Through The Lens Of Crisis: COVID-19 And The People On The Frontlines Of Conflict

Sinjar, Iraq: COVID-19 drives Yazidis to face new risks in return to Sinjar
December 7, 2020

Picture by Faris Mishko

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“I am a Yazidi from Tel-banat, Sinjar. It has been two months since we (our family) returned to Sinjar. The reason for our returning was because the deteriorating situation of IDP camps and the spreading of Coronavirus and the people in IDP camps were mixed and very close to each other, so we returned to Sinjar. But we have returned and are not based in our own house.” Nada Selo Shekho a recent returnee to Sinjar told us in mid-October.

COVID-19 is the latest disaster to inflict suffering on the Yazidi community.

In 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked Sinjar, a predominantly Yazidi-populated province in northern Iraq. ISIS terrorists killed at least 3,100 Yazidis, kidnapped more than 6,000 women and children, and subsequently sold them into sexual slavery. In some instances, ISIS militants radicalized Yazidi boys and forced them to serve as child soldiers and suicide bombers.

Many families continue to experience the psychological trauma of being unable to locate family members who were either kidnapped or possibly buried in mass graves from the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign. On October 24, a United Nations team started to exhume a mass grave where victims from the village of Kocho in southern Sinjar had been buried. Thousands of Yazidis remain unaccounted for and scores have likely been sold or sexually trafficked.

Almost 200,000 Yazidis – approximately half of the entire community in Iraq –remain in displaced persons camps without adequate medical treatment and face an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, which has driven many to return to Sinjar despite the risks they face in returning there.

In mid-October 2020 The Soufan Center’s reporting team, using Truepic’s technology and a drone, conducted interviews in Dohuk displaced persons camp and in Sinjar to better understand the impact COVID-19 has had on the vulnerable Yazidi community with COVID-19 forcing many to return to Sinjar, where they face a new set of human, health and security risks.

COVID-19 impacts the Yazidi in displaced camps

Across Iraq, COVID-19 has had significant impacts across the country. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of early November 2020 there have been 82,296 confirmed cases of COVID-19, resulting in 11,068 deaths. The issue has been particularly destabilizing because the country’s hospitals have been damaged by years of conflict, a shortage of medicine and a dearth of protective equipment.

Khalil Khalaf Dally is a doctor at the Sinuni Hospital in Sinjar. He told us that “the risks of coronavirus in our community is very big…but unfortunately our community didn’t take the risks seriously, many saying there is no corona.” This has led to rising infections aided by misinformation distributed in the media and on social media about the virus which downplays its severity and disputes the best preventive steps.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 for the Yazidi community left in overcrowded and poorly sanitized displaced persons camps is particularly acute.

The coronavirus has also had an economic impact for those in camps. Jasim Qaro Sulaiman a former headteacher and Yazidi in a camp in Dohuk said, “in camps, COVID has destroyed the low income and poor families.”

Beginning in June 2020, tens of thousands of IDP families returned in large numbers from Dohuk and Ninewa governorates to Sinjar and Al Ba’aj districts in far western Iraq.

According to International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), between 8 June and 1 October 2020, 26,361 people (4,931 families) left the Zakho and Sumel districts in Dohuk and the Al-Shikan district in Ninewa to return to Sinjar and a smaller number of returnees to Al Ba’aj.

The majority of those returning (76 per cent) came from IDP camps, while the remainder came from out-of-camp settings (living with relatives and friends). The returnees were largely— although not exclusively—Yazidis.

Returning to Sinjar is like the sheep without a shepherd

The so-called Islamic State’s takeover and occupation of Sinjar led to devastation across Sinjar which included destroying homes and critical infrastructure, especially in the southern side of the province, which experienced a longer occupation.

As such, for thousands of Yazidis in displaced persons camps, the decision they face on whether to return to Sinjar can be a matter of life and death.

Jasim Qaro Sulaiman concisely summed up this dilemma: “return to Sinjar is very hard… I can say it’s like the sheep without a shepherd; there is no government that can take care of them.”

There also remain ongoing security issues around protection, criminality, and concern about the terrorism threat that the returning Yazidis are facing.

Shekho the recent returnee to Sinjar told us: “as I see it the most important thing in Sinjar is solving the security issue but also restoring and replacing the basic services; many villages are suffering from the lack of services, there are no health care centers, no schools for education.”

The Yazidis returning to Sinjar highlight the need for increased humanitarian services, personal security and reconstruction efforts.

Long-term security issues for those returning to Sinjar

This March in its weekly newsletter Al-Naba, ISIS called on its fighters to attack and weaken its enemies (both ideological and those seeking to combat it) while they are distracted by the pandemic.

This threat coincides with security experts highlighting that ISIS remains active in Iraq – exploiting the departure of some coalition forces from the country — and poses a continued risk of attacks across the country.

Given its ideological disposition to attacking the Yazidis, security experts agree more protection is needed.

Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute For Near East Policy told us that despite a reduction in the number of ISIS attacks “since quarter two of this year” that “attacks can happen everywhere …in Iraq. The environment is still there, even if there are fewer available attackers.”

Last year, for instance, when Turkish forces invaded the northeast of Iraq there was a fear among the Yazidis that this would enable ISIS fighters which have escaped prison to return into the country.

More tangibly, to help build protection, a joint statement from 33 NGOs in April in Sinjar suggested an urgent need for reform in the civilian security sector which would integrate regional militias into a unified Federal Police which protects citizens no matter their religion or affiliation. 

Nadia’s Initiative highlights the continued need for justice for the Yazidi community and the genocide, which includes bringing those who perpetrated the atrocity to justice and integrating the Yazidi into mainstream society.

Reporting from Sinjar, Iraq by Faris Mishko, Writing by James Blake 

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