Remembering Sinjar

Five years ago, 03 August 2014, I posted a photo on my Facebook page of a cute little frog that I saw in Swaziland. He was pale grey and quite small. I thought he looked like a piece of gum. I called him Wrigley.

Five years ago, 03 August 2014, some people whom I consider to be dear friends were running for their lives. Literally. A word often used is ‘fleeing’. I’ve never ‘fled’ anywhere. I’ve never had to.

Today all Yezidis are remembering what they were doing; who they lost; who is still missing; and what has changed forever. I’m remembering too – in my small way – and sharing some photos of my times in Sinjar. I hope this honours all of the people who trusted me with their stories, who welcomed me into their homes, whose lives will never be quite what they dreamed they would be.

This was one of the first photographs I took in Iraq. My first visit to a refugee camp was Sharya, which at the time housed nearly 18,000 Yazidis from Sinjar. I saw strength in her. I would see the same in all of the Yazidi women I met.

Dr Omar worked in the clinic in Sharya Camp. He had been a physician in Sinjar for many years, and some of the people in the camp had been his patients. In the days leading up to ‘the crisis’ as it is called, Dr Omar had the chance to bring his immediate family out of Sinjar, to Duhok. They stayed in Duhok for only a few hours before returning; risking their lives in the process.

“Yes if we would stay, we would be alive,” he told me. “But without all of our family, what would be the benefit?”

Khalid was one of the first employees of the Iraq programme during the initial emergency response. It was not part of his career plan. After decades of saving and working, Khalid and his brothers had just finished building a family house in their village. One day Khalid’s mother showed me photos on her phone; the beautiful tiled floor with a stunning design. The curved staircase. The bright yellow exterior. All of the rooms where her grandchildren would grow up, and where she and her husband would live. As she swiped through the pictures, she came to the most recent one; the house is destroyed; the yellow concrete walls crumbling. It’s been looted and vandalized. Five years on, Khalid’s family is scattered and he is still working in humanitarian aid. Where they once dreamed of raising children together, he and his brothers now connect through Skype.

This young mother feared that her third child, due in a few months, would come before she could arrange travel to the hospital. Two women had died while being transported during their labour. The nearby hospital, in Sinjar City, was still not fully functioning After being bombed, and the fighting in Mosul was still going on. She and her family lived in an unfinished building with five other families. Her sons raised pigeons; maybe they dream of racing them one day.

While sitting outside a clinic in Khanasor one day in 2018, Shary approached me; showing me a photo gallery on her phone. During the crisis 76 of her family members were abducted. She told me that 41 were still missing. I would later learn that Shary and her two sisters had a popular salon in Khanasor. All of the women would come to have their hair and makeup done for special occasions. Before the crisis, Shary and her sisters were inseperable. Both of her sisters were taken on 03 August 2014; one was later returned.

Walking through the deserted streets of Sinjar City in August 2017 was eerie; knowing that terrorists walked these same paths; that every building represented interrupted dreams. That people I knew and cared for once shopped here on special trips to town. Even as a stranger this was so jarring for me; almost haunted. But as soon as we had permission to enter, my colleagues never hesitated to go to these places and provide whatever help that we could.

I met this man when our team checked in on his son who was being treated for malnutrition. This was at the start of the fighting in Mosul, and this man was a soldier; known as Peshmerga. Here he is serving me breakfast as I visited his family tent in Sharya Camp. He is home after working weeks on the front line. Pouring my tea.

As his family moved from one village to another, moving closer to the safety of Sinjar Mountain and receiving phone calls telling them what was happening in other areas, Elias sent a text to his fiance. He feared they wouldn’t live through the day. He worried for his Grandmother who refused to leave with them, concerned she would slow them down.

In 2018 Elias took me to his now-empty and looted family home. He touched the dead leaves on the olive trees and told me about the beautiful garden his mother planted.

“We never thought we would live anywhere else,” he told me as he showed me the room he once shared with his grandmother; his notes and textbooks from medical school still scattered about the room by vandals. “Now we are in separate countries.”

A few days after they fled, Elias’ brother snuck back into the village and carried their Grandmother to his waiting car. Elias and his fiance were married in 2018.

I once stood on Sinjar Mountain while a colleague told me his story. Shortly after the crisis he sent his wife and children out of the country for their safety. His wife didn’t want to leave; he cried as he told me how he was forced to scare her with terrible stories of what might happen to the children if they stayed. He sent them with a smuggler; using the Find My Phone app to track their movements across the Mediterranean Sea. After more than two years apart, during my time in Iraq, he was reunited with his family in their new home.

While I was in Iraq, the young son of a colleague was returned after being kidnapped and held by Isis. He could no longer remember how to speak Kurdish, his mother tongue.

A soft-spoken man often told of his love for his family and of being stuck outside of Sinjar as the crisis worsened. His wife, young son, and newborn baby were at home in their village. He told me of the challenges he faced making his way back to them; the roads were blocked and ISIS was advancing. He shared the story of battling the terrorists – determined to get to his family. Before I left Iraq I learned that he and his wife were expecting their third child.

Five years on, several thousand people are still living on Sinjar Mountain. In 2018 new mass graves were found in Sinjar, and in the past several months groups of women and children have been returning from captivity. ISIS has been recognized by the United Nations as the perpetrator of a genocide against the Yazidis in Iraq.