DAYRABUN, Iraq — Just a day after Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, reclaimed Sinjar from the Islamic State, there wasn’t a hint of celebration in this northern Iraqi town, where four Yazidi men sat cross-legged in their makeshift shelter. Instead, they stared in somber silence at a television screen.
The site of a mass grave had been discovered in Sinjar, a reporter said, and in it likely contained the corpses of nearly 80 Yazidi women.
“Where is the humanity?” 21-year-old Falah said, throwing his hands up in the air.
For 15 months, extremists have controlled his city, leaving him homeless apart from a flimsy structure, with walls of fleece and tarp, in this informal settlement in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Sinjar may now be free of ISIS, but what remains is a mangled ghost town whose future hangs in the balance.
“What’s the point of airstrikes if everything is destroyed?” laments Falah, who is eager to return home but fearful that crushing poverty and messy politics will only prolong his people’s plight. “We need more than airstrikes.”
Sinjar made headlines in August last year when extremists, whose violent interpretation of Islam has enraged Muslims around the world, besieged the city, stranding, massacring, raping and enslaving Yazidis.
ISIS deems members of the religious group to be “devil worshippers.” Yazidi religious beliefs are pulled from Christianity, Islam, Judaism and the pre-Islamic Persian faith of Zoroastrianism.
Bassima, a Yazidi mother of two little girls, recalled the day she fled Sinjar as ISIS closed in around her neighborhood. “I was so scared,” she said, wide-eyed. “Can you even imagine? We didn’t even have time to pack anything.”
Her husband, Murad, would later be able to briefly return to their home when Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces reclaimed parts of the city. He grabbed wedding photos and some family videos — everything else had been taken by ISIS.
Now, they survive on basic handouts from the United Nations and other humanitarian groups. While many of their relatives already gave up hope, risking death at sea in hopes of securing asylum and employment in Western Europe, the family of four plans to return to Sinjar as soon as possible.
But Bassima and Murad, like thousands of other Yazidis, will have to start from scratch, piecing together their shattered lives with little money and scant resources. Homes, schools, shops and hospitals have to be rebuilt from the ground up. People need water and electricity.
Many Yazidis say it’s not only the daunting task of rebuilding Sinjar that worries them, but also the region’s often chaotic politics.
The recapture of Sinjar, claimed by both Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds before ISIS took over, has been touted as a huge win for the peshmerga who seemingly took control of the city with such ease that it raised eyebrows.
While Sinjar wasn’t of particularly notable importance to the extremist group, apart from a symbolic victory, the highway that runs through it connected ISIS-held Mosul in Iraq to the declared extremist capital of Raqqa in Syria.
Other Kurdish groups say they’re not getting enough credit for pushing back ISIS. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group waging war on the Turkish state for decades in the name of Kurdish rights, as well as its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units, insist they played a crucial role in the months leading up to the long-awaited offensive. It had been stalled by Kurdish infighting.
“No other flag will rise in Sinjar,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish government, said in a Friday press conference on the mountain where peshmerga had raised a giant regional Kurdish flag.
While some Yazidis say they don’t care who takes the reins in Sinjar, as long as there is security, and applaud the peshmerga for “liberating” the city from ISIS, many insist no other group should call the shots except for the Yazidis themselves.
“If the PKK freed Sinjar, it doesn’t belong to the PKK,” said Hassan, a 50-year-old Yazidi man who recently joined peshmerga forces to fight ISIS. “Same thing for the [Kurdish] peshmerga. Yazidis have to be the ones controlling Sinjar.”
Peshmerga forces have not yet allowed civilians to return to Sinjar, citing security concerns like remaining explosives and booby traps likely left behind by ISIS. Standing along a main road leading to Mount Sinjar on Saturday, Yazidi men waiting to enter the newly freed city, despite the dangers, expressed confusion and worry over their inability to return to their own homes.
One man, Khiro, waited on the side of the road even after being turned away at the checkpoint leading to the city.
“If Sinjar isn’t controlled by the Yazidis, it will fall apart,” he said.
Bryar Saeed contributed reporting from Dayrabun, Iraq.