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The Aborted European Escape Of The Yazidis

The ordeal of the Yazidis ethnic minority began one year ago, escaping an impending ISIS massacre in northern Iraq. Tens of thousands fled to Turkey. But what happened next?

Yazidi refugees being evacuated from Mount Sinjar
Yazidi refugees being evacuated from Mount Sinjar
Christophe Boltanski

DIYARBAKIR — The two men kill time by playing backgammon in the shade of an acacia tree. Behind them, on the other side of a fence, rows of white tents are lined up under the burning sun.

"Nobody cares about us," one of the men, Merad Moussa, complains. "Our land was taken one year ago and no one is getting it back."

This 35-year-old construction worker, his face crossed by a Gallic-like moustache, a child sleeping on his lap, says life as a refugee is a mix of hopelessness and insecurity. Suddenly his backgammon partner, Said Sedou, 28, speaks up: "Even here in Turkey, we don't feel safe. ISIS could find us here!"

The two men have been sheltered for almost a year with thousands of others in an amusement park transformed into a refugee camp near Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey.

One year ago, on Aug. 3, 2014, both were forced to flee their village of Degureh, located by the Sinjar Mountains, in northwestern Iraq. As Yazidis, members of a thousand-year-old sect, they were targeted by the Islamist troops of ISIS, narrowly escaping death as some 5,000 Yazidis were massacred that day. Merad Moussa's uncle was among the victims, while the jihadists also kidnapped his 15-year-old niece. She has since been freed, but "suffers from mental disorders," Moussa says.

One goal: Europe

The 4,000 Yazidis living here, under these tents set up in squares in the middle of the steppe, were received by the Turkish Kurds who make up most of the local population, and with whom they share the same language.

But most of the Yazidis have only one goal: reaching Europe. "We want European countries to help us," Merad Moussa says. "We don't understand why they are remaining silent."

Dalef Ali Khider, wearing an immaculate dress, knows exactly where she wants to go: "I have four sons in Germany, as well as a brother, I want to join them."

On June 30, a group of the refugees here decided it was time to act: they bought food, chartered coaches and headed West. In total, 2,100 Yazidis, who left different camps of the region, Batman, Urfa, Sirnak, Siirt, attempted to reach Bulgaria, 1,400 kilometers away. In vain. They were all stopped on their way by Turkish police. Some were just a few kilometers away from the border. It was a mysterious and impromptu exodus that went almost unnoticed and intensified the refugees' feeling of abandonment even further.

"For this trip, we sold everything, our gold, our bracelets, our jewels. For those who had no money, we joined together. We don't have anything left," says Moussa.

Why leave so suddenly en masse? There are different versions. They all thought the doors to Europe would open before them. Some even say they received guarantees from public officials. "We formed a delegation that went to the Bulgarian consulate in Ankara, as well as the European representation," says Moussa. "They told us: ‘come to the border, we'll let you in.'"

It is a version that Bulgaria strongly refutes: "It's simply wishful thinking. We never promised them anything. We never even met them," a diplomat says. "Regarding refugees, we apply international laws. We have no specific policy for such or such group." Others mention the unclear role of smugglers as well as Turkish authorities. What was the aim of those who convinced them to take to the road?

Chilling memories

At the root of this attempted westward escape: fear. The refugees of the camp are still traumatized by what they went through, a year earlier. "I'll never forget that August 3, 2014," says Porshe, a 16-year-old, wearing a light veil that covers her fair skin. "Our village was surrounded. We fled into the mountains. We stayed there for nine days, without water or food."

Her friend, Nahla, 18, adds: "We saw families taken hostage, children decapitated, women committing suicide so they wouldn't end up as prisoners."

Even if the Kurdish fighters managed to liberate her village, she doesn't see herself getting her former life back. "The Arab villagers betrayed us," she says. "Those who attacked us were our own neighbors." Among the attackers, Porshe recognized her teacher. "He knew us all. He knew where we lived. It's the 73rd time in history that the Yazidi people are forced into exile. If we go back home, I'm very scared about having to flee again."

The two teens make slippers and jewels in a women's home, built next to the camp. A tapestry representing the Peacock Angel venerated by the Yazidis decorates the room, next to the portrait of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader imprisoned by Turkey. "In my village, in addition to my studies, I was a hairdresser," Nahla explains. "We're bored here, we have nothing to do. No work."

Two months ago, one of her brothers tried his luck. "Smugglers helped him cross the border. He was stopped by Bulgarian police officers. They wanted to send him back to Iraq," Nahla recounts. "He was confined in a center, but managed to escape after a month. He walked to Germany. I spoke to him on the phone two days ago. He just arrived."

Sukran, one of the people in charge of the camp, says basic safety is still foremost in people's minds. "They're still in a state of shock and fear that ISIS will chase them right up to Turkish territory," he says.

Turkey, which already shelters 1.8 million Syrians driven out by the civil war, wants the 30,000 Yazidi refugees on its territory to return to Iraq. As for the West, which one year ago appeared so moved by the fate of this small community threatened by extinction, there is nothing but silence.

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