The swift success of a Kurdish operation to drive Islamic State (IS) militants from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar opens the way for its mostly Yazidi former residents to return to what's left of their homes 15 months after fleeing an onslaught of sectarian violence. But heavy fighting and cruelty inflicted on them by the jihadists has left lasting scars on both the area and its people, and not all of those who left are ready to go back.
IS overran Sinjar last August as fighters from the local Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), known as peshmerga, retreated in disarray. The extremist group regard the Yazidis, a small religious minority centred mostly around the town, as apostates and raped, enslaved or killed thousands.
Rubble and twisted metal litter a Sinjar road. Photo by John Beck
Tens of thousands of others fled, some with the help of two other Kurdish militant groups, the Turkish separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Syrian People's Protection Units (YPG). Many sought shelter on Mount Sinjar — which rises from the town's outskirts — and were subsequently trapped there with no food or water, creating a desperate humanitarian crisis that eventually prompted international intervention in the form of US airstrikes on IS and supply drops.
But on Wednesday night, a mixed force made up of around 7,500 peshmerga as well as fighters from the PKK, YPG and Yazidi militias launched an offensive on Sinjar backed by US-led air support. Victory came fast, with IS withdrawing south without putting up any meaningful defense. Kurdish fighters raised their flags in the town center by Friday morning.
The fighting has devastated Sinjar. Rubble that once formed houses, shops, and public buildings has been strewn across streets, which are littered with burned-out, bullet-riddled vehicles.
A Yazidi man returns to what's left of his home in Sinjar. (Photo by John Beck)
By Friday evening, a small number of former residents had begun to return. Few found find their homes intact. The fighting may have been over, but the danger wasn't. Unexploded mortar shells fired on the town lay in the streets, and peshmerga fighters expected IS to have booby-trapped roads and buildings with explosives as they retreated. As news of the Kurdish victory spread, traffic headed for Sinjar backed up at the edge of a security perimeter established by the peshmerga. "It's a chaos, you must have seven eyes to deal with this," said one harried-looking guard.
KRG President Masoud Barzani held a press conference on the mountain Friday afternoon, pledging to help rebuild the city and rid it of explosives within two days. A few hours later, a crudely-equipped bomb squad wielding a mine detector and pliers arrived, and a procession of bulldozers cleared the streets.
Bulldozers clearing Sinjar streets. Photo by John Beck
But signs of IS's brutal treatment of the Yazidis remained, even after their retreat. Yazidi members of the Iraqi police pointed out a residency office and former hospital where female slaves had been held. On Friday, a mass grave thought to contain the bodies of dozens of Yazidi women killed by the jihadists was uncovered nearby.
Memories of this barbaric violence are still fresh, and some Yazidis greeted the news of Sinjar's liberation with more caution, still traumatized by their displacement and distrustful of the peshmerga's ability to keep them safe.
"They have freed it, but a lot of our people have been killed and our women taken," one woman told VICE News at a dusty makeshift camp close to the peshmerga security perimeter. "Our houses are broken and destroyed, and we won't return unless there's a promise that there will not be another genocide."
A burnt-our and bullet-ridden pickup truck in Sinjar. (Photo by John Beck)
She deplored her living conditions — a tent, with no access to clean water — but said she had little faith in the peshmerga to keep her and her family safe. "There was thousands of peshmerga in Sinjar before, but they didn't protect us, they left us, and we don't trust them not to do that again… we saw a lot of people die, and we want to be sure there's no repeat," she said.
The woman added that she would be more comfortable with a large PKK presence. "They helped us a lot before and we appreciate that," she said. "They are our people."
Others suggested to widespread nods of agreement that there should be an international peacekeeping force to protect the town.
A Sinjar street. (Photo by John Beck)
Some Yazidis are more optimistic. Sitting cross legged outside a tent drinking tea, one white-bearded man said he was inclined to believe Barzani's guarantees of security. "If they promise and if they keep our soldiers there, then we will go home," he said.
Despite their fears of an IS return, a majority seemed keen to move on with their lives and escape the limbo of camp existence. "It's in the past, what can we do," an elderly woman said. "Now we want a new future."
A Yazidi man holding prayer beads in the makeshift camp that has been his home since fleeing Sinjar in August 2014. (Photo by John Beck)
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