Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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16 April 2017

Yet Another Return to Sinjar, April 2017 - Part 3

Yezidi shrines are places where Yezidis pay unburdened homage to god (xode) and his angels, where they remember the departed, and where they gather. Yezidi'ism is inseparable from the community and cultural mores. As such, the shrines are the center of the communities, and where Yezidis joyfully gather on fesival days, of which there are many. Daesh, not content to kill and enslave, set out to destroy the fact and symbols of the Yezidi life.

tawaaf at shrine, 2012
We drove around the east end of the mountain where it blended into the Mesopotamian Plain, and then we turned west towards Sinjar City, the epicenter of destruction. We passed through the twisted wreckage, some of it disarmingly graceful, and crankled up the rocky road to the place of the Amadine Shemsa shrine. The burned out and rusting carcasses of cars and trucks marked the way. 

Said, a burly and kindly soldier with a weeping eye that chose its own way, told of his nearby village of Merkhan where 67 Yezidis were executed. Within minutes Gharbi was showing me a slickly produced Daesh video of two boyish suicide bombers killing themselves and others in Merkhan on his smart phone. I recoiled but did not look away.

Five minutes later, Said pointed across a rocky field to a small fenced-in area on a hillside next to a narrow wash, its peacefulness belied the horror.  We walked, I slower than they.  Here the remains of 67 bodies, temporarily covered by small hills of dirt, lay until they can be properly recovered and buried. The small yellow flowers of spring wanted to bloom.

We arrived at Amadine Shemsa.  The site was perched on the top of steep hill that thought itself a mountain.  In 2014, during my last visit, the Yezidis were rebuilding the shrine, the old spire half entombed in a bright new tower, its new flutes hewn from blocks of rock. knife sharp. Now there was but a pile of stone. It was only the top of the old spire peek tiredly tilting to the side that gave clue to at was here before.

Incongruently, a Yezidi grave surrounded by the sharp tumble still had faded plastic flowers attached to its poles.

We looked out over the plains to the south and east. “There, Tel Benet, still Daesh. And there, Ranbusi. Daesh.” The towns were 10 kilometers away. My stomach turned, not in fear, but in rage. I exhaled and continued to search for the story with the camera.

The journey to document the fury of a few and the tears of many continued. An hour later we arrived at Pir Mahmed Rashan which also was being rebuilt 3 years ago with a new broad stairway leading up to the shrine.

Only the stairs parially remained, topped by long twisting water snakes of reinforcing steel.

Gharbi pointed down to the valley behind Rashan. The valley was speckled with dark brown spots below. “You see? Cows. All cows.” Or so I thought he said, suggesting that more Yezidis had returned. But his accent is heavy. It was a herd of burned car and truck carcasses.

We returned to the outskirts of Sinjar City, to the site of a once a fairy tale collection of small Yezidian spires, known locally and unofficially as Pi├žuk (little) Lalish.

No longer. Now it was a hellish spectacle of small spires strewn about, several looking like bad science fiction rocket ships that had crashed and were piercing the the ground.

The ruins of the Sheikh Hasan shrine were different: It heavily proclaimed its former self with the its spire remaining largely in tact, but settled askew atop the brutal rubble of the room below.

The afternoon became long as we continued west to Sheikh Mend Pasha, in Yezidi cosmology the patron of the tribe that can handle snakes without fear of harm. This is Gharbi's tribe.

To the south of us, the frontline between Daesh and the Kurdish/Yezidi force gradually merged with the road, until the high earthen berm frequently punctuated by heavily armed cells became the road's shoulder. We were approaching the end of liberated area. The road and berm swung to the north towards the parallel mountain.  A field of blood red poppies would not be suppressed. We were once again on a dirt track, slowly discovering our way to the shrine.

Shiekh Mend Pasha too had been rebuilt with scant attention to architectural fidelity before Daesh.  As before, in front of the erstwhile shrine stood the same tortured tree festooned with swaths of faded colored silk tied in unruly knots representing wishes of those who tied them years before. It now somehow better suited the scene. 


And propped against a wall of the ruins was a broken stone with the bas relief of a snake, freshly repainted black. It was not forgotten, but the site stood in absolute ruin. Slabs of the long flat roof had collapse to the center and pieces of the spire littered the area.

Sheikh Mend Pasha also was, and is, the site of a memorial commemorating the 2007 car bombing in the nearby Yezidi town of Girezer, still occupied by Daesh. On August 14 of that year, car bombs attributed to Sunni radicals killed 500 Yezidis and wounded 1,500 more. The Yezidis declared it their 73rd Genocide The memorial - a cemetery of many of those killed and a large building housing hundreds of pictures of the victims - remained. Gharbi surmised that Daesh did not have time to desecrate the site because of being attacked by Yezidi forces.

It is unnerving to find relief in the survival of memorial to another act of evil perpetrated on the very same people.

I was tired. We drove back to Sinjar City, and over the mountain to Zorava.


As always I want to acknowledge my friend Sheikh Gharbi who accompanied me on all of my visits to the Sinjar.  Without him I would not have been able to complete this journey of discovery, friendship and photography that has spanned 8 years.

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