Sunday 21 December 2014

'It is time to take up arms': Yazidi volunteers fight back against Islamic State

Hundreds of Yazidi volunteers are being trained to handle weapons and fight Islamic State militants

Ruth Sherlock and Carol Malouf

Published 18/08/2014 | 17:15

Iraqi volunteers from the Yazidi sect gather during a training camp at the Serimli military base. Photo: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal
Iraqi volunteers from the Yazidi sect gather during a training camp at the Serimli military base. Photo: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

HUNDREDS of Yazidi volunteers are being trained to handle weapons and fight to drive the Islamic State from their homes.

Refugees who fled to Syria to escape the jihadists' onslaught in neighbouring Iraq are joining military training camps run by Kurdish armed factions and forming a volunteer army against the jihadists.

"Until now the Yazidis have always relied on someone else to protect them," said Rostan, 33, the Kurdish commander at the training camp, who refused to give his full name. "Now they are learning to protect themselves."

 Civilians who fled their homes in Sinjar are taught how to assemble an AK-47 rifle by Kurdish PYG fighters (Sam Tarling)

Tens of thousands of Yazidis were forced to flee their homes when Islamic State fighters, backed by local tribesmen, stormed the Iraqi province of Sinjar.

The Yazidis, who practice an ancient religion that the jihadists wrongly interpret as "devil worshipping" and who say they are now facing their "73rd genocide" after centuries of persecution, had thought they were safe in their enclave in the north of the country.

Displaced people from the Yazidi religious minority are evacuated from Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq with the help of members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units. Photo: REUTERS/Rodi Said
Displaced people from the Yazidi religious minority are evacuated from Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq with the help of members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units. Photo: REUTERS/Rodi Said

As the Islamic State closed in, they accommodated thousands of fleeing residents from surrounding villages, confident that the peshmerga forces stationed in Sinjar would defend them.

But the night the jihadists attacked, the peshmerga troops melted away, their weapons having already been recalled to protect the embryonic Kurdish capital Erbil which also appeared to be under threat.

The Yazidis only escape from the Islamic State's attacks was a narrow "corridor" into Syria that was carved out for them by guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, and its Kurdish Syrian affiliate the People's Protection Units, or YPG.

Many thousands of Yazidis have said they are too afraid to remain in the region any longer and have begun desperately seeking asylum, mostly in the West.

Displaced Yazidis settle at the Qandil mountains near the Turkish border outside Zakho, 300 miles north west of Baghdad (AP)
Displaced Yazidis settle at the Qandil mountains near the Turkish border outside Zakho, 300 miles north west of Baghdad (AP)

However, the PKK and YPG, capitalising on the support they have won from the Yazidis through the rescue mission, have started a recruitment drive to bring Yazidis into their ranks and help them fight the Islamic State.

In Nawrouz camp in Syria, the first place of rest for Yazidi refugees fleeing Sinjar, a loudspeaker constantly blasted the call to war: "They have raped your sisters and killed your mothers, now it is time to take up arms."

The drive is working, and, though only operational for one week, Kurdish commanders say several hundred Yazidi volunteers have participated in the military training.

Some have already returned to Sinjar to fight, commanders said.

The Telegraph watched as, in a training camp close to the Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, PKK commanders trained the recruits in how to clean and assemble their AK47 rifles.

"It's a basic but intensive training course lasting four days," said the Rostan. "Most of the people come here with feelings of revenge; they've seen their mothers killed, their sisters kidnapped and are keen to fight."

PKK guerrilla fighters in their hundreds have travelled across the border from Turkey to join the YPG against the jihadists of the Islamic State, who they see as an existential threat to the embryonic Kurdish autonomous regions in Syria and Iraq.

If after taking Sinjar city, the jihadists and their Sunni tribal allies captured the nearby mountain it would give them a vantage point from which to advance into the oil-rich Syrian Kurdish terrain.

The involvement of the PKK, a group which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the United States, in the fight against the Islamic State, shows how the emergence of the jihadists is reversing and confusing traditional diplomatic alliances.

The United States formerly has no diplomatic relations with the PKK, but, as the major group present in Sinjar, an area whose offensive against the Islamic State has been supported by limited airstrikes, that enmity may have to change.

Some of the commanders at the training camp were of PKK fighters from Turkey, and had come to help train the new recruits.

"The PKK helped us to escape the area and to reach the safety of the camp, so why shouldn't we join now?" said Mohammed Maura, 62, a Yazidi who volunteered to fight after the Islamic State kidnapped his son in Sinjar.

Eighteen-year-old Rakan Shamo, a Yazidi from a village near Sinjar city said: "We are learning to use weapons, and, in three days, I will go back to Sinjar to fight."

Once trained the volunteers are enrolled in the 'Sinjar resistance movement', a volunteer army, also led by Kurdish commanders, and dispatched to protect strategically vital points across Mount Sinjar, as well as Yazidi holy sites in the area.

Sheikh Khalaf al-Bahary, a Yazidi spiritual guide from one of the Yazidi's mountain shrines, has joined forces with the Kurdish fighters in bringing in Yazidi recruits.

A wizened elderly man, with a long white beard, Sheikh Bahary passed on to the recruits the frightened rumours that swirl in the local community of the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State: "They've taken everything from us. They've taken our land, raped our women and sold them as sex slaves.

"I am here to tell the Yazidi people that they have to take things into their own hands now. I tell them: 'Fight for your land, for your religion, for your people'."

Telegraph.co.uk

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