Riham Hico: They want to break the free will of Shengal

TAJÊ activist Riham Hico describes the current situation in the Yazidi area of Shengal in northern Iraq in a detailed and forceful interview.

After the ISIS genocide in 2014, the Yazidi region of Shengal liberated itself with the help of the guerrilla HPG and the YPG and YPJ from Rojava and established its own self-defense and grassroots self-government. However, Iraq, South Kurdistan’s ruling party KDP, which is allied with Turkey, and the AKP/MHP regime in Ankara see the self-administration of the Yazidis as a disruptive factor for their plans and are doing everything they can to eliminate it. To this end, an agreement was reached between the Iraqi government and the KDP on October 9, 2020, in which the dissolution of the self-administration and the division of control over the region between the KDP and the Iraqi government were agreed upon. The agreement was signed under the supervision of former Dutch Defense Minister and UN Special Rapporteur Jeanine Antoinette Hennis-Plasschaert and had the support of the U.S., British, and German governments. The Turkish state openly expressed its pleasure with the agreement. Since then, aggression against the self-government of Shengal and the people of the region has increased.

To increase pressure, the Iraqi military began building a wall along the border between Shengal and Rojava in March. The construction was prepared with the laying of barbed wire. The aim is to build a wall 3.75 meters high and 250 kilometers long, which will isolate the Shengal region and make it dependent. Riham Hico of the Free Yazidi Women's Movement (TAJÊ) spoke in an ANF interview about the situation in the region, the policies of the KDP, and the return of the Yazidis still living in refugee camps in southern Kurdistan.

After the liberation of Shengal, how was the autonomous administration project built and to what extent was your project successful?

Throughout history, Shengal has been subjected to genocide and massacres. 73 times the people here faced an extermination order (ferman). The Yazidi society was permanently in search of means against these genocidal plans and thus in constant resistance. Until the last ferman (the ISIS genocide in 2014), we had always chosen the following path: we saw that we could not defeat the murderers and withdrew to preserve our generation.

But in the last genocide, we understood that we would not survive the attacks even if we retreated and fled. In the past, Yazidis lived from here (Shengal) to Aleppo. Mesopotamia was called the Yazidi land. Since the resistance and methods of struggle were inadequate, the Yazidis were expelled from this land, they were forced into diaspora and only Shengal is left to us.

Project of collective and grassroots democratic coexistence

After the 73rd ferman, we developed a solution project in order not to lose Shengal as well. What was that project? We want to live within the borders of Iraq. This country has a constitution in which Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Arabs and different religious and ethnic groups should live together. Our project is a project of autonomy to ensure that all these groups live together equally and freely, without disputing each other's rights. This is because our project addresses everyone in the same way. It is not a project from the outside or a centralist project, it is a project by which we all manage ourselves.

"Our demand for autonomy is in line with the Iraqi constitution"

What specific status do you want for Shengal and is this possible under the Iraqi constitution?

Yazidi society has always been forced to be ruled from the outside. There was always an attempt to put someone here from the outside to govern us. In response to this, we have created a system in which the Yazidis can govern themselves within the framework of the laws of Iraq and develop institutions appropriate to their nature and needs. There was a serious need to create a self-defense mechanism and structures through which society could govern itself. In fact, the Iraqi constitution allows this; there are articles that say that all ethnic and religious groups living in Iraq should have autonomy. However, because of outside pressure on the central government of Iraq, the central government is preventing our demand for autonomy from being met. Various pretexts have been put forward and even some laws have been frozen to prevent us from claiming our right to autonomy. All other groups in Iraq have used these laws and obtained the right to autonomy. The only community that has been deprived of autonomy is the one in the Shengal region. According to our project, it is foreseen that in the council we are building, all religions, denominations and ethnic groups living in Shengal will be represented in an equal way. Through this equal representation, the problems in Shengal can be eliminated.

"Yazidis around the world look to Shengal"

There is also a large Yazidi community in the other parts of Kurdistan and in the diaspora. What can an autonomous administration in Shengal contribute to the situation of these Yazidis?

