Yesterday marked the 3rd anniversary of the Yazidi genocide in Shingal, Kurdistan. 6 buses of survivors who now reside in Bajed Kandala Camp since then made the 3 hour journey to the sacred site of Sharfadin and the city of Shingal. It was an honor to have been invited to join them.
Hitting the road at 5:30am we drove to Sharfadin, a temple at 800 years old, the most sacred site in the world to the Yazidi. As we neared the site, Dr Nemam Ghafouri of Joint Help for Kurdistan told stories of what happened here on that day when ISIS came to annihilate the Yazidi. How people had to drop everything and run to the relative safety atop of Sinjar Mountain in 50 degree heat with no water as ISIS moved in killing and kidnapping everyone. A small group of Yazidi dug in to defend their temple, apparently numbering just 18 men and fended of daesh for 4 months to keep the site intact. The city of Shingal on the other side of the mountain wasn't so lucky. More on that in a minute.
On arrival there was a massive military procession and the media however the Yazidi walked up a hill adjacent to Mount Sinjar to pay their respects at the grave of Mr. Lee, a retired Hawaii 5-0 who spent the twilight of his life teaching English to the young Yazidi in Bajed Kandala. On this site of the hill also lies a mass grave. On paying our respects Dr Nemam announced that this will be the site of a new school that will be built for the Yazidi, a people who have had no support from the international community, a forgotten people, a people who have been starved of proper education since that day 3 years ago.
Richard Campos, an American veteran and huge supporter of the Yazidi and myself were asked and honored to turn the first sod on the site of which will be the first school of it's kind in the region. The children and young people were invited to each place a pencil in the hole. I got a tad emotional at this point, standing between a mass grave and Mr Lee's, overlooking the most sacred of Yazidi sites in the shadow of Mount Sinjar, as everybody looked to the future together.
We ascended the hill, took respite from the heat, ate food, met the commander who fended off IS from the temple that day and headed to the city of Shingal on the other side of the mountain.
An hour later we arrived at the city to find it as it has been for 3 years, pummeled to the ground. No infrastructure, no power, continuing clashes and a power struggle between Kurdish groups controlling the region ensures that the Yazidi will not be coming back anytime soon.
For some it was an incredibly difficult trip. Some of the girls who have recently returned to their families in the camps after 3 years in ISIS captivity made the trip home to Shingal for the first time. Some of them made speeches, tears were shed and we then marched through the empty streets.
You would think the bus trip back to the camp would have been a sombre affair but the music was thumping and all was normal, like any other bus I've been on out here. There was no closure here, just marking another year of the atrocity, no end in sight. When they marched through the empty streets of Shingal chanting, holding up their banners of 'stop the genocide' 'educate our girls' and 'help bring our girls back' it was a reflection of the international community's response to their situation. It seems nobody's listening, their collective voice isn't heard. But there were a few of us there who heard them and stood with them and will continue to help them empower themselves and get their voice out to the rest of the world.
Having worked with the Yazidi for 18 months now, I admit it's not easy. Coming out here to places like Shingal, Bajed Kandala and Syria isn't the hardest part of my job, it's going home and trying to be a voice, trying to spread the word, to get people to care about what's not in the media, the reality of the life and past of the Yazidi. A lot of the time you're banging your head of the wall and you lose faith in all of it. I've forgotten how many times I've wanted to pack it in, had a moment last week sure! But after days like yesterday, the battery's charged and like the Yazidi, I'm looking to the future and will keep shouting.