Stories from Kurdistan

Stories of Resilience in Refugee Camps Across Kurdistan

Refugee

The following piece was submitted to The Kurdish Project by Alan Khaledi. Submit your own story to The Kurdish Project.

The road stretched ahead, nothing overwhelmingly special or different was visible as far as the eye could stretch. Two cars would fit uncomfortably on the road. On the sides were stretches of plains where little villages and towns popped up once in a while. The plain was met on the right with a mountain range that led to ISIS territory in Syria on its other side. It was a similar sunny day like today over two years ago where ISIS terrorists were unfortunately able to break part of the Kurdish Peshmerga defense lines, and after multiple attempts, broke into Shingal and some of the surrounding villages. Shingal is the main town that inhabited by the Yezidi Kurds, a minority faction that have enjoyed their different religion freely in the past. With ISIS entering the town, their religion was now enough of a reason to die. On that dark gloomy day, ISIS terrorists committed a massive genocide and waves of massacre. The men would either have to convert to Islam or face death. Their women were barbarically coerced to sexual slavery and rape, including pre-mature girls.

Refugee Yazidi Children Face Slavery, Rape

Throughout the drive, I was thinking of the Yezidi children I met in Mamilyan Camp in Akre a week ago. They had been forced to ISIS training camps, or forced into slavery and rape at ISIS households in Syria. These children were none like the ones from previous camps. The other children would still be able to crack a smile and have a laugh. These didn’t. The road was empty as well as the surrounding villages. After the attacks, most were still left inhabited. There were children who were recently born when the attacks happened or many who were born on the mountain during their escape; I wondered what these innocent minds made of their new state of living, or lack of it, thereof. I wondered at what age they would be told about their dad or sibling who was taken by ISIS and suffered an unknown misery to this day. I wandered in my own head for quite a while. A lot of thoughts and questions rushed into my mind that were lost in the chunk, none leading to an answer. There is no really good way to explain the reality of the situation to a child who’s seen nothing but displacement since infancy and instill a lightness of spirit in him/her. It’s immensely unclear to me how to promote and instill religious and racial tolerance to a child who’s seen nothing but vicious intolerance and violence. Time passed really quickly for me, unsure of what roads we had taken or what cities we had passed by until I saw Rabi’a village in the distance. Rabi’a was one of the last villages that ISIS had made advances to during their invasion of Shingal area. All I could see were torn down houses. Few families had returned and lived in half fixed up houses, but there was no sense of life. I got out of the truck and snapped a few photos of the town until a guard from the checkpoint quickly ran over and told us that photos weren’t allowed.

We got back in the truck and after a few minutes, the driver who was next to me said as he pointed to a wedding hall that people used for weddings in the past. “They broke into every house in the village, tied them up and put them into a huge truck like this one, and then bring them here. Then they had to either convert and join them, which none did, or face execution.” I wondered how many newlyweds said their goodbyes to each other in the same place they got married. I was in a truck myself. This was a second day to my journey to Shingal, the mountain where the Yezidi refugees reside all over. It was about a 7 to 8-hour journey from Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. The previous day, we drove to Duhok, the third largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, and then left to Shingal at 7 am. The truck belonged to a local organization and had some food supplies as well as pipes for a water well they were building; lack of water on the mountain is an immensely critical issue for the Yezidis.

We were finally there. The truck pulled into the gate of a fenced area where the NGO volunteers stayed and operated. It was a pretty tiny amount of land, packed with 6 tents: the office, two for storage, two for guests and employees sleeping, and lastly a kitchen. I went into the kitchen and was met by the chef, an elderly Yazidi man who greeted me with a warm welcome – immediately pouring me a cup of tea and dragging the ash tray in front of me. I soon met Armand, the person who was going to take me and walk around the tents. The mountain was immensely large, with clusters of tents spread across it. Mostly, people from a village would set up their tent in a separate area, a few hundred feet from another cluster of tents – another village. We went to the cluster across where I would spend the night. It was around noon, an hour before lunch. Under the blazing heat, there weren’t many people around. We passed a tent that didn’t really have any protection. It had a roof, blankets and sheets swinging back and forth with the mountain breeze hung onto a wooden structure. We asked if we could come in and they welcomed us and pointed us towards the door. It was pretty ironic because we could see them and simply enter the tent by crouching down and walking in.

