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Seven years ago, a brutal attack by ISIS forced hundreds of thousands of Yazidis to flee their homes in northern Iraq. Many were eventually imprisoned, killed or sold into slavery. Now, despite ISIS’s retreat, Yazidi survivors say little has changed for them as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports.
Seven years ago, a brutal attack by the Islamic State forced close to 100,000 Yazidis to flee from their homes in northern Iraq to nearby Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for days. Those unable to flee were imprisoned, sold into slavery or killed.
In March, the Iraqi parliament passed a landmark Yazidi survivors law recognizing crimes against the community as genocide and mandating compensation and assistance for Yazidi women survivors. But for many survivors, trust in the government is low and the future remains uncertain.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen returned to the Sinjar region, now deemed safe, to talk with the survivors.
Seven years ago, an ancient people ran in their thousands up a mountain that had sustained their lifeblood for centuries. For those who came down again, their lives would never be the same.
Mount Sinjar, Shingal to Yazidis, and the area around it, was ravaged, destroyed by those they were fleeing, the advancing insurgents of the Islamic State.
Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis were displaced, captured or killed by ISIS. Of around 12,000 who went missing, at least 5,000 have been identified as being killed, and several thousand more have been rescued since ISIS lost its territorial hold in 2017. The rest are still unaccounted for.
Today, while ISIS no longer holds territory here, little else has changed. The town and its surrounding villages still lie in pieces. While some have begun to return since it was deemed safe last summer, many thousands still live in camps and tented settlements across North Iraq.
The landscape is dotted with sites like these; fenced off known mass graves. You could once see human remains on the surface here but now, the grasses have grown long and rains have washed away the evidence. But for the families of the thousands of people still missing, they know many of their loved ones lie under the ground here. They've been waiting nearly seven years for answers, and most of them are still waiting.
Locals estimate there are up to 80 mass graves in the Sinjar area. There are five here in the tiny village of Hardan alone, which they think contain the bodies of 150 people.
The exhumations have begun, and more than 100 bodies have now been identified and buried. It's an agonizingly slow process, but many here feel it hasn't been prioritized.
It's governmental negligence. It's international negligence. An entire nation massacred, displaced. For facilitating their return, the government does not care, especially when it comes to those displaced; it's not politically stable.
Shokor Melhem is an Iraqi army officer, and a Yazidi himself, who has tracked the status of the mass graves since he and his unit began to discover them while pushing ISIS out of the area. His youngest daughter, who's seven, is called Shingal. She was born on the mountain in August 2014 as her pregnant mother and sisters ran for their lives. Shukur says it is impossible for Yazidis to begin to rebuild their lives here until they know the fate of their loved ones for certain.
Folks still don't know whether their kids, their children are still alive, dead, or buried somewhere, maybe still in captivity….It's no surprise that people are agonized and feel like this matter is being forsaken. When most people die, they only die once. For those whose families are in mass graves or kidnapped, they died a hundred times a day.
Khalil Murad Mchu and his family are doing their best to rebuild their life here. But they don't have much to work with. As with most of the homes in this area, ISIS flattened it with dynamite. Not much has changed since.
This was Kahlil's family house, it still stands here destroyed. They were living in a camp until nine months ago, and they've come back because they do still have some farmland here, but he and his children are living in tents and don't see any sign that their home will be rebuilt.
Khalil Murad Mchu:
It's really hard to live in a tent and to see your house in ruins, what we really are afraid of are snakes and scorpions under these collapsed houses.
They came home because they could no longer survive in a camp with no way to work. But things aren't much better here, and every day is a struggle. With the security restrictions intense and so little reconstruction, the economy here has collapsed and they live on the pennies they scrape together selling eggs and goat milk to the few neighbors who have dared to return.
I have no future here. We can't get our old life back again. It's really hard to make a home here.
And it's not just the money. Even as Sinjar has been left a wreck, it's become a political hotspot, with multiple factions vying for power here. For a community that's deeply traumatized, living in the midst of a military zone does little to make them feel safe.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces roam the area, as do different arms of the local Shia militias known as the Hashd Shabi, or popular mobilization forces. Fighters from the PKK, the Kurdish resistance group outlawed by Turkey, hide amidst the mountains and the Turkish military launches sporadic strikes against them.
A recent survey carried out by the U.S. Institute of Peace found that 53 percent of Sinjar's residents (all of them returned from displacement) don't feel safe in the area, and 96 percent believe they are at risk of violence.
The alternatives aren't much better. Nearly 200,000 Yazidis are still displaced across North Iraq, many of them living in camps or basic rented accommodation.
Camps like this one at Sharya near the Kurdish town of Duhok, where Yazidi survivor Laila Taalo and her family once took refuge, and where thousands of displaced Yazidis still live.
This is the same spot where I first met Laila and her family living in one of these tents behind me. This is an overflow section from the main camp because that was already full. They hoped it would be temporary and they could soon go home. But four years later, little has changed except that even more people are living here.
Laila's family lost 19 members when ISIS attacked. Her uncle Khalid then spent years trying to find them and bring them back.
I met Laila just after she and her two nieces, Shaima and Suheila, had been rescued after years of being bought and sold as slaves by ISIS supporters across Iraq and Syria.
At just 25, Laila had lost her husband. He's still missing, presumed murdered by ISIS. But she managed to rescue her five-year old son from the training camp ISIS had taken him to, and bring him and her infant daughter home safe when she finally escaped and found a smuggler to get her out of ISIS-occupied Raqqa. When she spoke of going home, her eyes lit up with hope.
Nowhere is like Shingal. I don't feel a stranger to other places in Iraq, but Shingal belongs to us.
Even so, she feared the trauma of further violence would stop them going back.
Honestly, it is very hard, Yazidis are so afraid. I don't see any future for Yazidis here. It's hard to live there again, my eyes can't bear to see it. I don't have any future for myself, the only hope I have is my children.
In the years since, Laila has become a leading activist for Yazidi survivors' rights and recognition of the attack as a genocide against her people. This Spring, she was part of the team that pushed through the Yazidi reparations bill in the Iraqi parliament, which promises a stipend, land, and increased job opportunities to survivors.
Despite their landmark success, Laila says she and her people have been let down time and again by the government and the international community; now, she'll believe it when she sees it.
When I go to conferences, I talk and they listen, they feel for us and some of them cry. The problem is they make promises to us but they do nothing. That's very difficult for us.
Laila has little faith that the promise to secure and rebuild Sinjar will come through either. Her nieces, Shaima and Suheila have already left, taking up asylum in Australia. Laila says she's giving up, and wants to go and join them.
We want to live a normal life, this is not a huge request, I just want information about our missing people and to rebuild Shingal. It has been 7 years we are still living in camps, until when will this last? How long will we be displaced in our homeland?
Thousands of Yazidis have already left Iraq. Without the option of going home, a historic community of half a million people is in danger of being lost for good.
It's true that the Yazidi community is being split because we as victims, we don't have the trust to go back to Shingal. That's why we get out of this country, because we are mentally destroyed. I'd rather live in another country because I don't want my children to see what I saw, so that the next generation doesn't get hurt. On the inside it's so sad, I can't forget what I've been through.
Armed groups, scarce job opportunities and the lack of reconstruction have turned the homecoming to Shingal from a dream to a nightmare. Many who have come back are already thinking about leaving again. This land, scarred so deeply and its people scattered, may soon become a lonely place to call home.
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