From the place of flight for Yazidis from Gaziantep around 1900 to the present place of expulsion of Yazidis.

by Philipp Bernert

In the course of the Turkish military offensive on the Kurdish region under the name “Operation Olive Branch”, not only was a Kurdish autonomous region destroyed, which offered protection to civilians in the war in Syria, which has been ongoing since 2011, but the existence of the Yazidis community in Afrin was also threatened. Afrin was one of the last three existing historical Yazidi settlement areas with 21 Yazidi villages, of which only 3 villages were not occupied and their inhabitants forced to flee, together with Sheikhan and the Schingal region (Arab. Sinjar) in northern Iraq, until it was taken by Turkey.

Exact figures about the affected population are not known. However, realistic estimates by the orientalist and ethnologist Dr. Sebastian Maisel assume that up to 7,000 Yazidis were living in the region until the beginning of the war in 2011. Due to flight from the war, their number dropped to 5,000 by 2013 and 4,000 by 2014, and continued to decrease in small numbers until 2018. They lived as a minority until the end, mainly in Afrin City and Aleppo City, but also in an interconnected area of traditional Yazidi villages, especially in the southeast of the region on the Afrin River, the Joumè Valley.

There they historically lived in 21 Yazidien villages, of which they were still in the majority in 10 villages until the end, while in the remaining 11 villages they had already lived as a significant minority for a century. Only 3 of these villages inhabited by Yazidis had not been conquered by the Turkish army and its Islamist allies by March 2018.

With the introduction of self-government in 2012, Yazidis from Afrin were able to participate in the regional administration, were able to use their language “Kurmancî” in public and established Yazidien religious education in schools with teachers trained in the Yazidien Centre Lalish as well as produced teaching materials. Also, the regional Yazidie Festival “Taj Hilla”, historically celebrated in the region, was revived in the villages of Arsh Qibar and Faqiran in 2013. The Turkish military offensive was supposed to change all this. According to the UN, only 136,000 Africans remained in the region. The majority of about 170,000 people fled outside the area controlled by the Turkish military.

The autonomy of the region was abolished and replaced by a hybrid dictatorship of the Turkish military and its Islamist allied militias. Regional Transitional Councils ignore the Kurdish regional majorities and are formed mainly of Sunni Arab and Turkmen men, with the participation of numerous Kurdish representatives of the ENKS parties, which are also involved in order to feign political legitimacy during the occupation.

“Kurmancî” was abolished again as an administrative and teaching language and replaced by Arabic and with Turkish, which is a foreign language in the region. Islamic instruction was made obligatory for pupils and powers of Islamist militias were created, for example to enforce the Islamic veiling of the female population under duress. In addition, since the occupation of the region, Islamists who fled from the Syrian regime have settled in the region, cooperating closely with the Turkish government politically and appropriating the abandoned houses and properties in Afrin. By May 3, 2018, the number of settlers from other parts of Syria such as Homs and Damascus had already reached 25,000 people, according to the pro-Turkish board of directors.

With this, the Turkish state is again following the Ottoman persecution of the Yazidis in the Afrin region, which became stronger especially after 1858 and, according to the estimates of the French Orientalist Roger Lescot, had almost wiped out the Yazidis in the region in 1936, which led to the fact that the number of Yazidien villages already decreased by 12 villages to 35 villages until the research in the region by the Belgian orientalist Henri Lammens in 1903 from 47 Yazidien villages. At this time Lammens speaks of about 3,000 Yazidis in the region.

Until the research of the French Orientalist Roger Lescot, the number of Yazidis sank by a further 14 villages to 21, in which only in 10 villages a Yazidie majority remained and, according to the French mandate administration, by 1939 the number had fallen to 1,143. Motives for conversion were, on the one hand, the land reform, which made land ownership possible only for adherents of an Abrahamic religion such as Islam, which robbed the broad Yazidie population of its livelihood and forced it to convert. On the other hand, the fear of being sent as Yazidi during military service for the Ottoman Empire, specifically to remote areas such as the war in Yemen in the south of the Arabian Peninsula.