Today, all Yazidis see Shengal as the center of their faith. In Rojava, in Northern and Southern Kurdistan, in Europe and all over the world, the hope of the Yazidi community lies in Shengal, all eyes are on the region. Therefore, our autonomy project will try to represent not only the Yazidis living in Shengal, but also those who live outside. For this reason, we are in contact with Yazidi communities in the other parts of Kurdistan and other countries, especially in Rojava. Our women's council does this best. We need a coordination that represents all Yazidis. The first steps have already been taken for this, but it needs to be strengthened. In the future, there must be more discussions about this issue, because Yazidis face problems not only in Shengal, but everywhere they live. If we do not unite under one roof, we will be even more divided in the future, face more serious problems and will not be able to cope with assimilation.

"The main problems are in the field of education"

What institutions of self-government already exist and what is their function?

As TAJÊ we are part of the autonomous structure. We also have our security forces, traffic safety and institutions in the cultural and health sectors, and also the youth movement and similar structures. One of our main problems is in the education sector. Although we have enough teachers, there is a lack of students. Since different circles run schools in Shengal, children do not know which school to prefer, and this poses a serious problem. It is often unknown to people what purpose these schools serve. This is especially true of central government schools.

"Self-governed schools are being pressured by Iraq"

Children are our future and must be educated well. However, we do not know what kind of curriculum is implemented in these schools and how the teachers are selected. However, as we can see, these schools aim to keep the Yazidi community ignorant and unaware. Because in the schools I am talking about, the children are not taught according to their identity. The self-governing schools are being pressured by the Iraqi central government. After the October 9, 2020 agreement, the pressure grew. The government prevents us from educating children according to the principles of the Yazidi faith. Education in government-affiliated schools has nothing to do with the reality of the Yazidi community. For example, only Islamic history and Arabic geography are taught in these schools. In schools affiliated with the self-government, the opposite is true; education takes place very close to the reality of the Yazidi community. The same is true for other institutions. All our institutions are organized according to the needs of our society.

"The self-organized local government serves the people"

I would like to give another example related to local government. There is both self-government municipality and central government municipality. The latter does not provide services to the people despite the money allocated to it by the government, while our municipality provides all kinds of services to the people despite extremely limited resources. Today, if you go to places like Xanesor, Sinûnê, Til Êzer, Zorava or the city of Shengal and ask people about which local government is working for them, you will understand what I mean even better. The people themselves say, "If it weren't for your municipality, we wouldn't have water or roads."  

"KDP played the decisive role in the Shengal Agreement"

What is the purpose of the agreement concluded on October 9, 2020, and what role did the KDP play in it?

The purpose of the October 9 agreement was to liquidate the Shengal self-government. They (the Iraqi government and the KDP) wanted to take away the will of the Yazidis and put them in a situation like before the ferman of 2014. They pretended that this genocide never happened and signed the agreement. They did that because they were aware that the self-government would demand accountability from them for their role in the genocide. The Iraqi government and the KDP saw that the self-government would work diplomatically for international recognition of the genocide. If the world recognized the genocide, those who helped in this genocide and collaborated with the perpetrators would be prosecuted. They saw that and then prepared this agreement to liquidate our self-government. In short, they wanted to prevent the Yazidis from being under their control and living freely.

"The Turkish state is behind the KDP"

Now, if I come to your question about the KDP: The KDP has taken a leadership role in this agreement. The Iraqi government is not actually convinced by this agreement, but it is under pressure from the KDP and Turkey. Turkey and the KDP used Iraq's internal contradictions to pressure the government. The KDP is openly threatening Iraq. Behind the KDP is the Turkish state, which makes the decisions and the KDP implements them. Before the genocide, the KDP considered itself the owner of the region. There were only its institutions and military forces here. But after the betrayal during the genocide - or let's say their collaboration, because the KDP exchanged some territories with ISIS - the KDP lost Shengal. It has not digested that until today. That is why it is now trying to reset Shengal to "factory settings," so to speak, as if nothing had happened. But the Yazidi community opposes this and says 'no'. In order for Shengal to come back under the control of the KDP, the representation of the will of the people here, self-government, must first be eliminated. So the KDP played the leading role in the October 9 agreement. But our people put up great resistance to this agreement, they made it clear that they would never allow its implementation. This struggle continues to this day.

"Rojava and Shengal are to be torn apart"

Was the construction of the wall between Shengal and Rojava part of this agreement? What is your resistance to this wall right now?

