Iraq: Fighting displaces thousands of Yazidis for a second time

Intense fighting broke out between the Iraqi Army and Yazidi fighters affiliated to the Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on May 1 and 2 in the region of Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq. The clashes displaced thousands of Yazidi people for a second time – as many as were only recently resettled in the area after fleeing the Islamic State group in 2014. Our Observer told us about fleeing the fighting and what it has felt like to return to life in a displaced persons camp. 

This is a screengrab of a video shared by our Observer showing a Yazidi family crammed into a truck, fleeing fighting in the village of Snuny on May 2.
This is a screengrab of a video shared by our Observer showing a Yazidi family crammed into a truck, fleeing fighting in the village of Snuny on May 2. © Observers

The Iraqi Army wants to enforce an agreement signed between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan providing for the withdrawal of Yazidi fighters and PKK fighters from the Sinjar region. But the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), a Yazidi militia created in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group, don’t want to withdraw and accuse Baghdad of wanting to take control of their region. 

On the night of May 1, the Iraqi Army finally launched an offensive to push back Yazidi fighters, some of whom had taken up positions in civilian areas in villages near Mount Sinjar. 

'We left through the back door, bullets were zipping all around'

Yazidis are a Kurmanji-speaking minority who are indigenous to the Sinjar region in Iraq. They follow a monotheistic religion with similarities to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Back in 2014, many Yazidis were forced to flee the persecution of the Islamic State group to displaced persons camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Today, many of these civilians are reliving the same nightmare. Our Observer, Tahsin (not his real name), was startled awake in the middle of the night by the sound of gunfire in Sinun.  

I have been living in the Qadiya displacement camp in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2014 but I return to my village, Sinun, often because I am building a new home here. 

I was in Sinun when the fighting broke out shortly after midnight. I heard shots being fired by the western entrance to the village. It seemed like heavy artillery fire [Editor’s note: Likely from a DShK, a Soviet anti-aircraft heavy machine gun]. 

The shooting stopped for a few hours but then started up again around 8am. I called a friend who lives on the outskirts of the village and he said he heard gunshots in his zone as well. 

Video Showing The Fighting In Sinun On May 2.

Around 11am, I heard loud explosions. I called another friend and he told me that the Iraqi Army had bombed the school in Hattin, a neighbouring village, because they suspected that it was being used as a base for fighters from the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ).  

When the shooting stopped again, people started to flee the village, either by car or on foot, towards Iraqi Kurdistan in the north. 

Then, around 1pm, the fighting started up again. Iraqi soldiers were deployed the western entrance of Sinun, in the Tobal neighborhood. The house where I am staying, with my uncle and his children, is just several dozen metres from where the gunshots were coming from. 

So we left through the back door and took shelter in a home under construction about 50 metres away. The bullets were zipping all around. There was also heavy artillery fire [Editor’s note: likely DShK again]. Iraqi Army tanks driving down the streets. 

This video shows an Iraqi army tank in Sinun on May 2.

'Sometimes 20 people were cramming into one car'

We took advantage of a moment of calm to run towards our car. We then headed towards Mount Sinjar, in the south. But when we arrived at the base of the mountain, we saw heavy machine guns above us. So we retraced our journey and went back towards the village, looking for a way to get around the combat zones and get back on the road leading to Iraqi Kurdistan.  

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This video was filmed by a member of the Iraqi Army after the village of Sinun was captured on May 2.

It was chaos in the village when we got back there. People were trying to flee by any means necessary. Sometimes 20 people would cram into a single car. 

We finally managed to get back on the road to Iraqi Kurdistan. Along the road, there were checkpoints being run by the Iraqi Army. Some of them stopped us and asked, “Why aren’t you fighting with us?”

Most of the Yazidi displaced in Iraq now live in camps in Dohuk province in Kurdistan. The main camps there are Chamishku, Kabarto 1, Kabarto 2 and Kadiya. Created in 2014 with money from both the regional government of Kurdistan and the international community, the camps provide basic services but the living conditions there remain difficult.

'We don’t understand why the Iraqi Army didn’t warn us'

A few hours later, we arrived in Kadiya camp in Dohuk. Part of my family has been living in the camp since the displacement in August 2014. It’s the only region with mobile homes, which are a bit more comfortable than tents. 

Aside from frequent water cuts, the biggest problem in the camps are fires. The tents are made out of nylon and catch fire easily. There are also lots of fires in mobile homes caused by short circuits because the electrical fixtures are falling into disrepair. 

The fighting stopped on May 2, but only the men went back to their villages in Sinjar to inspect their homes. The women and children stayed in the camps for fear that fighting would break out again. 

Since May 3, young people have been gathering, especially in Sinun, to call for the withdrawal of all armed forces from Yazidi villages, except the police. The chiefs of Yazidi clans also went to visit Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad to bring him this message. But for the time being, we haven’t gotten any response. We refuse to be held hostage by fighting, no matter who the warring parties are. Finally, we don’t know why the Iraqi army didn’t warn us before launching an offensive so we could leave our villages in time.

Yazidis protest on May 6 in Sinun, calling for the "end to any army’s presence” in Yazidi villages.

One person died and two people were injured by the Iraqi Army, according to an Iraqi military source cited by AFP. So far, there have been no numbers released for civilian casualties.

In the last few days, about 10,000 displaced persons have flooded into the camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many of the newly displaced were already forced to live in these camps once after fleeing the Islamic State group back in 2014. According to our Observer, no planning has been put into place to receive them. Many have moved into already overcrowded tents with family or friends already living there.

Yazidis have also been the victims of air raids carried out by neighbouring Turkey targeting PKK bases in Sinjar.