The political discrimination also led to a social imbalance, which initiated attacks and harassment of Yazidis by Muslim-Kurdish neighbours. Yet despite the oppression of Yazidis in the region itself in the 19th century, Afrin was a refuge for Yazidis from other regions. Lescot speaks of the fact that Yazidis of the tribe Reşkan from the Rumkale district of the Gaziantep region (today’s Turkey) joined their fellow believers at Afrin and that the 4 villages in the north of the Qastal Jindo, Sînka, Bafliyum and Qatmah region go back to their settlement.

The Yazidis in the region of Afrin remained isolated from the other Yazidi areas in the northeastern part of the new state of Syria, but also from the new states of Turkey and Iraq. This meant that in this situation they were exposed to particular pressure to integrate and assimilate into the neighboring majority societies of Muslim Arabs and Kurds.

At Rumkale they had two shrines. On the one hand the Ziyaret, i.e. the place of pilgrimage of Sheikh Mend near Zage (today: Kızılin) and on the other hand the place of pilgrimage of Kekê Ezîz near Kuştam (today: Güder), which was particularly venerated by Faqîrs (Yazidia ascetics) and according to tradition was dedicated to him as a companion of the Yazidia Saint Sheikh Adi. The relics of both Ziyarets could be saved and brought to Afrin in 1925 shortly before the destruction by the Turkish government.

Together both areas, the Afrin Valley and the region near Rumkale, belonged to one of the oldest settlement areas of the Yazidis, which was settled in the 13th century by Sheikh Mend and his Yazidien followers. Based on this, Sheikh Mend founded the “Principality of Kilis”, which extended far beyond these areas to Aleppo and Maraş and was ruled by Yazidian princes until the 16th century. It included Yazidis, Christians and Muslims and peacefully united different ethnic groups such as Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Armenians.

With the Turkish occupation, not only the Kurdish autonomy, but also the Yazidie history and the peaceful coexistence of the different religions and peoples is erased. Numerous attacks on remaining Yazidis became known during the Turkish offensive and afterwards. This was followed by the kidnapping and ransom extortion of 11 Yazidis from the village of Qatmah, numerous destruction of ziyarets and forced conversions of remaining Yazidis.

The fate of those who fled and remained in Afrin must not be forgotten and humanitarian aid must continue. As part of the post-war order, a right of return for the Yazidis in their historic settlement area near Afrin must be guaranteed, so that this piece of Yazidie history and cultural coexistence in the region does not come to an end.

Meanings of the markings:

red: Yazidimajority until 2018

orange: Yazidiminority until 2018

yellow: Afrin, new city foundation with Yazidi minority until 2018

dark green: converted to Islam by 1900

light green: converted to Islam by 1930

List of sources:

Cockburn, P. (18.04.2018). Yazidis who suffered under Isis face forced conversion to Islam amid fresh persecution in Afrin. Independent.

Edowar, F. (15.02.2015). Yazidi Assembly in Afrin Started by the Distribution of the Book of Subject of Yazidi Religion on the Canton Schools’ Students (D. Ossi, Übers.). Adar Press.

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Lescot, R. (1938). Enquête sur les Yezidis de Syrie et du Djebel Sindjar. Beirut: Institute Francais de Damas.

Maisel, S. (2013). Syria’s Yezidis in the Kurd Dagh and the Jazira: Building Identities in a Heterodox Community. In: The Muslim

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Hamou, A. und Limoges B. (03.05.2018). Kurds locked out of Afrin as Ghouta refugees take their place. Middle East Eye.

Nabu, J. (2016). Politische Situation der Eziden in Afrin und Cizire. In: Gesellschaft ezidischer Akademiker (Hrsg.). Im Transformationsprozess: Die Eziden und das Ezidentum gestern, heute morgen (S.135-138). Berlin: VWB – Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung.

NewsRep (30.04.2018). Yezidis kidnapped in Afrin by armed men.

O’Connell J. (03.2018). Incident Report Feature: Intentional Destruction of Religious Sites in Afrin.

Rudaw (30.03.2018). Kurdish language might be taught in Afrin’s schools: ENKS.

The New Arab (13.04.2018). Syria’s Afrin gets council after Kurd militia ousted: Turkish media.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (15.06.2018). Syrian Arab Republic: Humanitarian situation update in Afrin District and for IDPs in surrounding communities (as of 15. June 2018). Humanitarian Response.