A Peshmerga member hands out bottled water to Yazidis crossing the Iraq-Syria border
Round one of the half-dozen vegetable gardens of the “Spor Kompleksi” refugee camp in Turkey, Mahmud and Ferat and a half-dozen other Yazidis sat with us and talked about where they could go, would go, would want to go. Young men in global sport store fashion, older men in white robes and the red-and-white keffiyeh, the moustache we know as a “Kitchener”, which he got from round these parts. “Go back,” some say, “when it’s safe to go back”. “Stay here”,”Go to Europe”. Europe is the preference. The Yazidis want to go. Then someone says what a lot of people in the circle seem to be thinking: “Anywhere there aren’t Muslims!” Halil, one of the local Kurdish activists who’s set up and run this camp, winces. “I hate it when they say that,” he says. “But I can’t blame them.” Everyone looks a little embarrassed. “Not these people. These people have been good to us …” someone says. “But …”
But, indeed. Nine months after they came close to being extinguished as a people by the fanaticism of Islamic State, the Yazidis have had it. They are held together by a shared and singular faith, rather than by any great attachment to homeland. They want to re-establish elsewhere.
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In the meantime, they’re here, 4000 of them, in row upon row of calico tents at what was once an athletics ground — Spor Kompleksi — about 15 kilometres outside of Diyarbakir. The camp is a distributor, taking in Yazidis as they made it out of Iraq, and before they move on to camps that may give them a chance to get to Europe. The place was established by the HDP-run provincial council last year, after the Yazidis fled the advance of IS militants, who killed 2000 of them when they overran their communities in Iraq’s Nineveh province, after their sudden surge. The intent of IS wasn’t to make a few exemplary killings, it was explicitly genocidal. IS doesn’t have much time for anyone but an extreme Salafist form of Islam, but they see the Yazidis as the representatives of Satan himself. They’re a pre-Islamic, pre-Judaic people going back to Zoroastrianism, the earliest monotheism, and for that a particular target of IS, for whom their whole faith is an idolatry. The Yazidis retreated to the mountains, but they were then at the prey of IS, who, unresisted, would have enacted a complete genocide upon them.
But in one of the most heroic acts of 15 years of chaos in the region, the Kurdish PKK opened a corridor from the mountains to the Turkish border to allow the Yazidis to escape, and preserve their identity. And here they are now. They are a people accustomed to persecution, and they refer to it often — “We have suffered 72 massacres in our history” several people tell me — but the IS assault was a new level off annihilation, and it is this that has set many of them on a path out of the Middle East altogether. They are a people of faith, not of place. They will re-establish their faith wherever they are. “Would you like to see the school? Would you like to see the vegetable gardens?” we were asked. “I’d like to see where you worship, what you’ve set up,” I said. “There’s no shrines,” my guide said. “We don’t worship like that. It’s … spread around …”
Indeed it is. The elders walk through the camp in their white robes, pure, serene. The kids have T-shirts featuring a peacock on them, the god/symbol of the Yazidis. IS accuse them of worshipping a peacock — Melek Taus, the peacock-angel, responsible for good and ill, who fell from god’s grace, and then exinguished the fires of hell with the tears of his remorse — but the bird is myth and motif, its plume a vision of the many-in-one, the incomprehensible multiplicity of being represented as a single fan of colour. They have the same religiosity of the Jews, of a suffering people. Islam and Christianity are warrior religions, late arrivals at the monotheistic feast, focused on conversion and global propagation, world faiths. The Jews and the Yazidis are who they are, focused on being that, and suffering the consequences. But our era is one of exceptions, and the IS massacre was something more than what had happened before. So here they are, and thus they are, a people accustomed to persecution. “There have been 72 massacres in our history”. Seventy-two, borne with stoic grace, but this one is different. Things happen until they happen differently, categorically, and this was it. The Yazidis are going.
“They have survived thousands of years as, around them, upstart cults have grown into world religions and empires and turned back upon them …”
Their presence here has been a complex thing. The PKK’s protection of them was done in a spirit of pure internationalism, but it was not honoured thus in the global media — because the PKK remains listed as a terrorist entity. The rescue of the Yazidis was instead ascribed to the Peshmerga, the very localised forces who are the official heroes of this story. But at Spor Kompleksi camp, there was no great love for the Peshmerga. “They deserted us,” someone said. “They were on the mountain, and they left in the night.” This is confirmed by several people who were there. The great Peshmerga rescue was an illusion. No great surprise. The Peshmerga are a network of local militias not loyal to much except their own neighbourhoods, and they will appear and disappear depending on what’s at stake. They were bigged up by a compliant Western media who needed a mainstream hero that was attached to the pro-Western leadership of Iraqi Kurdish leadership. But really their performance is variable, and the heavy lifting has always been done by the PKK and others.
