“We are awaiting for our fate,” a Yazidi woman told me in a refugee camp in Silopi in southeast Turkey four years ago. After Islamic State (ISIS) attacked Yazidi towns and villages in northern Iraq in August 2014, massacring male inhabitants and forcing women and girls to become sex slaves, thousands of Yazidis fled to Turkey. Later, some sought asylum in Europe and thousands returned to camps in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and Syria. Some 30,000 of them were hosted in Turkey, not by the Turkish state, but by Kurdish municipalities in southeast Turkey.
In those years, I was working as a volunteer in Yazidi camps, looking for aid, heating, food and clothing for those living there. The Yazidis who crossed over the mountains into Turkey, were first hosted by the people of Roboski, close to the border, and were later dispersed to different Kurdish cities. In September 2014, there were 2,500 Yazidis in Silopi, 7,100 in Şırnak, 2,250 in Roboski, 3,500 in Batman, 5,055 in Diyarbakır, 6,245 in Mardin, 2,730 in Viranşehir, 1,500 in Cizre and 500 in İdil, and those numbers were increasing.
These small and poor Kurdish municipalities did their best to establish camps for the Yazidi people. Due to overcrowding in the camps, some Yazidis were hosted in villages around Roboski, Midyat and Batman. Some Yazidis were hosted in homes in Şırnak. Some of the cafés and parks served as home for the Yazidis. For those hosted in villages and in homes, the municipalities distributed vouchers to buy food from local markets.
Yazidis refugees sit in a bus on January 3, 2017 in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey as they change their refugee camp and move to Midyat, further south. The population of Yazidis reaches 700,000, the majority residing in northern Iraq where persecution from Islamic State jihadists led to as many as 40,000 Yazidis fleeing their ancestral homes to the Sinjar Mountains in northwestern Iraq, where they were trapped without food or water. / AFP PHOTO / ILYAS AKENGIN
Food, clothing, and health services were needed, but the most important issues were to provide temporary winter housing and healthcare. Most of the municipalities practically stopped all their other activities to focus on the Yazidis.
Those were hard days. I remember a small child, whose father was beheaded in front of him. The boy was paralysed by a nervous breakdown. We needed to send him to a fully equipped hospital, but the state did not provide free healthcare to the Yazidis. There are still no regulations or decrees issued by the Turkish government to allow Yazidis access to free healthcare services. In some hospitals, they could access services by declaring themselves to be Syrian.
The Turkish state has never welcomed Yazidis. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused Yazidis of not believing in God and used hateful rhetoric against them. The Kurdish movement prevented attacks against the Yazidis in Turkey, and also protected them in Iraq and Syria.
The Turkish state and international institutions did not support the Yazidi camps. The camps were funded by Kurdish municipalities with the support of activists and some NGOs such as the doctors’ union, the union of pharmacists, women and child NGOs and psychologists’ associations.
After one-and-a-half years, many of the Yazidis returned to Iraq. They were afraid of the Turkish state and thought it was collaborating with ISIS. Two years later, most of the camps in the region were closed and the remaining Yazidis transferred to the Diyarbakır Yazidi camp, which was 15 km from the city centre.
It was not easy to sustain the camp. After much effort, we managed to open a small school there. With the support of women NGOs in Diyarbakır, we established a women’s centre and a textile workshop for the Yazidi women. There was also a small health centre with volunteer doctors and medicine donated by the union of pharmacists. After a while, the camp became like a big village, managed by the camp committee, which included Yazidi men and women.
The camp was closed in January 2017, after the state appointed administrators to replace elected Kurdish mayors in the region. After the closure, thousands of Yazidis left. Some died in the Aegean Sea trying to leave Turkey, the lucky ones made it to Europe and thousands returned to Iraq. Around 1,500 Yazidis who did not have any other choice stayed in Diyarbakır. Authorities forced them into a state-run camp in Midyat where there thousands of Syrians were already living. The Yazidis at first refused to go there, but since it was winter, they had no choice. Under emergency rule, almost all Kurdish NGOs and institutions had been closed. No one remained to help them.
Then, two months ago, the state decided to close the Midyat camp and told the Yazidis to go to camps in Kilis and Antep. The Yazidis refused to go. They see these camps as centres dominated by ISIS sympathisers and Free Syrian Army militants.
Last week, I received a call in the middle of the night. It was from a Yazidi family living in the Midyat camp that I have known for a long time. The mother was crying, she did not know where to go. She told me “ISIS exiled us from Shengal, and now the Turkish state is exiling us from the camps. Where should we go?” I remained silent. I really had no answer.
Days later, I learned that 1,000 Yazidis have left the camp and have been dispersed around Midyat and its surrounding villages. They are again without home, food, clothing, healthcare and a future.
Nearly four years have passed and the Yazidis in Turkey are still awaiting their fate.
About the camps in Turkey, how they are managed and their problems, please see my book about the Yazidis: Nurcan Baysal, Yezidis: 73rd Decree, İletişim Publishing, 2015.