. This perception was used by IS group to justify their atrocities against this minority group.

  1. Trapped on Mount Sinjar

When the IS group attacked Yazidi communities in Sinjar, close to 100,000 Yazidis fled up Mount Sinjar. There, they remained trapped for days with no food or water, until Kurdish forces managed to open a corridor down to the Kurdish-controlled areas. The elderly, the sick and the pregnant women were trapped on the mountain for the longest period, as they were unable to walk down on their own. Many died as a result of thirst, injuries or exhaustion.

Those who couldn’t leave Sinjar were killed or taken prisoners. Men and boys above the age of 12 were separated from their families and forced to convert. Those who refused were killed. Women and children often had to bear witness to the execution of their male relatives before they were taken to Syria.

  1. Close to 7,000 women sold as sex slaves

Women paid the highest price when IS group attacked. Nearly 7,000 Yazidi women were enslaved and brutalised by IS fighters, many of them repeatedly victims of sexual assault. They were forced to convert to Islam, and many were forcibly married off to IS fighters.

Thousands of women and children, down to the age of nine, were repeatedly sold in slave markets in Syrian cities where IS group had a strong presence. Boys from the age of seven years and upwards were separated from their mothers and put in camps where they were brainwashed and trained to become child soldiers.

  1. Thousands still missing

The attack by IS group four years ago resulted in the death of at least 1,293 Yazidis, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. 2,745 children have become orphans and face an uncertain future in displacement camps.

There are some children whose entire families were killed in the war against the Islamic State group: many family members are buried in the hundreds of mass graves found in the area. 1,665 men and boys are still missing.

Even though more than 3,000 Yazidi women and children have been rescued from the captivity of IS group, it is estimated that, up to as many remain enslaved still. After IS group’s defeat in Iraq, the Yazidis feel that they have been forgotten and that the efforts to find and rescue the girls, who have been missing since 2014, has declined.

  1. Nothing to return home to

Sinjar was retaken in November 2015 by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Yazidi fighters. Three years after Sinjar was retaken from IS group, more than 200,000 people, mostly Yazidis, are still displaced in northern Iraq and abroad with no home to return to.

Unlike elsewhere in Iraq where reconstruction is slowly happening, in Sinjar it never even started. Around 70 per cent of the buildings in Sinjar are still damaged or destroyed after the operations to retake the city. Large portions of the city remain uninhabitable, and today Sinjar city is a ghost town, without water, schools or hospitals. Those who decided to come back live in dire conditions, with no water or electricity. Around 6,000 families have returned, but many feel safer in the camps. Those who decided to come back live in dire conditions, with no water or electricity. Pregnant women have died because they lack health care.

The Yazidis, counting somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million people, are scattered across different locations: Some have returned to their villages, others live in camps, while tens of thousands have fled to other countries.

For a minority like the Yazidis, it’s important to stick together as people. But without more international support to ensure lasting peace, inclusion and sustainability in Sinjar, we run the risk of the Yazidi people not being able to return to their homes.

Genocide

On 3 August 2014, IS group attacked the Yazidis in the Sinjar District in northern Iraq. Thousands were abducted or killed, and nearly a hundred thousand people fled up into the Sinjar Mountains to escape. The United Nations has referred to the IS group attacks on the Yazidis as genocide.

About 70 per cent of the buildings in Sinjar were damaged or destroyed during operations to retake the town. Large parts of the town remain uninhabitable, and today, Sinjar is like a ghost town, with no water, only one school and no hospitals.

Read caption About 70 per cent of the buildings in Sinjar were damaged or destroyed during operations to retake the town. Photo: Alan Ayoubi/NRC

“Around 6,000 families have now returned to the region, but most Yazidis feel safer in the camps. Those who have returned home are living under extremely miserable conditions. Pregnant women have died because of lack of health care,” says Peyre-Costa.

 “We need schools, we need everything”

The streets are empty. Large parts of the town are in ruins. The infrastructure has been destroyed and people lack the most basic necessities, such as water and electricity. There is an immediate need to rebuild schools and hospitals.

Read caption BAYBON (20). “There is an urgent need for schools, hospitals and jobs,” she explains. Photo: Alan Ayoubi/NRC

In the village of Tal Azer just outside of Sinjar, we meet 20-year-old Baybon. She too fled into the Sinjar Mountains and on to Dohuk in 2014. A year ago, she returned to her hometown.

“I lost a year of school in Dohuk, and now I’ve lost another year here in Sinjar. There are no Kurdish schools here, only one Arab school,” she says.

The Yazidis went to Kurdish schools before IS took control of the town.

“There is an urgent need for schools, hospitals and jobs,” she explains.

I lost a year of school in Dohuk, and now I’ve lost another year here in Sinjar.
BAYBON (20), Yazidi who has returned home to Sinjar

NRC is working together with the local community

Peyre-Costa reports that there are several humanitarian organisations operating in Sinjar, but that NRC has a permanent presence, with an office staffed by employees who live and work in the town daily.

“We have just opened a community centre in the town centre, where we will be supporting young people with vocational training, so they can have the opportunity to find a job. We will also try to coordinate and strengthen the relief effort. In addition, we offer office space to other humanitarian organisations, such as CARE, which is about to open a much-needed health clinic.

Read caption YOUTH. The Norwegian Refugee Council has long been helping to provide schooling and psychosocial support for Yazidis living in displacement camps in Northern Iraq. Now, we are starting up a similar program in the war-torn town of Sinjar. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

Continuing relief work in the camps

NRC will continue its relief work in the camps that host many displaced Yazidis in Iraq.

“We will continue to help parents and children in the camps. Many children have been traumatised and are in need of psychosocial help. We have teachers and therapists who follow up the children at school and in their free time.

Many teenagers are also struggling with trauma. Some have lost several years of schooling.

“We also offer education and vocational training for teenagers and adults.”

Many need help in obtaining documents

Many of the Yazidis who fled Sinjar have lost both identity papers and property ownership documentation. NRC is helping them obtain the necessary paperwork.

“The latter is especially important as they return home to rebuild their homes and their lives,” explains Peyre-Costa.

It’s not too much to expect the international community to spend as much money on the rebuilding of Sinjar as it used in the fight against IS group.
TOM PEYRE-COSTA, NRC’s media coordinator in Iraq

“We must not forget the Yazidis now”

He believes that it is time for the international community to wake up and show a willingness to invest in reconstruction and secure peace and stability in the area.

“The Yazidis, who have lived through the worst atrocities committed by IS group, are now suffering from a lack of international support, and they are starting to be forgotten. Now is the time for action, so that more people can have the opportunity to return home.”

NRC also believes that the Iraqi authorities must take on a more active role and support the different communities in the area, so that they can rebuild Sinjar together.

“It’s not too much to expect the international community to spend as much money on the rebuilding of Sinjar as it used in the fight against IS group,” he concludes.