30 Jul 2020
By: Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

Sinjar City – Sinjar was once home to an estimated 420,000 individuals representing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. The district, in northern Iraq’s Ninewa Governorate, is widely known as the homeland of the Yazidis, members of an ethnoreligious minority group whose communities are spread across Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

On 3 August 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched a deadly assault on Sinjar. ISIL overran Sinjar City and its surrounding areas and committed terrible atrocities against the Yazidi civilian population including mass murder, forced religious conversions, abduction and forced slavery of thousands, particularly of women and girls. 

Thousands fled the area – most were displaced across Iraq while others moved further abroad. The United Nations Human Rights Council has officially recognized that this reign of terror constituted genocide against the Yazidis, and that ISIL committed multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sinjar and other parts of Iraq.

Six years on, up to 200,000 Yazidis remain displaced. Some still face harsh conditions on Mount Sinjar, where they fled to escape, while the majority live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. 

Return to Sinjar has been slow since the officially declared cessation of the ISIL conflict in 2017, largely due to the level of destruction wrought in 2014. In addition to the human catastrophe, ISIL destroyed up to 80 per cent of public infrastructure and 70 per cent of civilian homes in Sinjar City and surrounding areas, as well as many important religious sites.

Jalal Khalaf Piso pictured with his wife and son inside their home in Sinjar City. © UNDP Iraq / Claire Thomas

Jalal Khalaf Piso and his family fled to the Kurdistan Region after ISIL entered Sinjar; they went to Baadre first, and later to Duhok where they lived in unfinished buildings until Sinjar was liberated in 2015.

“We were the first family to come back,” Jalal explained in October 2018. “I don’t like people to say I’m displaced. My home is here, and also my job.”

Jalal’s case is quite remarkable. In the years following ISIL’s defeat, the destruction of essential services and lingering insecurity in the region initially discouraged Yazidis from returning to Sinjar. But June 2020 signalled the start of a marked increase in returns of displaced families. 

According to a recent assessment conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq, 10,165 individuals (1,694 families) returned to Sinjar between 8 June and 16 July. 

This is a marked increase over previous years. In May and June of 2019, IOM Iraq recorded only 1,512 individuals returning to Sinjar and Baaj, the neighbouring district in Ninewa Governorate. Stabilization programming in Sinjar is now being scaled up to support returnees, but much more must still be done. 

Sinjar’s old town was heavily destroyed during the conflict with ISIL. © IOM Iraq / Raber Y. Aziz

Local authorities, NGOs and UN agencies, including IOM and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), are working to support the Government of Iraq to provide vital services to recent returnees and vulnerable populations in Sinjar.

IOM has been active in Sinjar, providing a range of services to conflict-affected communities since 2017. The Organization’s stabilization programming addresses some of the major obstacles to return by investing in livelihood opportunities and improving access to basic services and housing to returning households. IOM continuously tracks and reports on population movements back to Sinjar, and those households currently in secondary displacement or returning to their areas of origin. 

This supports evidence-based programming, through raising the awareness of the international community about ongoing movements, their points of departure and arrivals and the conditions in areas of return.

IOM also provides mental health and psychosocial services, legal services related to housing, land and property and support to civil society organizations working on peacebuilding initiatives. Protection services are provided in Sardashti camps, where many Yezidis remain displaced.

When ISIL entered Sinjar, many families fled to Mount Sinjar. The Sinjar Mountain range is viewed as sacred by the Yazidis. © IOM Iraq / Raber Y. Aziz

UNDP’s stabilization efforts, under its Funding Facility for Stabilization, aim to support returns and lay the groundwork for Iraq’s recovery by re-establishing critical services and rebuilding infrastructure damaged in the ISIL conflict, working in close partnership with the Government of Iraq and the international community.

In Sinjar, where UNDP has been active since 2016, this covers the rehabilitation of schools, houses, water systems, electricity networks, healthcare centres, police stations and a number of municipal buildings — including the Agricultural Directorate to support one of Sinjar’s key industries. Providing short-term job opportunities through livelihoods programming helps returnees alleviate financial burdens accumulated as a result of the conflict for rent, food and school supplies and other items. 

Sinjar Primary Health Centre, which was rehabilitated by UNDP, is now the main health facility in Sinjar. © UNDP

UNDP’s support to returnees also extends to neighbouring areas Sinuni, Baaj, Tel Afar and Rabia across a number of critical sectors including health, education water and electricity. For 2020 and beyond, this entire area remains a key strategic priority for UNDP’s stabilization programming, which will, in partnership with the Ninewa governorate, see upscaled efforts and include new areas of work based on the area’s unique needs, such as social cohesion activities.

“I hope that organizations and UN agencies will stay and help continuously, because people need help to renew their life. It is difficult to renew without having organizations' support,” said Saher Saeed, an English teacher.

“We as a community wish to have a safe place to live with the main basic life facilities so that we can live and make sure that such barbarian attacks will not happen again to the next generations,” added Waleed Saydo, a pharmacy student from Sinjar.

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