Monday 29 December 2014

"Christians were given three choices, Yazidis only two: 'Convert or die'"

This is a full transcript of my interview with Mirza Dinnayi, advisor for the Kurdish Regional Government and Yazidi activist, who spends his time between Iraq and Germany. The news report, in Portuguese, is here.

Transcrição integral da minha entrevista a Mirza Dinnayi, conselheiro do Governo Regional Curdo e activista pela causa dos yazidi, que passa o seu tempo entre o Iraque e a Alemanha. A reportagem pode ser lida aqui.

Who are the yazidis?
The Yazidis are an ancient religion, about 5000 years old, they are about 500,000 in Iraq and outside of Iraq there are communities in Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Georgia and also a big community in Germany and other countries. Altogether there are about 1 million, half of them are in Iraq. The biggest community is from the Sinjar region – where there are about 320.000 – which was attacked by ISIS.

Because the Yazidi religion is one of the oldest monotheistic religions, believing in one God, although different from Islam and Christianity, they were attacked by Islamic State, which killed more than 3000, kidnapped more than 5000 and raped and enslaved thousands of girls and women. They they say the Yazidis are infidels, in the eyes of the Islamic State, because they are not mentioned in the Koran, which is why they kill them. Now we have more than 400,000 who escaped from their houses from Sinjar and the other areas of the Ninevah plains which are now under the control of ISIS.

What has happened to the communities which had to flee, did they all find refuge with the Kurds?
Yes, we have 400,000 Yazidi refugees in Kurdistan.

What conditions are they living in?
The conditions are very bad, because most of the tents in these camps are very simple tents, which are not prepared for the Winter or the cold. Also the tents which were distributed by UNHCR are not fireproof, they burn in 45 seconds, they are made of nylon so with a simple fire they are gone in 45 seconds.

Every week there are fire accidents in the tents, there are health problems. They are living in a very bad situation, there are no economic perspectives for the people, the people have no resources, no houses, and the local and Iraqi government cannot help them because they are too many. The international organizations are not enough because the situation is very bad and they cannot fill all the needs.

We are talking in general about refugees, but of course many of these people are your friends and family…
Yes, of course. My own town of 35 thousand people, all of them escaped and all of them are living in these tents.

Yazidis being evacuated from Sinjar
Did the fact that they were persecuted bring the Christians and the Yazidis closer together?
The Yazidi and Christian communities are still friends. In this situation they have the same problem with ISIS, with one difference; the Christians were not immediately attacked. During the occupation of Mosul they were given three choices, to convert, flee or pay a tax, the Yazidis were only given two choices: convert or be killed.

Also, ISIS did not take hostages from the Christian population, because they say the Christian religion is mentioned in the Koran, so they can be treated a little bit better than the Yazidis. But both Christians and Yazidis are suffering very much at the hands of ISIS.

What solution do you think is possible for minorities in Iraq? Do you defend the creation of a safe haven, as some defend, or do you believe that these minorities should have their own defence forces?
I think the international community is now responsible for finding a solution for these minorities in Iraq and there are two solutions which should be done, one of them at least. The first is to establish an autonomous region with international support and international peacekeeping forces support in this area of Sinjar and Nineveh plains, or otherwise to help these people leave Islamic countries, because we don't know what will happen in the coming years. We don't know if a new Islamic group will be established. ISIS had roots in Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda had roots in Iraq...

Every day there is another radical Islamist group and if there is no solution for this area, to protect these people and to establish peace in this country, it will be impossible to remain.

It is very difficult, most of the people there are helpless and the international community has unfortunately been silent and has not supported these minorities in Iraq.

We know that some Yazidis have chosen to remain in Sinjar mountain and some have taken up arms to defend themselves. Why have they decided to remain in this mountain, where they are more exposed to the Islamic State?*
In the mountain we have some religious heritage, some Yazidi temples. We have some fighters, because they are sure that nobody will help them, the situation of the IDPs in Kurdistan is already very bad so they decided to stay.

We have about 8000 people, some of them are fighters. We have 1250 families, or more, there. They decided to stay because they have no perspectives in Kurdistan or outside. They think it is better to die there than to be refugees in a camp, in a tent, without perspectives, without anything.

