Published December 16, 2015
The Islamic State militants who stormed into the Iraqi town of Sinjar last year, massacring members of the Yazidi minority and forcing women into sexual slavery, are gone. But Sunni Muslims who lived alongside the Yazidis there for generations say their own nightmare is far from over.
After Kurdish forces and Yazidi militants backed by U.S.-led airstrikes drove the extremist group from the town last month, there were widespread reports of vandalism and the looting of Muslim homes. Many Sunni Muslim residents have yet to return, saying they fear revenge attacks.
"They said they were against Sunnis, but are all Sunnis with Daesh?" said Amer Eido, a Sinjar-born Sunni Muslim now living in a refugee camp, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. "We fled with (the Yazidis) because of Daesh on the day that they came. We are in the same situation. There is no reason for them to loot our houses."
For the past year, the 42-year-old and his family have lived in the Harsham camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil. Like many of the camp's residents, he says he fears the Yazidi militias as much as the Islamic State group.
There is no evidence that Kurdish or Yazidi forces have committed crimes on the scale of the IS group, which captured or killed thousands of Yazidis in Sinjar, including hundreds of Yazidi women who were conscripted into sexual slavery. The Sunni extremists of IS view the Yazidis — who follow an ancient Mesopotamian religion related to Zoroastrianism — as pagans or devil-worshippers.
The IS group has also massacred thousands of Sunni Muslims who oppose its rule in Syria and Iraq. But because many Sunni Arabs initially welcomed IS as liberators from a Shiite-led government in Baghdad seen as corrupt and sectarian, many Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis view the country's Sunni Arabs with suspicion. In Sinjar, those suspicions also extend to Sunni Muslim Kurds.
The U.N. Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern about reports of abuses carried out against Sunni Arabs in parts of Iraq freed from IS control.
"Reports indicate that Iraqi security forces, Kurdish security forces and their respective affiliated militias have been responsible for looting and destruction of property belonging to the Sunni Arab communities, forced evictions, abductions, illegal detention and, in some cases, extra-judicial killings," the Geneva-based body said in a recent statement about Sinjar.
In January, Amnesty International said 21 residents had been killed, dozens abducted and several houses burnt by Yazidi militiamen in the Arab villages of Jiri and Sibaya, near Sinjar, in an apparent revenge attack.
Kurdish and Yazidi officials in Sinjar acknowledge that looting took place in the chaotic aftermath of the battle with IS, but say most of it was Yazidis reclaiming their own property.
"These things will happen every time when there's an absence of authority or when areas are liberated," said Sheikh Shamo, a Yazidi member of the Kurdish regional parliament. "You will always have sick-minded people who take advantage of situations like this and who will steal things."
Khaidi Bozani, a Yazidi representative of the Kurdish Ministry of Endowments, said civilians were killed in the first days after the town was liberated, and that houses were looted and burned. He did not provide exact figures.
"Most of the Yazidis only took broken sofas and some household goods, and it was mainly their own things. But there were other people from outside Sinjar who took the valuable items," he said.
Shamo Aido, a Yazidi militia commander in Sinjar, said Muslim residents of the town who had nothing to do with IS are welcome to return, and insists that many Muslim families have already done so.
"Those Muslims who committed no wrong can return to Sinjar. They can come back and we will open our houses to them," he said. "But those who are guilty should fear the day of judgment."
Aido said his men are helping Kurdish forces to maintain law and order and denies that they are keeping Muslim residents from returning. "But a thief will always feel suspicious," he added.
Sinjar's Mayor Mahma Khalil insisted that only those who colluded with IS should be afraid.
"The Muslims who looted our houses and were involved in the enslavement of our women, supported Daesh or stayed there (in Sinjar while it was under IS control) will not be allowed to come back," he said. "Otherwise, we don't have a problem with the rest of them."
Muslim residents of Sinjar told The Associated Press that while many Sunni Muslims welcomed the IS group in other parts of Iraq, that wasn't the case in Sinjar.
"We didn't take their women and girls," Eido said. "If you want to take revenge... take your revenge from them (the Islamic State group). The Muslims of Sinjar didn't commit these (atrocities)."
Many of the displaced say they feel trapped between IS and the Yazidis, both of which view them as traitors.
"We had one enemy, now it became two. And we are scared," said Ibtisam Ahmat, 33, who fled Sinjar and is now also living in Harsham camp.
"Those Yazidi (militias), when they entered the city, all they said was Islam is Islam," she said. "We told them, it's not about Islam. Daesh are infidels."
Associated Press writers Salar Salim and Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq, and Susannah George in Baghdad contributed to this report.