“We were killed not only by ISIS, but also by our neighbors”
This is the first time I am going to Iraqi Kurdistan by car. We get to the border very easily; there is no traffic. My friend coming with me says before the attacks of ISIS, there were long queues of trucks, and each vehicle had to wait around 4 or 5 hours before crossing the border.
I am the only woman at the border. I feel the glances of those who find my presence here bizarre. We complete the paperwork rapidly, and I pass to the other side of the border with my car. The moment I arrive in Iraqi Kurdistan, I feel relief seeing many women working at the border or as security personnel. The female security guards try to speed up my procedures because they are happy to see a Kurdish woman coming there from Amed, driving her own car. I walk to the Public Order Director who is waiting for me.
The Director tells me their workload has become lighter because of the war, as the border is not crowded anymore. “What about Yazidis who return from Turkey to fight against ISIS,” I ask him. He replies that no more than 7 or 8 persons are returning per week. He lends me Camîr, as my guide to accompany me during my journey in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Camîr is about in his thirties. He speaks Turkish. He came to Diyarbakır in 1988 during the period of the Halepçe massacre when he was 9, stayed there for 4 years and went to school for a year. I feel deeply ashamed as I remember those years. The images of Kurds escaping from Halepce, who came in massive groups, and tried to make their living by selling things on the streets of Diyarbakır, come to my mind. And then I remember those who were warning us, “They are not Kurds, they are Peshmerga. They speak Peshmerga language, don’t get close to them, be careful,” and how we believed those words with our child minds. During that period, everything was done to prevent the Kurds in Turkey from understanding those coming from Halepce were also Kurds. Even a Peshmerga language was fabricated. The children of Diyarbakır went from one house to another in order to find ice so that Peshmergas could drink cold water. Even remembering this recent history about refugees in our geography makes my heart sink. “Don’t get upset,” Camîr says to me. “We know how much you were oppressed; the conditions you were living in. For you, even protecting your Kurdish identity is an incredible success.” But that does not stop the pain I feel.
The moment we enter Zaxo, I see the Yazidis on the side of the road, in tents, or in construction sites. The Yazidis have made every empty construction existing in Zaxo a shelter to live in.
I stop in front of one construction. There are 39 Yazidi families living there; there are at least 200-250 people in the half completed building. At first, thinking that I represent a foreign humanitarian aid organization, one of them begins speaking to me in English. He has graduated from Mosul College. “We lost everything, our children, our women. I want to return, but we need someone to protect us,” he says. Another one adds, “We lost all our hope. We have been living with wars for years. The first conflict was the Iran-Iraq war, then Saddam, and now ISIS. We have no hope.”
It is a huge two-story construction. Everywhere is full of children. Children are barefoot. By using stones and planks, they try to make a separate place for sleeping. Babies lie on the cushions put over the wooden planks. At one part of the building, a meal is being cooked in large, rusty pots. The backside of the building is used as a toilet. Clotheslines are being tied to the building. There are blankets and laundry being hung on those clotheslines. Everyone is under dust; everywhere is full of debris. A few women are washing clothes by hand using a wash bowl. Some old, sick, and disabled persons are lying on mattresses surrounded by debris. They are either barefoot or wearing slippers.
I go up to one of the women. I squeeze myself into a place beside a sick baby. The baby has a fever. I ask them the situation of health care services. The Kurdish Regional Government provides food and health care services for the Yezidis free of charge. However, it is impossible for them to be healthy when living under these conditions. One of the women says, “Most of us Yazidis want to return, but we need a government authority to protect us there. There are still people staying on the mountains. They killed the children of my uncle.”
People staying in that construction came here from Şengal’s Hanasol village. The villagers of Hanasol have spread everywhere in the region: Duhok, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil. They stayed on the road for 18 days, and then managed to arrive in Zaxo through the corridor opened by YPG. “ISIS exists at every part of the plain,” tells another woman. “Lots of women committed suicide to avoid being captured by ISIS,” tells a young girl. Their fear can be understood from their faces.
The conditions in those buildings under construction are miserable. When I ask them what is essential, all of them tell me they need a place to stay during winter. I ask one by one whether they want to return or not and what their plans are for the future. No one thinks of returning. Most of them want to go to Europe. They express that they cannot live among Arabs. They explain their Arab neighbors cooperated with ISIS. An old man begins to talk:
“We cannot return, we were killed not only by ISIS, but also by our neighbors.”
“You see, that is Rojava!”
