Iraqi Kurdistan rejects HRW report on Sinjar, says it’s committed to return of Yezidi civilians

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Yezidi refugees enter Syria after escaping ISIS attacks on Shingal [Sinjar] district in northern Iraq. File photo: ARA News

ARA News

Erbil – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on Wednesday rejected a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that accused the KRG of preventing the return of Yezidis to the district of Sinjar [Shingal] in northern Iraq.

The KRG in a response said it is ‘wholly committed to facilitating the return of Sinjar’s citizens to their respective homes’ after the Peshmerga forces and allies liberated the Yezidi district from ISIS.

In a report released on 4 December, the human rights organization said that the KRG has placed disproportionate restrictions on the movement of goods into and out of the district of Sinjar through the Suhaila crossing, which damages the local economy in Sinjar.

“After the devastating ISIS attacks on the area and slaughter of the Yezidi population two years ago [in August 2014], the KRG’s restrictions are another serious blow,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The KRG should be working to facilitate access to Sinjar for the hundreds of Yezidi civilians wishing to return to their homes, not adding more barriers to their recovery.”

“The families we spoke to in Sinjar say they are unable to pursue their traditional livelihoods – they are barely managing day to day,” Fakih said. “If these levels of restrictions persist, Sinjar and the Yezidis will find it very difficult to recover.”

KRG officials told the HRW that they are concerned about the activities of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the PKK-affiliated Shingal Resistance Units (YBŞ) in Sinjar. A leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was told by the Duhok governor’s office that they fear aid would be taken to the PKK, or smuggled to Syria where the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) are active.

However, the head of the KRG High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports, Dr. Dindar Zebari, said on Wednesday “the reason why some goods have not been allowed to enter the Sinjar district is due to the fear of it being transported to Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Southern Sinjar and other ISIS-held areas to assist them in their efforts.”

“Some goods which have not been allowed to enter through the checkpoint [Suhaila crossing] into the Sinjar district include elements which may be used in bomb-making, such as ammonia and chlorine which are purportedly used as fertiliser agents in agricultural endeavours. However, other goods such as cement and steel poles are permitted to enter the Sinjar district based on individual citizenry needs,” the KRG said.

Furthermore, the Kurdish government fears looters could steal from uninhabited houses in Sinjar.

“Moreover, some goods are not permitted to leave Sinjar due to the fear that these possessions have been looted from uninhabited areas and homes in the district. On an administrative basis there exist difficulties in proving that these belongings have not been looted and belong to the individual trying to cross the Suhaila Bridge crossing and into the Dohuk Governorate such as livestock, TVs, and other house-hold appliances,” the KRG said.

The KRG also expressed worries about a potential smuggling of goods to Syria.

“There is also a concern that the unmanned stretch of border between Iraq and Syria south of the Suhaila Bridge crossing will be a means for the flow of goods to be smuggled between the two countries illegally,” the KRG said. “All goods transported from Iraq to Syria (or indeed other countries) must flow through official checkpoints and must be subject to relevant checkpoint procedures.”

The KRG fears these goods could provide a lifeline to ISIS or other ‘volatile groups in Syria’, without mentioning their names.

The KRG further said that its official channels and NGOs are granted a full access to provide aid, but not for items that present a concern to security. The KRG recently formed a committee, which is composed of the Governorate of Duhok and the Sinjar Mayor’s Office with the mandate of reviewing the procedures and facilitation process in place for the movement of goods into and out of the district of Sinjar.

“The KRG is wholly committed to facilitating the return of Sinjar’s citizens to their respective homes and this is the case for all displaced individuals which are now located in the various governorates in the Kurdistan Region,” the Kurdish government said in a public statement.

“Thus, Dr. Zebari has stated his strong rejection of the assertion Human Rights Watch claim which states that the KRG has worked to mitigate the return of Sinjar citizens to their towns and villages. Furthermore, a number of presented information and evidence in the Human Rights Report are categorically incorrect, such as the map provided which wrongly shows Sinjar town as still being under the control of IS,” the KRG said.

“The Kurdistan Region is a safe-haven for all religious and ethnic minorities and practices an impartial governing and security standard to all. Such remarks by Human Rights Watch do not adequately reflect the Kurdistan Regional Governments approach to such pressing matters as reconstruction and repopulation of areas held by IS,” the KRG High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports concluded.

The PKK has increased its presence in Sinjar, coming through the Syrian border to save Yezidis in August 2014 by opening a corridor from Syria after Peshmergas withdrew from the area during the ISIS invasion. Since then, the PKK has recruited local Yezidis for the YBS and created a local council for Sinjar, which led to concerns for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region, that it could lose influence in Sinjar.

So far both sides have maintained a strong presence in Sinjar, in addition to the Protection Force of Ezidkhan (HPE) led by Haydar Shesho that in October fought together with Peshmerga forces against ISIS and maintains a training camp in Duhola.

In August 2014, ISIS extremists took over the Yezidi autochthonal settlement area in Shingal District. Almost 400,000 residents were displaced, fleeing to Duhok and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tens of thousands of Yezidis remained trapped on Mount Sinjar, suffering mass killings, kidnappings and rape, according to local and military sources.

On November 13, Kurdish forces backed by the US-led coalition, pushed ISIS out of Shingal city. The Kurdish Peshmerga have recently discovered more than five mass graves in the Yezidi region, where hundreds of civilians were summarily executed and ignominiously dumped.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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