ISIS graffiti on the wall outside a school in Baaj. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Genocide in Iraq: When local Sunni became ISIS and slaughtered their Yazidi neighbors

When ISIS came to butcher the Yazidis of Iraq, they simply went next door.

By Rania Khalek / AlterNet

This is the third in a series of articles on the plight of Yazidis in Iraq. Read the first and second installments.

On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, orchestrated a pre-planned and systematic campaign of genocide against the Yazidis in northwest Iraq, driving hundreds of thousands of them from their ancestral homeland in Sinjar. Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking people who practice a pre-Islamic religion that ISIS ideologues equate with devil worship. All across Sinjar, wherever Yazidis were captured, the Sunni extremists forcibly converted or killed the men and enslaved the women and children.

The onslaught sent tens of thousands of Yazidis fleeing to Sinjar mountain, where they were trapped for days in the punishing Iraqi summer heat. The dusty and rugged mountainous terrain was their refuge, but for some it became a tomb. Hundreds, especially children and the elderly, died of thirst and hunger.

According to Yazidi survivors I spoke to in Baghdad, Sinjar, Erbil and Dohuk, the 2014 assault was carried out not by strangers, but by their Sunni friends and neighbors, by people they trusted and considered family. While much has been documented about the horrors ISIS inflicted on Yazidis, there has been little examination of how their genocide was made possible by the cooperation and collaboration of their Sunni neighbors and its consequences on communal relations going forward. Yazidis are strongly distrustful of Sunnis. They fear and loathe them and never want to live in a place where they are outnumbered by Sunnis again.

The genocide of the Yazidis poses a major challenge to the Sunni marginalization theory, which posits that Salafi jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS formed in response to the oppression of Sunnis by an Alawite regime in Syria and a Shia-dominated government in Iraq. In the context of the Yazidi genocide, this narrative falls short. Yazidis never possessed the political power to oppress anyone, certainly not their Sunni neighbors who had better jobs, larger houses and more political influence than Yazidis in Sinjar.

Yazidis have an additional explanation for the rise of ISIS. They say an ISIS-style ideology rooted in Salafism, Wahhabism and Sunni supremacy had been cultivated among local Sunnis in and around Sinjar over the last several decades, laying fertile ground for groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Their Sunni neighbors, many of them from large Arab tribes, were just waiting for the right moment to act. ISIS provided them with an opportunity and they took it, say Yazidis.

When their high school teachers turned to ISIS oppressors

“Most of ISIS was from our neighboring villages, from people inside Sinjar. These are people we used to split food with. Some of them were Kurdish Sunnis, some of them were Arab Sunnis. All of the Arab Sunnis were working with ISIS. Before ISIS, they were al Qaeda,” said Khudaydah, a 68-year-old Yazidi who has fought alongside both the PKK and the PMF against ISIS in Sinjar.

One Yazidi woman from the south Sinjar town of Tal Ezeir says she and her two sisters were kidnapped by their next-door neighbor of 25 years. The men from the Arab Sunni family next door surrounded them on August 2, just ahead of the ISIS attack on Sinjar, and wouldn’t allow them to leave. When ISIS attacked in the early morning hours of August 3, the men from the Sunni family next door handed their male neighbors over to ISIS commanders and distributed the Yazidi women of the house among themselves. The father, who was 61 years old, gave the youngest sister to an ISIS commander as a gift and kept the older two, ages 15 and 18, for himself and his two sons. The youngest sister managed to escape.

“ISIS were local people,” said another female Yazidi survivor, “especially in the first couple days. Many of them were from Baaj and Tal Afar. Some of us were students in high school and we recognized them as our teachers,” she said, identifying one of the ISIS guards holding her hostage in Tal Afar as her high school biology teacher.

My translator, a young Yazidi woman named Vian, took notice of my horrified expression and explained that such stories were typical. Vian is from a town in Sinjar called Sinuni. Her high school chemistry teacher, a man called Esaood from the local Jayash tribe, joined ISIS as well, she said. This was the norm.

There were countless stories like this about former neighbors and friends becoming killers. It was reminiscent of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and the Holocaust, where a combination of propaganda, dehumanization and loyalty to group identity pushed ordinary people to kill their friends and neighbors.

Other Yazidi survivors described how Sunnis from their neighborhoods joined ISIS in hunting them as they fled to Sinjar mountain on August 3, helping ISIS fighters identify who was Yazidi and who wasn’t.

Yazidi women held in ISIS prisons, waiting to be sold, quickly realized that ISIS placed a higher value on unmarried girls, so many would say they were married even if they weren’t. They would even pretend their nephews, nieces or young siblings were their children. This worked for a while, until local Sunnis working as ISIS prison guards began informing on them.

Fearing and loathing Sunnis

In August, I visited a training camp in south Sinjar for the Yazidi Hashd al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). As I spoke to the recruits about their ordeal, a group of young men crowded around me demanding to know if I was Muslim or Christian. I could tell if I said Muslim the response would be hostile. I told them my family is Druze.

“Druze? Is that Muslim?” they asked with puzzled expressions. The Druze are a minority sect that live mostly in Lebanon, Syria and Israel-Palestine, so it makes sense that Iraqis might not be familiar with them.

“No, Druze is not Muslim,” I said. They told me I could stay.

I reminded them that the PMF is majority Shia and headed by a Shia man and that Shias are Muslim. “That’s different,” a recruit snapped. “The Sunnis are the ones who persecuted us. The Shia in Hashd al Shaabi helped us. We have no problems with the Shia.”

Behdo, a scrawny 28-year-old Yazidi PMF recruit, interjected to explain why he believes Sunnis aren’t to be trusted. Behdo is from Gir Shebek, a tiny collective town north of Sinjar mountain that was half Sunni and half Yazidi. “We [Sunnis and Yazidis] were friends,” he reminisced. “We even celebrated Eid together. But then they turned on us.”

