Interview With Yezidi activist and scholar Nallein Sowilo
The Yazidi are an ancient indigenous community, whose ties to the lands in Northern Iraq stretch back to Mesopotamia. Their religious practices draw from Mesopotamian-theology, which is primarily characterised by the worship of primordial gods as the forces of nature, synthesised with aspects of Abrahamic religions.
Like many other communities who find divinity in what we call nature, the Yazidi have undergone persecution and repression, at the hands of this culture of Leviathan. My personal thought is that this will undoubtedly be because the Yazidi signify something primordial, which those who revere God must cast out, and that they do not fit the progressivist expansionist model, which seeks to dominate more and more indigenous communities. But my thoughts on the matter are not what I wish to bring you here.
I wish to share with you Nallein’s account to me of what he is attempting, who the Yazidi people are and what they have undergone, while caught between different heads of the hydra that civilisation is, as he gave them to me.
Many people from western nations will not be familiar with who the Yazidi people are. Some might be aware that the Yazidi people are an ethno-religious community, but this is undoubtedly not all there is to the culture. Please could you describe what being a Yazidi person means to you?
“Yezidi are an indigenous culture of the areas now covered by Northern Iraq, North East Syria, and Southern Turkey that dates backs to Sumerian times, approximately 6500BCE. The people now known as Yezidi founded a kingdom called Abdo and we were called Sun Worshipers. These people migrated to the area now known as Shingal
To me, being a Yezidi means that I am connected to an indigenous heritage that honours the natural world and views humans as a part of the natural world, not separate or in domination of it. My culture honours our ancestors and recognizes the many struggles that they endured in the past several thousand years. We are a distinct and long standing culture that is rooted in the Fertile Crescent.”
Could you describe what Shingal represents to you and your community?
“Shingal is a holy mountain for the Yezidi. Our stories view it as the site of the beginning of life. Our creation story talks about Melek Taus coming down upon Shingal and planting a wheat seed and that this seed grew into a plant which created the universe as it grew.”
How has Shingal changed over the past 40 years?
“Over the past 40 years what used to be a thriving community of 500,000 was reduced by conflict and forced migration to about 200,000 in 2014 and then tragically further declined to about 88,000 because of genocide undertaken by ISIS and the Kurdish regional government in Iraq.”
Many of us heard of the Sinjar Massacre, and the events surrounding that. What impact remains for Yazidi life following this incident, and similar others by al-Quaeda and western military forces?
“When virtually a whole society of more than 1 million people is viciously occupied, violently attacked and physically disrupted without provocation it is difficult to state how much damage to life and limb has resulted. Men, women, and children are thoroughly traumatized even several years after the attacks in August 2014. You must understand, the Yezidi have been attacked for hundreds of years. On at least 70 different occasions, from the Ottoman days through the British occupation days, from the days of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq through to the present: we are still being attacked by remnants of ISIS and now occupied by the Kurds who wish to convert our people to Islam and force us to say not that we are Yezidi, but that we are in fact, Kurds.
The Iraqi government and Kurdish regional government have collected over a Billion dollar’s worth of aid and none of that had been used to provide support and medical assistance to the Yezidi population or any of the other indigenous communities in the area.
We became aware of a toddler in an Yezidi camp in Bodohak who needed medical assistance, specifically a kidney transplant. She was refused assistance because of her Yezidi status. We pursued many options to get her medical treatment but all of our efforts were impeded because of roadblocks put up by the Iraqi and Kurdish government. Sadly, the girl died before she could receive treatment.
In Sept 2017, the Yezidi began negotiations to establish an autonomous government, the negotiations ended in April of 2018 when the Iraqi Government, pressured by the United States, withdrew from the negotiations. The United States was offering Iraq money if they would accept the US’s plan for peace in the Kurdish region. The plan for an autonomous Ezidikhan conflicted with the U.S.’s plan for the region, which focused on restoring the Kurdish Barazani government that was in place before the ISIS invasion. This government had been responsible for drug trafficking and other illegal activity and acts of genocide against the Yezidi people.
It became quickly apparent that ISIS had integrated into the Kurdish Barazani Council. They began, with cooperation of the PKK (Kurdish Militia), to forcibly remove Yezidi from the area. Over 100 families were forcibly removed, with 3 people being killed when they refused to cooperate.”
If you could say anything to those who have harmed Yazidi people, what would that be?
