Culture

Looking for an ATM I stumble upon a war crime: John Murphy’s Travels Among the Yezidi

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It all starts with a bank machine.

I could live for two weeks off of what I spent in one day looking for a bank in Dahouk. Getting money out of a Western bank account is next to impossible in Iraq. I have become convinced that the only option is to transfer the money to a real, live person and then have it wired to you. Pull everything out when you arrive and hold it tight. In general, Iraq is cheap. Unless you want to go from point A to point B—that will cost you.

The Yezidi have never used banks. In fact, try explaining the idea of insured savings to a Yezidi sometime. You will end up with a befuddled Yezidi and the realization that first world privilege is again more than anyone can imagine in the West.

It’s the little things like this. In the West I have a bank. I don’t have a safe that holds my money, a safe that will be taken when raiders sack the town. Banks here lose people’s money — no FDIC in Kurdistan. Instead everything is kept close. There are million dollar corporations that have the entirety of their holdings in personal safes.  Everyone has guns. Money is stacked in every store window in town, yet the towns are damn near theft-free.

I can see how they find our system befuddling and ridiculous. Their system holds itself together with an efficiency and dependability that shows how the human species adapts to radically different structural morphologies. If one really looks at the implications one can easily see that there are many governance options beyond what we traditionally use.

I know, I know. You’re wanting to hear about the war crime. Bear with me: this all ties together, and it will explain a lot about the actual strategy for the invasion of Singal.

I come back very discouraged from my search. Realizing I had to leave town from a lack of money, I find myself in a conversation with a new fellow who had come into my world, a very clean-cut, Western looking Yezidi who had a very solid look about him. I explain to him my situation. Money? Yes, I needed money. Ne miskala, Western Union!

Of course. I find that there are ways to get money from the West, but it must happen by wire transfer, just like the old days. Dammit, I think, I used to do this all the time. Now I know.

The man who tells me this, it turns out, is Amer Ali Hussein, one of the most successful self-made millionaires of the Yezidi.

It is my last night here, and Salem and his family are having a little ad hoc celebration of my departure, with tambour playing, singing and kolicha. In the spirit, people are stopping by. As the night goes on, stories pour out, including Amer Ali Hussein’s. So out comes the camera, and I interview him about the loss of his company.

Many of the well-off Yezidi don’t want to talk about their losses. The reality of their lives that can never be regained is a discrete hardship. It is hard to live in Rojava and having an extremely successful business is a once in a lifetime task. It just take too much work. Instead, most of the Yezidi want to talk about how they were on the mountain, or how they helped those who were such on the mountain to reach safety. Again: they are a communal people. The story they prefer is one of help and love.

Amer Ali Hussein’s story starts as a rescue story. The first hour is a long discussion of the adventure through the desert.

Immediately after the fall of Sinjar, the Yezidi who lived in the city of Bashique had abandoned their homes and fled north to Sheikan and Dahouk. Their instincts proved right as this city and all of the other surrounding communities were overrun as the invasion, unchecked by any assistance from the first world, spread through Kurdistan. Bashique was quietly invaded on the 6th of August. The invasion never made the headlines. It was a soft takeover.

Bashique is an industry town for the Yezidi, a cosmopolitan melting pot with highly energized and driven individuals like Amer. He had based his international company AquaSystem here for that reason. After Sinjar had fallen and the horror stories of Sinjar began to reach them, the Yezidis of the town began running for their lives. On August 4th, Amer grabbed his family, left behind everything and ran to Dahouk with the rest. The town was found empty and the Islamic state simply seems to have raised its flags.

Amer was able to gather some savings as he left, enough that he was able to build a small base of operations for refugees. Not simply running as many have from his homeland as many of his peers have, he would fight in his own ways to stop the Islamic State. Amer gathered what resources he could and waited for news from Singal.

Singal was always a land of hard living. People in Singal were not financially successful Yezidi businessmen. They were the settlers that had homesteaded here after the Armenian genocide and lived on the frontier. In their own words these people were very docile and susceptible to the commands of aggressors. One often heard stories of Yezidi driving back to Singal to get killed because a Daesh patrol instructed them to do so. The hopelessness that permeated that region, beyond war weary, beyond heartbroken, made every act of theirs desperate. When finally Amer heard that the YPG had cracked a hole in the siege of Singal, he grabbed a small fleet of trucks and drove to the mountain to save as many lives as he could.

As I listen, he cannot tell me how many people he rescued that day. The only thing he remembers is that he had four million dinar, which he spent entirely on fuel for vehicles to ferry people from the mountain thirty miles away into Dahouk. Doing the math, I figure he saved thousands of lives. Yet as he tells me his story I see in his eyes a deep pain, a pain that he could not do enough. This illustrates so well to me who the Yezidi are: a deeply connected community in which the self and the nuclear family are not as important as the community around them. Whether it means turning their holiest city into a refuge for war victims or watching their entrepreneurs creating rescue operations, they remain connected. What happens to one Yezidi is felt by all. Keep that factoid in your data bank for the punch line.

