Êzidî: Yazidi refugees in Turkish Kurdistan

This photographic project shows the daily life during two months in the Yazidi refugee camps of Diyarbakir and Batman (Turkish Kurdistan) during the summer of 2016.About 20,000 Yazidi women and men have been living in Turkish camps since August 2014, when the Islamic State invaded their villages in the Sinyar (Iraqi Kurdistan) region.

On August the 3rd 2014, the Yazidis in the Kurdish region of Sinyar were invaded and massacred by the Islamic State (ISIS). Thousands of people were murdered and tortured, children were kidnapped, and are still used as soldiers or sex slaves. After surviving more than a week of siege, they were released by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (PKK / YPG / YPJ) who helped them to escape to different refugee camps in Turkish Kurdistan. More than 1,600 refugees remained in the camps of Diyarbakir and Batman two years later. These are non-governmental camps, mainly supported by the solidarity of the Kurdish people with the support of local governments.

During the summer of 2016, two years after the genocide, I lived with them for two months. With poor living conditions, but with the basic needs covered (food, electricity, water, basic medical care…), the first impression when arriving at the camp is that of a peaceful and simple everyday life. After some weeks, some families were treating me as one more of them, showing the characteristic hospitality of the Kurdish people, sharing with me everything they had: meals, games, and hundreds of stories. I listened to stories about struggle, impotence, anger and despair, art and creativity, love, construction and destruction, dreams and change.

There I met Saeed, a chemist who decided to start the camp’s barber in order to stay active; Rezgan, who created a musical instrument to be able to play his songs again; Ali, who started a dangerous trip to Germany and once there decided to return to the camp to be with his family; Abbas, a teenager who writes poems about the genocide, and also about love; Hmoud and Jamal, who teach English to the children, that are missing school already for two years; or Sahira, who, when she has enough data credit on her cell phone, studies German on the internet just in case she ever arrives to Germany. I was especially impressed by Nejat, a 20-year-old girl who expresses through her drawings the horrors she saw in the genocide.

We find in them the certainty that at any moment their situation can change. They may be taken to a different camp, or they may be included in the groups that Australia and Canada promise to admit. They may also arrive to Germany someday, through some family member already living there, or they may be forced to return to Iraq, where they can’t feel safe. One way or another their lives will change again at any moment, but they don’t know when or in which way. Their everyday torture is uncertainty. Almost three years of lives frozen, at the mercy of political decisions that will be taken from distant offices by people who have never looked at them face-to-face.

Days before August the 3rd, the second anniversary of the genocide, the refugees start to prepare acts of remembrance, aware that it is the only day they can make their voices heard through the media that will arrive to the camp. They prepare speeches, banners and paint t-shirts to shout out for help, to say that they only ask for a safe place for them in the World. When the 3rd of August arrives, just a few local journalists and some politicians arrive to the camp. The next day they return to the same life, knowing that nothing will change, and full of anger about the indifference of which they are object.

Yazidism is considered to be the oldest religion in the Middle East. The Yazidi population doesn’t reach one million people, distributed around Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Turkey, Georgia and Iran. With 300,000 people, the region of Sinyar, in Iraqi Kurdistan, has the biggest demographic concentration of this religion.

The current version of Yazidism begins in the late 12th century, when a Muslim missionary, Adi Musafir, settled in the Lalesh Valley, southwest of the city of Duhok. Musafir arrived to Islamize these infidels, practitioners of a strange symbiosis of Judeo-Christianity with the teachings of Zarathustra. When Musafir arrived at Lalesh, the Yazidis did not confront Islam. They assumed some of their elements so that the new dominant religion would tolerate their existence, but they retained their original foundations: solar divinity, adoration of fire, eternal duality between good and evil, constant self-improvement even after death, possible reincarnation in this process and a sort of naturalistic pantheism that reinforces their communitarian feelings. Adi Musafir was converted by the Yazidis who, upon his death, buried him in Lalesh and whom they venerated as a new founder.

Sunni fundamentalists have tried to detach them from the “religions of the Book” (Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism) and, therefore, from their recognition as religions to be respected by Muslims, accusing the Yazidis of “worshiping the devil”. This accusation is based in the fact that they deny, in consonance with their Zoroastrianism influence, the existence of hell since, for a person to have a permanent moral regeneration, there can’t be a definitive condemnation of its acts. Yazidism justified this fact contrary to the Judeo-Christian and Muslim doctrines assuring that Lucifer, the angel who rebelled against God, repented, and such were his tears that they extinguished the flames of Hell.

Precisely under the guise of being “worshipers of the devil,” the Yazidis have suffered throughout history up to 74 genocides under Islam domination, the last being that which began on August the 3rd, 2014, by the Islamic State.

The tents of these camps are 3×4 meters big. In each tent an average of 7 people (usually an entire family) live and sleep, on thin mats on the floor. They usually have a fan, a radiator (both essential because of the extreme temperatures of the region), an old TV, their clothes, an electric stove, and kitchenware. Few more things. Very few people managed to save any personal object when escaping Sinjar (the few who did it usually managed to rescue some important photo or the family photo album, which they keep as a treasure). All their memories are saved only in these albums and in the photographs stored on their mobile phones. In the camp, each family starts a new life from zero, in these 12-square-meter areas, which are identical for all of them. It doesn’t matter how much or how little they had before August the 3rd, 2014.

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Nejat Haje, a 20-year-old teenager, became interested in drawing shortly before she had to escape from Sinyar. Now she draws every day in her notebook. In her drawings she channels all her rage and impotence for the suffering of the Yazidi people, and tells us the atrocities she saw and heard during the genocide.

Her drawings show atrocities such as the sale of women as wives for members of the Islamic State for prices around $ 1,000; nineteen women locked up in a cage and burned alive for resisting being taken as sex slaves; or how the Islamic State forced a mother to eat her own three-year-old son.

 

Their mobile phones are the only thing that connects them with the world beyond the boundaries of the camp. With them, and generally through the different services that Facebook offers, they can talk with their families and friends. Many of them are trapped in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they survive in worse conditions than them. Others are in Germany, either because they managed to get there by crossing the borders or because they have entered the small quotas of recently admitted refugees. Canada has also begun to host a few families recently.

Also on Facebook, they express their feelings about the genocide and about their almost three years of lives stuck in the camp, as trying to shout to the world their struggle, without losing the hope that someday someone will listen. But they also share all kinds of news, congratulate themselves on their birthdays, or celebrate the victory of their football team, as they upload their latest selfie to change their profile photo.

This collage, made from screenshots of their Facebook walls, shows us how they express themselves through social networks.

 

  • From 22nd of September to 5th of October 2017. Weekdays from 8am to 8pm. Technical University of Catalonia (Barcelona). Multi-use room of Campus Nord (A3 building). Presentation talk: 22nd of September at 4pm in Aula Master. By Özgür Günes, Mukaddes Akin and David del Campo.

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