Kadia Camp (Iraqi Kurdistan)
From our special correspondent
The boy may be only 15 years old, his eyes are unmistakably tired. Is it because he has told his story too much that she no longer seems to arouse the slightest emotion in him? Or would it be the trauma suffered? Sitting with folded hands on a plastic chair, surrounded by comrades with paths close to his own, Hazim answers – in Kurdish – the questions put to him. It is in this narrow prefabricated building that the psychologist Naif Jirdo, also present for the interview, receives him regularly for consultation. “Hazim is better, but he has come a long way”, the professional will slip into us a little later, once the young Yazidi has emerged to absent-mindedly follow the volleyball match which brightens up the morning of the children of the Kadia displaced persons camp, near Zakho. These harsh reliefs in northern Iraq, on the borders of Turkey and Syria, have served them as a refuge – along with what remains of their families – since the end of their captivity in the ranks of Daesh. For Hazim, it was particularly long: five years.
“When I was kidnapped by Daesh, I was 8 years old …” Until the summer of 2014 when he suddenly left childhood, this wavy-haired brunette lived with his family in a village in the Sindjar mountains, not far from Tall Afar. On another massif in northern Iraq, in short, less than 150 kilometers south of the barracks of jails and light tarpaulins where he now lives, in the midst of around 10,000 displaced persons. But his life before, in a landscape dotted with Yazidi mausoleums with conical domes soaring towards the sky, Hazim – is that his real name? – said to have forgotten it. What he remembers is the separation from his family, after they were taken together to distant Rakka, the former Syrian “capital” of the caliphate. The child will soon become the property of the family of a Daesh cadre, before passing from hand to hand between Syria and Iraq to be finally bought by one of his close relatives in 2019.
Slaves. Such was the fate that “the Islamic State” reserved for the young Yazidis of Sindjar, a Kurd-speaking minority practicing a monotheism whose roots go back to ancient Persia and whom the jihadists considered to be “Devil worshipers”. First in the scale of disbelief – before Christians, who were at least “People of the Book” -, the Yazidis saw their families dismembered as soon as their villages fell into the hands of the terrorist organization. The older men and women were then killed, the younger women sold as sex slaves, and the prepubescent boys (it was verified by the absence of hair under the arms), like Hazim, became “cubs of the caliphate”, the Daesh child soldiers. “After two years, I knew how to shoot well”, recognizes the one who returned to sleep with his masters between training days. “At first I didn’t want to learn how to fight, but we were forced by hitting us. “
How does one come back from a theological and military indoctrination aimed at shaping future jihadists out of touch with reality and insensitive to the suffering of others? This is the thorny question to which the Yahad-In Unum association (“together” in Hebrew, “in one” in Latin), which has been present since 2017 in Kadia and in three others of the nineteen displaced persons camps of Iraqi Kurdistan. “Our objective is to help these young Yazidis to reclaim their identity – in particular their mother tongue, which they have often forgotten – but also to re-socialize themselves – by promoting, for example, diversity – and finally their open up a future by learning a trade – such as sewing or hairdressing ”, summarizes Father Patrick Desbois, French priest and founding president of this association created in 2004. After a decade of investigation into Nazi crimes in Eastern Europe, Yahad-In Unum has broadened his expertise to other crimes of mass, including those committed by Daesh on the Yazidis, after Father Desbois received his conviction in prayer at Easter 2015.
The seven employees of the association for the Kadia camp (educators, teachers, psychologist, etc.) know this well, “Leaving Daesh takes time”. Faced with young people who are often traumatized (1), prey to behavioral disorders, night terrors, even suicidal tendencies, the supervisors – themselves Yazidis of the camp – must arm themselves with patience… and delicacy. “When I listen to their games, I sometimes catch a child imitating an ’emir’ of Daesh, asking others to keep watch or to clean up the Kalashnikovs”, says Nadia Zedo Khalaf. After intervening in the game to discreetly change its orientation, the nanny reports the incident to psychologist Naif Jirdo. The latter then receives the child concerned in the prefabricated unit which serves as his cabinet, individually or in a group. “At the beginning, some don’t even want to talk to me, because I am Yazidi, and therefore a ‘disbeliever’… But seeing their friends coming here helps them little by little to gain confidence. “
The challenge is then to reconcile these young people with their own identity. “Hazim, whom you met earlier, said to himself Yazidi again today! rejoices the professional. However, at the beginning, he hid to say his Muslim prayers… ” This “Return” Spirituality was duly celebrated a few months ago in Lalech, a hundred kilometers from the camp: Hazim was then immersed for the second time in his life in the sacred source of this important Yazidi temple. If the faithful are usually baptized only once – always in Lalech – people who have been violated or forcibly Islamized have the right to a second passage under its clear waters. That day, Hazim was accompanied by his mother, miraculously found at the end of her captivity. Many young people of her age were not so lucky: around 2,600 Yazidi women are still believed to be untraceable, detained in the last pockets controlled by Daesh in Iraq or Syria, or else missing, buried in mass graves that are far from have all been opened (this was the case for 16 of them, on 73 suspected sites).
If, according to several specialists interviewed, being an orphan is “One more handicap” to rebuild themselves psychically after such violence, undertaking this work in the precariousness and instability of a camp for displaced persons does not seem optimal to them either. “But do we only have a choice, if the survivors still live here? “ retort the executives of Yahad-In Unum, adding that, after the global craze of 2015-2016, many NGOs then present in the camp have now left the place.
Few of the Yazidis have yet returned to their devastated region of Sindjar which has become the scene of clashes between rival armed groups (Shiite militias, Kurdish peshmerga, Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK, etc.). In 2019, around fifty families from the camp wanted to return but, not feeling safe there, returned to Kadia. So many dream of Europe, without having the means for such a trip. This is the case of Nadia Zedo Khalaf, even if she says she is attached to her work as nanny for Yahad-In Unum. “We will undoubtedly stay here for several more years”, she foresees, resigned. Her life did not end, however, in the confines of this camp where she has lived since 2014: four years ago, she gave birth to her first child.