The lost innocence of Yazidi children

“I would rather die than live in this hell,” he said.

The young boy speaking to me was no more than 13 years old, but his words were that of a much older man, a broken man who had given up on life.

“Look around you,” he said. “Is this the way human beings are meant to live?”

Looking around me, I found myself speechless because he was right. At that point he turned around and walked away.

That was my first encounter with a Yazidi.

On this freezing November day in Zakho, in northern Iraq, the stench of urine and human waste was overwhelming.

As you walked through the sludge, you were not quite sure if you were walking in mud or faeces.

Heavy rains from the night before had left a thick blanket of mud across the grounds of a construction site, now home to more than 7,000 Yazidis.

The buildings are unfinished, they have no running water, toilets or electricity.

There are no windows, or doors or rails lining the stairs and balconies of these ten-storey residential blocks, and no lifts.

This recipe for disaster has already caused many accidents in the past few months.

One woman fell off her balcony last month while hanging her laundry, we were told by another camp resident, who also said that at least half a dozen small children had also died in similar accidents.

It was only a few months ago that the Yazidis were going about their daily lives, a population of roughly 700,000, the vast majority of them living in and around the mountainous Sinjar region of northern Iraq.

The Yazidi faith is an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. The religion has adopted elements from each, ranging from baptism in Christianity to circumcision in Islam, to the reverence of fire as a manifestation of God, derived from Zoroastrianism.

The Yazidi religion remains distinctly non-Abrahamic, and while the Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish, their minority faith has been the main cause for their persecution.

Although historically the Yezidis were subject to genocides in both the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not until more recently in 2007 that they were under the spotlight again after being targeted by al-Qaeda in Iraq and subjected to indiscriminate killings.

As history repeats itself, the past few months have put this Iraqi minority under a renewed threat.

The Yazidis have been denounced as infidels and devil worshippers by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levante (ISIL).

They have also been subjected to threats by the group that they either convert to Islam or face death.

ISIL has killed more than 5,000 of their men, and abducted more than 7,000 of their women who are being detained in camps and are being sold as slaves and concubines – the unlucky ones who never got away.

For those Yazids who managed to flee, almost half a million of them are now living in official and unofficial IDP camps in northern Iraq, according to the UN.

They have taken shelter in unfinished buildings, public schools and under bridges. It is a tragedy no matter how you spin it.

Uncertain future

Almost a quarter of a million of the displaced Yazidis are children. The children unsurprisngly are the worst affected victims of this conflict.

On this particular day, the UN mission in Dohuk was distributing winter clothes to Yazidi children ranging in age from two months to 15 years old.

Suleiman Nasser was one of thousands of men queuing up to receive the donations.

When Nasser returned to their one-room makeshift home, his wife and five children were eagerly waiting.

His eldest son, 15-year old Sabah, tore open the boxes as if it was a special occasion and tried everything on.

Meanwhile, the younger children and toddlers were dressed by their mother Zainab.

The scene was emotionally overwhelming, but in the larger scheme of things the donation is so minor that it almost seems cosmetic.

The UN is doing a good thing here: they have helped tens of thousands of internally displaced people and Syrian refugees in northern Iraq with the help of local authorities. There is no denying that.

But the displaced Yazidis need more than donations: they need security and stability and the promise of a new life free from persecution.

The lost innocence of Yazidi children