Ba’adre, Iraq and Lalesh, Iraq — Nearly four years old, Claudia Khodidad Khalaf stares at me with dark eyes and wild hair, completely silent. Her toenails are shattered and missing, broken when her family fled the Islamic State barefoot, making their way from their home in Tel Ezir to Sinjar Mountain in August.
“She says maybe Daash will come back and kill us,” her father, Hassan, says, using the Arabic acronym many here use to refer to the Islamic State. “She saw the bodies. She knows, because she saw people die along the way, and they died because of Daash. . . . All of the kids here talk about the Daash, they all know.”
With no food and little water and only a single blanket, Hassan, his wife, and his three children — along with thousands of other Yazidis — languished for eight days on the sparse, stony mountain before American airplanes and fighters from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party cleared an escape route. Today, they’re squatting in a half-constructed building with no walls and a dirt floor. I count six children under the age of ten, but, except for the babies, they remain strangely quiet.
“We were lucky to flee in time,” Hassan tells me, glancing at his family. On his arm, he has a tattoo of a heart with his wife’s name written inside. “A lot of people did not have time to flee. Also, people were killed along the way.”
The Yazidis — who practice a religion that values nature and includes elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam — remain a tiny minority in Iraq. They’re impossible to number, as the Pew Center has noted, suggesting that if a 1965 census count of the population “has held constant, there would be slightly more than 300,000 today” in Iraq, which has a total population of about 8 million.
Despite the imprecise numbers, it’s clear that the Yazidis have disproportionately suffered at the hands of the Islamic State. In the region surrounding Mount Sinjar alone, the Islamic State executed 500 Yazidis, the United Nations reported last month. The Islamic State buried some alive; it also captured 1,500 women and girls to serve as sex slaves, many of them Yazidi.
“ISIS’s aim is just to convert the Yazidis to Muslims,” Hassan says. “Because we don’t accept, they kill us and take our women and girls.” In the extended Khodidad Khalaf family alone, Hassan tells me, the Isalmic State captured 20 women and girls, and he has received no news of them or the horrors they are enduring if they are still alive. As the Islamic State attacked, they also killed eight men in Hassan’s family, “Their bodies are still on the ground in the area, and I know no one is there to make a grave for them.”
Those who managed to escape now face an uncertain future. Hassan worries about the cold winter that is fast approaching, and he doesn’t know how he will keep his family warm.
“I am angry, really,” he says. “For 13 years, I tried to make an honest living for our family. In one day, I lost everything. I lost all of my life, and I must start again. I don’t know where, but I must start again.”
Iraq’s Kurdish region has welcomed refugees, but the massive influx is already straining the public workers and the purse of Ba’adre, a city long considered the political capital of the Yazidis.
Before the Islamic State began its killing spree, Ba’adre was home to 1,400 families, and the surrounding ten villages held an additional 2,700 families. At last count, Ba’adre and its neighbors had provided shelter to 2,028 additional displaced families — 12,115 people, most of them Yazidi, says Shamal M. Adeeb, the city’s mayor.
“My wife is a doctor, the manager of the hospital, and she complains I’m an internationally displaced person now — displaced from my family!” he tells me, explaining that he and other city employees have been working around the clock just to make sure all the refugees and residents have clean water, trash collection, and reasonably consistent electricity.
The semi-autonomous government has spent heavily to help provide for the refugees of the Islamic State, Adeeb says. Other help has come from local charities and companies, as well as international NGOs. Adeeb fears the aid will run out, and he stresses that the refugee crisis is a long-term problem.
A Sunni Muslim appointed mayor of the majority-Yazidi city by the Kurdish government, Adeeb says his own experience has taught him compassion for these displaced families, regardless of their religion; in 1998, as Saddam Hussein and his regime committed mass murders in the region, Adeeb and his family fled on foot to Turkey.
“If you believe it, for 40 days, I did not wash my body,” because he and his family were escaping, he recalls. “In fact, at that time, we were in a very bad situation. We felt our personalities, from a psychological perspective — we broke. So we know, and for that reason, we help. . . . I asked our offices here and all of our employees to be very calm and quiet around the refugees. They must accept them and be very careful with them. . . . These crimes against humanity ISIS is committing — no place in the world accepts or tolerates it. So we must do our duty against it.”
Hundreds more Yazidis have taken refuge half an hour away in Lalesh, which for hundreds of years has been the Yazidis’ holiest site, roughly equivalent to Mecca or Jerusalem.
Before, Yazidis traveled there only to celebrate religious holidays; today, they sleep in temple buildings and tents in the area. Many refugees were so poor that they didn’t have shoes when they fled the Islamic State, but it doesn’t matter in Lalesh, because everyone goes barefoot out of respect for the holy site. Ornate stone carvings decorate the walls, and spires point toward the sun, guiding the Yazidis’ prayers. Every night before sunset, they light 365 candles, the wicks soaked in fragrant herb-infused oil.
Worshipping in this tranquil setting seems to give some peace, however fragile, to these weary families. In one temple room, some Yazidis practice an old rite: Colorful scarves adorn the walls, and believers tie knots in them and make a wish, then untie another person’s knot, releasing their dreams to heaven. There are dozens and dozens of knots remaining when I visit, and I ask our guide what he wishes for. He tells me he yearns only for health and safety for his people.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.