Behdo’s sister was kidnapped by his Sunni neighbor and classmate, a young man he had grown up with. The former classmate phoned Behdo’s family to brag that he had kidnapped his sister. He taunted them about forcibly converting her to Sunni Islam. Behdo’s uncle eventually bought her back for $3,200. “You can never trust a Sunni,” Behdo warned.

Yazidi recruits in the barracks at the Yazidi PMF training camp in south Sinjar. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)


‘They turned into monsters’

In March, at a gathering at the Iraqi prime minister’s office organized for Yazidis in collaboration with a western mediation NGO, Jaafar al Husseini, the head of Iraq’s national reconciliation committee, introduced the conference by stating that the suffering of Yazidis was greater than anybody else’s. He even compared it to the Jewish Holocaust. He also spoke of their historic persecution and the Ottoman Mufti who issued a fatwa against Yazidis.

The United Nations had similarly described ISIS’s crimes against Yazidis as an “ongoing genocide.”

The Yazidi community has been shattered. According to the directorate of Yazidi affairs in Dohuk, 6,417 Yazidis were kidnapped by ISIS. Over 3,000 have been rescued or escaped, but hundreds remain unaccounted for even as ISIS loses its major strongholds. Of the 500,000 Yazidis who were living in Iraq, 360,000 were displaced by the ISIS attack and at least 90,000 left the country. Thousands more, mostly men and adolescent boys, were systematically killed, but the number varies depending on who you ask. It is believed that some, especially those who were young children when captured, are being held by ISIS supporters in refugee camps and likely don’t even remember their Yazidi identity.

As a poor and rural minority community, Yazidis have historically faced extreme persecution, including several attempted genocides over the past centuries. That’s why they live in the mountains; Mount Sinjar has served as a refuge time and again.

Sunni Islam has always been the dominant religion in the Middle East. Historically it has been the religion of the state. People from minority sects across the region have passed down collective memories of Sunni Islam’s persecution against them (though minorities have on many occasions, particularly during civil wars, turned against one another as well). They say this explains why Shias, Druze, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis are concentrated in the mountains—they were escaping persecution from the dominant state-backed sect in the region.

ISIS, they say, is just a new iteration of something that has always existed and that comes back every century or two.

“Every 100 years, Sunnis can’t help massacring us,” one Yazidi elder told me. “ISIS just carried out what the Ottomans did in the past. They kill us for being Yazidi,” he added.

In more recent history, Yazidis have been targeted with hate speech, forced conversions, exclusion from the labor market, kidnappings and killings for being Yazidi.

“Ten percent of the people who massacred the Yazidis were from outside,” says Murad Sheikh Kalo, the leader of the Yazidi PMF. “The rest were our Sunni neighbors.”

“Saudi Arabia is the ideological foundation for ISIS,” he continued, expressing a commonly heard view among Yazidis that rarely breaks through into the Western press. “But it is Turkey who trained them. And the Israelis, Americans and British who armed them. Our Sunni neighbors were their foot soldiers. And they turned into monsters overnight,” he added.

Though it seemed to take place in an instant, the Yazidi genocide was decades in the making, the unintended culmination of a series of policies dating back more than 40 years.

Paving a path to genocide

The groundwork for the catastrophe that befell Iraq’s Yazidis was laid in 1975, when Saddam Hussein initiated his campaign of Arabization. Yazidi villages on Sinjar mountain were destroyed by the government and rebuilt in the plains north and south of the mountain in what are called collective towns. Many of the collective towns have a Yazidi name (Yazidis speak a dialect of Kurdish) and an Arabic name that the Ba’athist government imposed.

The collective towns were intentionally populated with and surrounded by Arab Bedouin tribes “to control Yazidi areas,” says Khider Domle, a Yazidi journalist, activist and teacher at the University of Dohuk. “They brought Arab tribes that hate Yazidis and call Yazidis devil worshippers from the south of Iraq to try to change the demography of Sinjar,” he continued. “Step by step they took land from Yazidis and gave it to Arabs. Then they made huge agricultural projects for the Arabs. They wouldn’t allow Yazidi laborers to work on those projects until 1995,” he said.

That same year—1995—Saddam Hussein’s government launched al-Hamlah al-Imaniyah, or the Return to Faith Campaign in an effort to strengthen his rule at a time of weakness. With UN enforced sanctions and various uprisings from the Kurds and Shias threatening his legitimacy, Saddam opened up space for tribalism while encouraging the Islamization of society through the Faith Campaign. This coincided with a growing trend toward conservative Islam that was sweeping the region. In Iraq, this trend was heightened by the sanctions, which had hollowed out the middle class and diminished the quality of education. The Faith Campaign was anti-Salafi but had the unintended consequence of Islamizing the Baath party, which meant that the sons of the top officials were also Islamized, creating fertile ground for jihadi influence a decade later when the Americans invaded, something Saddam and his Baath party did not foresee.

Yazidis were always an underclass in Iraq, often excluded from the labor market. In a more Islamic society they were even more vulnerable. Yazidis owned and operated many of the liquor stores, nightclubs and bars in Iraq’s cities. The Faith Campaign shut down much of Iraq’s nightlife, further reducing economic opportunities for Yazidis. At the same time, Yazidis were demonized for being non-Muslims. And due to the Arabization scheme, they were surrounded by people who were being primed to view Yazidis as inferior and subhuman.

“In Sinjar [the Faith Campaign] was a conversion campaign,” says Domle. “The regime brought mullahs to educate people (Arab Sunnis) on how much they should hate Yazidis. They paid them to do this. When al Qaeda came, many of those people (Arab Sunnis) joined Al Qaeda. And when ISIS came the environment was there for them to join.”

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq created even more precarious conditions for Yazidis.