The door swayed open and there stood a young boy dressed in a black Real Madrid tracksuit, and a colored lace necklace around his neck. He didn’t really feel like speaking and sat in the corner to enjoy his meal, a piece of bread and a tomato. His two cousins, being older and feeling more responsibility for having a guest over, quickly coordinated grabbing two glasses and a pitcher of water. Then they sat across us quietly. Armand starting chatting them up and they slowly started talking about their experience and their memories of home. It turns out they had lost multiple people in their family. They knew some had passed away, while they wondered if some of them were still alive. He told us of their move to the Shingal Mountain. Their aunt, their cousins, their neighbors, … I lost touch of the names and relationships at that point. The Yazidis, after the ISIS attacks, escaped to the mountain and were stranded there for over 6 weeks, besieged by ISIS on all sides. Being very familiar with the terrain and geography, armed groups among them started defending them throughout that period until the Kurdish Peshmarga were able to regain Shingal and most of the surrounding villages. However, aerial aid, the only possible method of assistance, was not frequent and very risky security-wise. Therefore, food supplies and water ran very low and many died on this path from starvation and dehydration. Now, the Yazidis are living in that very same mountain they were stranded on for weeks. It was time to go back to for lunch and tears started appearing on the eyes of the cousins. I didn’t want to continue the conversation and we started talking about football (soccer). Apparently, this whole family were total Real Madrid fanatics. We then briefly met Armand’s mom. After her warm and persistent attempts to keep us over for lunch, she gave up and walked us out along with the two cousins, back to the blazing heat and the lunch that was waiting for us in the kitchen tent right across in the NGO.

The plates were consecutively handed down and packed on top of each other from the end of the table to the front. Some lit up a cigarette while others started off with taking a sip of the hot tea, leaning against the cool breeze of the air conditioning unit in the kitchen, the only one in this NGO’s settlement. The NGO had a generator which they used only between the hours of noon-2PM and 9PM-midnight. I was very glad that the AC was on at this point, and much happier with my strategic position directly facing the AC. I left the kitchen to wash my hands, and got a glance of the same very tent I just came back from. They, along with thousands of other refugees on the mountain, have no electricity at all. Few of them had small solar panels that would power a connected lamp at night, most of which had malfunctioned since being installed a few months ago. Water was another critical issue for the Yazidis. The Yazidis refuse to stay within camp parameters, deeming their current situations as temporary, and most reside in two settlements, the Shingal mountain and a nearby Yezidi temple. That makes it hard to efficiently distribute water, and those that can afford it, often have to buy their own water. The rest go through life day by day, feeding only the kids on days when supplies are short.

After lunch, I spent the whole afternoon walking around and met many more people. The stories, despite their extreme nature, followed more or less the same suit. They children, depending on their age, had vague memories of their childhood before they move and escape on Shingal Mountain or weren’t even born then. The older ones had made some sense of their condition. They all talked about how much they miss home, and most would talk about how they saw ISIS terrorists walk into their house or had seen them in the distance, and the amount of fear they had. Overall, they were not very talkative, and talking to their parents, I realized how much nicer and less violent they had made their story to sound. Despite their lack of words, their eyes carried their story around – their glance were not the ones that I had ever seen on a child. Below are a few photos of children I met. Words don’t do their story justice.

A child I ran into in the blazing sun mopping the dirt off the ground as entertainment. Without any means of schooling, electricity and minimal water, it is hard to imagine how a single day will pass.

A brother and her older sister who was carrying a 250 IQD (the smallest amount of Iraqi currency that is roughly equivalent to 15 cents) in her hand on their way to go to a small snacks shop that a local Yazidi refugee had set up.

I ran into them on the way, and after hearing so many similar stories that only differed in the names and numbers of family members, I asked to ask their photo and just had a little chitchat, before they run off to the shop.

