The Trail of the Yezidis

Guest Author: Eszter Spat


Already before the recent war in Iraq and Syria there appeared to be an increased interest in Yezidis in the last decades and one wonders how that is related to global and region political circumstances. They are part of identity politics among Kurds but apparently recently some Yezidis claim to be a people by themselves instead of being part of a Kurdish nation while others argue they are the original Kurds. Eszter Spat made a documentary, Following the Peacock, about the Yezidis and their ritual of parading the Peacock; a seldom, if ever, observed ritual by outsiders.

You can watch her beautiful film here:


Ali and Wassfi
So what happened with the people in Following the Peacock in the face of, if not a physical then at least a cultural extermination? Wassfi, the cameraman of the film, and Ali, the driver and helper, are safe, since they are both from the Kurdish Region proper. In fact, Ali’s village was the only Yezidi settlement which was not evacuated on the 6th of August, when ISIS occupied some of the Yezidi villages on the outskirt of the Kurdish Region, near to Mosul. At this point all other Yezidis villages became empty, or at least women and children were sent to the mountains, to Duhok, or to the Turkish border, while armed men stayed on to protect their houses. (In the Kurdish Region most people have since returned to their homes, except for those villages which were destroyed or booby-trapped by ISIS.)

On the other hand both Ali and Wassfi had relatives living in regions overrun by ISIS. Ali’s Sinjari relatives (living in the north-western part of Sinjar, not far from where the film was made) escaped to the mountais. His paralyzed sister-in-law and elderly grandmother rode donkeys over the mountain paths. Along with thousand other refugees they were stuck on the mountain for a week (for water they had to descend to the only well down on the plain at night – a perilous journey but necessary if they didn’t want to die of thirst.) Finally they were escorted to safety by the Syrian Kurdish fighters of YPG (a people’s defense unit, basically a part of PKK), who helped to rescue most of the people on the mountain. After another trip on donkey back, Ali’s brother drove to the Syrian border to pick up those who could not walk. Eventually the whole extended family made it to Khanke. At one point all of them, some 106 persons, were staying in the two houses belonging to Ali and his brother. Currently most of them are staying in UN tents pitched in front of the house, in the courtyard of the next house, and in the garage of a neighbor. The last one to join them was a young woman who was kidnapped by ISIS soldiers. For a month she was kept in Mosul. She was taking care of some kid without parents, and had the presence of mind to tell ISIS soldiers that she was married woman and that was her own child. As ISIS fighters apparently prefer unmarried girls, she was finally let go, and with the help a local Arab friend she managed to contact an uncle in Germany, and though him her relatives in the Kurdish Region.

The fate of the villages of the qewwals

Wassfi is originally from Behzani, while his wife is from Beshiqe, the twin-villages where the qewwals of singers reside (see film 8.17-25 and 10-11.08). These villages, just a stone-throw from Mosul, were also occupied by ISIS in the first week of August. Luckily, everybody left before this happened (Wassfi had some 30 relatives staying in his house). ISIS withdrew from Beshiqe-Behzani at the end of August, but only after destroying the numerous Yezidi shrines of this religious center, and after having planted landmines all over the place, so it would be impossible for the residents to return even if they wanted to (but this is a moot question as long as ISIS holds Mosul, the danger is just too great.) Beshiqe-Behzani had a large Christian community as well, who were also forced to leave, as did eventually even the local Sunni Arabs, some going to Mosul, others preferring the Kurdish town of Duhok.

Naturally, the qewwals, or singers of sacred hymns, who all live in these two villages, also had to flee. When I last spoke with Qewwal Hussein (who is a prominent figure in the movie) he told me that he and his family were in Duhok, sleeping in the street, though he had hopes of finding a place in some school. Qewwal Hussein, who embodies the living memory of Yezidi religion, begged to be taken to Europe, along with other Yezidis.

Sheikh Barkat, the sheikh-el-wezir, and his son, sheikh Hassun (who also figure prominently in the film) fled their village Bozan (next to the ancient Christian monastery of Alqosh) and took refuge in the sacred valley of Lalish, along with some hundred other families. They told me that first there were many other families hiding in the valley, but then panic spread about false rumor’s of ISIS’ advance, and most people left – mostly to sleep in the streets of Duhok. Now Sheikh Barkat is in Germany, visiting the Yezidi community their and asking for their help, and sheikh Hassun in back Bozan, which is far enough from Mosul for Yezidi risk returning there – rather than to live in make-shift refugee camps, schools or buildings under construction, like Sinjari refugees are forced to do.

It remains unclear what happened to the people of the three Sinjari villages which were visited in the film. As they were living in the North-Western part of Sinjar, not far from the Syrian border, perhaps they managed to escape, unlike many of their brethren from Yezidi villages farther from safety.

Below you find pictures of Sinjar refugees (Ayad’s pictures were taken at Pishkhabour, on the Iraqi-Syrian border, by the Tigris. Ali’s and Wassfi’s pictures were taken in Khanke, a Yezidi collective village (constructed by Saddam in the 80s’). There is a huge UN refugee camp next to Khanke now (not far from the famous Yezidi shrine of Mem Shivan), while other refugees are camping out in the streets near their relatives house or in courtyards, empty garages, etc.

Martijn_de_Koning's Yezidis album on Photobucket

The next pictures are taken by Ali’s numerous Yezidi relatives and friends when fleeing the Sinjar

Martijn_de_Koning's Yezidis AO album on Photobucket

Eszter Spat obtained her Ph.D. at the Central European University, Department of Medieval Studies in 2009. Her post-doctoral research,Processes of Integration, Identity Construction and the Role of Religion: The Case of the Iraqi Yezidis,” studies the role Yezidi religion in the Kurdish national movement, as well as the impact of modernity and Kurdish nationalism on the construction of Yezidi identity, and the transformation of Yezidi oral tradition and religious institutions in Northern Iraq.

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