Many Yazidis worked as translators and drivers for the Americans, hoping to elevate their economic status in a new and democratic Iraq that promised freedom from Saddam’s discriminatory policies. Instead, the US collapsed the Iraqi state, opening the floodgates to al Qaeda. The country descended into sectarian civil war.

Yazidis in Nineveh Governorate, like their Christian counterparts, became targets of the al Qaeda dominated Sunni insurgency. As early as 2004, militants were distributing flyers in Mosul promising “divine rewards for those who kill Yazidis.” But anti-Yazidi attacks received almost no attention in the international press. As a poor community with no political power, international advocacy organization or lobbying apparatus, the plight of the Yazidis went largely unnoticed, despite ominous warnings.

The 2014 assault was as much a conversion campaign as an enslavement campaign. ISIS went to extreme lengths to erase Yazidi identity and supplant it with a strict Sunni one when possible. At an ISIS prison for Yazidi women and girls in the collective town of Tal Ezeir (its Arabic name is Qahtaniyah) located south of Sinjar, Yazidis were forced to pray in the direction of Mecca, as instructed by the Qibla inscribed on the walls of each cell. Yazidi boys over the age of seven were taken to ISIS indoctrination camps and forced to become fighters for the group. Some of those who have been rescued have been so thoroughly brainwashed they have reportedly tried to kill members of their family for being Yazidi.

The tribes that joined ISIS

The Matewti, Khatouni and Jahaysh tribes are the dominant Arab Sunni tribes in and around Sinjar. Many of them joined ISIS. Yazidis say members of the Khatouni tribe were the most hostile, with many of the Khatouni tribal leaders becoming ISIS commanders. At an ISIS prison for Yazidi sex slaves located in Tal Ezeir, endless piles of girls and women’s clothing and shoes were scattered across the floor, draped over mattresses and strewn on the steps leading upstairs where I found a wall adorned with ISIS graffiti. Below it someone had signed his name, Mohammed Khatouni.

But not all the local Arab tribes are remembered in a bad light. Yazidis speak fondly of the Shammar, a large Arab Sunni tribe whose members generally helped Yazidis. When Yazidi families came down from the mountain to Syria through a corridor opened by the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, members of the Shammar tribe provided them with food, water and directions to Kurdistan as well as tips for ISIS-controlled roads to avoid. “They worked as a very helpful GPS,” said a Yazidi man whose family was saved by the Shammar tribe in Syria. “They also provided cars and fuel. Only the Shammar were good Sunni neighbors,” he observed.

While there are members of the Shammar tribe who joined ISIS, the tribal leadership generally opposed the militant group and went on to make up a large portion of Arab Sunni tribes fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Calm before the storm

Despite the hateful climate fostered by decades of discriminatory policies, dehumanization and power vacuums, most Yazidis say that before August 2014 they had few if any problems with their Sunni neighbors. They would eat together, celebrate holidays together, their kids played together, and they attended each other’s weddings. Yazidis even had a word for Arabs who were like family: kreef. They only had problems with Arab Sunnis from Baaj, a district in northwest Iraq just south of Sinjar.

Baaj was a strategic hideout for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before it was liberated in June by the PMF. Today Iraqi and PMF flags fly side by side atop Baaj’s deserted houses, many of them broken from the fighting. All of the doors and windows are missing. A few homes appear to have been smashed by airstrikes while others are partially damaged from booby traps set by ISIS. The houses in Baaj are quite large and multi-storied compared to the one-story homes in Yazidi villages. It was also home to many wealthy traffickers and smugglers and has long served as a key passageway for Jihadists between Iraq and Syria.

Prior to 2014, Baaj was an Al Qaeda stronghold. At least once or twice a month a Yazidi youth traveling through Baaj would get kidnapped and ransomed for around $15,000. In 2007 Sunni militants believed to be members of Al Qaeda from Baaj detonated five truck bombs that tore through the Yazidi towns of Siba Sheikh Khider (known in Arabic as al Jazeera) and Tel Ezeir, killing upwards of 500 people and wounding some 1,500. It was the largest death toll from a single attack since the start of the US invasion. That same year, Sunni gunmen stopped a bus of laborers in Mosul and executed the 23 Yazidis workers on board. Yazidis living in proximity to the attacks began to leave Nineveh as a result of the rising threats against them.

ISIS graffiti on the wall outside a school in Baaj. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Recruiting local Sunnis

ISIS took Mosul in early June of 2014. Tal Afar fell a few days later. This is when the militarization of the Sinjar-adjacent districts of Baaj and Balij began.

Baaj was once home to some 50,000 residents, most of whom belonged to the Khatouni and Matewti Bedouin tribes. Many of the leaders of these tribes pledged their loyalty to ISIS and participated in the atrocities carried out against their Yazidi neighbors in Sinjar.

According to Yazidis as well as investigators at an international NGO that is building a case against ISIS, but who asked not to be named in this report due to the sensitive nature of their work, the loyalty of these tribes was secured prior to the August 3 genocide in a series of meeting with ISIS figures in and around Baaj.

Qasem Shevan, a brigade leader in the Yazidi PMF who commanded an independent Yazidi militia against ISIS following the genocide, told me he witnessed one of these meetings taking place in Qabusiya village on July 27, 2014, between ISIS leaders and Sunni tribal leaders named Ahmad Jarbouaa and Mohammad Qasem Bejuoh. “These men were in another meeting with the same people on the next day in Baaj,” said Shevan. “I didn’t see the meeting in Baaj, I only heard about it. But I saw the one in Qabusiya with my own eyes.”

These meetings suggest that at least some of the members of the Baaj tribes were going to be loyal to ISIS when the Sinjar operation was launched. Yazidis believe that those who hosted ISIS gathered intelligence for them on Yazidis. However it remains unclear whether the locals were fully aware of ISIS’s plans for the Yazidis.