It is a hot day in Zaxo. While Yazidis struggle to live in the constructions, children try to cool off in Zaxo’s water. Luxury cars pass by. “My God, Protect the Peshmerga” is written on the back of the car in front of us. I ask my guide, Camîr, why the Peshmerga did not fight. “It is true that the Peshmerga retreated during the first days. When ISIS came, the Peshmargas fired their guns at the armored tanks ISIS have, but then they realized their guns do not damage those tanks, so they retreated to prevent a battle,” Camîr tells me. I have also heard that ISIS made suicide attacks on 5 or 6 Peshmerga positions during the first days, and they tried to spread fear in the region by displaying heads of the Peshmergas they killed. Camîr says, “But now the Peshmerga fight together with the guerrillas against ISIS. They even share their shells with the guerrillas, though not explicitly.”
There are Turkish shops and doner kebab restaurants alongside the road. Everyone who sees number 21 (Diyarbakır) on our license plate, cheers up as if they have seen their own sister and try to help. There are road constructions everywhere in Zaxo. There are Yazidi children on the roads, inside the tents, and some sitting in dirty water. There are aid distribution points for Yazidis on the road.
We arrive in Peşhabur. I want to take a look at the Peşhabur Bridge, which is used frequently by Yazidis running away from ISIS. Entry and exit to the bridge are forbidden. They make us wait for a long time at the security point. They do not want us to enter the Peşhabur Bridge.
There are two bridges connecting Iraqi Kurdistan (Başur) and Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava); Peşhabur and Sehele. Those bridges are only ten minutes away from each other. When the Yazidis were running away from ISIS, they made it to Rojava through the corridor opened by YPG, and then arrived South by using those bridges. After a serious interrogation and a few telephone calls to Erbil, they allow us to go to both villages with the company of a security officer.
My heart begins to beat faster as I am going to see Rojava. When we get close to the bridge, there are cattle trucks everywhere. All of the animals are coming from Rojava. They tell me that Rojava is a rich place and that it feeds one-third of Syria. Most of the farm animals coming to South Kurdistan are also from Rojava and Şengal.
I get to the bridge. Across from me is such a beautiful view that it makes me speechless. Dicle (Tigris River) runs in a gorgeous way, and over it I see the Peşhabur Bridge. A bridge, a bridge! There is only a bridge in between! And West and South Kurdistan are connected and separated in that way! While there is tight security on the South side, there are YPG members on the other side. My excitement reflects on my face. The Peshmergas standing around begin to laugh at me. “You see, that is Rojava,” they say!
YPG members are standing at the end of the bridge, only 100 meters away from the Peshmergas. Ambulances are waiting at Sehele(Sahila) door for the Yazidis arriving there. Both of the bridges are almost empty. During the first days of the ISIS attacks, these places were full of people in a life or death situation. They allow me to enter Rojava for a short period. I take my first step in Rojava with trembling knees. I hum a dirge for those people who are dying for living in a free land :
Bav û kalan
Da ku Qîrîna
Bighîje ezmanê heftan
Jan gihîşt can
Can ji bedenê derket
Ev e dîroka Kurdistan
Ev e Fermana 74’an
“We have suffered from 73 Firmans in this region, this is the 74th Firman”
We begin our journey to Duhok. We pass the UN camp on the way. We see the flags of UNHCR and UNICEF; thousands of people are staying in these camps. Outside the camp is also full of Yazidis. I also see UNHCR flags on some ruined buildings. Yazidis have taken shelter in every empty place they can find.
There are Yazidi and Arami villages along the road. This region, called Pêbiznî, is the area where Yazidis and Aramis are living. There are tents on the way. We pass through Yazidi and Arami villages. They have made concrete elevations at the end of the villages, and these elevations, which are high enough to be seen everywhere, are painted in the colors of the Kurdish flag. My guide tells me that Yazidis and Aramis are living peacefully under the Kurdish Regional Government’s authority, and those elevations should be understood as a way of expressing gratitude.
At the entrance of Duhok the construction of a big shopping mall and an entertainment centre is continuing. The cars around us are getting more and more luxurious. The number of Yazidis on the streets in Duhok is quite low compared to Zaxo. They are allowed to stay in public buildings and closed spaces like schools and mosques. Food and healthcare services in Duhok are provided by the Kurdish Government free of charge. Camîr says, “We do not know how they will manage to open the schools this year, because the Yazidis are staying in all of them.” The Yazidis who cannot find a place in the schools or mosques are living in buildings under construction. They say there are more than 200 thousand Yazidis in Duhok and Zaxo. We pass a madrasa filled with Yazidis. We park our car in one of the upscale avenues of Duhok. Nearby is a construction full of Yazidis.
It is now towards the evening, and it is about to get dark. While luxury cars are coming and leaving upscale cafes on the avenue, Yazidi children sit in nearby buildings under construction and watch those cars and cafes. I shiver thinking about the remorselessness, and the injustice in our lives, as well as in this world. The people in the building gather around me; they insist I sit on probably the only cushion they have. I sit down.
