Mixed Yazidi Teams in Sinjar
Bringing Women and Men at the Frontlines of Clearance Efforts in Iraq
The sound of gunfire could be heard at a distance, growing louder with every minute. Explosions run in parallel, like a well-rehearsed symphony. Close to the village, signs of havoc appear. There is little time to escape from the impending chaos, and 17-year-old Naeemeh and her family barely manage to pack their belongings and drive to the distant mountains.
3 August 2014 was a different kind of Sunday. For the quiet village of Kojo, a small town in the Sinjar district in Northern Iraq, the sound of war rarely eclipsed the tentative peace, not since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Yet, on that particular Sunday, the sound of live ammunition was startling. Rumors of an unknown militant group taking over Mosul had begun to spread. For the residents of Sinjar, the news of Peshmerga being overrun by the invaders was especially alarming, and only those who managed to outpace time were able to escape.
That day marked a turning point in Iraq’s political trajectory. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or Da’esh, prompted a mass exodus and a political crisis unprecedented in recent history. For minorities, and Yazidi residents of Sinjar in particular, the aftermath of the Sinjar invasion preceded a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations reported that approximately 5,000 Yazidi civilians, mostly men, were killed in the August offensive. However, this was only the beginning for Da’esh. Yazidi women suffered sexual violence, were enslaved or shot, marking the start of a genocidal campaign of the ethno-religious minority.
Now, years after the defeat of Da’esh by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), their legacy continues to live on – in mass graves around the city, on school walls filled with photos of missing family members and in the remnants of houses once standing.
Among the problems afflicting the Yazidi community post-liberation, nothing is more dangerous than the enduring presence of explosive hazards. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosive remnants of war (ERWs) are everywhere; their presence continues to threaten the lives of Yazidis, and impedes the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
In November 2018, approximately 200,000 Yazidis were estimated to remain displaced throughout refugee camps in Northern Iraq, with about 6,000 families having returned home. The majority of those who have decided to return live in dire conditions: in ghost towns with minimal reconstruction efforts and lack of fundamental services such as water and electricity.
Faced with military operations to reclaim the Sinjar territory in 2014, Da’esh members deliberately booby-trapped Yazidi residences, ensuring IEDs continue to haunt the city long after they had left.
These remnants of war are a significant obstacle to all rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. No humanitarian projects can begin if critical infrastructure such as hospitals, power plants, schools, bridges, and roads are littered with IEDs - often barely visible to the untrained eye. There is an urgent need for explosive hazard management (EHM) activities throughout all retaken areas of Iraq, especially in the Anbar and Ninewa governorates, where Sinjar is located.
To lead, coordinate, and facilitate EHM, risk education and capacity enhancement activities in formerly Da’esh-controlled areas, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) was established in Iraq in 2015 upon the request of the UN and the Iraqi government. Since then, UNMAS Iraq has been at the front lines of the conflict, entering liberated territories to coordinate an EHM response.
An assessment conducted in July 2018 in Sinjar underlined the heavy presence of IEDs in residential areas and along roads and grazing land. The Mayor’s office and other stakeholders advised that approximately 4,000 homes in the area, in addition to public infrastructure such as hospitals, cemeteries, and schools, need survey - to assess contamination, and clearance – to remove threats, before returns are possible. This will require a significant number of operators and mechanical assets, and will be an incredibly lengthy process.
UNMAS Iraq coordinated a gender-responsive approach that safeguards and integrates the needs of women, men, boys and girls into EHM, by forming its very first mixed team of searchers in Iraq and ensuring partners are trained and responsive to particular gender considerations in EHM, such as safety equipment designed for women. The teams comprise both Yazidi and Muslim women and men from Sinjar itself, highlighting the personal and emotional connection of the work to many of the team members.
UNMAS first trained clearance teams in Bartella, a few hours west of Sinjar, prior to the start of operations in April. The course ran for two months, and was delivered by highly-skilled instructors working for one of UNMAS implementing partners. The training incorporated advanced skillsets and technologies that respond to international humanitarian mine action standards.
While the facts on the ground are indeed telling, nothing is as inspiring as the personal stories shared by the mixed team of searchers, members of the Sinjar community. For UNMAS Iraq, these provide a human connection to the work conducted in the field.
Below are some of the stories that have moved us and motivate our work.
Four years after the brutal Da’esh attacks on Sinjar, UNMAS implementing partners trained certain members of the community as searchers and IED Disposal (IEDD) operators.
