SINJAR, Iraq—Evil doesn’t always reveal itself through goose-stepping armies or skyscrapers collapsing on a clear autumn day.
Sometimes, it’s only a sun-bleached bone in a field.
This was the place the old peshmerga colonel wanted to show me. It wasn’t anything special by the look of it. Certainly, this plot of brown grass on a hillside in northern Iraq was less impressive than Sinjar’s endless rows of pulverized buildings, blasted to bits by Islamic State bombs and U.S. airstrikes.
But here on this plot of land, so easily overlooked, a few white bones and some tattered clothes melded into the earth. All that remained of 24 people. Men, women, and children. Civilians. Murdered by ISIS. Their bodies left in the open to rot; their bones picked clean by wild animals and stray dogs, and then burnt white by the sun.
It was one of about 100 mass graves in Sinjar. You probably wouldn’t even notice the place if you didn’t know to look for it. Yet, it was radioactive. The evil and suffering that the ground concealed hummed and crackled, passing invisibly through the air, then right through you, turning you inside out, ruining you from within.
You can’t see it, touch it, or smell it. But you feel it. And there’s a particular way the hushed voices of the dead echo to the living in a place like this. I’ve felt the same thing at Auschwitz, at the Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv, and at ground zero in New York City.
Call it ghosts, spirits, something ethereal and fantastic, or maybe just the mind trying to reconcile the ordinary collage of senses with the intellectually putrid knowledge of what happened here. How could some place so peaceful have been the epicenter of something so evil?
The chain of events that lead men to do this to one another seem all the more extraordinary when you see the evidence in such a normal, forgettable place. There was nothing about this particular plot of earth that might inspire one to gun down a group of innocents. Whatever quantity of hate is required to kill scores of helpless people, the ISIS terrorists brought it with them. The vile seed planted far away, only coming to fruition at this random spot.
And what crime did the murdered commit? Nothing more than the accident of their births as Yazidis, Christians, or Shiite Muslims. Unknowing victims of circumstances that put their lives in the path of absolute evil.
I went to Sinjar to see the true nature of ISIS. I wanted to stare straight into the aftermath of the terrorist army’s perversion, regardless of the images that might be singed into my mind’s eye.
Up early at the hotel in Erbil, only enough time to brew some instant coffee and eat an apple before meeting my fixer and his brother downstairs.
In a silver SUV we weaved through Erbil’s quiet morning streets. Past malls and fast-food restaurants, then out across the wide-open plains and eroded hills of northern Iraq. The rugged Zagros Mountains on the border with Iran in the distance. The terrain to the west toward ISIS was beautiful, a choppy sea of wheat-covered fields rising and falling over an ancient landscape etched by the elements.
We drove past the plain of Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great’s army defeated the combined armies of Darius III, the Persian king. And then we passed Rabia, a town on the Syrian border where Kurdish peshmerga soldiers fought a deadly battle against ISIS in September 2014.
There, on the side of the road, children playing. An old woman sat in front of a wall pockmarked by shrapnel. She leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. Her face as eroded by the years as the terrain. What might she have seen in her lifetime? What fraction of all her years had she spent living in peace?
As the millennia of wind and rain have cut through the earth, so has war chiseled into the people and the towns we passed. House after house, building after building, flattened by the fighting. Ragged pieces of a wall left standing; cars twisted into nests of burnt metal. Was it an airstrike or an ISIS bomb? Does it matter for the people left living here?
We skirted along the Syrian border, staying on backcountry roads to avoid ISIS territory to the south. There’s a highway that connects Erbil to Sinjar, which goes through Mosul. Without ISIS we probably could have made the journey in less than two hours. It took us six hours to get to Sinjar on this day.
“Can’t you just call the Air Force and have them bomb us a path?” Khasraw, my fixer, half-jokingly asked.
The weather waned from sunny to rainy. My back ached from hours on bumpy roads. At a Kurdish checkpoint, the guards didn’t want to let us pass. They were wary of the Western journalist in the back of the SUV.
Khasraw and his twin brother are both peshmerga soldiers and they had the right paperwork from the Kurdish government. It took some time and negotiation, and a period of delay dutifully fulfilled by the guard commander to assert his authority, but he eventually allowed us to pass.
As we arced north of Mosul, the terrain was wide open with little relief or foliage, like an earth tone blanket being shook in the wind. You could see for miles as if looking across the ocean. The different towns and villages jutted from the expanse like man-made islands.
Kurdish peshmerga forts lined the road, and we passed through checkpoint after checkpoint. Long stretches were left undefended, though. Could ISIS slip through and set up an ambush? I found myself relying on the promise of U.S. airpower as the guarantor of my safety. It was a comforting thought, even if I understood its limits.
Ahead, the silhouette of Sinjar Mountain rose from the plain. The refuge for all those Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites who fled from the ISIS invasion in August 2014. Now, the towns in the shadow of the mountain are liberated. The civilians are back in most places, living among the ruins.
But from the look of it, life is hard here. Trash was piled up on the sides of roads alongside the burnt-out shells of armored vehicles. Many damaged buildings remained abandoned. The overt military presence of the peshmerga and the fact that even shepherds had Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders were symptoms of a society living on the contact line of peace and war.
Often, the most jarring parts of war are the vignettes of normal life that coexist with the fighting. Everyday scenes like children going to school that seem so out of place on the extraordinary stage of war. But those images tapered off as we neared Sinjar.
The place was a tomb. Lifeless like a bone-white coral reef.
ISIS took over Sinjar and the surrounding area in August 2014, and Kurdish and Yazidi forces freed the town in November 2015 after a tough, two-day fight.
