As the American air campaign over Iraq to defend the Yazidi minority from an onslaught of Sunni militants shows signs of success, members of the religious sect’s diaspora community are coming to grips with a sinking realization: No matter what happens next, Iraq will never be a safe place for Yazidis.
"There is no way to live there anymore," Ghanim Masto, a 30-year-old Yazidi man who lives in Houston, said. "I am 100 percent sure."
Masto and a delegation of Yazidis living in North America were in Washington this week to appeal to the State Department and journalists about the Yazidis’ plight and to build support for the migration of Iraqi Yazidis to the West. The plan is for Europeans, Americans, Canadians, and other Western powers to help facilitate a mass migration of the Iraqi Yazidi community, which is believed to number between 400,000 and 500,000. They are seeking any assistance to achieve their goal: expedited visas, refugee status, and safe passage. While America’s humanitarian mission in Iraq is far too limited to encompass an operation of that magnitude, many Yazidis say deserting their ancestral homeland is the only way to guarantee their survival.
"It’s become so obvious and clear now," Sebastian Maisel, a professor at Grand Valley State University and America’s preeminent scholar of the religious sect, said. "They don’t want to go back to any of Iraq’s villages because ultimately no one can protect them."
According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, some Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq have already fled to Syria, while other Yazidi families have scattered to various parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and Sinjar. The new refugee data comes as the Obama administration takes credit for ending a siege on the mountain by the Islamic State militants that threatened to exterminate the Yazidis, paving the way for many to escape. "We broke the ISIL siege of Mt. Sinjar," said President Obama in an address from Martha’s Vineyard. "The situation on the mountain has greatly improved."
However, just as Obama delivered his remarks, Kurdish officials and Yazidi refugees claimed thousands remained in dire straits on Mount Sinjar. Many who managed to escape showed signs of extreme hunger and thirst, according to the U.N., which works with local NGOs and aid partners in the region.
"The refugees arrive exhausted and deeply traumatized, their feet covered in blisters, having spent days on Mt. Sinjar in searing temperatures without food, water or shelter after fleeing for their lives, then walking many hours — in some cases days — to find safety," the U.N.’s Thursday report reads.
For many Yazidis, this latest bout of ethnic cleansing is the last straw.
According to Iraq’s human rights minister, the Islamic State, previously known as ISIS, has killed at least 500 Yazidis since occupying Sinjar this month. Meanwhile, Yazidis say the number is well into the thousands. The radical group is systematically forcing Yazidis to convert to Islam or face execution. "Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth," said Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.
But the Yazidis’ troubles existed long before the Islamic State began seizing territory in Iraq’s Sunni- and Kurdish-dominated areas. Viewed as heretical "devil-worshipers" by many of their Muslim neighbors, Yazidis claim to have survived more than 70 acts of genocide throughout history. The source of this hatred hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding dating back to the late 16th century.
The Yazidi faith, which incorporates aspects of Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Mithraism, involves a central figure called Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel who once defied God but now serves as an administrator of mankind. To some Muslims, Melek Taus fits the profile of a Quranic character known as Shaytan (aka the devil). The Yazidi faith holds that Melek Taus is a force of good, not evil, and the two religious figures are completely unrelated, yet that message still hasn’t gotten across to the Yazidis’ tormentors, who persecute them for their faith.
"They’ve been brainwashed for centuries that we’re devil-worshipers," said Masto. "It’s mind blowing."
Masto moved from Iraq to the United States in 2009 through a State Department program that gives visas to Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military during the occupation of Iraq. Between 2005 and 2009, Masto worked as a translator for the U.S. Army. Like many of the 1,200 Yazidis who now call themselves Americans, Masto has family who are in danger.
"My parents, five brothers, and three sisters are on the mountaintop," he said. "All they want right now is to survive and get out of there."
Masto last spoke with his family on Aug. 2, the day they ran from Sunni militants to Mount Sinjar, where they face blazing hot temperatures and have little food or water. Masto is particularly concerned about the health of his siblings’ 1-year-old nephew and 3-year-old niece but has been unable to contact his family since their cellphone’s charge ran out on Aug. 3.
Masto and Imad Matto, another Houston-based Yazidi, said the next step for Iraqi Yazidis is finding a permanent way out. "They cannot live anymore in Muslim countries," Matto said. "Always genocide and killing and raping of our women."
But the Yazidi expatriate community is not monolithic and some flinch at the thought of losing their ancestral homeland. "We’ve lived there for thousands of years," noted Mirza Ismail, head of the Yazidi Human Rights Organization, a small network of Yazidi groups in the United States and Canada.
Northwestern Iraq is home to key Yazidi holy places, villages, and shrines that hold profound religious significance for them. Yazidis around the world pilgrimage to the holy city of Lalish, which is now some 40 miles away from Islamic State-held territory. But Ismail conceded that for some, the constant threat of violence and persecution often outweighs the value of cultural heritage. "For many Yazidis, life in Iraq is a living nightmare and they need to get out," he said.
Regardless, although efforts by the United States and allies are significant, the humanitarian operation is unlikely to facilitate a mass migration of the kind many Yazidis say is necessary. In his statement on Wednesday, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the success of America’s air campaign meant that an "evacuation mission is far less likely."
Sam Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Obama administration would likely put the Yazidis’ fate in Kurdish hands.
"Our overall strategy is to back the Kurds and enable them to take responsibility for protecting minorities," he said. Some Yazidis prefer to live under the protection of Peshmerga fighters in the expanding territories under Kurdish control while others say they have lost trust in the Peshmerga for their failure to coordinate with Yazidis during the seizure of Sinjar this month.
"Kurdish Peshmerga groups did not give a warning" about the militants’ advance, Masto said. "My family didn’t have time to collect their stuff; they just started running to the mountain on Aug. 2."
Ismail went a step further and blamed the Kurdistan Regional Government for complicity in the slaughter of Yazidis. "On Aug. 2, the KRG ordered all its militia to fall back and refused to give Yazidis anything to defend themselves," he said. "The Peshmerga left the Yazidis in the bloody hands of ISIS."
The Yazidis of Sinjar, in particular, have lingering resentment toward the Kurds for taking over their territory in northwest Iraq without giving them sufficient autonomy, said Maisel, the Yazidi scholar.
Given the profound suffering the Yazidis have endured at the hands of so many, the reluctance to trust Kurdish Muslims — or anyone else in the region — is natural.
"In the long run, [an exodus] seems to be the only alternative from a Yazidi perspective," Maisel said. "A humanitarian corridor may help the Yazidis’ immediate survival but what’s next? The ISIS offensive might never stop."