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Yazidis Left Vulnerable As Kurdish Forces Pull Out Of Northern Iraq


An update now on a persecuted religious minority in the Middle East, the Yazidi people in Northern Iraq. They made headlines in 2014.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: They've been killed, forced to convert to Islam, and the women and girls have been held in sexual slavery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thousands of other Yazidis who survived the ISIS rampage fled to the nearby Sinjar Mountain.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: They're cold and hungry, desperate to get off the mountain.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: These refugees are enduring horrors, trapped on a mountain. And they need a rescue. Few would dispute that, but should it be an American rescue?

MCCAMMON: The U.S. responded with airstrikes against ISIS. On the ground, Kurdish guerrilla fighters protected the Yazidis. Now, those protectors are withdrawing, leaving the Yazidis vulnerable. NPR's Jane Arraf was recently in northern Iraq and joins us now. Hi, Jane.


MCCAMMON: Jane, set this moment up for us. Who are the Yazidis, and why are they so persecuted?

ARRAF: So they're a tiny and ancient religious minority. They're mostly found in northern Iraq. They believe in God, and they also believe that he entrusted the world to a cast of angels. So it's a closed religion and quite secretive. And because of their beliefs, they've been persecuted for centuries. ISIS considers them infidels. And when they came in, as we heard, they killed hundreds of men and kidnapped thousands of women as sex slaves. One of the worst things as well was that the Yazidis say it was some of their neighbors in the Arab villages surrounding them who were helping ISIS.

MCCAMMON: And so these Kurdish fighters who've been protecting them - remind us who they are. What's their role in protecting the Yazidis?

ARRAF: So the Yazidis live on this huge mountain, Mount Sinjar, as well as other places. But that's one of the Yazidi homelands, and it's quite remote, and it's right up against the Syrian border. They have been protected by Kurdish Peshmerga forces attached to the Kurdish regional government. But when ISIS came in, those forces retreated, and they left the Yazidis to fend for themselves. So as they were being slaughtered, the PKK came in. Now the PKK is also Kurdish, but they're from across the border in Turkey, and they've been fighting the Turkish government for decades. Turkey considers them a terrorist organization as does the U.S. But they came in, and they led thousands of Yazidis to safety, and they protected them.

MCCAMMON: What was the motive for these Kurdish fighters to protect the Yazidis?

ARRAF: Well, they say it's because the Yazidis didn't have anyone else to protect them. The Peshmerga, the other Kurdish forces had left. The Iraqis haven't been in control of that area for some time. And they say the Yazidis called out for help, and we came. They also came of course because they do want a presence in northern Iraq. They're fighting Turkey, but their main bases are in northern Iraq. And that's another thing that the Iraqis and the Yazidis are a bit suspicious of - that they thought even though they were incredibly grateful to the PKK - on the part of the Yazidis for protecting them - they thought maybe it was time for them to leave.

MCCAMMON: So they are leaving now. Why?

ARRAF: They are leaving now, and it's not exactly because the Yazidis were ready to defend themselves. It's really all about Turkey. The Turkish government has been threatening to attack northern Iraq, and particularly Sinjar, to get the PKK out of there. It's told the Iraqi government that if Iraq doesn't expel those fighters that it is going to cross the border and launch attacks itself.

MCCAMMON: So the PKK fighters who've been protecting them there - they're pulling out. Where does that leave the Yazidis? How are they feeling now?

ARRAF: They're still feeling insecure. They weren't crazy about the PKK being there because it did make them a target themselves. But they're also not crazy about not having any security. And one of the really striking things about the area there is that four years after Yazidis went up to the mountain to try to save themselves, there are thousands of them still living in tents on this mountain, and they're too afraid to come down.

SAEED AHMED KHALAF: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: I spoke with one man up there, Saeed Ahmed Khalaf (ph), who talked to me in his family's tent. They're still living in some of the same tents that were dropped four years ago. And he says the only solution is international protection.

KHALAF: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: And by that, he means he and a lot of others want the United States and other countries to actually physically come and protect them. He says if that's not going to happen, the only solution is that they take them all out of there. You can even find us an island somewhere, he said.

MCCAMMON: So at least some Yazidis want U.S. protection - international protection. Any sign that anyone will protect them now?

ARRAF: Well, the state of play now is the Iraqi government is back in control of Sinjar. It's supposed to have forces protecting them, but the Yazidis don't trust those forces. And the Iraqi government really hasn't paid much attention to that part of the country. So they're again, four years later, feeling really, very defenseless.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Jane Arraf, thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.