About 88,000 civilians used to live in Sinjar. Now, the town’s only inhabitants are the approximately 5,000 Kurdish soldiers deployed to defend the area from ISIS—the terrorist army is still camped only about 2 or 3 miles away.
No civilians were left living in Sinjar, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. Total destruction isn’t a phrase to use lightly. But in the case of Sinjar, it applied.
There were no subtle hints about what happened here, only brash, bold statements that hit you like a Mike Tyson punch. No building left untouched. Some had only a wall or two caved in from the explosions; most were reduced to piles of concrete rubble and twisted rebar. Endless, street after street.
Such a scene is for the eyes like listening to Mozart’s “Requiem” is for the ears. It’s multilayered and terrifying, simultaneously filling you with awe and making you want to weep. You can’t turn away, and where could you look anyway? There’s no eye to the storm, no blank, untouched quarter within which to rest your gaze and recover. The war’s destruction is everywhere. The only escape is to close your eyes or just leave this place.
The peshmerga soldiers said the damage was due to both coalition airstrikes and a campaign by ISIS to destroy the homes and businesses of Yazidis, Christians, and Shiite Muslims.
The Kurds took us around town to see the battle scars. ISIS had used underground tunnels to shelter from airstrikes, and they had carved out holes in the ground from which snipers would emerge like gophers to pick off peshmerga soldiers. ISIS turned the town into a gauntlet of booby traps and remotely detonated explosive devices.
From the peshmerga soldiers’ accounts, it sounded like a hell of a fight. And based on the flat expressions on some of the soldiers’ faces, I understood the echo of the bullets and the bombs had not yet silenced.
I asked about the mass graves, and peshmerga Col. Shuqur Qasim Yusif took me to the place with the bones. There were about 100 mass graves the Kurds had discovered so far, he told me, and likely more left hidden on the outskirts of town, inaccessible because they fall within no man’s land separating Kurdish and ISIS positions.
Most of Sinjar’s residents fled when ISIS invaded, becoming refugees. Those who remained were subject to ISIS’ pogroms. Men, women, and children; Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites—lined up and shot. About 5,000 were killed. The ages of the dead ranged from 1 to 70. Many young women were spared, only so they could be forced into sexual slavery.
It was a Hobbesian nightmare. The words the Kurdish soldiers used to explain what happened here fell flat on my ears. I had no experience in life on which to draw to imagine such horrors. Only images from movies, or ideas from books I’ve read. I’ve seen dead soldiers before, but that was different. A tragedy, yes, but without the sharp bite of injustice that comes with genocide.
I tried hard to appreciate what had happened in Sinjar, I tried to feel it. But all I could muster was a detached coldness. I felt a stirring anger, and a feeling of camaraderie with the Kurds as we shook our heads in disbelief at the awful stories. But still, when I expected more, I felt mostly numb.
The time to mourn and absorb the tragedy had not yet arrived. The vapid souls who had committed those terrible acts were only 2 or 3 miles away. They were still shooting rockets and artillery into the heart of Sinjar. Their suicide bombers were still making kamikaze charges across no man’s land.
The war was still there, even after I left it.
Later, after returning to Erbil, I went to a shopping mall. I wanted a normal afternoon with no war, a chance to pretend like I was back home. I wandered, stopping in stores that sold Levi’s jeans and North Face hiking pants.
It felt, for a moment, like I was back, a part of the main again. Like it was all a dark imagining, and shopping, eating in a food court, and smoking a hookah could distance me from Sinjar like a thousand miles lay between, and not a six-hour car ride.
I was about to leave, walking toward the exit actually, when I noticed what looked like a flea market. Rows of tables behind which men, women, and children were selling all sorts of knickknacks. Curious, I walked over to look.
A tall young man wearing a keffiyeh was standing to the side. I asked if he spoke English, and he did. His name was Muhammed. He explained to me that this was a bazaar for refugees to sell their goods. Thousands had fled from ISIS in Iraq and Syria to seek refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. And many were now without work, left living in tents in sprawling refugee camps.
This bazaar, Muhammed told me, was a chance for some of those refugees to make a little money.
I wandered the rows of tables with Muhammed. The women were dressed beautifully and smiling. The children were playing and misbehaving to their mothers’ exasperation. A young man was selling wax candles. He introduced himself as Ahmed and said he was from Mosul. He used to be a lawyer, he said. Now selling candles was the only way to make a living for him and his wife.
At a table, young women from Syria wore bright red cardigans and sold sweets and cakes. They smiled and giggled among themselves, acting the way friends do.
I saw them all and I felt happy. I saw the life, the smiles, the decisions to not give up and to keep on living no matter what. There were lots of broken dreams there, lots of hardship and pain locked away behind each smiling face. You might see a glimpse of it here or there in a forlorn, far-off gaze. But mainly, there was a sense of happiness, of community.
Back to the Bone
I sensed my surroundings. A mall that could be anywhere, USA. The waxed floors. The soft rock piped over speakers comprising the background din. The coffee shops, the Levi’s store. As I looked across the rows of tables covered with arts and crafts, and the smiling faces of the refugees, it all felt so normal.
But then I was back to the bone in the field. My senses told me everything was OK, but my mind told me that’s not so. My mind can’t forget. I understood what those refugees at the mall represented.
I met two children, a brother and sister, both refugees from Sinjar. They were with their mother, who wore a beautiful garment and was selling trinkets. We didn’t speak the same language, but I said hello and the children smiled at me curiously before continuing to chase each other around the tables.
Muhammed said something to the woman about me being an American and a journalist. She put a hand over her heart and said, “Shokran.”
The evidence that people are good at heart doesn’t always reveal itself through grand gestures of charity or faith.
Sometimes, it’s only a young man persevering for love, children playing, or a woman with a hand over her heart saying thank you.