Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website www.beyondbordersphotography.com.

All images and text are protected by copyright law. Please contact Robert Leutheuser at robleutheuser@gmail.com for any and all uses. Thank you.

16 April 2017

Yet Another Return to Sinjar, April 2016 - Part 1


Background. On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State (Daesh) attacked the isolated and defenseless Yezidi population in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. Fueled by souless depravity thinly guised by Islam, they killed, kidnapped, and destroyed, making refugees of hundreds of thousands of Yezidis. Several thousand of the kidnapped remain in the hands of Daesh, and thousands more in the Iraqi city of Mosul are still under its control. Daesh was militarily defeated first on the north side of Sinjar Mountain, and in late-2015 Sinjar City and a swath of territory at the foot of the south side of the mountain was recaptured after fierce fighting. As of the spring of 2017, only a very very few refugees have returned to the Sinjar.

This is the first part of three.  The others continue below.  For more photographs and writings about the Yezidis in the Sinjar, visit the 2012 and 2015 postings in this blog.  A 5-minute slideshow entitled "What Was Lost in the Sinjar" can be seen by clicking on its link. And finally, you are invited to visit Beyond Borders Photography for a more expansive collection of photographs of the Yezidis.

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The early evening light was soft as Gharbi and I walked the abandoned lane to his house in Zorava. 


The last time I was here 3 years ago it was alive. We rounded the corner and arrived at Gharbi's house, since defiled by Daesh (ISIS) in 2014. A rare neighbor grazed a small flock of sheep in what used to be the garden, sharply yelling at the dog doing its job.

The walls of the homes in the compound still stood, but the roofs were destroyed and the rooms ravaged. I paused. The reception room where I had spent uncounted hours over the years looked unnervingly small now filled with rubble. Nature was already restoring its primacy. But for Gharbi, no sentimentality. He had returned before, both to this home and to this place and to this time. In his 62 years this was the fourth time he was forced from his home. He is a Sinjari Yezidi of northern Iraq.


I returned to the Sinjar (Shingal regionally) to photograph some of the shrines destroyed by Daesh, the shrines that I had photographed over the preceding years. It seemed important to me, and I hoped important to the Yezidis and others concerned with such matters. Correctly the world was horrified at the souless and savage killing of Yezidis, the kidnapping of women and children, the tsunami of refugees. But now, 2-1/2 years later there is some space for this story. 

We recoiled at the enthusiastic destruction of world heritage ruins at Palmyra, Syria and Nimrod, Iraq, and others. But none have yet to recognize the destruction of the Yezidi shrines in Shingal, the centers of community and belief.

The shrines on the north side of Sinjar Mountain remain untouched by Daesh, except for the diminutive Sheikh Romi, whose wobbly spindle of a spire was unique being without the distinctive and iconic flutes. 

Sheikh Romi Shrine - 2012

A collection of Kurdish forces flying different flags united to drive Daesh out before they could destroy the others.
We drove along the road that skirted the gentle apron of the mountain, now green with spring grasses but nearly void of Yezidis at a time it should have been dotted with flocks of sheep.  


Although the north side was militarily resecured, only the most stubborn, strong, or desperate of the infanmously strong and stubborn Sinjari Yezidis have returned. The destroyed buildings spoke to the Daesh's manic destruction during its brief occupation and the ensuing fighting. The flat concrete roofs, where not pancaked, draped to the ground like broken wings.


We pulled off the roadway. I recognized the cemetery. I saw the low knoll. I did not see  the Sheikh Romi shrine.  Its absence took my breath away. 

Walking to the place of what was no longer, I remembered stooping low to enter through its arched doorway with Gharbi and his son Faisal. I remembered its musty darkness. 

The hollow of the single room remained, partially filled with unsettled rubble. The niche where the gazelle horn rested was there. Gharbi found the horn, and he held as he had before so I could take a picture, now open to the sky. 


 How do you photograph what is not there?