In fact, the KDP and Iraq have been trying to build this wall for a long time. As early as 2017, the "Roj Peshmerga" trained and organized by the Turkish intelligence MIT had aimed to build a wall to Rojava with their betrayal in Xanesor. At that time, the population flocked to Xanesor and resisted it. The so-called "Roj Peshmerga" were set to be stationed on the border between Rojava and Shengal and separate the regions. But they were not successful with this. Subsequently, attempts were made to deploy them there with the support of the KDP's intelligence service and Turkish air strikes. When that also failed, the October 9 Agreement was put on the agenda. In addition to the project of building the wall, repression and violence occurred simultaneously in many areas. They used special war methods, ranging from issuing arrest warrants against representatives of the self-government to deciding to disband the security forces. Thus, Shengal was set to be brought under their control. When they were not successful with that either, it was decided to start building the wall on the border with Rojava. It was claimed that the wall would be built against ISIS. But the KDP and the Iraqi government know much better than anyone else where the ISIS is and who is supporting these terrorists. In essence, this wall is directed against both Rojava and Shengal. Its goal is to tear the two regions apart and subject them to an embargo. It is about encircling Shengal and breaking the will of the people. The connection with the other areas has been severed earlier anyway. Just as Kurdistan was divided, the Yazidi society is now wanted to be torn apart.

"The war plans against Rojava are the same as those against Shengal"

Why should the connection from here to Rojava be cut off?

It is important to emphasize that Shengal has always been closely connected with Rojava. There is a spiritual bond between Shengal and Rojava and they want to cut it. Our model of self-government is very close to that in Rojava. When Shengal is in trouble, Rojava comes to the rescue. We saw this best during the genocide of 2014. The first to come to our aid were the fighters from Rojava. We are also in close contact with Rojava when it comes to those who have been abducted by ISIS returning to their families. Let's just say Rojava and we are in the same boat. The war plans against Rojava are the same as those against Shengal. The people of Rojava are very sensitive to the people of the Shengal region.

What is your relationship with the other parts of Kurdistan and the neighboring states?

The self-government has contact with the government in Baghdad. As TAJÊ we have a stronger relationship with the society of Iraq than with the government. We have friendly relations with structures in Kirkuk, Baghdad and Sulaymaniyah. However, there are no relations between Hewlêr and the self-government, nor between Hewlêr and TAJÊ. We have relations with many countries in the Middle East. Among other things, we participated as TAJÊ in a women's conference in Lebanon.

"The KDP uses the Yazidis in the camps"

Part of the Yazidi population lives in camps in Rojava and South Kurdistan. What are you doing for their return to Shengal?

There are very few Yazidis left in the refugee camps in Rojava. Most of those who are still there live in houses and their situation is generally good. In Southern Kurdistan, their numbers are greater and most of them are in danger. The KDP is trying in various ways to prevent these people from returning to their land in Shengal. In cooperation with the intelligence services, they are trying to bring them to Europe. They are being housed in two-room dwellings without any infrastructure. We have repeatedly demanded that they be allowed to return to Shengal. A self-government return committee has even been formed and we are doing everything we can to help them find their way back. But the KDP keeps spreading propaganda saying, "Don't return to Shengal, it's not safe there, the Turkish state is attacking every day." This is part of the special war policy to prevent people from returning. Of course, we have to be self-critical in this regard, because they can come and live just like we do. We just have to convince them of that.

"The security situation in South Kurdistan is worse than in Shengal"

Today, the security situation in South Kurdistan is different from that in Shengal in another way, the security problem is bigger. There are constant attacks by the Turkish state near camps in South Kurdistan. In these camps, the KDP prevents people from organizing, through which they could be convinced to return. We know very well that our friends who we send there are arrested. But this should not be an excuse for us. Our people here could also convince the people in the camps to return by phone. In these camps, our people are being held captive, people are being used (by the KDP) in elections, diplomacy, politics and business. The KDP confiscates the relief goods that are sent to these camps from outside. It threatens people, saying, "If you don't vote for us, we will cut off your food supply." It has them forcibly dragged into its news channels and propaganda against self-government.

"Return to the land you grew up on"

Indeed, this issue is very important and we have to work much harder to convince the people who live in the camps. I would like to make the following appeal again to these people through your agency: There is no substitute for home. Why have you been living in camps for seven years when a life of dignity awaits you on your own land? Your stay in the camps is causing great harm to you, your faith and Shengal. Return to the land where you grew up.