Enthusiasm for ISIS

After the spread of ISIS to Mosul, Tal Afar and Baaj, Yazidis noticed a change in the behavior of their Sunni neighbors in Sinjar. Some raised ISIS flags outside their homes. Others began referring to Yazidis as kufar (unbelievers). There was widespread Sunni excitement for ISIS in the villages surrounding Sinjar, but this did not immediately translate into violence against Yazidis.

Sukr, 25, grew up in Mosul. He and his family fled the city in 2008 after Sunni insurgents sent leaflets to Yazidi homes with notes threatening violence if they didn’t leave. Today Sukr and his family live in Sharya, a Yazidi neighborhood in Dohuk. Sukr kept in touch with his Sunni friends in Mosul and called to check on them after ISIS took over in June 2014. He was surprised to hear them celebrate the arrival of the militant group. “They wanted the Islamic State at first. They only changed their minds after ISIS was mean to them,” said Sukr.

Jameel Chomar is manager of operations at Yazda, a Yazidi NGO based in Dohuk. Prior to the genocide he was a schoolteacher in Borek, a collective town in north Sinjar. He described a similar response from his Sunni colleagues after ISIS captured nearby areas.

“I spoke to some of the teachers in the collective towns. Some were happy about ISIS,” said Chomar. “They said this is the first time after Saddam’s regime collapsed that we could enter Mosul without checkpoints. They were saying ISIS is cleaning the area of barriers, security is very stable, there are no IEDs, no suicide bombs, no mines. They told me, we are happy. I told them we hope that they [ISIS] will do something good, but I think they will apply sharia law, and it will be very aggressive.”

Around the same time Yazidis began to hear threats against their community. Members of the Khatouni and Matewti tribes reportedly threatened to attack them during Xile, a Yazidi holiday celebrated on August 2. There was also a large degree of whitewashing of ISIS by their neighbors, mostly from members of the Matewti tribe. One Yazidi after another relayed a similar story about how their Sunni neighbors encouraged them to stay put, offering assurances that they would protect them from ISIS. Some of these assurances were probably genuine. But there was also a great deal of intentional deception to lure Yazidis into staying without putting up a fight.

As the perceived threat grew, Yazidis took a more defensive stance alongside the Peshmerga, the US-backed Kurdish militia of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that was in charge of security in Sinjar. As ISIS flags and vehicles started popping up, Yazidis knew something was coming but the majority of them believed the Peshmerga would be strong enough to fight off an ISIS advance.

Anger at the Kurds for exploiting the rise of ISIS

Back in 2014, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, assured Yazidis that the Peshmerga would protect them from ISIS. But as ISIS attacked Sinjar, the Peshmerga systematically retreated without warning, leaving the Yazidis completely defenseless. Some even told Yazidis that they were only leaving to bring back reinforcements, which they never did. Barzani has yet to offer a sufficient explanation for why his troops were ordered to pull out of Sinjar.

The Peshmerga retreat was disastrous for the Yazidis, especially those living southwest of the mountain; their towns were the first to be swarmed by ISIS fighters from Baaj.

Most Yazidis suspect that Barzani’s Peshmerga made a deal with ISIS to get rid of the Yazidis for the sake of expanding Kurdistan. Sinjar is technically part of Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate. It is also one of 26 “disputed territories” across northern Iraq that the Kurds claim belongs to them.

According to an analysis by Jane’s Intelligence Review, “After the Iraqi military’s retreat from the Islamic State in 2014, Kurds seized approximately 90% of these territories, including Kirkuk.” In other words, the KRG exploited the rise of ISIS and the chaos it stoked as an opportunity to carry out a massive land grab, nearly doubling its territory.

Meanwhile Iraqi Kurdistan has destroyed tens of Arab Sunni villages since 2014 usually under the guise of liberating and protecting areas from ISIS. In 2017 alone, the Peshmerga and KRG intelligence displaced or prevented the return of Arab Sunnis in at least 21 villages in Nineveh Governorate. It’s the only part of the Middle East outside of Israel/Palestine where deliberate government-backed ethnic cleansing of Arab Sunnis is taking place, yet it has received no attention.

Yazidis also accuse the KRG of providing sanctuary to people who collaborated with ISIS, particularly if they were Kurdish.

“Kurdish Sunnis who joined ISIS are getting protection from Kurdistan,” said Sayeed Qudr Maamko, a 44-year-old farmer from the outskirts of Qabusi, a mixed Yazidi and Kurdish Sunni village in south Sinjar. A stereotypical military man with a crew cut, bushy mustache and raspy voice, Sayeed joined the PMF over the summer after the PMF liberated south Sinjar from ISIS. “Barzani might as well start an embassy for ISIS,” he quipped.

Kurdish ISIS

While the Erbil-based peshmerga are widely believed to have abandoned Yazidis to their fate, and to have opportunistically seized large swaths of Arab Sunni areas in a land grab, once ISIS began moving towards Erbil, the Kurds fought ISIS as fiercely as other Iraqi security forces. The peshmerga ultimately played a major role in the fight against ISIS and sacrificed thousands of fighters combating the militant group. In fact, ISIS and Al Qaeda have traditionally resented Kurds because of their alliance with the US and Israel, and because of the predominance of secular Kurdish parties. In Syria, Kurds have been targeted by ISIS and Nusra en masse and even the supposedly “moderate” Sunni insurgents have used genocidal language against them.

According to the Yazidis, however, it wasn’t just Arab Sunnis that collaborated with ISIS. Their Kurdish Sunni neighbors also played a part.

On top of the extreme repression they face as non-Kurds, the Yazidi and Christian minorities in Iraqi Kurdistan described mounting pressure from rising religious conservatism and Sunni sectarianism among the Kurdish population. “If it wasn’t for Kurdish nationalism, maybe Iraqi Kurdistan would have joined with ISIS because they are Sunni brothers,” one Yazidi activist speculated.