Yet Another Return to Sinjar, April 2016 - Part 2

Sinjar City
The destruction on the south side of Sinjar Mountain was utter. This was Daesh's first target in early morning blitzkrieg on August 3, 2014 which sent thousands of Yezidis up the steep slopes of the mountain to escape. Many made it; many did not. It was here that Daesh murdered, kidnapped, and defiled with unbridled abandon for a year and a half. They still control much of the area, but Sinjar City and a narrow band along the foot of the mountain was militarily retaken in December, 2015. I returned, accompanied by Gharbi and two soldiers from Hayder Shesho's Ezîdxan Forces. It was here I would see more destroyed Yezidi shrines.


The Kurdish and Yezidi armies failed to unite following their conquest in the north. It was the YPG, the Kurdish army from Syria and PKK affiliate, that was the first to respond to the attack, quickly opening a pathway of escape to Syria for the Yezidis stranded on the mountain. Soon the PKK, the Kurdish separatist army from Turkey, arrived. Finally there was the Kurdish Democratic Party's (PDK, the Kurdish acronym) peshmergha which engaged in the fight after initially abandoning the Yezidis to Daesh.  It is a dizzying soup of acronyms and identities. The flags were many, the reasons not: Staking claims and legitimacy. And meddling all the while were regional and international political forces.

Qasim Shesho and Hayder Shesho
Qasim Shesho ultimately allied his Yezidian army of 8,000 with the PDK's peshmergha, flying the Kurdistani flag. Many Yezidis would not accept the partnership with those they blamed for their plight, so Qasim Shesho's nephew Hayder Shesho formed an independent army of 2,000 Yezidis under their own flag. The relationship between the two is amicable. The YPG and PKK, having spilled blood in the liberation of the north, formed their Yezidian units and have not left.

[Update:  On 17 April 2017 Hayder Shesho formally allied his army with Qasim Shesho's and the PDK peshmergha.  At the same time he formed a new independent political party, splitting from the PUK, the other major party in Kurdistan.]



PKK Memorial to their martyrs
The situation reached a flash point in March 2017 when the YPG and peshmergha armies fought in the town of Khanisor. Yezidis killing Yezidis. Both sides retreated to rationality before the situation escalated.

As the parochial consequence to me, concerns about Daesh were secondary to the relationships between the flags. I was accompanied by Hayder Shesho's men because he had a better relationship with the PKK who controlled some of the areas we had to pass through. The irony of proximity was stark, hilltop bunkers of competing flags within tens of meters of one another, and checkpoints separated by less than a kilometer. There was no hostility between them; they were merely soldiers.




[Update:  On 25 April 2017 Turkey conducted airstrikes against YPG and PKK postions in the Sinjar.]

Yet Another Return to Sinjar, April 2016 - Part 3

Yezidi shrines are places where Yezidis pay unburdened homage to god (xode) and his angels, where they remember the departed, and where they gather. Yezidi'ism is inseparable from the community and cultural mores. As such, the shrines are the center of the communities, and where Yezidis joyfully gather on fesival days, of which there are many. Daesh, not content to kill and enslave, set out to destroy the fact and symbols of the Yezidi life.


tawaaf at shrine, 2012
We drove around the east end of the mountain where it blended into the Mesopotamian Plain, and then we turned west towards Sinjar City, the epicenter of destruction. We passed through the twisted wreckage, some of it disarmingly graceful, and crankled up the rocky road to the place of the Amadine Shemsa shrine. The burned out and rusting carcasses of cars and trucks marked the way. 

Said, a burly and kindly soldier with a weeping eye that chose its own way, told of his nearby village of Merkhan where 67 Yezidis were executed. Within minutes Gharbi was showing me a slickly produced Daesh video of two boyish suicide bombers killing themselves and others in Merkhan on his smart phone. I recoiled but did not look away.