Hence the Yazidis are here. They’re a mixed bunch. Some of them, ethnically, facially, are clearly Kurds, but some are obviously from elsewhere. They have a more delicate demeanour, unmistakeable, evidence of a deep Asian origin perhaps, commensurate with their devotion to their atavistic cult . We’re introduced to, name of all names, Hero, a nurse, in nurse whites, a man of near-Thai features, who has been dealing with the medical emergency of a mass refugee exodus since 2014. He has a measured weariness in his voice. “When we were first here, we couldn’t use the hospitals at all. Barely at all. Only for maternity and paediatric cases.” The camp set up a clinic in the old changing room building of the complex, an incongruous Scandinavian-style bare-wood place, with help from Doctors Without Borders. “We can take people to the hospital now, but it’s a slow process. There’s no X-ray here, a lot of people have chest problems from being on the mountain.” How are the staff when they go to hospital? He’s guarded. “They’re all right …”
“I understand their anger. They don’t trust anyone around them, why should they?” says Halil. Seconded to the camp last year, he began a lot of time out here. In January he simply moved out here. “I’ve laughed with these people, I’ve cried with them, I’ve been up till 3am with them. But I understand.” He winces when they say — often in a chain of translation from Yazidi to one Kurdish dialect to another to Turkish to English — that they need to get away from Muslims. The Yazidis themselves apologise, clarify, but the sense of insistence and imperative remains. The plain fact is many remain in a state of shock. The only word one recognises when they speak: jenosy. Jenosy, jenoside, genocide, the word softened into its own term. They have made the camp home, the white standard-issue tents, decked out in carpets, throw cushions, silvered trays and glasses of tea, half open to let the breeze blow through. It’s easy to fall into reverie about this, but they are keen to point out: “We don’t live like this at home. We had houses, air-conditioning.”
Now they have a dozen vegetable gardens, hundreds of chickens, a school in a tent across the tennis courts, and artesian water pumps, where the kids are sent to fill from daily, eight-year-olds carrying catering-size cooking oil tubs between them. The usual paradox of such places: while the getting there was, for the kids, pure terror — dozens, perhaps hundreds, froze to death on the mountain — once here, it becomes just another place to play. They swing the water-filled containers back and forth, trying to unbalance each other, set them down and forget them, play chasey between the tents, like they were dodging between caravans at Rosebud in January.
It’s the adults who have a faraway look in their eyes, wondering what the hell happened and what is to come. Invited into a tent, we finally manage to talk to a woman, who’ve been scurrying about the edges all day, chasing kids, most wearing head scarves, a few in meticulous make-up. Gule is swathed in a leopardskin-print scarf, in a caramel-brown top with in diamante sequins, the word “superstar” picked out. That’s the new global human condition: chased for your life down a mountain by cultist fanatics, losing all you had, you will still be wearing what Kim Kardashian was six months ago. She has eight kids around her, hers, and others, makeshift daycare. They’re using primary textbooks, pirate-versions of Charlie and Lola teaching counting. She shoos them way. What would make things easier for them here? She answers in a stream, deciphered without the need of translation: madrasser, jenosy. “They need a bigger school, the kids are running wild.” And then the most extraordinary thing I have heard anyone say: “The genocide has really disrupted their education.” The tent fills with men again, tea is brought, again. They start talking about where to go, back or Europe. Where does Gule want to go? For a moment she falters. “Anywhere, anywhere.”
Wherever they’re going, the Yazidis are going. They have survived thousands of years as, around them, upstart cults have grown into world religions and empires and turned back upon them. The peacock-angel, the spreading wings, the many-in-one of the world, atavistic holdover of a time when we first intimated that there might be one spirit beneath the world’s infinite variations, when the walled gardens of the oases became the idea of Eden, and the old legends of man — old Iranian “Adam” — became our legends that was before would be after. Now the wall is cyclone wire, and the gardens are bringing forth tomatoes and cucumbers. The Yazidis are out of the fiery wilderness, but a long way from paradise, and wherever they’re going, they are going. And the world is moving on.