Yazidi refugees at risk of genocide
by Bernardo Cervellera
Hassan, 15, has lost his entire family. Women have been sold or used as prostitutes; young women married off to Islamic state fighters and forcibly impregnated by them. Some 10,000 Yazidis are still besieged on Mount Sinjar. During his visit with Pope Francis, the Yazidi leader called the pontiff the "father of the poor". Christians and Yazidis are equally helped. The coalition is still slow in helping the recapture of ISIS's seized territory. Winter in the camps is full of misery.

Zakho (AsiaNews) - Hassan, 15, hasn't said a word in the icy wind of northern Kurdistan, amid the snow and mud wearing a light jacket over a sweater, his lips purple from the cold. Only his "uncle," Bashar speaks for him.

The 36-year-old man acts as the leader of the Yazidis hosted by Our Lady Parish in Khanik, an almost exclusively Christian village on the river that separates Iraq from Turkey and Syria.

Hassan is the only member of his family to be definitely alive. For months, he has not had any news about his father, mother, brothers and sisters for months. He and his family lived in the village of Tal Afar, side by side in peace with Sunni Muslims.

When it became apparent that the Islamic state was about to conquer the village, Hassan fled in the night, but lost contact with the rest of his family, which included three unmarried women. Nothing is known about their whereabouts. "In all likelihood, ISIS took them, raped them or killed them," Bashar said.

ISIS's hatred for Yazidis is even stronger than that towards Christians. The latter can convert or pay the jizya (a poll tax levied on some non-Muslims for protection). For Yazidis, whose beliefs are a mixture of Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim influences, there could only be extermination to "cleanse" Islamic land from paganism.

Women are the exception. The younger ones are given in marriage to ISIS fighters, who immediately get them pregnant. The older ones are used as slaves and prostitutes to satisfy their sexual needs. A woman, who escaped, said she was raped by 20 ISIS men in a single day. To avoid this kind of indignity, some women have committed suicide.

"In early August we realised that ISIS was coming and so we fled to Mount Sinjar," said Bashar as he described his family's difficulties. "We were there for five days. Then we received news that the fighters had retreated and so we tried to go back. On the way, they started firing at us and so we returned on Sinjar, without food or water."

Tens of thousands of Yazidis have been on the mountain for months, besieged by Islamic State fighters.

"No one was sending us aid," Bashar bemoans. "Kurdish peshmerga were unable to break the siege, we had no supplies . . . Staying on the mountain meant starvation. Surrendering to ISIS meant immediate execution. So I decided to take my family and my relatives - 17 people in all - first, across the border into Syria, and then back into Kurdistan."

Many people chose instead to remain on Mount Sinjar, like Bashar's brother. Some 10,000 people are still besieged by the Islamic state.

Some areas around the town of Sinjar and Mount Sinjar have been liberated, but not the mountain itself, which remains under ISIS fire.

Christians, but especially Yazidis, are being subjected to what constitutes for all intents and purposes "physical and cultural genocide," said Mgr Louis Sako, the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad.

Last week, Pope Francis met Tahsin Said Ali Beg, and the Yazidi supreme spiritual leader, 'Baba Sheikh' Skeikh Kato, a personal friend of Mgr Rabbanal-Qas, bishop of Duhok.

Yazidi leaders described the pope "the father of the poor" for the help Christians give to their people. In fact, as Bashar noted, the local parish priest, Fr Sadri Dawod, offered them the place where they are currently living - some old parish buildings.

All the refugee aid coming to the church is distributed fairly between Christians and Yazidis. In ‚Äč‚Äčnorthern Kurdistan, that includes about 1,500 Christian families and more than 10,000 Yazidi families, with many children.

A few thousands Yazidis live in the Nowruz refugee, a vast area of covered by tents and misery. Many others live with Christians in several local villages.

The Church provides food, water, blankets, stoves and kerosene.

Occasionally, the refugees also get some small amounts of money for personal needs or to buy medicine for the elderly.

The Kurdistan government is planning to give each refugee family US$ 300 a month, but so far, nothing has arrived.

No one knows when the emergency will end. "If our villages are liberated," Bashar said, "we want to go back. Here there are no schools, and there is no education for children and teens."

But liberation plans are taking their time. Yesterday, Iraq's prime minister criticised the US-led coalition for its slow delivery of modern weapons to the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army. For Haider al-Abadi, this is allowing ISIS to dig in.

Meanwhile, for refugees "the situation is tough," said Bashar. "It is winter now - it is not easy to live like this, in these tents. There is no work here."

The only job he was able to find was breaking rocks and sell them to the government, which is building big roads as part of Kurdistan's development programme. This way, he earns US$ 20 a day.

(Dario Salvi contributed to this article)