Five minutes later, Said pointed across a rocky field to a small fenced-in area on a hillside next to a narrow wash, its peacefulness belied the horror.  We walked, I slower than they.  Here the remains of 67 bodies, temporarily covered by small hills of dirt, lay until they can be properly recovered and buried. The small yellow flowers of spring wanted to bloom.

We arrived at Amadine Shemsa.  The site was perched on the top of steep hill that thought itself a mountain.  In 2014, during my last visit, the Yezidis were rebuilding the shrine, the old spire half entombed in a bright new tower, its new flutes hewn from blocks of rock. knife sharp. Now there was but a pile of stone. It was only the top of the old spire peek tiredly tilting to the side that gave clue to at was here before.



Incongruently, a Yezidi grave surrounded by the sharp tumble still had faded plastic flowers attached to its poles.

We looked out over the plains to the south and east. “There, Tel Benet, still Daesh. And there, Ranbusi. Daesh.” The towns were 10 kilometers away. My stomach turned, not in fear, but in rage. I exhaled and continued to search for the story with the camera.

The journey to document the fury of a few and the tears of many continued. An hour later we arrived at Pir Mahmed Rashan which also was being rebuilt 3 years ago with a new broad stairway leading up to the shrine.


Only the stairs parially remained, topped by long twisting water snakes of reinforcing steel.

Gharbi pointed down to the valley behind Rashan. The valley was speckled with dark brown spots below. “You see? Cows. All cows.” Or so I thought he said, suggesting that more Yezidis had returned. But his accent is heavy. It was a herd of burned car and truck carcasses.

We returned to the outskirts of Sinjar City, to the site of a once a fairy tale collection of small Yezidian spires, known locally and unofficially as Piçuk (little) Lalish.


2012
No longer. Now it was a hellish spectacle of small spires strewn about, several looking like bad science fiction rocket ships that had crashed and were piercing the the ground.


The ruins of the Sheikh Hasan shrine were different: It heavily proclaimed its former self with the its spire remaining largely in tact, but settled askew atop the brutal rubble of the room below.


The afternoon became long as we continued west to Sheikh Mend Pasha, in Yezidi cosmology the patron of the tribe that can handle snakes without fear of harm. This is Gharbi's tribe.

To the south of us, the frontline between Daesh and the Kurdish/Yezidi force gradually merged with the road, until the high earthen berm frequently punctuated by heavily armed cells became the road's shoulder. We were approaching the end of liberated area. The road and berm swung to the north towards the parallel mountain.  A field of blood red poppies would not be suppressed. We were once again on a dirt track, slowly discovering our way to the shrine.

Shiekh Mend Pasha too had been rebuilt with scant attention to architectural fidelity before Daesh.  As before, in front of the erstwhile shrine stood the same tortured tree festooned with swaths of faded colored silk tied in unruly knots representing wishes of those who tied them years before. It now somehow better suited the scene. 


2012


2017
And propped against a wall of the ruins was a broken stone with the bas relief of a snake, freshly repainted black. It was not forgotten, but the site stood in absolute ruin. Slabs of the long flat roof had collapse to the center and pieces of the spire littered the area.

Sheikh Mend Pasha also was, and is, the site of a memorial commemorating the 2007 car bombing in the nearby Yezidi town of Girezer, still occupied by Daesh. On August 14 of that year, car bombs attributed to Sunni radicals killed 500 Yezidis and wounded 1,500 more. The Yezidis declared it their 73rd Genocide The memorial - a cemetery of many of those killed and a large building housing hundreds of pictures of the victims - remained. Gharbi surmised that Daesh did not have time to desecrate the site because of being attacked by Yezidi forces.



It is unnerving to find relief in the survival of memorial to another act of evil perpetrated on the very same people.

I was tired. We drove back to Sinjar City, and over the mountain to Zorava.


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As always I want to acknowledge my friend Sheikh Gharbi who accompanied me on all of my visits to the Sinjar.  Without him I would not have been able to complete this journey of discovery, friendship and photography that has spanned 8 years.