One Year After the Exodus from Sinjar: Why Did I Survive?


A year ago, images of suffering kept the world in suspense. They showed people, especially Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups who were fleeing from their homes in the Sinjar area near Mosul, in Iraq. Tens of thousands walked through dust, sand and heat, carrying children, the elderly and the injured on their backs. They walked endlessly for days on end.
I have been working for over ten years in this region and in this time have seen a great deal of suffering and horrors. However, what happened last year in the summer of 2014 revealed unparalleled cruelty.

In August, 2014, countless Yazidis had found refuge from shelling attacks in an unfurnished, five-story building in Zakho, Northern Iraq. There were no toilets, no electricity, and no running water. The atmosphere was dark and heavy, almost spooky. I have often wondered what people must have experienced during their escape to consider themselves to be safer and protected in such an apocalyptic-looking building.

Hadi, a Yazidi, an approximately 13-year-old teenage boy of approximately 13 years sat seemingly motionless on the bare ground and told me his personal horror story: Why all Yazidis had to suddenly leave their ancestral homeland Sinjar, a remote mountain region near the Syrian border, in order to save themselves. 

One day, an armed group invaded Hadi’s village and ordered everyone to line up in a row. He heard gunshots ring out, and out of the corner of his eye watched as people fell to the ground. They were executed, and thrown in a ditch. Hadi lost consciousness. When he awoke, Hadi did not know where he was. He had woken up among the dead, who had saved his life. His father and brothers were motionless beside him. While he told me his story, Hadi’s gaze was fixed on the ground and he played nervously with his sweatpants. “Why did I survive?” he asked me desperately.

I could think of no words to console him. 

A year later, there are still considerable shortages here. Many people carry traumatic experiences with them and cannot forget what they have seen and lived through. In Bersive camp near the Turkish-Iraqi border, people sleep on rocks. Not only is it uncomfortable and painful, it is also dangerous. Mothers worry about their newborns, which could be stung by scorpions while they sleep. 

The financial resources are lacking to build better shelters for the refugees. International aid for displaced Iraqis is dramatically underfunded. The threat of violent attacks control and restrict the movement of Iraqis. The United Nations indicates that more than eight million people in Iraq – refugees, host families and other groups - need help. Despite this, there is a quiet glimmer of hope here in the Kurdistan region. The children are going back to school in refugee camps, and markets have been created so residents can run errands and shop for their day to day needs. The mood in the air is one of hopeful waiting. People say they want to hold out until they can return to their homeland. 

Today, one year after the exodus from Sinjar, I remember the images and testimonies of terror. I remember the unimaginable experiences the refugees have lived. The pictures will never leave my mind. Maybe we have become used to the narrative of war and terror in Iraq. However, the people who are still in Iraq today, and still on the run, urgently need our help and donations. A year ago, those escaping from Sinjar made fleeting appearances on our television screens. Today, they are no longer on our screens but they are still displaced and there will be more to come. The displaced have not found new homes. They live in refugee camps, schools and other public buildings used as temporary shelters. 

We must not forget the images of those who fled last year from Sinjar. They are present and more real than ever.