I look around. A child leaning on a column is sleeping. At another place, 10-20 women are looking at the wall with empty eyes; several children are watching the upscale street from a window with a fence. Food aids are put on one side of the building. There are 23 families living here. “Is there anyone from your families staying on the mountains,” I ask them. There are some who stayed in order to protect their houses and fight against ISIS together with YPG. There is a deep pain on everyone’s face. Even the babies and the children do not smile. I try to play jackstones with them, I try other games, but I cannot manage to make them laugh.
“We do not consider returning, as our villages and Arab villages are neighbors, and they can attack us again for no reason. And also we have been scattered; we do not have relatives there anymore,” says one of them. A man speaks, “90 percent of the Şengal people are poor, and we do not want to return. We do not have a place to return. 10 percent may want to return, and there are the ones who own land and property. But those visiting here usually talk to our representatives. People representing us are rich; therefore, they want to return. No one talks to poor Yazidis; no one asks the opinions of poor people. We do not want to put our children at risk. Therefore, we won’t return. You are the first person to visit this building and talk to poor fellows like us and not to our representatives.”
I ask them about winter, what will happen when winter arrives? One of them says, “If someone does not come to make doors and windows, we will cover everywhere with nylon”. I ask them, “Aren’t you disturbed because of the luxury life outside?” They reply, “The people of Duhok are very helpful to us. The people have looked after us; the government brings us dry food and we cook ıt. We have no complaints about the people of Duhok, and the government here. We are the guests of people living here. Whatever they do for us, we say God bless you”. I am once again impressed by the contentedness of Yazidis.
I ask them about the education of their children. “In fact, we have invaded Kurdish schools. They cannot open their own schools. We pray for the Kurds,” says one of them. Another Yazidi person says, “Even if there are schools here, we cannot send our children to those schools because in Şengal education was in Arabic, here it is in Kurdish.”
”We have suffered from 73 Firmans. This is the 74th Firman, and each of them happened to us in that region. We cannot live here anymore. Which nation has suffered from 73 Firmans? We want to get out of Iraq forever,” says an old Yazidi making grimace with sadness.
It gets dark in Duhok. I ask their permission to leave. The faces of the children I have been trying to make smile, but cannot manage to do so, get sadder in the darkness. I leave those children in that building on that luxury street, in the darkness of the night, hungry and thirsty, barefoot, sitting on the floor, and in between rubble. One of the children, who has been quiet up until now leaves the building and begins to cry. I cannot turn my back on them and go away. I leave the building crying silently.
I go to my car. This homelessness is so familiar to me. I cannot help crying loudly. Looking at those luxury cafes and restaurants, I cry for the whole world, the whole humanity. I cry for the fate of Kurds. I cry for us being exiled from our lands throughout history, for our houses being collapsed on our heads, for our villages being burned, for our ever repeating homelessness. “How many, how many times,” I say to myself. How many times have our houses been pulled down on our heads, and how many times have we had to build them up once again? I remember Uncle Felat (Felat Cemiloğlu) who we lost many years ago, and whom I loved dearly. Every afternoon I made him coffee; he told me about his life that had passed in exile, and how they managed to build a new home in every exile location. I groan with pain saying Uncle Felat, how many times have we built our homes again and again? How many homes can you build in one life time Uncle Felat?
September 19, 2014, Diyarbakır
*As published in T24 on 19.09.2014
*As published in T24 on 19.09.2014
 Sultan’s decree, used as massacre
The massacres of Yazidis before Saddam, most of which had been committed under the Ottoman rule, are known as the 71 Firmans. The time of the Saddam rule is named as the 72nd Firman. Some people also add the 500 Yazidis that died during the bombing attack in Şengal in 2007 and count it as the 73rd Firman. Most of the Yazidis see the 2014 massacre of ISIS as the 74th Firman.
 This dirge is written by Osman Baydemir (former Diyarbakır Mayor) right after he read this article. In the dirge, a Yazidi speaks to Rojava:
Nor my Kirve
Nor my Neighbor
Father and Grandpa could not be a friend to me
Give me your hand
Give me your hands Cousin
Give me your hand so that your cousin’s scream
His scream can reach the sky
The misery has touched the soul
The soul has left the body
That is the history of Kurdistan
That is the 74 Firmans
 Felat Cemiloğlu is from the Cemil Pasha family of Diyarbakır. In 1936, because of the Settlement Law, all members of the Cemiloğlu family were forced to move to other provinces and other countries like Syria and Iraq. Felat Cemiloğlu, who once was the president of the Diyarbakır Chamber of Trade and Industry, pulled his teeth by his bare hands as he was forced to eat his own stool in Diyarbakır Prison during the September 12 coup d’etat period. He is known as “the man who has pulled his own teeth”.