By Borja G. Moya*
A prefabricated building hosts the school of the Yazidi refugee camp, located 20 kilometers outside Amed, the capital of North Kurdistan (Turkey). On a wall, drawings and words written by girls and boys in Arabic script can be seen: even if Sinjar’s Yazidis speak Kurmanji -the Kurdish language spoken in Iraq’s South Kurdistan- they write it in the Arabic alphabet. One black-inked drawing stands out: a long-bearded man aims with a gun at a kneeling man, his hands tied. Another unknown child completed the artwork in blue ink by adding two words: “Sinjar” on the man who shoots; “Daesh” on the kneeling one.
The blue words are a cry for revenge which, although not telling the whole feelings in the camp, does show the consequences of the persecution endured by the Yazidis, who have been fleeing the Islamic State since August 2014. Daesh forces -the Arabic acronym for the IS- persecutes the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis because of their beliefs. Yazidism -a syncretic religion partially based on pre-Islamic notions- has a peacock angel, an intermediary between God and the Earth, as its central figure. The Islamic State considers Yazidis to be devil worshipers.
Refugee camp coordinating group member Ramazan Serim says Yazidis were offered the chance to be hosted in local homes in North Kurdistan in the first place, as it had been done with refugees arriving from Rojava (West Kurdistan, Syria). Their Kurmanji language, shared with North Kurds, could have helped in their inclusion in the area, but the Yazidis’ religious tradition weights a lot. Divided into three main castes -Sheyks and Pîrs as the clerical, most powerful groups, and the Murids as the lower level of their society-, the Yazidis practice endogamy and remain quite isolated from other communities, except for links with some Kurdish Muslims. Taking into account demands from within the Yazidi community itself, Serim says the Kurdish movement in North Kurdistan agreed to set up refugee camps for the Yazidis, a proposal that was finally accepted by them.
The Yazidi refugee group was made up of some 5,000 people when they arrived in Amed (Diyarbakir, in Turkish language), but by November 2015 it had shrunk to 2,605, out of migratory flows towards Europe, mainly Germany, according to a Municipality of Amed report. Turkish authorities have denied these people refugee status from the very outset -they are officially considered as asylum seekers- since Ankara does not recognize the authority of the municipality to manage the camp. This, beyond the fact that Yazidis have a Kurdish origin and that it was Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked armed militias who opened a safe passage for the Yazidis towards the north.
This in practice means that the refugees are denied access to health care in non-municipal facilities, either inside or outside the camp. This, coupled with a lack of economic and technical resources that are burdened on the municipality, has led to further population displacement: the camp currently hosts just 1,500 people, mostly women and children. Furthermore, this population decline cannot be fully explained without understanding the camp’s internal logical as regards its organization, and how this connects with the ideas of democratic confederalism as proposed by the Kurdish movement.
History of an open camp
Another coordination body member, Halil Kilavuz, explains that the camp is currently organized into six different districts. 2014 data -when the settlement was in full capacity- show that electricity and food costs amounted to a monthly 200,000 euro bill, according to Kilavuz. 100,000 euros were allocated exclusively to electricity, needed to heat the camp in winter. An internal system of division of labor when it comes to coordinating the arrival of food, and a 500 metres-deep well on the banks of the Tigris river to supply water, complete the supply of daily meals.
The main difference as regards the Turkish government-controlled camps is the degree of freedom of movement enjoyed by those living in the Yazidi camp. Serim insists that no control measure is implemented in the camp other than a fence. The Yazidis can come and go freely, up to the point that some residents have a job requiring them to travel on a daily basis by bus, which stops at the camps’ main gate. This comes in contrast with the Turkish militarized camps, where armed soldiers control access day and night.
This freedom of movement is also reflected in the camp’s organizational system. Some 20 people are coordinating body members, mostly young people. Four of them are women. Furthermore, each tent has its own delegate to the six districts’ councils, which are organized into five different working areas: health, education, technical, general coordination, and accommodation and food.
A school, a hospital, a pharmacy, sports facilities and a women center are some of the facilities to be found in the camp. The latter, however, remains closed. Muzeyyen Aydin, a member of the coordination in charge for women issues, said that the lack of local volunteers, along with the population exodus, are the main causes that help explain the failure in women’s organization and empowerment. By contrast, Aydin highlights the task of the professional staff working for school pupils, including a team of educational psychologists and teachers.
A soon-to-happen outcome
In November 2015, a coalition made up by the PKK armed militias, the YPJ women’s militia, groups of South Kurdistan peshmerga and the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) freed the city where many of the Yazidi refugees came from. The YBS, together with the Sinjar Protection Units (HPS) and the Yazidi Women’s Units (YJE), has formed the Sinjar Alliance, with the goal of promoting democratic confederalism in the area, which aims at the establishment of a Yazidi autonomous region within South Kurdistan’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). But this goal is at odds with the interests of KRG president Massoud Barzani, who pursues a policy of full control over Sinjar by his peshmerga forces and demands the withdrawal of PKK-linked militias.
Yazidi Federation of Europe co-president Leyla Ferman argues that the return of the Yazidis to their Sinjar homeland would be the best option for the survival of this unique community. However, given the recent traumatic experience undergone by them, Ferman admits the Yazidis’ choices on their own lives cannot be constrained. Therefore, she resigns herself to progressive “assimilation” of Yazidis from the very moment they become migrants and nurture the broader community of Kurdish diaspora abroad.
Amid this new political reality, the will of the Amed local government body -in tune with the aspirations of the whole ideological movement led by Abdullah Öcalan- emerges. The body argues that the Yazidis should go back to their homeland and join the Sinjar self-defense and self-government movement. Haliz Kalavul recalls that Barzani’s PDK-linked peshmerga abandoned the Yazidis in the face of the Islamic State’s invasion of Sinjar. Now that the area has been freed from IS militants, the peshmerga want the PKK-linked militia to leave. Kalavul argues many Yazidis do not feel safe about returning to their homes, because they do not have any idea -and little trust- about what the future holds for them under Barzani rule. Although the Kurdish movement wants the Yazidis to return to Sinjar, Kalavul assumes his task within the camp, and vows to remain there “until the last refugee leaves.”
As his colleague Serim does, Kalavul is aware that the Yazidis’ will is to become part of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe. According to Serim, a field survey in the camp showed nearly 100% of refugees in favour of leaving the camp not to settle in Amed or to return to Sinjar, but to join those refugees on which European governments make their calculations.
* Borja G. Moya is a journalist and CIEMEN collaborator.