“I would say to ISIS: you, your allies, and complicit supporters must come before an international tribunal and be held accountable for your crimes. We seek the imposition of customary Yezidi laws as well as international laws. We have established the Ezidikhan Investigative Team on Genocide to collect and document evidence of crimes and potential suspects whether they are individuals, groups or governments.”
Please tell me about Ezidikhan, and what you are intending to do regarding the Iraqi government.
“The Ezidikhan government has been making a good faith effort to negotiate an intergovernmental agreement with the Iraqi government, to establish a formal and constructive political framework for the exercise of self-government, protection of our lands, control over our resources, establishment of security, and rebuilding our communities, people, and economy. We began negotiations in September 2017 with the al Abadi government, and representatives have met with the new government elected in May 2018. The new government has been reluctant to step up and recognize the importance of continuing the honourable negotiations and have failed to show good faith, though it is our hope they will take new steps to become serious negotiators. We seek an autonomous government within a unified Republic of Iraq. We will continue to seek an agreement to formalize the intergovernmental compact as part of a unified Iraq.”
In the long run, what do you hope to achieve?
“We hope to achieve a full autonomous government, control over our natural resources, and prosecution of oil companies which are taking resources from Yezidi land without benefit to the Yezidi people. We want to restore our way of life, and ensure our cultural continuity.
The reason we are pursuing these goals is because of the history of genocidal attacks against the Yezidi people. For example, from the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq up through the withdrawal of western forces, numerous accounts of the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium were recorded. The targets of these materials were not limited to military forces and bases, civilian populations were also targeted. This has caused a significant increase in the rates of cancer and birth defects in these populations. This has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Yezidi and other peoples of Anbar and Mosul, and with the lack of Medical and financial support to the Yezidi, this will continue to kill into the indefinite future.
Additionally, since the beginning of the Trump Administration, air attacks by US forces targeting ISIS have caused significant deaths in the civilian population. Including Yezidi, it is estimated there have been 40,000 killed.
In our current situation, we face continued assault both by those who claim allegiance to ISIS and by the Kurdish government. They seek to take total control of the Yezidi homeland. We seek this homeland as the autonomous nation of Ezidikhan.
Having an autonomous government allows us to pursue charges against the nations and individuals who have perpetrated horrendous war crimes against the Yezidi and civilian populations of Northwestern Iraq.”
What do you feel are the necessary steps to meeting your goals?
“Let me expand on the steps that we have taken recently to achieve our goals and then talk about the continued steps that we will need to take.
In 2016, with the assistance of international advisors and legal counsel, the Ezidikhan autonomous government established a council to develop guidelines for prosecutions of crimes of genocide against the Yezidi and other civilian populations. The Ezidikhan government is working with the communities of Anbar, Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah, and the indigenous communities of Iraq, including Zorastrians, Qawliya, and Shedek, to bring to light the genocidal attacks against those communities. The case we are bringing is under the mandate of the Provisional Autonomous Government of Ezidikhan, not under the Republic of Iraq or the Kurdish government. This is the first time in history that an indigenous people in the Middle East have had a legal mandate to try a crime before an international tribunal outside of the nation in which they dwell.
In cooperation with the communities of Anbar, Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah, we have formed this Ezidikhan investigative team to collect evidence and testimony to support our case.
We are bringing together a group of representatives from various indigenous populations from around the world who will be reviewing the evidence and testimony collected and will develop a case that will be presented to the tribunal when it is assembled.
Ezidikhan needs financial and technical aid to support our rebuilding process. We estimate that it will take five years and more than $30 billion USD to restore lives and property, and to assure our cultural security. We are reaching out diplomatically to states and indigenous nations to obtain support and will continue to do so.”
Obviously money is an important aspect of actions like this, but what other means of support would you wish for from the international community?
“We are looking to obtain aid from indigenous nations and from state governments to rebuild, and to organize the return of more than 100,000 of our people who sought refuge in other countries. We are hopeful but not unrealistic. Much of the responsibility for rebuilding is on the shoulders of our people. We also seek international cooperation to establish a tribunal on genocide for the Yezidi and neighbouring indigenous nations. An independent tribunal is now essential, since neither the court at the Hague, nor the International Criminal Court, are prepared or able to deal with the genocides committed against nations like ours. States’ governments block serious and responsible prosecution of the crimes of genocide and cultural genocide, or crimes against humanity, since they object to their own citizens being tried, and in some instances their own governments being held accountable for crimes. The states are using “sovereign immunity” as a way of avoiding accountability for crimes that they themselves commit against indigenous peoples.”
What short-term goals are there for you?
