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Some Of The Nearly 200,000 Displaced Yazidis Return Home

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to shift our attention now abroad to Iraq. It's been six years since ISIS launched a genocide against the Yazidi people. ISIS was driven out a year later, but nearly 200,000 Yazidis still live in displacement camps in the Kurdistan region. NPR's Jane Arraf traveled to Sinjar to meet those who returned, finding little left of their homes.

(CROSSTALK)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is the happy sound of neighbors welcoming the Edo family back to their village of Tel Qasab. The women unpack cardboard boxes with dishes and pots and pans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

ARRAF: The men unload a small flatbed truck piled with a few pieces of furniture and foam mattresses wrapped in plastic.

NOFA KHUDEDA: (Speaking Kurdish).

ARRAF: "It's a beautiful feeling to be home," says Nofa Khudeda, who's returned with her husband Ali Edo. Khudeda hands out colorful wrapped chocolates in celebration.

KHUDEDA: Thank you.

QUTE MURAD: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Her neighbor Qute Murad came back in September from the camp in the Kurdistan region to a house so damaged they've been living out of two rooms they repaired. There's no electricity or running water. They're still finding snakes and scorpions in the yard.

Q MURAD: (Through interpreter) This is our homeland. In Kurdistan, they took care of us and respected us. But we would rather live on bread and water here than eat meat and rice as displaced people.

ARRAF: It's a tortured homeland. ISIS killed and captured more than 6,000 Yazidis in its campaign of genocide. After that, ISIS fighters and militias that came later looted all the houses here, even stripping the copper wire from electrical cables. Edo is one of the relatively lucky ones. He didn't have children captured by ISIS, and he has a job with the Ministry of Health. But even here, there's tragedy. Their 80-year-old mother couldn't walk, and to escape ISIS, they left her behind in this house when they fled. She's believed to be buried in a mass grave.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: At the security checkpoint to Sinjar, the drivers of small trucks piled with mattresses and other household goods wait for soldiers and police to check that they have the proper documents. We follow Hassan Murad's family to their village of Wardiya. The truck he's hired has piles of blankets and the sticks used to prop up a tent, the last box of food they were given at the camp.

Murad hasn't seen the house for six years, and it's grim. The straw and mud roof has collapsed. The concrete house he was starting to build when ISIS came is still a shell. Like the other Yazidis we speak with, he says he's received no help from the Iraqi government or from aid agencies in moving back.

HASSAN MURAD: (Through interpreter) It's difficult. Don't know how we're going to live here. There's no electricity, no water. This ruined house is all I have.

ARRAF: Despite that, Murad seems happy to be back.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: With his wife, though, Wadha Ammo, is struggling with five children, aged 4 and under, including twins. One of the twins stumbles on the rocks and loses a shoe. There isn't even a cleared place to sit here. Ammo feeds the baby while the other children, exhausted and disoriented, mill around her. She married Murad after they escaped from ISIS. This is the first time she's seen the house.

WADHA AMMO: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "I don't know what to think. It's a destroyed house. It needs a lot of work," she says. But she says they had to come back from the camp at some point. They named one of the children born there Bawar. It means wanderer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

ARRAF: There are no friendly neighbors here to come and help. The village is mostly deserted. Everything is sand colored. Water has to be brought in in tankers. Almost nothing grows. There's a sign on the road saying there was a USAID project here. But that project to bring electricity to the village still hasn't reached the houses. Their Yazidi truck driver Baker Haji Ali says he's brought back 17 families so far. He says people will eventually rebuild their houses, but the bigger problem is the fear that ISIS fighters who came from neighboring Arab villages will come back.

BAKER HAJI ALI: (Through interpreter) If I went to the city of Sinjar tomorrow, I'd be afraid of seeing the same ISIS men who took our Yazidi women sitting around and owning shops. It's painful for us. That is the disaster of Sinjar.

ARRAF: Parts of Sinjar city are still in ruins. In five years since ISIS was driven out, the area has changed hands between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces, and neither they nor the U.N. have done much to help residents rebuild. I've asked aid groups, the U.N., the Iraqi government and diplomats why so little has been done to help survivors of an actual genocide. They give a mix of reasons - leadership struggles, presence of armed militias, security concerns, an Iraqi cash crisis and then the pandemic. Yazidis, though, say it's because they're poor and don't have political power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: A few Yazidi shop-owners have come back. Ziyad Qirany returned three weeks ago after scraping up the rent to open up a small clothing store. We chat next to plastic mannequins set up on the sidewalk modeling Turkish-made suits.

ZIYAD QIRANY: (Through interpreter) I have a few customers, but coronavirus has affected my business because there are no parties or weddings these days.

ARRAF: His cousin Najim Abdullah is 18 and works in the shop. He shows me a photo of his sister, who was captured by ISIS at the age of 10 and is still missing. He says when the pandemic hit, all the Yazidi camps were completely locked down. He says, we felt like we were in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

ARRAF: Sinjar is full of traumatic memories, and returning Yazidis have come back to nothing with almost nothing. They say thank God they're still alive and back in their homeland.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Sinjar, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.