Yazidis who suffered under Isis face forced conversion to Islam amid fresh persecution in Afrin

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The Yazidis, who were recently the target of massacre, rape and sex slavery by Isis, are now facing forcible conversion to Islam under the threat of death from Turkish-backed forces which captured the Kurdish enclave of Afrin on 18 March. Islamist rebel fighters, who are allied to Turkey and have occupied Yazidi villages in the area, have destroyed the temples and places of worship the Kurdish-speaking non-Islamic sect according to local people.

Shekh Qamber, a 63-year-old Syrian Kurdish Yazidi farmer who fled his town of Qastel Jindo in Afrin, described in an exclusive interview with The Independent what happened to Yazidis who refused to leave their homes. He said that some were forcibly brought to a mosque by Islamists to be converted, while others, including a 70-year-old man he knew, were being lured there by offers of food and medical attention.

Even the place names of Yazidi villages are being changed. Mr Qamber recounted a conversation he had with an Islamist militant who had arrested and questioned him near the town of Azaz when he was trying to escape. He was asked by his interrogator where he was from and he replied that he was from Qastel Jindo. The Islamist, whose groups often describe themselves as belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said: “it’s no more Qastel Jindo. It’s al-Quds now. We will give it the name of Palestine’s capital. These areas were occupied by the infidels and now it is [going] back to their original owners and original names … We came here to regain our lands and behead you.”

Mr Qamber recalls that he replied to this threat to kill him by a saying that what would happen would be by god’s will. His interrogator responded: “Shut up! You are infidel. Do you really know or believe in god?” Mr Qamber said that believed in one god and soon after he was released because, he believes, he was old and sick. He eventually found his way to the main Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria which is protected by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) backed by US airpower and 2,000 US troops.

There are frequent reports that many of the Sunni Arab fighters in the FSA, who are under the command of the Turkish military, are former members of Isis and al-Qaeda. In their own videos, they describe the existing Kurdish population as infidels, using slogans and phrases normally associated with al-Qaeda.

Mr Qamder says that the majority of the people in villages around Qastel Jindo, which fell early during the Turkish invasion that began on 20 January, are Yazidis. He says that some villagers fled, but others risked staying because they did not want to lose their houses and lands. These who remained were later “taken to the mosque and given lessons in Islamic prayer”.

In addition, there were “there were temples and Yazidi worship houses, but all have been blown up and destroyed by the militants after they entered the village”. The Yazidi religion is a mixture of beliefs drawn from Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Mr Qamber said he had spoken to people from the Yazidi villages of Burj Abdalo, Basufane, Faqira, and Tirende and they all said “the militants are teaching the Yazidis the Islamic prayer”.

Mr Qander puts part of the blame for what is happening on his own people who returned to their homes after the initial advance of Turkish army and its Arab auxiliaries. He says that they ought to have known better, going by the terrible fate of the Yazidis in Sinjar [Shingal in Kurdish] in northern Iraq in August 2014 when it was overrun by Isis. He asks: “Why don’t they learn from the experiences of Shingal where the Yazidi women were taken as sex slaves and our dignity and honour taken?”

Asked about the present concerns of the Yazidis, many of whom are in refugee camps in northern Syria and Iraq, Mr Qamber said that after the defeat of Isis as a territorial entity they “expected that the Turks will attack us, either directly as they did before in Turkey in the 1970s, or indirectly using their allied Islamist Jihadi groups, like Daesh [Isis] or other groups like the so-called Free Syrian Army”.

Only a limited amount information has been coming out about conditions in Afrin since it was finally captured by the Turkish army and its Arab allies on 18 March. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in its latest report on the Afrin crisis on 16 April says that 137,000 individuals have been displaced from Afrin, while 150,000 remain there, of whom 50,000 are in Afrin City and 100,000 in the countryside. It says that the movement of people is heavily restricted and many who want to return to their homes are not being allowed to pass through checkpoints, which, though it does not identify who is in charge of them, must mean the Turkish military or their Arab auxiliaries inside Afrin, since they are the only authority there.

Reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), widely seen as neutral or pro-opposition, citing multiple sources in Afrin confirm Mr Qamber’s account of sectarian and ethnic cleansing by the Turkish army and its Arab allies. It says that it has reliable information that ‘the resettlement of the displaced people of Eastern Ghouta in the Afrin area is still continuing.’ It says that Abdul Nasser Shamir, the military commander of Faylaq al-Rahman, one of the most important armed groups previously fighting the Syrian government in Eastern Ghouta, has been settled along with his top commanders in a town in Afrin. 

Other displaced people from Eastern Ghouta are being moved into houses from which their Kurdish inhabitants have fled and are not being allowed to return according to SOHR. It says that refugees from Eastern Ghouta object to what is happening , saying they do not want to settle in Afrin, “where the Turkish forces provide them with houses owned by people displaced from Afrin”.

The Eastern Ghouta refugees say they resent being the instrument of “an organised demographic change” at the behest of Turkey which would, in effect, replace Kurds with Arabs in Afrin. They say they reject this plan, just as they reject any demographic change orchestrated  by the Syrian government and Russia in their own home region of Eastern Ghouta, where shelling killed about 1,800 civilians and injured some 6,000. The SOHR notes that the ethnic cleansing  by Turkey of Afrin is being carried out “amid a media blackout” and and is being ignored internationally.

The Yazidi Kurds fear that the slaughter and enslavement they endured at the hands of Isis in Sinjar in 2014 might happen again. Mr Qamber is living safely with his wife Adula Mahmoud Safar to the east of Qamishli, the de facto capital of Rojava as the Kurds call their territory in north east Syria. But he is pessimistic about the future, expecting Turkey to invade the rest of Rojava.

He says that many Turkish officials say that “if the Kurds live in a tent in Africa, that tent should be destroyed”. He adds that because the Turks and their Arab allies see the Yazidis as both infidels and Kurds, they are the doubly jeopardised and will be the biggest losers in any future war waged by Turkey against the Kurds.