Two weeks of youth work in the Ezidi territory in Iraq
“You can’t go for Shengal just for two of three days”, says Heval Rezan. “It takes weeks to get some understanding of the society there. If you want to go, stay a little longer.” Fine, we thought, we’ll stay a little longer then. So in July 2017 we set off to the Ezidi City of Khanasor in order to work inside the local youth structures for some weeks.
About half an hour after crossing the border from Rojava to Shengal we reach the city which used to have 30.000 inhabitants before it was attacked by the terror group Islamic State. The drive into the city center tells us parts of this story. There are hundreds of portraits of the fighters fallen in the resistance against Daesh (Islamic State). Among them are members of the Shengal Resistance Units YBŞ and the Women’s Units YJŞ. But also many guerrillas of the People’s Defense Forces HPG, which is the armed branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fell in the battle against Daesh.
When Daesh attacked Shengal in 2014 they killed thousands of people, kidnapped and enslaved women and plundered the houses of those who fled. The fighters of YBŞ/YJŞ and PKK were the ones to put a stop to the genocide. Before the attack the area had been under the control of the the Peshmerga which is the military force of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an ally of Turkey, the US and Israel. But when Daesh approached their troops fled the region and left the Ezidi population without any kind of protection.At the time of the attack Shengal was under control of the Peshmerga which is the military force of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and allied with Turkey, the US and Israel. PKK and YPG on the other hand moved in with numerous units. They defended Mount Shengal and opened an evacuation corridor for the thousands of civilians who had sought shelter on the high plains of the mountain.
Only a few families return
By the time we arrive the security situation in Khanasor and the surrounding villages is not bad if compare it to other places in the region. Daesh was pushed back and does not have any influence here anymore. But still different groups keep trying to make Shengal part of their sphere of influence. KDP, incited by its patron in Ankara, provoked clashes in March 2017 and the Shia militia Hashd al-Shaabi which is tied to Iranian foreign politics has deployed large contingents of troops to the south of the region. But since the skirmish between KDP and YBŞ/YJŞ in Khanasor and the Turkish air strikes in April there has not been any fighting.
Nevertheless only very few Ezidi families are returning to Shengal. “We do what we can. We really want the Ezidi population to return. It’s their land, they should rebuild and administer it”, says a YBŞ-commander a few days after our arrival. ”But it will probably take some time to reestablish the trust.”
Khanasor is architecturally beautiful but leaves the observer with an impression of emptiness. Only a fraction of its previous population remains. Thousands were killed, women were kidnapped and enslaved. Tens of thousands fled. Three years after Daesh invaded the area, many civilians are still holding out in tents on Mount Shengal which rises next to the city. Many others left to Europe or live in camps like the nearby Kampa Newroz. During the last months some families returned to their homeland but their number remains small. There are different reasons for this situation. The fear of becoming victim of a genocide once again (Ezidi history counts 74 of these Attacks so far) surely is an important factor. But the infrastructure and supply situation also needs to be taken into consideration. KDP established an Embargo against Shengal and nearly all goods have to be imported from Rojava. And despite many families being small scale farmers Shengals own economy is still very small .
The biggest economical problem in summer is the water supply. It is very hot in Shengal, 50 degrees in the shade are not unusual. Drinkable water is scarce and has to be distributed by truck from the two sources in the region. We also did not see any help being given from international organizations.
Under these circumstances it is not easy to organize the population and build sustainable structures of self-administration. Apart from the nearly unstoppable exodus it is the fossilized Ezidi society itself which complicates this task. Society is structured along castes and women are exposed to very strong oppression. A strong fatalism is also common and impedes own initiative. And the political idea of a self-determined life without a state is, unlike in northern Kurdistan or Rojava, still a very new one in Shengal. The PKK was virtually unknown before the Daesh-genocide.
So the conditions under which the society has to be organized are not easy. All the more important is the role of the youth works in this process.
The youth movement has two main meeting points: A youth center in Khanasor and one on the high plain of the Shengal Mountain Range in the tent city which is still home to many of those who fled the city or their village.
Organizing the youth, from door to door
We arrive in the middle of the preparations for the first Ezidi youth congress which is to be held the following week. Together with a comrade from the local youth structures we visit families all over Shengal to hand out invitations for the conference. This way of mobilization is new to us – and we like it. Instead of anonymously distributing leaflets we sit down for a tea or a meal and discuss, sometimes for hours.
In the beginning the communication is a little complicated. To us Shengali sounds more like a separate language than a Kurdish dialect. Luckily our comrades can translate and after some days we get used to the sound of it and can have conversations ourselves.
Our home country Germany is at also the new home of a lot of brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and friends who went there to escape the genocide. “Is it better here or in Germany?”, is a recurring question. We try to explain, that some things might be easier – for example not having to wait for a truck to bring drinking water every day – but that also in our home country the majority of people does not live a life as easy as many picture it in Shengal. The youths here know Germany (and the west in general) mostly from TV or through their smartphone.
Also interesting for us is that despite their mother tongue being Kurdish most Ezidis do not see themselves as Kurds. In their language usage “Kurdistan” does not denominate the area inhabited by Kurds which is split in four parts by nation state borders. It is used as a synonym for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Thus the words “Kurd” and “Kurdistan” are often directly associated with the KDP which is disliked by many in Shengal.
Still many Ezidis are working for the KDP-Peshmerga. But without any political affinities, just for money. Often there are members of YBŞ/YJŞ as well a Peshmerga among the same family. Although the relations between the groups are very tense and several YBŞ and YJŞ fighters have been killed last march in a Peshmerga attack members of both groups sit around the same dinner table when they come home from their bases for vacation.
The impact of patriarchal society
Apart from meeting at the youth centers young people also come together at the center of the arts and culture association in Khanasor. A theater group rehearses here and there are cultural events. A film screening we attend begins with technical difficulties. But everybody keeps up their good mood. While two comrades are working on making the speakers and and the projector work we sit down in a circle with 20 children and youths on the floor and take turns singing songs.
Here as in most places women are underrepresented. All in all women are rarely seen in public. Comrades from the youth movement say it’s very hard to organize young women because many families still live according patriarchal rules which means that the life of young women mainly takes place inside the house. But once young women are won over for the movement they participate wholeheartedly, showing more initiative than male comrades of the same age.
The commander of an academy for new YBŞ fighters also has to deal with the consequences of the patriarchal order. During our visit to the academy he explains: “Many young men are not used to doing any kind of household chores. They for example don’t know how to cook, because at home that’s not part of the tasks assigned to them. A big part of the lessons at the academy consists of “dersa jiyane”, a sort of course in everyday life. The soon-to-be YBŞ fighters learn cooking, cleaning, washing and keeping order. And in the best case they bring some of the new learned behavior home when they visit their families during their monthly vacation of 10 days. This way the military structures also play their role in changing society.
Self-administration of the youth
The day of the youth congress about 300 people gather in the crowded tents we put up a day before together with local youths. Young people from all corners of Shengal came and representatives of Ezidi youths from other parts of Kurdistan, the refugee camps and from Europe are also present. The motto of the congress is: “The unity of the Ezidi youth guarantees the autonomy of Shengal”.
To work towards this goal a youth council consisting of representatives from every village and from the camps is founded. Shengals youth now has an organ of self-administration. This is one step on the long way of building a broad base for the self-administration of the people but a lot more is still to be done. Also among the youth the process is still at its very beginning. But our comrades of the youth movement work everyday, house by house, street by street, to win over the people for this project.