The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fire burns through Yazidi displacement camp seven years after ISIS genocide

People inspect their scorched tents following a massive blaze that swept through the Sharya Camp, which shelters Yazidi refugees in Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan.
People inspect their scorched tents following a massive blaze that swept through the Sharya Camp, which shelters Yazidi refugees in Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan. (Ismael Adnan/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

BAGHDAD — Almost 1,400 of Iraq's Yazidi minority were left homeless Friday after a fire destroyed sections of their displacement camp, adding a new trauma for survivors of a genocide by the Islamic State group.

Eyewitnesses said that the fire in northern Iraq’s Sharya camp, in the semiautonomous Kurdish region, ripped through the tents at frightening speed. Families lost possessions they had grabbed as they fled the militants’ onslaught seven years ago. Others lost what money they had cobbled together since.

As night fell, sobbing could be heard among the ashes, residents said, as devastated families combed the skeletons of their tents in search of anything left to be saved.

Karwan Atroushi, a spokesman for Iraq’s migration and displacement ministry, told local media that the fire had affected almost 400 tents and 1,400 people. The cause of the blaze is being investigated, he said.

Yazidis have long faced persecution for their often-misunderstood beliefs. There are fewer than 1 million Yazidis worldwide, and the United Nations has described the Islamic State’s campaign against them as a genocide. The militants kidnapped thousands of Yazidis on a single day in August 2014, massacring men near mass graves and forcing women into sexual slavery.

Those atrocities prompted the United States to launch military action, marking the start of an international campaign to defeat the Islamist militant group in Iraq and Syria.

The militants’ rampage forced hundreds of thousands of Yazidis from their homes on Mount Sinjar. Some 200,000 are still displaced, the United Nations said, many of them in dilapidated camps just a few hours’ drive from the towns and villages they fled.

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Eight months after a government deal meant to help them return home, many Yazidis say they still feel unsafe doing so and that authorities have not addressed the political, security and economic concerns that have kept them away for seven years.

Inside the camps, unemployment linked to Iraq’s coronavirus crisis has pushed many families deeper into poverty as international aid dries up. Humanitarian organizations describe a mental health crisis among residents. Most witnessed the militants kill their loved ones after Kurdish security forces melted away.

Residents said that Friday’s blaze began quickly. “We already lost our house, and the tent was all we had left,” said Khalil Dawoud, 41, reached by phone. He described a frantic scramble as a fireball engulfed the camp’s awnings. Families screamed and ran. His children grabbed armfuls of what possessions they could save and joined the exodus.

“We watched from afar as the fire ate our tent,” Dawoud said. “As I was running, all I could think of was that day when we ran when the Islamic State came.”

Mayan Hussein, a psychologist supported by the Free Yazidi Foundation, said that fears of such a fire had already kept her patients awake at night. The tightly packed displacement camp had few fire prevention measures and its electrical wiring was poorly maintained. The nearest fire station is almost an hour’s drive away, residents said.

“I speak to women who sleep for just two hours at a time, because they wake up through the night to check that their tent is still safe,” Hussein said.

In a statement, the U.N. refugee agency said that it was “saddened” by the incident. “We are working with local authorities and partners to determine needs and appropriate ways to provide assistance to the affected families,” the agency said. Iraq’s displacement minister also visited the camp in the aftermath of the blaze, sharing photographs of her reassuring residents that support was on its way.

But hours later, Dawoud was skeptical over what would follow after she left. Discombobulated neighbors said they didn’t want more tents — they feared those would burn again. “To the government we were always the ones who didn’t matter,” Dawoud said as he searched with his family for a place to sleep that night. “The suffering of the Yazidi will never end.”

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