Six years after Sinjar massacre, support is vital for returning Yazidis

Sinjar is a district in northern Iraq’s Ninewa Governorate; it was once home to an estimated 420,000 people representing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. It is widely known as the homeland of the Yazidis, members of an ethnoreligious minority group whose communities are spread across Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

On 3 August 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched a deadly assault on Sinjar. ISIL overran Sinjar City and its surrounding areas and committed terrible atrocities against the civilian population including mass murder, forced religious conversions, abduction and enforced slavery of thousands, particularly of women and girls. Thousands fled the area and were displaced across Iraq, with some moving further abroad. The United Nations Human Rights Council has officially recognized that this reign of terror constituted genocide against the Yazidis, and that ISIL committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sinjar and other parts of Iraq.

Six years on, up to 200,000 Yazidis are still displaced. Some are still facing harsh conditions on Mount Sinjar, where they fled to escape, while the majority live in camps for internally displaced persons in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Return to Sinjar has been slow since the officially declared cessation of the ISIL conflict in 2017, largely due to the level of destruction wrought in 2014. In addition to the human catastrophe, ISIL destroyed up to 80 percent of public infrastructure and 70 percent of civilian homes in Sinjar City and surrounding areas, as well as many important religious sites.

Jalal Khalaf Piso and his family fled to the Kurdistan Region after ISIL entered Sinjar; they went to Baadre first, and later to Duhok. The family lived in unfinished buildings in Duhok until Sinjar was liberated in 2015.

“We were the first family to come back,” Jalal explained in October 2018. “I don’t like people to say I’m displaced. My home is here, and also my job.”

Jalal’s case is quite remarkable in the years following ISIL’s defeat; the destruction of essential services and lingering insecurity in the region initially discouraged Yazidis from returning to Sinjar. But June 2020 signalled the start of a marked increase in returns of displaced families. According to a recent assessment conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq, 10,165 people (1,694 families) returned to Sinjar between 8 June and 16 July. This is a marked increase over previous years; in May and June of 2019, IOM Iraq recorded only 1,512 individuals returning to Sinjar and Baaj, the neighbouring district in Ninewa Governorate. Stabilization programming in Sinjar must be scaled up to support returnees.

Local authorities, NGOs and UN Agencies, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNDP, are working to support the Government of Iraq in providing vital services to recent returnees and vulnerable populations in Sinjar.

IOM has been active in Sinjar since 2017. Stabilization programming focuses on addressing some of the major obstacles to return — the organization is investing in livelihood opportunities and improving access basic services and housing in Sinjar and in the communities to which households are returning. IOM continuously tracks and reports on population movements back to Sinjar, and those households currently in secondary displacement or returning to their areas of origin. This supports evidence-based programming, through raising the awareness of the international community about ongoing movements, their points of departure and arrivals and the conditions in areas of return.

IOM also provides mental health and psychosocial services, legal services related to housing, land and property, and support to civil society organizations working on peacebuilding initiatives. Protection services are provided in Sardashti camp, where many Yazidis remain displaced.

UNDP’s stabilization efforts, under its Funding Facility for Stabilization, aim to support returns and lay the groundwork for Iraq’s recovery by re-establishing critical services and rebuilding infrastructure damaged in the ISIL conflict, working in close partnership with the Government of Iraq and the international community.

In Sinjar, where UNDP has been active since 2016, this covers the rehabilitation of schools, houses, water systems, electricity networks, healthcare centres, police stations and a number of municipal buildings — including the Agricultural Directorate to support one of Sinjar’s key industries. Providing short-term job opportunities through livelihoods programming helps returnees alleviate financial burdens accumulated as a result of the conflict for rent, food and school supplies and other items.

UNDP’s support to returnees also extends to neighbouring areas Sinuni, Baaj, Tel Afar and Rabia across a number of critical sectors including health, education, water, and electricity. For 2020 and beyond, this entire area remains a key strategic priority for UNDP’s stabilization programming, which will, in partnership with the Ninewa governorate, see upscaled efforts and include new areas of work based on the area’s unique needs, such as social cohesion activities.

“I hope that organizations and UN agencies will stay and help continuously, because people need help to renew their life. It is difficult to renew without having organizations’ support,” said Saher Saeed, an English teacher.

“We as a community wish to have a safe place to live with the main basic life facilities so that we can live and make sure that such barbarian attacks will not happen again to the next generations,” added Waleed Saydo, a pharmacy student from Sinjar.

This and every August 3rd, IOM and UNDP stand in solidarity with communities in Sinjar to honour the victims of the massacre. Continued advocacy with the Government of Iraq is necessary to address outstanding issues related to administration and security governance must be addressed and dedicated assistance is vital for those who are now returning to the area. While humanitarian assistance must continue for Yazidis still in displacement — for those who are unwilling or unable to return, other forms of durable solutions must be explored.

IOM and UNDP Iraq also call for a strong focus on restoring schools, hospitals and sanitation facilities; improving access to education; improving security; and strengthening local governance; on the path to sustainable peace in Sinjar.

Both organizations will continue working in Sinjar to restore vital services, rebuild key infrastructure, support reintegration, and offer protection, mental health and psychosocial Support, and livelihood support.

Story written by Vanessa Okoth-Obbo for IOM Iraq, with input from UNDP Iraq.