As Saad Babir from Yazda recently observed, religious extremism in Iraqi Kurdistan “has expanded significantly in the past ten years, paralleling the general increase in religiosity. The number of mosques in the region now exceeds the total number of schools, universities, and hospitals combined. Concerns that religious extremism could increase in the future causes alarm for non-Muslim groups. Studies have shown that around one thousand Kurdish youth joined IS, suggesting that Kurdish societies have serious issues with radicalism that must be addressed.”

Indeed, sectarian attitudes appear to be just as pervasive in Iraqi Kurdistan as in the rest of Iraq. On the way to Dohuk from Erbil, my Kurdish driver, Ali, expressed fear of and hatred for Shias, who he complained were killing Sunnis on behalf of Iran. He went on to describe Yazidis as a weird and insular community and accused them of hating Sunni Muslims. These were not uncommon views in Erbil and may have led at least some Kurds to join ISIS.

As soon as word spread that ISIS was on its way from Baaj, Yazidi men in the frontline collective towns of Gir Zerek (Arabic name: Adnaniyah) and Siba Sheikh Khider (Arabic name: Al Jazeera), who had already organized their weapons in anticipation of a possible attack, dug into their trenches and prepared for a fight.

Gir Zerek was home to some 15,000 people, according to Yazidi locals. Three to four thousand were Kurdish Sunnis and the rest were Yazidi.

“Our Kurdish Sunni neighbors were calling us Kufar after ISIS took Mosul. And they started shooting at us when ISIS attacked Sinjar,” said Marwan Kamala El Sheikh, a Yazidi PMF soldier from Gir Zerek who helped in the resistance effort against ISIS. Of course it’s never quite so black and white.

The armed Yazidi men of Gir Zerek held off ISIS for several hours until they ran out of ammunition and were captured and executed by ISIS. Their sacrifice allowed time for hundreds of thousands of Yazidis from all over Sinjar to escape to the mountain and for that they are memorialized as heroes. They were assisted by a small group of about seven or eight local Kurdish Sunnis from the Asayish who stayed behind to block the ISIS advance. I was told they hailed from the Sarhoki tribe.

The ISIS attack on Sinjar also demonstrated that Iraqi Kurds were influenced by the same sectarian and tribal dynamics that prevailed among Iraqi Arabs. Kanroveh is a Kurdish village that is half Shia and half Sunni. The Kurdish Shias from Kanroveh escaped with the Yazidis to Sinjar mountain when ISIS attacked. The Shia homes were burned to the ground or booby trapped. The Sunni houses remained intact. Locals told me that the top leader for ISIS in Kanroveh was a man called Najem Abdullah Ensuad, a shipper and farmer from the Kurdish Babawat tribe, a mixed Shia and Sunni tribe. Najem was from the Sunni Babawat.

“The Kurds are supporting the Sunnis because they are Sunni,” argued a Yazidi elder. “So when ISIS rose up, the Kurds started coordinating with ISIS. This thinking is from Salafism, from Saudi Arabia.” He added that most of the Kurds used to be Yazidis until they were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam by the Ottomans.

It is widely believed that Yazidis were the original religion in northern Iraq, but this has been forgotten after centuries of forced conversion to Sunni Islam. Even some Kurds will admit that their ancestors were Yazidi.

“For the Kurds, who knows? Maybe their grandfathers or fathers were Yazidis and now they want other Yazidis to become Muslim, just like them,” he reasoned.

Campaign of deception

The Yazidis tend to place the bulk of the blame for their suffering on the Kurdish Peshmerga. Next, they blame their neighbors’ duplicity.

Yazidis who survived the genocidal onslaught from a variety of locations offered similar stories of their Sunni neighbors offering false assurances and encouraging them to submit to ISIS. There appeared to be a widespread campaign of intentional deception.

“When ISIS started attacking the collective towns with mortars, the Arab and Kurdish Sunnis in these areas were on Facebook sending messages to Yazidis, saying don’t be afraid, ISIS is only coming to liberate the area from the government,” recalled Sayeed Qudr Maamko.

“The Sunnis in these areas said to us, we have a relationship with you, we were born together, we live in peace, and as Sunnis we will defend you even from ISIS. So most of the Yazidis were raising the white flag of surrender without fighting with ISIS because our Sunni neighbors told us not to resist. Then after ISIS came, our Sunni neighbors began imprisoning and killing the men and selling the women as sex slaves. They were sleeper cells for ISIS. When ISIS came, our Sunni neighbors became ISIS members. And when ISIS escaped, some of our former neighbors escaped to Kurdistan,” Maamko said.

Seeham Haji Khudayda is 22 years old. With brown hair, wide-set eyes and a resilient sense of humor, it’s hard to believe she underwent the horrors ISIS subjected her to. Even though she’s illiterate and can’t speak Arabic, she managed to escape her ISIS captors thanks in large measure to her clever wit. Seeham is from a village in north Sinjar called Hardan. She was newly married and a new mother. Her daughter was just three months old when ISIS enslaved her.

“We woke up early at 7am on August 3, 2014 and heard ISIS was in Tel Ezeir and Gir Zirek. So we started fleeing, but we didn’t know that they were taking the women,” she recounted.

“Our village is surrounded by Arab villages, they were our kreef  [friendly neighbors]. Each family in the village have some friends or kreef in those villages. They came to our village and said we will protect you, don’t leave, don’t worry, just raise white flags and nothing will happen, only those who are fighting against ISIS will be harmed. Don’t fight. They also told us the road to Kurdistan is closed, which was a lie. But we believed them. We thought we had no place to go. We were so confused about what to do. And then it was noon.”

At noon a group of ISIS vehicles from the surrounding Arab Sunni villages entered Hardan. “There were no strangers among those ISIS members. We knew all of them, they were our friends and neighbors. They said stay in your homes and do not let the girls and women go outside. They were talking to the men in Hardan normally, because they knew them,” said Seeham.

