Zakho, Iraq – Sporting long, white garbs and a long, white beard, an elderly man known as Shamo keeps pictures of his loved ones kidnapped by ISIS in his tent in the Chamishko Camp.
The thousands of Yazidi residents, who are a Kurdish-speaking religious minority in Iraq, came to the camp near the city of Zakho in the Kurdistan Region in 2014 after ISIS overran their home city of Sinjar. The group killed several thousand Yazidis in the process. Although Sinjar was liberated by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in 2015, very few Yazidis have returned to the city. Shamo laments the lack of progress in both getting kidnapped Yazidis back and making Sinjar safe for them to return.
“A solution for those kidnapped by ISIS. This is our first demand,” he said, pictures of the missing people in front of him. “Second, we need international protection from genocide.”
Many residents of Chamishko prefer to live in the camps’ tents, fearing their hometown of Sinjar is not safe from a resurgence of ISIS.
ISIS swept through northern Iraq in 2014, taking Sinjar, as well as Mosul, parts of the Nineveh Plains, and other areas. Backed by air support from the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi military, the pro-government Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the military of Iraqi Kurdistan the Peshmerga, and other groups retook all of ISIS’ territory by the end of 2017. However, ISIS is still reportedly carrying out attacks in northern Iraq . ISIS especially targeted Yazidis, murdering and enslaving them due to their non-Islamic religious practices.
At present, there are more than 5,000 families in Chamishko Camp , according to the Duhok province’s Board of Relief and Humanitarian Affairs. The residents live in a series of blue and white tents that have plumbing and electricity. Power outages of several hours are common nowadays, as they are in other parts of the country. The tents are about two meters in height, covered in tarps, and reinforced by hard material on their walls.
A lot of Chamishko residents fear Sinjar is not safe years after the liberation. Usman Salih Murad fled with his family in 2014, sleeping on the streets of Duhok for several days before ultimately finding shelter when Chamishko was built. The presence of alleged ISIS supporters near Sinjar is one reason the city remains dangerous, according to him. “People who worked with ISIS have returned,” he said from his tent. “There’s a big fear of this.”
Murad is referring to the resettlement of Arab families in Sinjar who are accused of working with ISIS . He doesn’t want to live among people who may have partaken in the group’s notorious atrocities against Yazidi women.
“We won’t talk to them again,” said Murad. “They took our girls and they raped them.”
Kurdish security forces protect Chamishko, and the greater Zakho region is safe, having been spared the fighting in Mosul two hours away. On the other hand, Turkey carried out an airstrike in Sinjar in August targeting a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader . The strike was part of Turkey’s campaign to fight the PKK, who have long fought the Turkish state, in their areas of operation in northern Iraq.
The security concerns go deeper than alleged ISIS supporters in the area and the conflict with Turkey. There are too many groups competing for power in Sinjar, according to Said Saydu Khaydar.
“The reason is security,” he said on why people are reluctant to return home. “You walk a little way and you see white, yellow, and black flags, and destroyed houses.” Yazidi groups loyal to the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga and Iraq’s PMU have presences in and around Sinjar, in addition to the Iraqi army and the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the Turkish government. Sinjar is disputed between the federal Iraqi government and the
Kurdistan Region, and the former retook the city in October 2017 following the Kurdistan Independence referendum.
People from Sinjar note economic and infrastructure problems as well. Khaydar, who visited Sinjar in October, says the city lacks necessities.
“There are no hospitals, the streets are destroyed,” he said. “There are no services.”
Murad and Khaydar are not alone in their thinking. A May 2018 report from the United Nations (UN)’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) named poor security, a lack of economic opportunities, and destroyed homes as reasons Yazidis are unable to return to Sinjar.
Shamo wants to go home despite all that has happened, but says he can only wait and hope at the moment. If Sinjar can’t obtain international protection from foreign powers, then he’ll try to leave Iraq.
“If we can’t get it (protection),” Shamo said, “then open the doors of immigration in general to get out of Iraq.”