The fall of Sinjar and the flight of the Yazidis into the Sinjar mountains this week – yet another terrifying chapter for the persecuted Iraqi minority group – stood in stark contrast to my memories of the far-flung region of northwestern Iraq, which I visited in November 2006. I was then embedded with an Army unit based in Tal Afar at a time when the U.S. military felt it had made significant headway against the terrorists that had spread violence through the area. The soldiers believed they were making strides toward controlling the Iraq-Syria border and rebuilding the region’s towns.
Sinjar was much like other small cities in that remote part of Iraq: Dusty, dingy, depressing. But the people there were full of hope, believing that they had emerged from a dark time and were headed toward something better. Children filled the streets and greeted U.S. troops with huge smiles, high-fives and hugs. The Yazidis profusely thanked an Army colonel as he helped unload supplies. A new Kurdish flag flew above the town square.
The mountains that sat above the city were breathtaking, a series of craggy outcroppings rising suddenly from the Iraqi flats. At Sinjar’s tallest peak, a tight-knit group of U.S. soldiers huddled in an encampment of tents that served as a signal station, where the U.S. military could send, and intercept, transmissions. That tiniest of outposts also served as protection for a sacred Yazidi shrine, an ancient mini temple with a spire that overlooked the Earth.
Though it was windy and cold, it was the most beautiful thing I saw in Iraq, one of those otherworldly sights that photos can’t capture. The sky, streaked with gray clouds, melted at the horizon into the far reaches of the desert, an illusion that hinted at something infinite. Rays of sunlight swept across the rocky cliffs like a breeze. The war, for a moment, was tiny, far away. It was not hard to understand why the Yazidis saw that place as something special, something transcendent. A haven.
Apparently it is again a haven for the Yazidis, this time out of desperation and fear.