Arab Sunni leaders from the surrounding villages of Gir Shebek, Naeneeyat and Golat told Yazidis in Hardan not to flee, assuring them ISIS would not hurt them.

“We stayed in our homes until 5pm,” she continued. “We were on the phone calling people from other villages, we didn’t know they are taking the girls and women as sex slaves. All the Arab Sunni friends we were talking with were saying that ISIS is just killing those who pick up arms against them, but they don’t take the women and children. But after 5pm, we talked to some Yazidis saying the opposite—that they are taking the women from the south and the children and killing the men, so don’t believe the Arabs telling you that nothing will happen to you.”

Hardan’s Mukhtar also received a visit from members of the local Shammar tribe, considered the friendliest among local Sunnis. “They are killing the Yazidi men and taking the women, do not believe them,” the Shammar leaders warned.

“At this point all the people in the village started to flee. My family and I fled in the car with our neighbors. We reached the entrance of the village and saw ISIS set up a checkpoint.”

ISIS fighters captured Seeham and her family and began separating the men from women. Segregating the men from the women and children would become a pattern across Sinjar, a testament to the pre-planned nature of what was about to befall the Yazidis.

“There was about 17 men with us. The women and children stayed in the cars and they took the men,” said Seeham. They were held at the checkpoint for some 30 minutes while the ISIS members “arranged the men to kill them,” including Seeham’s husband. That was the last time she saw him.

“We knew they were going to kill them, they arranged them in lines. My husband’s uncle, Khalat, came and told us they will kill us and take you as sex slaves, he heard an ISIS member say this.” ISIS drove off with the women and girls, but not before Seeham got a glimpse of the men forced onto their knees by ISIS gunman. “We weren’t sure if they killed those men or not, but we are told they killed them and now there is a mass grave there.”

Not a single man in Hardan survived. It is believed this is because, unlike in Kojo, the men of Hardan were beheaded.

The women were taken to a school in Tal Afar. “We thought we were the only ones ISIS captured but we found there were thousands of Yazidi women and girls captured in that school.”

This was the beginning of what would be a year-and-a-half-long nightmare for Seeham, who was shuffled from one dirty, overcrowded prison to the next and sold at least seven times to ISIS fighters.

One of several mass graves on the outskirts of Kojo. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Misguided trust 

The duplicity of their neighbors was the most deadly in the tiny Yazidi farming village of Kojo, the site of the largest ISIS massacre of Yazidis.

On Aug. 15, 2017, ISIS rounded up and murdered every single man and teenage boy in Kojo, including Kojo’s mukhtar, Ahmad Jaso, after the town’s residents refused to convert to Sunni Islam. The older women were executed as well, though it’s unclear where they were buried. All of the younger women and girls were sold into sexual slavery.

An estimated 400 bodies are buried in several mass graves that dot the outskirts of Kojo. The graves are fenced off and have yet to be unearthed. Local Yazidi PMF are trying their best to preserve the crime scene as they wait for international investigators to visit. There are some human bones strewn on the ground, likely dug up by roaming dogs.

Ninety percent of the people who carried out the assault on Sinjar were locals, says Naif Jaso, the brother of Kojo’s mukhtar. Naif says Kojo was so close with its Arab neighbors that there were more Arab Sunnis than Yazidis at his son Talal’s wedding, including some of those who would go on to join ISIS.

Naif happened to be out of the country when ISIS invaded, but he kept in touch with his brother hourly until the massacre. His daughters and granddaughters were sold into sexual slavery and three of his sons and most of his grandsons were killed. His 12-year-old grandson Manay, one of the few survivors, was hidden by his mother before the slaughter took place and was then smuggled out by local Sunnis from the Shammar tribe. Manay’s 15-year-old brother was likely killed and the fate of his 5-year-old brother is unknown. The family believes Manay’s mother was killed in an airstrike, but they don’t have the heart to tell him.

The ISIS assault on Sinjar initially bypassed Kojo and a nearby Yazidi village called Hatimiyah. But due to their more remote location, the residents of Kojo and Hatimiyah were unable to flee the area. Those who tried to flee were either killed or captured by ISIS.

The population of the entire town of Kojo was 1,738 men, women and children. At least 500 were either not present in the village, working in other areas or escaped in the morning prior to ISIS surrounding the town. Those who remained were either killed or enslaved.

On August 3, the day ISIS invaded Sinjar, an estimated 73 women and 13 children who fled Kojo in the morning following ISIS’s attacks on Gir Zerek and Siba Sheikh Khider were killed in and around Solagh, just to the east of Sinjar. International investigators believe that ISIS killed the older women because they were seen as having no economic value.

ISIS fighters were hunting Yazidis on the road to the mountain. Yazidis who tried to flee identified one of the ISIS hunters as a local Arab Sunni leader named Sheikh Jarallah Mohammad Ali Jarallah, a man Naif knew well.  “He was at my son’s wedding in 2013,” said Naif. “I called him and asked, where are you? He told me I’m on the road between Tal Qasab and Sinjar. I knew then he was hunting the families that were trying to escape, because that is where many of them were telling me they saw him. I asked him what happened with ISIS, what are they doing with the families. He told me I’m here to prevent the members of the Matewti tribe from stealing the money of Yazidis. But the families were telling us this man was armed and standing at a checkpoint with ISIS members helping them hunt Yazidis. He was lying.”

At around 4 and 5 in the evening on August 3, an ISIS commander named Abu Hamzeh al Khatouni from Baaj came to al-Hatimiyah and Kojo to speak to the village mukhtars. The mukhtars of Hatimiyah and Kojo met on several occasions with one another as well as with local Arab sheikhs to try to come to an agreement about what would happen to their villages under ISIS. After several meetings Abu Hamzeh gave the people of Hatimiyah and Kojo an ultimatum: Convert to Islam and you can stay and live under the Islamic State or give ISIS all your gold and other valuables and we will let you flee to the mountain. A similar ultimatum was given to the Christians of Mosul. Christians who chose not to convert were allowed to leave because ISIS considers them “people of the book.” Yazidis assumed ISIS would allow them to do the same.

