PAX Collega Benoite Martin bezocht recent in Diyarbakir in Turkije een vluchtelingenkamp voor Yezidi’s. Zij komen uit Sinjar in Irak, waar ze een jaar geleden op de vlucht zijn gejaagd door ISIS. Benoite is de coördinator van het project Kulluna Muwatinun (“Wij zijn allemaal burgers”), dat in Irak en Syrië burgerschap en diversiteit bevordert. Lees hier Benoite’s blog (Engels).
By Benoite Martin
Sunday actually proved to be a good day to visit the refugee camp hosting Yezidis originating from Sinjar located near Diyarbakir. Although I have heard it is very difficult to speak with refugees inside the camp, the guard of the camp, a Kurdish Turk, seems fairly happy to let us in and drives us down to the clinic. We are supposed to meet there a contact from the only international organization providing minimal support to the camp, but he has not yet arrived.
Dleir, the young guy who was appointed doctor because he was attending a medical institute, is very happy to explain that all families living in the camp come from Sinjar. Most had to flee their villages by foot on August 3 last year as ISIS stormed the area and took refuge for 2 weeks on top of Sinjar mountains. The Kurdish YPG soldiers opened a safe road for them to cross to Syria and they continued their way to South East Turkey to settle near Diyarbakir.
PAX’ work with Yezidi community
He soon calls on elders from the camp to come and meet us. About eight older men sit with us and we launch formal introductions. It is always uneasy to explain that we have nothing concrete to offer, no material support to relieve their suffering. Advocacy is a blurred concept and they point out that they have talked already to many representatives of the UN or the European Union but no response came and no solution was found to their precarious situation.
However we gain their trust as I explain our work in Iraq, the way we bring young people together to learn about the position of minority groups, Yezidis in particular, and work on developing acceptance of the other. They smile as I name places I have had the chance to visit such as Lalish, the holy site, and other Yezidi villages. And soon they open up.
We are all too familiar with the endless list of horrors committed by ISIS towards the Yezidi community: the mass killings of men, the rape and sexual enslavement of women, the forced conversion of children to Islam who are trained to become ISIS fighters. All families living in the camp are missing members of the household. They were getting news from them in the first couple of months but recently all communication have been cut. No information is available anymore about their missing family members and they can only hope that they are still alive.
Looking for a place where they can live in peace
After these events, the Sinjar families have lost trust in all parties involved in Sinjar: Arab neighbours who betrayed them, the Iraqi Army which was not able to protect them and the Peshmergas who ran away. They clearly say that they have no future in Iraq anymore. They have lost everything and have no desire to return back under any circumstances. They are looking now for a place where they can live in peace and be ensured security. A place where their children can grow up in peace and feel safe.
But this place is not Turkey. According to them, Turkey has shown very poor commitment to their safety and well-being. The camp is monitored very closely as people need authorizations to enter and to leave the camp and minimum support is provided to the refugees. A school was opened by the Municipality of Diyarbakir, it was providing 2 hours of lessons per week and after 2 months, no one returned to provide classes to the children. An empty building now stands there with no use. Families don’t feel safe anymore in the area. Some young people used to work in Diyarbakir in compensation of small wages, but discrimination is oppressive and they are constantly reminded that they follow a different and strange religion. As tensions between Turks and Kurds dramatically raised 2 weeks ago following the crack-down on PKK by Turkish authorities, Yezidis prefer to stay inside the camp. As a result, there are no more opportunities existing to generate an income for the families.
March to Bulgarian border
Last month, the Yezidis organized themselves, along with families living in the 6 other Yezidi refugee camps in Turkey, to travel to the border between Turkey and Bulgaria and to demand for entry in the European Union. They thought that by obtaining media coverage and demonstrating, they might be granted shelter within the EU. They organized themselves following the law and the rules, requested needed authorizations to leave the camp and travel to Istanbul and further demonstrate at the border. However no formal answer was provided regarding the request to demonstrate. More than 2000 people camped for 3 days at the border and obtained limited media coverage. On the night of the 3rd day, as journalists were away and it proved difficult to film evens in the dark, the Turkish Army cracked down on the group and Yezidis were severely beaten. Money, documents, passports were all confiscated and they were sent by force to the South of Turkey, back to the camps.
Seven years in Turkey
The United Nations program for immigration offered them resettlement after 7 years. How can they possible wait for 7 years when children don’t go to school, young people don’t have work and families entirely rely on limited humanitarian aid?
It is the nearby church of Diyarbakir which provides 70% of the humanitarian support to the camp by bringing fresh vegetables every 2 weeks and other food materials.
Most suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and already 4 young men have committed suicide out of despair.
Meeting with Yezidi women
As the elders are leaving back to their tents, we ask for the permission to visit some families, and especially to talk with women. They tell us we are free to walk around and engage conversation as we see fit. They encourage us to capture stills of all places and situations that could attract interest from the outside world. We speak with an old woman who has 7 of her family members still in the hands of ISIS. We will sit for a couple of hours in a couple of tents and engage long discussions about relationships in Sinjar between communities and personal stories of escaping ISIS and Sinjar. New horrific stories are told. A woman recalls what her own neighbour has told her about ISIS slaughtering her children in front of her eyes. The stories are too horrific to be told. As we finally have the chance to engage conversations with some other women, a man who is obviously from the (Turkish) management of the camp bursts inside the tent and asks us who we are and who invited us to visit. I am told in Arabic by our host that these are the people they do not feel comfortable with and cannot talk freely in front of them as they severely restrict the visits coming from outside. The man leaves but a few minutes later, it is our friendly guard who comes and tells us we have to leave. We follow his friendly order, have barely the time to say our good-byes and make our way out before entering into trouble.
On the way out, I wave good bye to 2 young girls doing the washing up outside. They must not be more than 11 years old. And I remember then one of the older men mentioning that one girl of 9 years old living in the camp is now pregnant from an ISIS fighter.
Humanity, humanity, a word I have so often heard pronounced by the Yezidis over the last year.
Yes ISIS is an ‘army’ which commits horrible crimes. But what about us? What do we do? Do we just stand by, watch or worse even, pretend there is nothing we can do? At least if ordinary people could voice their concern and come into action to get more help to people who have lost everything because of ISIS, that would give the people in the refugee camps a spark of hope again. The organisation I work for, PAX, is at least raising the voice of the Yezidis and other minorities. We are also bringing Iraqi people who belong to the majority in contact with Iraqis from the many minority groups living in Iraq. And we work with many Iraqi NGOs to put pressure on the Iraqi government to protect their citizens, treat all their citizens as equal human beings. And, importantly, as we do have a platform in the international political arena, we try to convince the politicians from around the globe to act now in order to protect civilians. Are you in to help us? For the sake of humanity.