We had dinner and the countdown to 9 PM began. About 3 hours after, it was finally 9, which meant it was time that the generator would be switched on. The volunteers were all gathering outside waiting for the electricity to come. As soon as the lights lit up, it was time to go. One of the guys quickly pulled out a little box TV and a satellite dish, while another one poured everyone a round of tea. Within minutes, I was sitting with the three volunteers that were spending the night and guarding the NGO that night, sipping on charcoal tea and watching TV in the midst of utter darkness around us. The volunteers, themselves being Yezidis, had seen or known relatives and friends who had experienced one crime or another that ISIS committed against them. Few questions and discussions soon led to some very chilling stories. Faqir was the oldest in the crowd, and being the respected caretaker of everyone, knew much more and had helped many people in the mountain. Consequently, he was the one that told most of the stories. Faqir had a very strong presence. His tone, coupled with his expressive and spacious gestures, as well as his typical misdemeanor were clear illustrations of that. One of the stories he told me happened to his cousin. There were many stories, so intense and personal, that I stopped recording and writing things down. I remember one of his friends who he saw have his vein cut off and left to bleed to death in front of his family and friends. A story of a crying infant a car while an ISIS member was driving them somewhere, after which he got infuriated and and threw the infant out of the window. The most chilling one, the one that has stuck with me to this very day, happened to his cousin and his family. They were captured and in Shingal and taken to Raqqa. Separated from their 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, and left unfed for few days, the parents were finally treated to a nice meal full of meat. Skeptical, they showed reluctance after which they are coerced to eat. After the meal, they revealed to them that the meat was actually that of their children. That night, I crouched into sleep, unaware when my thoughts became a dream.

The sunrise and hot weather woke me up very early. I felt this pressing urge to write – do something and let everything off that I had heard in the past 24 hours. I had misplaced my notebook and pen the day before, and after scouring through the tent, found myself occupied until around 10 am. I felt ready to go out there again. I could see that the kids were also starting to get bored inside and were sneaking out under the blazing sun. We met an elderly Yazidi man, who approached us and inquired about the camera. After hearing about the project, he started opening up and telling us a part of his story. Separated and unaware of his loved ones, his memories and encounters with the ISIS terrorists, his pessimistic sense of hope, his memories were all filled inside his eyes. He invited us for a cup of tea inside his tent. After the delicious charcoal-brewed tea, I met the youngest nephew in the family who brought an ice-filled pitcher of water, to cool us down. I started chatting him up and he didn’t really mention anything of the past. I asked him more specific questions about their move and his memory of his town, and he more or less said the same thing as every other kid. It seemed that the period of several weeks, where they were stranded on the mountain living in despair, thirst and hunger, had just become a vague empty blurb in their mind. It seemed that anyone I approached and asked about their experience, they would just start listing names and their relationship to them, one right after another. Frankly, I didn’t want to witness that anymore.

It was time to say goodbye. Right before I headed back to Erbil, Armand said that there is one last place we should visit, a nearby tent where another NGO provided activities and books to the children a few hours every day. They sat on all sides of the room, their knees almost touching, each with a notebook and pencil in front of them. Four of the volunteers were walking around the room, talking to the kids and discussing the different books and activities they had assigned to them. The volunteer I just met asked me to sign some agreement documents and proceeded to clap a few times repeatedly, sharp and abrupt, to grab the children’s attention. I introduced myself and asked if any of them wanted to talk to me about themselves and get their photo taken so that others can know what they and their friends had been through, trying to sound as excited and ecstatic as possible — hoping for a response. After a few moments of silence and back and forth glances, the teacher went on to ask Samawa if she wanted to talk. Samawa was 9 years’ old, sitting in the corner with her arms locked into each other. In fact, she had been noticeably quiet compared to the others jumping and moving in frantic frenzy, the typical scene of a middle-school classroom. I was, therefore, surprised that she was the first one the teacher pointed to.

Samawa remained more or less the same during our conversation. The Yezidis speak a different Kurdish dialect which I don’t speak fluently, so one of the volunteers was sitting next to us to clear up potential confusions. When I asked about her life now, or before, she wouldn’t say much. Upon the teacher dissecting it with phrases like “Well, do you have any electricity now, or water, etc..?”, she would nod or reply with a faint yes or no. I tried to talk to her myself directly, and she was starting to relatively feel more comfortable. At one point, I asked her what she missed the most. Samawa, for the first time that I noticed, looked up and talked about Asmat. Asmat turned out to be her favorite doll, which she had to leave behind along with her other toys during their escape. “We used to play and talk together. She’d eat food with us. And sleep next to me.” This was actually the first time tears started dripping down her eyes. “I miss home. I want to play with Asmat again.”

The names of the people and characters of stories might have been changed to ensure their privacy.

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