Some of the team members involved in the project are among the thousands still living in IDP camps and are eager for their families, friends and communities to return home, so they can rebuild their lives and live in a safe, explosive hazard-free environment. The searchers and IEDD operators are trained to locate and dispose of explosive items in a systematic way, aided by the use of specialist equipment, and under the supervision of international mentors.
Naeemeh, a 22-year-old survivor from Kojo, is one of more than 20 women pursuing this unique endeavor. She remembers well the attack of 3 August 2014.
“We were told the Peshmerga were being overrun by invaders, we jumped in cars and left. There was much gunfire and explosions, it was very frightening. Many of my friends and family didn’t manage to escape to the mountains with us; we still don’t know what happened to some.”
The arduous training in which Naeemeh enrolled in involved long days, with each building or piece of ground posing different risks and problems. Maintaining focus and awareness of the ever-changing surroundings at all times is key, while the use of specialist search equipment such as metal detectors and locators is well practiced. Confidence in their ability is required, but over-confidence could be a matter of life and death.
Now employed in the area where she grew up, Naeemeh is enjoying being fundamentally involved in her community’s future.
“As well as being able to financially support my family, the skills I have learnt will help me, and looking forward, my children will have a much brighter future in this area. This is something a few months ago I never imagined possible. The Mayor of Sinjar visited us and told us we are all the future of Sinjar. I realized then, more than ever, how important the job we are trained to do really is.”
As the only surviving member of a family of eight, Nathem has moved to Zakho in the Dohuk Governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan, living with his friends in a rented apartment. Some of his immediate family members have been found buried in mass graves, with the remaining others still missing and whereabouts unknown. His extended relatives are dispersed in different locations – some in villages north of the Sinjar mountain, with others having fled the country all together. While Nathem still maintains contact with them, he cannot fathom himself leaving Sinjar.
“Sinjar is where I was born and where I belong. I cannot see myself living anywhere else, and I look forward to moving back home in the near future.”
Nathem understands that currently, the majority of Sinjar remains uninhabitable. Explosive hazards are scattered everywhere, and until cleared, continue to hinder the safe return of his community.
With this as his primary motivator, he joined the mixed team of Yazidi searchers, working with UNMAS implementing partner to clear his district of explosive hazards.
So far, it has been a great experience for him: “Working with my female and male colleagues every day, especially with our shared experiences, to clear our own homes, schools, and communal facilities makes the danger in my job worth it. It gives purpose to what I’m doing.”
“It is also very rewarding to work alongside my female colleagues – as equals. This allows us to exchange our knowledge and capabilities, and learn from one another. In our individual and collective capacities at work, as men and women, we complete each other.”
In its drive to contribute in changing gender norms in Iraq while opening up equal opportunities to employment, UNMAS Iraq is especially proud of the men and women of the Sinjar team. Employment in mine action has enabled them to improve their families’ livelihood and become important actors in rebuilding their communities, thus transforming the narrative of Yazidis from victims to role models.
Many challenges still remain for the team and their communities. As Sinjar operations are remote and hard to reach, there are significant implications for logistics, such as access to locations and driving time, as well as staff welfare. The security dynamics are complex, with local security forces sometimes denying access to sites despite official permissions to work. In addition, IDPs wish to return only once services such as electricity and water are restored; those who have returned add a layer of increased risk, as clearance of their areas of living is still often needed. To mitigate the threats to returnees, UNMAS is continuing its push for authorization for operations in private dwellings, to conduct safe residential clearance.
In addition, understanding that the majority of the searchers have experienced the conflict with Da’esh and grave repercussions on their family, friends, and communities, UNMAS is working within the existing regional health care network to provide psycho-social support to all search and clearance personnel. With the full acceptance that the same experiences that motivate the team to produce their best work can sometimes trigger memories of previous or ongoing events, UNMAS is keen to ensure that both the physical and mental health of all its teams are in good standing.
The work conducted by UNMAS mixed teams in Sinjar provide a blueprint for future mine action operations in Iraq. UNMAS is committed to mainstream gender across all its activities in country. Accounting for the needs of women, men, boys and girls into EHM response is pivotal in ensuring the equality and dignity of vulnerable communities, and enabling the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of IDPs back to their areas of origin.
UNMAS in Iraq would like to thank the Governments of Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, the European Union, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom for offering equal opportunities to women and men as well as supporting gender mainstreaming initiatives in mine action.
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) - https://www.unfpa.org/news/after-escape-former-isil-slaves-face-new-challenges
Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) - https://www.nrc.no/news/2018/november/several-hundred-thousand-yazidis-remain-displaced/
Photos: UNMAS Iraq/Cengiz Yar