Every Yazidi is now waiting to know what the international community ca do for them. Will they support us politically? But until now it has not happened, unfortunately.

Do you believe the Islamic State can be defeated, and how?
What has been done against the Islamic State until now has been very week. We cannot win the war against the Islamic State with only airstrikes. We need forces on the ground, not only from the international community, we need them also from the Sunni world, they should fight ISIS, they should stand against the Islamic State because it was established with a background of Islamic Religion. Now it is the responsibility of the Islamic world, especially the Sunnis, to define themselves, they work against ISIS and the fundamentalist Islam. This is their responsibility, to fight, not only through air raids, but on the ground. We need forces on the ground, otherwise it is not possible to fight ISIS.

ISIS was able to flourish because of widespread discontent among the Sunni population. Do you foresee a future in which Sunnis and Shia can live in peace in Iraq?
I am pessimistic. I don't think that the Sunni and Shia will be together in a closed centralized country. I think the best solution is for them to establish a federal system, governed by moderate people, not radicals, who can serve their population and represent them.

The problem now in Iraq is that most of the Sunni politicians are not representing their communities, the ones in Baghdad, most of them are corrupt, they are working in the Government for their own profits, for their own benefits, and therefore they cannot represent their community.

The people don't know who represents the Sunni community in Iraq, we don't know. Is it ISIS? A radical group? The Ba’ath party remnants? Or the politicians sitting in parliament? We don't know.

Most of the Sunni regions are outside of the control of the Iraqi government, outside of the control of Sunni politicians, and therefore they cannot represent their communities. They should choose Sunni politicians who are not criminals, who are not ISIS supporters, who are not Al-Qaeda supporters, who can serve their citizens and serve the country. This is the problem we have now in Iraq.

Yazidis no monte Sinjar, cercados pelo Estado Islâmico
They have also taken in thousands of refugees, do the minorities feel gratitude towards the Kurds? How are relations between them?
The Kurdish government are doing what they can to support these IDPs and refugees. I think the situation now is that there is no conflict between the Yazidis, or the Christians, and the Kurds.

You can imagine if you have a country with a population of 5 million people and you send them two million refugees, it is a catastrophe. They cannot manage the problem. We know this. But as I said the best solution for these minorities, the Yazidis, the Christians and the Shabak is to establish a type of autonomous area for them. This solution should be implemented with the cooperation of the Iraqi government. 

Kurds are, mostly, Sunni. Is there also danger of radical Islam taking hold among the Kurds?
Yes, of course. We, the members of the minorities are afraid of radical people in Kurdistan. We are happy that the Government is secular, but in the community there are radicals and the Government should speak out against them.

It may be a small number, but over the last 20 years there was a type of islamization of the street, and this led to big problems, so that whereas the Kurdish people in the past were not very religious, there are now some religious people in the community.

There are some Kurds from the KRG who joined ISIS, a small amount, I don't know the number, maybe 300 or 500 fighters, more or less. There is fundamentalism in Kurdistan and we are trying to fight it, to become a liberal community in Kurdistan. We hope for this and we are working towards it, all of us.

What is your opinion on Turkey in the midst of all this?
The negative role of Turkey in support of the Islamic State is well known. Everybody knows that at the beginning Turkey played a very negative role in support of the Islamic groups, especially Jhabat al-Nusra, and other Islamic groups against Bashar al-Assad.

So now we have this problem: Turkey is under a big question mark, will it cooperate with the international community, first to stop the resources of ISIS and to stay in a positive situation? Until now its role has not been positive. Turkey cannot say "I will be independent about the issue of ISIS", because Turkey played a negative role and now they should change their policies and be positive, rather than negative.

Yazidi refugees in Erbil
All this instability has its roots in the Syrian civil war. Is there an end in sight?
They should find an outcome for the situation in Syria, peace should be established between all groups, with all opposition groups and non-opposition groups, otherwise we will have a massacre against the Alawites, for example.

All the Syrian players should work together, without Assad in power, but the Alawites should participate in planning the new country in a democratic way.

*Since this interview was conducted, the siege of Sinjar has been broken by Kurdish forces.

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