It is somewhat common knowledge that there was a degree of sabotage in the Singal massacre, but to hear these stories uncover a certain level of premeditation that the West has not yet conceived. Then Amer introduces me to something many have overlooked: the financial seizure in this process.

amer

In his example, a small sheepherder named Ranem who had been Amer’s business partner was found to be in collusion with the Islamic state. This had also happened in Singal, with the friends and coworkers of Yezidi there proving to be fifth columnists who helped spring the trap. After he fled Bashique with his family, members of Amer’s company who were in collusion with Daesh took over his business for themselves. As he tells me his story, it reveals another facet of the deep infiltration the Islamic State’s fifth columnists had throughout Kurdistan when the invasion took place.

As a folklorist I’ve always believed that the most energetic Yezidi live in the towns with the most traditional singers. Bashique was one of these. Originally a Yezidi holy city that was home to the Qewaals, ritual singers that chant the Qewaals’ mythopoeic stories of the Yezidi that are the source of their oral tradition, Bashique had been a mixed community. It will never again feel safe for these people. It is the town I always wanted to visit, but now it is a town I will never get to see. The Yezidi will likely never return. This fragmentation caused by the loss of the Qewaals’ hometown is acute and we will only understand all its implications after decades of recovery.

So how and why did this happen? A tragic and heretofore unclear picture starts to assemble, and my understanding of the Singal invasion becomes crystal clear. I put all the pieces together and begin to see the reasoning for the Islamic State broadcasting their vicious acts of genocide in the Singal region: pure capitalist greed.

It is becoming clear to me that the designs of the Islamic State are far more directed at wanting a piece of the oil market. While carefully masked in jihad, the Islamic State is a land grab by people who understand how to manipulate impoverished people who have lost everything except a poor understanding of their religion. However, the strategy of capital gain through genocide is endemic to this entire invasion. Singal was the test market for how to use genocide profitably.

Had the Islamic State invaded Bashique prior to the slaughter in Singal, men like my dear friend and brother Amer would have fought to the death with resources much greater than were seen in Singal. And in the process the Yezidi businesses in Bashique would have been destroyed in the fires of resistance. In addition, the Yezidi in Singal would have taken all of their belongings and had been prepared to escape with their belongings intact. That is the reason why the Islamic State circled around  prior to their invasions of Bashique and other land: to prevent any money from escaping. And that is the reason for the graphic images of slaughter that were broadcast. It is all business, the business of armed robbery.

This is the truth of Singal. It is a case of robbers using genocide as a tool of fear to make the victims drop everything they own and run for their lives. The Yezidi are a neutral party that had not initiated aggression. While the overarching war crimes committed against the civilians of Singal eclipse the wanton theft of the Yezidi assets and property, a disturbing pattern has emerged in what I see here. This deliberate attack to take the property of neutral civilians demonstrates an insidious and subtle strategy that will destabilize the region for an extended period of time.

We need to unmask Daesh for what it is: a profiteering firm that uses religious intolerance of extreme sharia as a tool for acquisition of capital resources from minorities that can be tolerantly murdered within Islamic lands. Being here and seeing the endemic bigotry that is directed towards the Yezidi it is ready to imagine that they felt they would get away with this robbery with little to no response from the world. I sincerely believe that the strategists of free Daesh did not think the West would respond with horror at the genocide inflicted upon these kinds people.

While people are distracted by the blood flowing in streams from the slaughterhouses of Singal, little aforethought is paid to the ramifications of theft. By taking what little the Yezidi owned in a well thought-out strategy, the Daesh militants assured themselves of weakening the opposition by creating a catastrophic drain on global resources and creating a battlefield where the groundlings were saturated by helpless refugees. When you look at a map of the region, the front line is dotted with millions of them. They cannot move; they are at the mercy of the tides of war. It is this, the disabling and entrapping of non-combatants, that distinguishes this conflict from any prior conflict I personally can think of.

While Amer, Salem and I skate through contested territory to get aid where it is most needed, I am glad that the monsters of the Daesh militancy underestimated these strong people. For they have not abandoned each other: they have come together facing death as a community. From Amer’s heroic rescue mission across the desert to the children picking up garbage to keep their camps clean, the Yezidi are sticking together as one cohesive organism. And that is why amidst the vilest, most calculating genocide in human history Daesh will fail in all that they have tried.

As I head north to Bakur now, I shed tears of pride at the heroism I see in these Yezidi who hold their community together with a will unlike anything I have ever seen. I is up to those of us in the West to not let these amazing people face this alone. Their culture should not be allowed to become a casualty of a war that is simple greed based on Western oil profits. We of the West who created this imbalance must help the innocent victims find new homes and new stability. We have to fight the war crimes and slaughter with welcoming arms in our lands and communities as the inevitable and necessary Yezidi diaspora slowly but surely begins.

Amré Xodé, we will keep these people from passing to the night.