As the villages contemplated the ultimatum, ISIS wrote orders at the village entrances not to harm the residents. There was an agreement that these people were under an ultimatum.

By August 7, Abu Hamzeh had issued the official ultimatum, giving Yazidis in Kojo and Hatimiyah three to four days to decide whether to convert. However, there was no mention of what would happen if they chose not to convert, which left Yazidis feeling uneasy. This prompted Ahmad Jaso, the Mukhtar of Kojo, to travel to Hatimiyah to speak with Hatimiyah’s Mokhtar, Hussein Barjas. Jaso and his entourage spent the night in Hatimiyah with Barjas strategizing their next move. They decided both villages would escape to Sinjar mountain before the ultimatum deadline. They planned their escape for either August 9 or 10. The residents of Hatimiyah broke into two groups. They covered the headlights of all their cars and vehicles with wet sand to conceal their movement and in the dead of night they made it safely to the mountain.

But the residents of Kojo did not escape. At the last minute Ahmad Jaso backed out.

Following a number of phone calls between Arab Sunni leaders and more visits from Abu Hamzeh, Jaso was reassured that there would be no problems under the Islamic state. There was a general feeling that the Yazidis would be allowed to live. Then Abu Hamzeh went to Hatimiyah and found it deserted aside from a few elderly people who couldn’t make the journey. He was furious. He brought the elderly people of Hatimiyah to Kojo and accused Jaso of betraying him. ISIS then cordoned off Kojo, surrounding it with checkpoints and ISIS vehicles. Heavily armed ISIS fighters entered the village, took over the school and turned it into their headquarters.

“The people of Kojo had misguided trust in their neighbors,” the international NGO investigator told me. “They were the victims of a huge deception.”

The school in Kojo where ISIS gathered the village for enslavement and execution. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

The ultimatum: convert or die

By August 12, Kojo was surrounded. Its residents lost their chance to escape.

Naif tried desperately to find a solution that would save the people of Kojo. He teamed up with his brother, trying to convince their Arab Sunni friends to help.

“I called Sheikhs from the Khatouni’s, including Kassem al Hamzeh and Malek al Nouri Jarallah–he’s our neighbor from the western side of Kojo. At the same time my brother was contacting the others. They claimed to meet with the caliphate leaders in Mosul to persuade them to protect the Yazidis. I don’t know if they really went or not. I contacted Salem Mullah Aloo, he’s a big head for the sheikhs inside Mosul and he has a daughter married to the relative of Mosul’s caliphate leader. I contacted him and said come on Salem, all of the families inside Kojo are going to die. He said, what should I do, they didn’t listen to my words. ISIS is like gang leaders, they don’t listen to me. They are idiots, fools, hoodlums, jerks.”

On August 15 around lunch time a large ISIS convoy entered and surrounded Kojo. Part of that convoy included two excavators driven by local members of the Matewti tribe, according to survivors. One of the drivers was very well known to some of the survivors of the Kojo massacre as a former coworker—they worked construction together. Survivors recall hearing the excavators moving earth on the outskirts of the village. They were digging the mass graves.

ISIS told all the men, women and children of the village to gather in the school and hand over all their money and gold. By noon the entire village had congregated at school. The men were separated from the women, car keys and mobile phones were confiscated and valuable possessions were collected in bags.

Various discussions took place between Abu Hamzeh and Ahmad Jaso but there were other ISIS commanders from other places present, senior leaders from Tal Afar. According to survivors, the men were told that they if they chose not to convert, they had to give up all their possessions and would be released like the Christians of Mosul. They were given several opportunities to convert. Ahmad Jaso reportedly said, we’d rather go to mountain, we want to stay within our faith. ISIS started loading the men into vehicles, around 40 to 60 men at a time. They were driven to various points on outskirts of village and shot.

Seventeen Yazidi men survived the ISIS massacre, mostly by playing dead and hiding under bodies. The survivors say they recognized some of the perpetrators as members of the Matewti and Khatouni tribes. Though many of the executioners wore masks, the survivors were able to identify one of the ISIS men operating one of the excavators that dug the massive graves. They knew him from working construction together. He was their coworker.

Dalal Ahmad Jassem, 46, is one of Ahmad Jaso’s daughters. She was kidnapped by ISIS after they killed all of the men in Kojo, including her husband. She spent a year and a half being shuffled from one prison to another. Eventually she was sold into slavery and repeatedly raped by ISIS fighters.

Wearing all black with a scarf wrapped loosely around her head, Dalal spoke to me at her apartment in Dohuk. She seemed emotionally numb, though every 10 minutes or so she would break out in tears, quickly collect herself and then continue.

“We had a very peaceful and friendly life together before ISIS,” she said of Kojo and the surrounding Arab Sunni villages. “After ISIS attacked Sinjar, the leaders of the Arab Sunni villages surrounding our village became ISIS leaders,” explained Dalal. “They were coming to our house, meeting with my father and saying we’ll try to find a way to help you. They said they were coming as friends and saying we will talk to our leaders in ISIS to find a way to help you. They had captured and besieged our village but they kept coming to my father saying we will find a way to help you.”

“They all kept telling my father that nothing would happen, and in the end they betrayed my father. They were saying these things just to get my father to trust them,” she said.

“On August 14, they had a meeting inside my brothers house. He made lunch for them, they were eating sheep and rice because they were the sheikhs of the Sunnis. After 13 hours, the next day, they witnessed the murders in Kojo. They witnessed my brother’s killing, they were having lunch with him the day before. They were watching and did nothing,” said Ahmad Jaso. “There are no Sunnis who didn’t help ISIS. Even the Sunni politicians in Iraq supported the protesters that became ISIS.”

