Heavy fighting erupted on May 1 in the Sinjar district in northern Iraq when Iraq’s military launched an offensive to clear the area of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) forces. The YBS has ties with Turkey’s banned separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and is mostly comprised of minority Yazidi Muslims. Iraqis from the town of Sinjar, most of whom are Yazidis, were forced to flee north to the Kurdish-run region and now fear for their lives.
Iraqis from the town of Sinjar, mostly Yazidis, were forced to flee north and now fear for their lives.
The clashes that took place in the sub-districts of Dugri and Sinuni escalated on May 2 and 3, leading as of May 5 to the displacement of more than 10,000 people from Sinjar and its surrounding areas, according to a local official in Duhok. The Iraqi Department of Migration and Displacement and Crisis Response (DMCR) confirmed the same figure.
Most of the displaced are now spread across camps in the Kurdistan Region, near Duhok province.
As of May 4, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iraq recorded 135,703 people, mainly Yazidis, sheltering in 15 camps in the governates of Duhok and Nineveh, as well as some 195,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDP) living independently in the area. The total estimated displaced Yazidis in the Kurdish region are around 330,000.
Many fled their homes for the first time after ISIS seized Sinjar in summer 2014, but they returned in recent years to rebuild their homes. The latest wave of displacement has reminded them of those days, causing feelings of fear and helplessness and evoking the trauma of ISIS’s genocidal campaign of killings, abductions, rape, and enslavement.
“After years of displacement, recent returnees are once again forced to flee their homes due to current armed clashes in Shingal,” Yazidi genocide survivor and activist Nadia Murad said, reacting to the escalation, calling on the international community to protect civilians in the district.
“The fighting today in Sinjar is totally unacceptable.”
“The fighting today in Sinjar is totally unacceptable. Regardless of political/military affiliation, there should be no attacks against Yazidi[s] from Sinjar by anyone at any time,” tweeted the Free Yezidi Foundation in response to the assault on the Yazidi minority’s hometown.
The UN mission in Iraq condemned the latest violence and declared, “Sinjaris’ safety and security should be front and centre. They’ve suffered enormously in the past and deserve peace under state authority.”
With ongoing insecurity in Sinjar, mostly connected with the presence of several armed forces, families have been prevented from returning to their homeland.
The PKK-affiliated YBS has controlled much of Sinjar since 2015 when, with the help of PKK fighters, it drove out ISIS from the district two years before the extremist group was defeated in 2017. The local force has since remained there, expressing mistrust of the federal government forces deployed to protect the area. Neither the YBS nor the Iraqi military have succeeded in providing a real sense of security for the population in the Yazidi heartland.
The Iraqi army has attempted on repeated occasions to retake the town from the YBS militia with limited success. Armed clashes between the group and government troops broke out on April 18, when the latter reportedly tried to seize a checkpoint controlled by Ezidxan Asayish, a security force affiliated with the YBS.
Under the October 2020 Sinjar agreement between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG), PKK-affiliated forces were to withdraw from the area and the federal government was to be put in charge of establishing a new local security force. However, the deal was rejected by the PKK and its proxies and criticized by members of the Yazidi community for its lack of involvement in the process.
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Absent implementation of the agreement, thousands of residents of the northern Iraqi province remain displaced in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, unwilling to go back to Sinjar due to the unstable situation.
People of Sinjar held peaceful protests across several towns.
In the days that followed the hostilities, people of Sinjar held peaceful protests across several towns, asking for better security and local governance in their region and demanding that the armed groups keep the conflict away from the civilian population. The protesters continually rallied, blocking several roads to armed units and insisting that all forces –– except for local police and national security ––withdraw from the populated areas.
Yazidis have been calling for their inclusion in their own governance and security for years. Abid Shamdeen, director of Nada’s Initiative which advocates for Yazidi survivors, tweeted, “In 2014, Yazidis were abandoned & left to face a genocide. This is the reason they don’t trust any Iraqi or Kurdish security forces with their security anymore unless that force includes Yazidi fighters.”
Farhad Barakat, a Yazidi activist from Sinjar, witnessed the displacement of hundreds of residents from the town after the skirmishes in early May. Two of his cousins living in the Sinjar mountains, close to where the fighting had taken place, temporarily took refuge in his family home.
“We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we’ve seen things are not stable in our town,” the activist told Inside Arabia on the day when the ceasefire was announced. “People are still scared. The situation is very volatile.”
“People are still scared. The situation is very volatile.”
He estimated that half of the Sinjaris who fled the violence in the preceding days to find shelter in the Kurdish region were among the same people who had returned from IDP camps between 2016 and 2017 toward the end of ISIS’ rule.
As for himself, like other Yazidis, Barakat decided not to leave his hometown no matter what.
“Sinjaris have suffered a lot. We want to live peacefully,” he said, while hinting that Yazidi people are skeptical about the agreement on joint management of Sinjar. “We call on all sides to leave the towns and not endanger people’s lives.”
Murad Ismael, co-founder and head of the educational initiative Sinjar Academy, fears that the lack of security will lead to more problems. “The most realistic scenario is that the status quo continues with sporadic clashes that will cause more partial displacements,” he told DeutcheWelle.
Although the government forces and the YBS group reached a ceasefire on May 5 amid reassurances from the Iraqi army that it had re-established order in the area, Yazidis are reluctant to return to their homeland after witnessing recurring violence and subsequent displacement.
They think fighting could resume at any time and are demanding that the governments of Erbil and Baghdad, along with the international community, find a radical resolution to their region’s suffering.