“The immediate Ezidikhan goal is working to ensure adequate water with new water wells, and also restarting agriculture in the economy. With aid from the government of India and the skills of our people we are slowly taking control of the process of rebuilding and providing security for our people.”
With the looming impact of ecological threats, Global Warming in particular, what hope do you have for Yazidi people living in Shingal?
“As a small indigenous community, we will be greatly affected by Climate Change. We are attempting to mediate the impact by increasing the agricultural strength of the region and are working to ensure that food crops are available to the Yezidi people. We are currently developing, with the assistance of India, the Ezidikhan Seeds for Life Program. Our goal is to become a fully self-supporting agricultural community. The area where Yezidi live is the major agricultural center of Iraq. The US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war destroyed the crop lands. In 2007, US forces with the backing of the Iraqi government began a systematic seizure of heirloom seed belonging to families who had been farming for many generations. Because of the great importance that Yezidi place on the transfer of seeds from one generation to the next, this seizure caused a significant impact on our people. The subsequent invasion of ISIS witnessed further destruction of our agricultural resources as a means of terror and intimidation. Shingal has been our home and Lalish the center of our way of life for thousands of years.
This is why the Ezidikhan Seeds for Life program is so important. We are restoring a significant cultural and spiritual aspect of Yezidi life. The peoples of Ezidikhan have made changes over the generations and after major violent catastrophes (of which there have been many) and we intend to rebuild once again. But we expect that global climate change will still have a significant effect on the lives of our people. We will endeavour to adapt and survive the significant environmental changes that will occur, and are hopeful that our way of life will survive.”
What victories have you already had so far in your journey as a community?
“In 2015, our spiritual leader Baba Sheik issued a proclamation to establish an autonomous Ezidikhan. An autonomous Ezidikhan will not only protect and support the Yezidi as a whole, but will also provide protections for minority populations within Ezidikhan. This includes what in the west falls under the terms Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender. In Ezidikhan, we use the term Third-Sexed. This is especially important because of the killing and torture of Third Sexed individuals by ISIS.
The Yezidi have pulled together with the Madaeans, Shabakh, Shia Kurds, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians inside Iraq and Syria. That has been very important for self-protection. We have made important diplomatic connections with states and indigenous nations to develop cooperation and we have had important steps toward negotiating a self-governing agreement with the Iraqi government.
We are beginning our rebuilding using the skills of our people, and some small amounts of financial and technical aid. An example of this is a midwives program for Yezidi women sponsored by India. These midwives will work in the displacement camps to provide support to women giving birth. This program is especially important because of the lack of medical personnel and supplies currently available.
Another success is the building of a well in Shingal that is now able to provide, for the first time in many years, a dedicated source of fresh water for Yezidi and Indigenous communities. This will also be used to support the agricultural efforts taking place.
In response to a flood that occurred in July 2018, we were able to secure tents from India that were used to house people whose homes were made unliveable by the flood waters.
Our government, with the assistance of legal advisors from around the world, has developed a draft constitution that we hope to finalize soon, and present to the United Nations as further evidence of our autonomous status and to secure Observer Status with the international organization.
With the assistance of the Canadian non-governmental organization Rape Is No Joke, we were able to establish a small medical clinic to provide basic first aid to the residents of Shingal. For many of the area, this was the very first opportunity to receive any form of medical evaluation and care for almost a decade.
One particular event remains very prominent in my mind. This was the support given to the Yezidi people during the early days of the Shinjar massacre. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, of Art of Living, rented a plane and flew over the mountain. They air dropped food and supplies to those stranded by ISIS forces, who were killing any Yezidi who came off of the mountain.
We have a very long way to go, but we are holding our heads up high; we are being realistic about our current circumstances, but remain hopeful and optimistic for the future.”
Whether or not you believe in courtroom battles; whether or not you favour marching in the streets and other forms of protest; whether or not your praxis is focused on property destruction or art; the Ezidikhan Seeds for Life program is attempting something that is surely worthy of recognition and support. We cannot know how the world will change, in the increasingly strange and uncertain space we are living in. If the monoculture of globalist-corporate-industrialism continues to collapse – as it seems to be doing – perhaps there is the chance for the Yazidi, and other similar communities, to claim a space to live free from militarist violence and oppression.
Writer of Feral Consciousness: Deconstruction of the Modern Myth and Return to the Woods, blogger at Eco-Revolt, and has been published on a number of other sites. Eco-anarchist and guerilla ontologist philosopher. Lover of woods, deer, badgers and other wild Beings. Musician and activist.