On the heights of Mount Sinjar, it is a cold winter morning. The night’s rain has made the paths between the tents impossible to walk. The mud that accumulates with each step makes shoes heavy. Cars can no longer pass. Each family is isolated from the other.
A hundred tents are set up around a central road that crosses the mountains. Here live Yezidis who fled in August 2014, when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of the region and genocided their population.
Barfi welcomes us at the entrance to one of these tents. The living room is austere: a few cushions are placed here and there on a tarpaulin in direct contact with a hard floor. Divided into several rooms, the accommodation is shared with three other families, about twenty people. Barfi, who returned to the region after a short escape to Kurdistan, has been living here for six years.
Suliman Khalaf, who has been living in a neighbouring tent for eight years, remembers how he got here. On 2 August 2014, ISIL launched an offensive against Iraqi Kurdistan. After a brief battle led by the peshmerga, the village of Sibay is one of the first to fall to the jihadist forces. On 3 August, the town of Sinjar was also occupied. Fleeing the fighting, thousands of people are on the road. Suliman is one of them. When the fighting gets closer to his home, he piles into a car with thirty other people to escape the violence. The car drops them off at the foot of Mount Sinjar, which they climb in the middle of the night. When they reached the top at 1 a.m., his wife, son and grandson, exhausted from the walk and the fear, with no food in their stomachs, fell over, unconscious.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 20,000 to 30,000 people are trapped in these mountains in the north of Sinjar within a few days. The situation there is critical. Some women have been left without families and are particularly vulnerable. Other families have left behind mothers, and grandmothers who are too old and unable to cope with the altitude… They are now in the hands of ISIL. And there are supply problems. To find water, you have to walk two hours to a well at the bottom of the mountain. Dehydration takes its toll. Suliman remembers one man who, unable to stand it, drank cooking oil to quench his thirst. The cold winters also take their toll. In the early days, without international aid, they have to collect the meagre resources of wood for heating, and sew warm socks from their cushions.
Fear is omnipresent. ISIL encircles the mountain, harasses the Yezidi population and threatens the camps. Some of the families living there decide to flee to Kurdistan. Harassed, the women with babies have difficulty carrying their children across the mountains. The bodies of the babies, starved to death in their mothers’ arms, are abandoned on the road.
Barfi is one of the women who have fled to Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has managed to secure them passage through Syria. Barfi crammed herself and three other families into a car. With about 15 people on board, it is hot and difficult to breathe. ISIL fighters, aware of their escape, chase them and shoot at them. Barfi and her family managed to escape and reached Seje, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
There, as in most areas of Kurdistan where there is a massive influx of fleeing populations, the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps are overflowing. Families are turning to buildings still under construction to find shelter. Barfi and her family settled in one of the three hundred building frames already occupied by seven hundred families. With nylon fabric and pieces of wood, she builds walls to separate her from the three other families also living there.
Barfi survives with her family in fear. In 2016, they decide to return to Mount Sinjar. Her husband goes first to scout the area. He never returns. Barfi cannot explain it. Without news since, she does not know if he was kidnapped or killed. Only the void remains.
 Thousands find shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan after escaping Mount Sinjar, UNHCR, 12 August 2014, available online : https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2014/8/53e9fe2d9/thousands-find-shelter-iraqi-kurdistan-escaping-mount-sinjar.html
In spite of everything, Barfi and her family take their turn on the road. On Mount Sinjar, life is very difficult. Cold winters follow hot summers. Their tent, which they manage to buy with their meagre savings, provides little or no insulation.
Seven hundred IDP families still live in these mountains where the snow falls heavily every winter. Among them are young children. The wait to return to their towns and villages of origin is prolonged despite the relative security in a region that has been completely cleansed of ISIL for years.
In the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan, it is estimated that there are still nearly 200,000 IDPs living in camps or makeshift houses. Those who wish to return to their home villages face a dead end. With their homes probably destroyed and their belongings stolen, they find themselves penniless and can only rely on the assistance of humanitarian organisations, whose presence in the region is cruelly drying up day after day.
Others, like Harfa Mussa Mohammed, prefer to stay where they fled: “We left in December 2014. Our name was on a list. A neighbour told us to flee right away, that ISIL would come for us or our children. Neighbours who were on that list were kidnapped and never returned. I never want to go back there again.
Now settled on the outskirts of Dohuk, Harfa was able to open a farm with her husband thanks to a grant from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). About 15 employees are busy ploughing the land and picking peppers grown in greenhouses. Harfa has recruited only IDPs who have fled the conflicts. Previously unemployed, the workers can slowly rebuild their lives through the farm. But the number of IDPs without a livelihood is still very high. Harfa has to send people who come to her farm in search of opportunities away almost every day.
From Dohuk to Sinjar, time seems to have stopped for the Yezidis, between displacement prolonged to the extreme and return to ruined towns always more uncertain.