An Iraqi child wanders around Tal al Jarabeaa, an IDP camp on the outskirts of Mosul. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Among the Sunnis of Sinjar, denial and defensiveness

Yazidis insist at least 90 percent of their Sunni neighbors joined ISIS. The number seemed to be heavily exaggerated. I traversed Iraq to track down displaced Sunnis from Sinjar and get their side of the story.

Tal al Jarabeaa is a displaced persons camp on the desert outskirts of Mosul. It was established on December 12, 2016 and shelters around 1,900 families who fled ISIS-controlled areas, including Arab Sunni families from Sinjar. Rows of tents house impoverished families. There are flies everywhere. Camels lounge under the baking desert sun. Children run around barefoot, playing with pieces of trash and empty water bottles.

Most of people I spoke to expressed loathing for ISIS, but showed little sympathy for the genocide of the Yazidis. Most even accused the Yazidis of orchestrating the genocide against themselves, casting Yazidis as aggressors against Arab Sunnis.

“The Yazidis are targeting the Sunnis and Arabs,” argued Salah Ahmad Jassem, 42, a displaced Arab Sunni from Gir Shebek. Gir Shebek was a mixed Sunni and Yazidi collective town close to the remote Yazidi farming village of Hardan. Most of the men in Hardan were massacred and women enslaved by ISIS.

“The Yazidis want to destroy the reputation of Sunnis and Arabs by saying that ISIS members are Sunni. But there are Yazidis who became ISIS members,” Jassem said defensively. “Half of the Yazidis became ISIS members and started hunting and selling their own people. And Sunnis around Sinjar helped them escape,” he argued, accusing Yazidis of being ungrateful for the help and protection they received from Sunnis

“For 50 years we [Sunnis and Yazidis] were neighbors and we had no problems,” he said. His voice grew louder, filling with anger, “But Yazidis are now pushing from different sides against the Sunnis. We suffered from ISIS more than the Yazidis suffered!” A crowd had formed around him and was nodding in agreement.

“ISIS controlled our village for three months. When they took over, they searched inside the village for Yazidis. We saved some Yazidis in the village and let them escape toward Sinjar,” said Jassem. “ISIS members called us traitors for helping the Yazidis and prohibited us from leaving our houses. They stole our money and weapons and imprisoned those who were working with the police and government.”

If Yazidis exaggerated the number of Sunnis who joined ISIS, their Sunni neighbors downplayed it. Most of the local ISIS members were from Tal Afar and Baaj, insisted 40-year-old Mohammed Ahmad, a member of the Jahaysh tribe from Sinjar. “Gir Shebek, Nayniyah, Golat, Ayesshet — these villages are around 12 kilometers all together. Inside the four villages, there is only one person that joined ISIS,” he said.

“When ISIS started occupying these territories, they finished off the Iraqi army and then started talking about the Kurds and Yazidis. At first we thought they were for peace with the Yazidis. Then they started talking about killing them. We saw the mass graves inside. We saw them segregating women and men, killing the men and taking women. We saw the women in the cars screaming for help. We weren’t present, but the road to Tal afar passes by our village. We saw women in the cars going to Tal Afar. They were terrified, banging on the windows and screaming for help,” he added, emphasizing that Arab Sunnis were punished for helping Yazidis.

“There’s two people from our village who were killed by ISIS just because they helped the Yazidis escape. These people who were executed by ISIS were helping Yazidis escape from Tal afar and they were delivering them to mount Sinjar,” he said.

The only thing that Yazidis and Arab Sunnis seem to be in agreement about is their hatred for the Peshmerga.

Ahmad complained that he tried to flee from ISIS with his family to Kurdistan but the Peshmerga would not allowing Arab Sunnis to enter. “They accuse us of being ISIS,” he said. He also said the Peshmerga burned their homes and kicked them out some three months after liberating his village in northern Sinjar from ISIS. “We told Peshmerga, if you see any ISIS members, just kill them. The Peshmerga burned our villages. They said the Yazidis did it but it was the Peshmerga,” he said.

Abdulkareem Ali Hamad is from a village around Sinjar called Abusenaam, an entirely Sunni village about 25 kilometers away from Tal Qasab. He also blamed the Peshmerga for displacing him from his village and accused Iraqi Kurdistan of supporting ISIS.

“Inside my area, most ISIS members were from Tel Afar, the Matewti tribe and Balij. The highest ranking ISIS leader in my town was from Tel Afar. I never saw such a thing like ISIS behavior, like killing and hunting — not in movies, not in cartoons. I have two brothers who were in ISIS prisons for more than a year because they were Iraqi police officers. And until now the Kurds are helping ISIS members,” he argued.

Iraqi children pose for a photo at Tal al Jarabeaa. (Photo credit: Rania Khalek)

Burning for vengeance

In 2015 there were several media headlines that Yazidi militias were attacking and murdering Sunni Arab civilians. Amnesty International soon issued a report echoing the accusations.

Yazidis of different political leanings vehemently denied that they were responsible. They all blamed the Peshmerga and insisted that Yazidis were falsely blamed by Gulf-funded media outlets. “Sunnis have excellent media, like Al Jazeera,” observed Jameel Chomar. “There was a village belonging to Arabs in Zamar that was burned by the Peshmerga. Al Jazeera made a report saying that Yazidis burned it. There were no Yazidis around there,” he insisted.

Even Arab Sunnis from Sinjar expressed confusion over the culprits. Among those I spoke to, some blamed the Peshmerga, recalling that the US-backed Kurdish militia burned their homes and forced them to leave their villages. Others blamed Yazidis. But no one actually saw or knew who was behind it.

That’s not to say Yazidis aren’t capable of committing atrocities.

“I wish it was Yazidis who killed those Sunnis,” a Yazidi activist in Dohuk bluntly proclaimed. “We’re not organized or armed enough to carry out revenge like that. But I wish we could.”