The top of Mount Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains is lined with erratic rows of tents. The plateau resembles any typical refugee camp, however the attitude of the community’s 10,000 residents is not one of hopelessness – but rather one laced with defiance.
“This isn’t a camp. This is our land, we stayed here not just to keep our land, but to protect it,” Sa’id Hassan Sa’id, a political leader of the Yazidi Democratic Movement (TEVDA), explains to MEMO. Sa’id words are not just rhetoric, his organisation sponsors the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) – a Yazidi militia that has formed from the tented community on the mountain to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who currently control swathes of land below the mountain.
The YBS militia was created on Sinjar Mountain out of necessity. When ISIS advanced on August 3rd, an estimated 300,000 people fled Sinjar and the surrounding area – an attack by the militants on the Yazidi community that the United Nations later defined as an attempted genocide. The 10,000 people still on the mountaintop are people who fled, but not far – instead choosing to stay on the mountain where the looming threat of an ISIS attack remains very real.
Amin Naif was a trainee carpenter in Sinjar before ISIS militants advanced on his hometown. He had never picked up a gun in his lifetime, and never thought he would. Now Naif, standing beside his family’s tent, looks at ease with a Kalashnikov in hand – a sign of the training he has received from more experienced guerrilla fighters from the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both groups rushed to the aid of the Yazidi population when the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces put up a weak defense of Sinjar before retreating on August 3rd, leaving the Yazidi community defenseless.
Naif joined the YBS in August, and became one of 700 fighters – mainly young men and women – that protect the displaced on the mountain, as well as fight the Sunni extremists below in Sinjar city and the surrounding area.
Life can be hard on the mountain, Naif admits – water and food are not abundant. However Yazidis here don’t want to be seen as helpless. Picking up a gun and fighting for his people and his homeland, he tells MEMO, was his only option.
“I’ve been fighting here in Sinjar for around six months now, I am staying here and it’s my honour.” Naif says. “Every Yazidi has this responsibility to come fight for this land. I am so proud of what I’m doing here. I don’t care about the people who fled the city – I didn’t have a feeling to do that, I couldn’t run. My feeling was to fight.”
While to the northwest of Sinjar much land has been liberated from ISIS control, fighting rages on the city itself. YBS fighters deploy day and night to fight on the urban battlefield below, alongside a handful of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Peshmerga forces, as well as the PKK, and YPG, both of whom have created bases on the mountain.
Hannah Elyas, a 19-year-old from Sinjar city, nods in agreement when Naif talks of being proud to fight for Sinjar. Elyas says picking up a gun and protecting her country and her religion – a unique faith that Yazidis follow that has its roots in Zoroastrianism – has become her way to combat the destruction the ISIS reaped on her community when they advanced on Sinjar.
“I can’t explain what it feels like, to pick up a gun to protect my country,” Elyas tells MEMO. “It’s an amazing feeling, and any person would do it, especially the Yazidi people.”
Elyas joined the YBS in October. Today she mostly serves on the bottom of the mountain in Sinjar city, battling ISIS on the same streets she used to walk with friends just a few months ago.
“I feel so sad to see my city on fire like this, with houses being bombed all over,” she says. “But even if I am the last one here, I will fight until I die. I will not go out and die outside of my city. I will die for Sinjar.”
Her determination is echoed across the mountaintop. Youthful looking men and women weave between muddied tents, Kalashnikovs and AK47s finely balanced from young shoulders. Small groups gather, fully clad in camouflage – behind them black smoke can be seen rising from explosions in Sinjar below. The tented community on Mount Sinjar is armed, ready and itching to fight ISIS one young man tells MEMO – ISIS tried to kill us and they failed, and they will fail again he says.
Sa’id, a sturdy man in his mid-40s commands many of the young guerrilla fighters who gather around the camp. Fighting ISIS is not the only aim for the YBS, Said tells MEMO, becoming the defense force for a future autonomous Yazidi area in Sinjar is the ultimate goal. The idea is backed by many on the mountain, Sa’id explains, but a final decision to go forward with the concept is still in the making.
“Right now we can’t make this decision [about a Yazidi autonomous region], there are thousands of Yazidis not here. We have to wait for everyone else to return in order to really make this decision. But, personally, this has happened to us 73 times in history before, where we’ve been pushed onto the mountain, and I think it’s time we protect ourselves and stop depending on anyone else.”
The creation of an autonomous area is one Elyas supports she says, but for now, concentrating on pushing ISIS out of Sinjar, and ensuring that a Yazidi presence in the area continues, is her sole ambition.
“I’ve stayed here on the mountain to protect my city. We knew that if all the Yazidi people left this place, we wouldn’t have it anymore. That’s why we decided to stay, and that’s why I have a gun now.”