Eight years after the genocide began, the wounds are still raw. In Sinjar, the bullet-riddled walls and rubble are a constant reminder of the violence of the fighting. With 80% of the public infrastructure and 70% of civilian homes destroyed during the war, the entire region still bears the deep scars of the war.
In Sibay, a few dozen kilometres from Sinjar, life is struggling to get back on track. The streets are empty. The houses are destroyed. A few families have regained possession of the place. They haunt, like spectres, this ghost town. Only the noise of the cattle manages to break the silence. Of the seven thousand families who used to live in the area, only one hundred and sixty-nine have returned. And twenty have disappeared completely, without a trace.
Everyone carries the weight of their memories and voices are only whispers, not to disturb the memory of the dead. The trauma is everywhere. Everyone has been affected and has a story to tell: a grocer who fled to Mosul or Dohuk, a taxi driver who lost a relative in the fighting, a shepherd who has no news of his daughter… The stories are chilling.
Merza Qasim Suliman Mahe, manager of one of the few grocery shops in Sibay, remembers his return in 2020. In his ruined house, photos of close relatives who died during the genocide still stood. Today, Merza still suffers from the years of flight in Kurdistan, the fear of war and the difficulties of surviving in the camps. He still has deep psychological scars. His anger, and his problems in dealing with it, have slowly isolated him from his friends and family. A word, a name that evokes a killed relative or neighbour, a missing woman, is enough to make his tears flow. With the support of IOM, Merza sells basic necessities in his small grocery shop. With this work, his life is slowly improving. The stability of a regular income also helps him deal with his anxieties and angers.
 IOM, December 2022
I meet Shireem at her home. She was able to resettle two years ago in the region, thanks to IOM support, which helps the Yezidis rebuild their homes. She tells us about a mass grave, which we saw earlier in the centre of Sibay.
In 2014, her niece and son try to flee ISIL with a group. But they are arrested. The 30 or so men are separated from the women. The men are slaughtered, the women are enslaved. The son of Shireem’s niece is shot three times, near the kidneys, in the shoulder and in the back. He plays dead on the pile of corpses until ISIL leaves the scene six hours later. At nightfall, he sets off for the mountains. Wounded and losing a lot of blood, it took him 48 hours to walk the 9 kilometres to the shelter. Other IDPs, who had gone to look for food, found him on the ground not far from the camp. He survives.
But Shireem never received any news of her niece. She does not know if she is dead or alive. It still happens today that people kidnapped by ISIL return to the villages. So she doesn’t allow herself to lose hope. More than 2,700 people are still missing. Some are being held captive by ISIL. It is difficult to know where the others are, or if they are still alive. Without news, it is impossible for survivors to mourn missing family members, friends or neighbours. Many lie anonymously in mass graves that are still waiting to be exhumed to identify the bodies.
Shireem received a grant from IOM to help her develop an income-generating activity in Sibay. She bought a dozen sheep which she raises in her nearby garden. With her sons and the help of IOM, she rebuilt the family house.
 More Support Needed for Survivors of the Sinjar Massacre, IOM, 4 August 2022. Available online: https://iraq.iom.int/news/more-support-needed-survivors-sinjar-massacre.
Not far from there, on the outskirts of Tall Azir, Qawal Murad Fendi cultivates the land. Having also returned in 2020 after a long displacement in Kurdistan, he has started to rebuild his house and his farm. He took advantage of the confusion to flee the fighting in extremis with his family. But the five children of his neighbours were massacred by ISIL, he tells us with emotion. He managed to flee to Syria with his family, and then to Kurdistan. Near Dohuk, in the town of Sharia, they found refuge in a building under construction, without doors or windows. Commodity prices had skyrocketed and it was very difficult to buy food, especially with the little money they had left. After three very difficult months, they were relocated to a newly built camp where international humanitarian aid was arriving. Settled with eight people in one tent, they lived there for six years.
When they heard that more and more families were returning, they decided to follow them. Their house had been damaged by the fighting. The windows and doors had been destroyed. ISIL had taken everything they had: their car, their tractor, the wheat, the generator… He had lost 100 million Iraqi dinars worth of goods (approx. 65,000 dollars).
Last July, Qawal received an IOM grant allowing him to recruit seven additional workers from the community. They grow aubergines, tomatoes, maize, onions and wheat. Their produce is sold in the nearby towns of Al-Baaj and Sinjar.
Eight years have passed since the roar of the bombs and the mad rush for survival. With the noise of the explosions gone, the media attention has also deserted the area. The Yezidis are left almost alone in the difficult task of rebuilding their towns and minds. Ruins lie in the middle of the streets, children’s toys still protrude from the rubble. On the spot, people have become accustomed to this wartime setting. It is now part of the landscape.
In Sinjar, Sibaye and other towns in the region, the tears of the survivors are still flowing for the missing. Between an impossible mourning for people who disappeared without a trace and an inability to rebuild the town without international help, the Yezidis live in limbo. Their displacement is never-ending, and return remains impossible.
IOM appealed to donors last August. The funds available to clear the rubble and rebuild infrastructure and housing are dwindling year by year, despite the continuing need.