IRAQ/Sinjar: "When the Islamic State group attacked our village, we fled. We stayed on Sinjar mountain for eight days. I saw children and older people die from thirst and exhaustion." Aveen, 20, and her family fled when IS group took control of the Iraqi city of Sinjar on 3 August 2014. After years in displacement, they are among around 6,000 families who have finally returned home.
Three years have passed since the Iraqi government regained control of the city. Still, more than 200,000 people remain displaced in northern Iraq and abroad, with no homes to return to. Most of them belong to the Yazidi religious minority.
Home, but not living
For two years, Aveen’s family lived in an unfinished building in Dohuk, about 150 kilometres further north. Now they are back home, but life is nothing like it used to be.
"We are home, but we are not actually living, there is nothing here," she says. "We don’t have water, schools or hospitals. Pregnant women have died because of a lack of maternity healthcare."
Around 70 per cent of buildings in Sinjar were damaged or destroyed during the operations to retake the city. Today, it’s a ghost town. Those who decided to come back live in dire conditions, with the feeling of being left aside.
"Streets are empty, you barely see anyone. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are still displaced across the country and cannot come back because of security issues and lack of basic services such as water and electricity. There is an urgent need to rebuild schools and hospitals, otherwise this place is going to stay empty," says the Norwegian Refugee Council's (NRC) media coordinator in Iraq, Tom Peyre-Costa.
Hundreds of thousands still displaced
Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis now live in displacement camps scattered across Iraq's northern Kurdistan region. In Bajid Kandela camp, white tents stand in long neat lanes, flanked by abandoned cars.
Base Khalaf, 60, has lived here for four years now.
"Islamic State killed one of my sons four years ago. I’ve still not been able to visit his grave. It’s difficult to go back to Sinjar – it’s not safe and the journey is very long," she says.
Life in the camp is hard. There is little water and electricity. "Now, winter is approaching," she says, "and so is the rain, the cold and the wind. These tents will barely protect us. I wish I could go back home, but I can't."
While the plight of Yazidi victims was highlighted last month through the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad, the city of Sinjar remains largely uninhabitable. Elsewhere in Iraq reconstruction is slowly happening, but in Sinjar it never started. Meanwhile, Sunni Arab neighbours are afraid to return, fearing reprisals from community members or local security forces.
"Everywhere in the town reminds me of the day when IS came," says Aveen."Yet no one cares, no one asks how we are, or if we need anything."
NRC is present both in the city of Sinjar and in displacement camps around Dohuk. In the camps, we support Yazidi children to deal with trauma and psychological distress through educational and recreational activities.
In camps and in Sinjar, we support families in retrieving essential documentation such as identity cards and property deeds, which are essential for them to be able to rebuild their homes. We support youth with vocational skills training to strengthen their chances of finding a job.
Through our community centre in Sinjar, we facilitate and coordinate a comprehensive humanitarian response between partner organisations and communities, to ensure that urgent needs are met.
"What we do in Sinjar is a good start, but it is far from being enough. Yazidis must not be forgotten. It is time for the international community to understand the extent of the needs. They must invest as much in the reconstruction of Sinjar as they did in the military operations against IS group," says Peyre-Costa.