U.S. Assistance Enabling Iraq’s Yezidis to Return Safely to their Ancestral Homelands

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U.S.-funded Yezidi explosive remnants of war (ERW) clearance team in Sinjar. (Photo courtesy of MAG)
U.S.-funded Yezidi explosive remnants of war (ERW) clearance team in Sinjar. (Photo courtesy of MAG)

U.S. Assistance Enabling Iraq’s Yezidis to Return Safely to their Ancestral Homelands

Salwa and her family fled the Yezidi village of Khinsor for the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) in 2014 to escape the savage wrath of ISIS, which was slaughtering and kidnapping thousands of Yezidis as the group swept across Iraq’s Ninewa Province. Salwa’s car broke down shortly after she and her family escaped Khinsor, forcing them to walk for over a day with their worldly possessions strapped to their backs before reaching safe haven in the IKR. While Salwa and her family survived ISIS mortar and rocket fire as they fled, ISIS savagely murdered more than 300 people from their village. Beyond Khinsor and across Ninewa, ISIS killed more than 3,000 Yezidis and took at least 6,000 Yezidis hostage as sex slaves or child soldiers, half of whom remain missing.

Clearance team prepares for a day of clearing deadly ISIS bombs in Sinjar. (Photo courtesy of MAG)

With ISIS defeated in the Yezidis’ ancestral homelands, displaced families are now returning to rebuild their lives. In addition to the death and destruction previously inflicted, ISIS also left countless improvised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) in the areas that they once occupied. These devices indiscriminately kill returning civilians, deny repair teams access to damaged critical infrastructure associated with the delivery of essential social services, block fertile farmland from cultivation, delay economic recovery, and perpetuate ISIS’s reign of terror long after they are gone. 

Clearance team member investigates potential ISIS IED in Sinjar. (Photo courtesy of MAG)

Thanks to assistance provided by the U.S. Department of State, Salwa and other Yezidis who survived ISIS are playing a critical role ridding Sinjar of these dangerous explosive hazards. Salwa leads one of eight U.S.-funded ERW survey and clearance teams fielded by NGO Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in Sinjar. Salwa’s team comprises seven Yezidi women who have received extensive technical training from MAG and currently work across Sinjar to keep local communities safe from deadly ISIS bombs.

MAG Team Leader Salwa

“I feel so good about the work we do – we are making a massive contribution and we work together like sisters. In my job, I am responsible for the safety of the team. I would like to thank MAG and the American Government for all you do for us and our people.”

–Salwa, MAG Team Leader

The clearance team is motivated by the important role that they play keeping people safe as communities across Sinjar rebuild their homes, temples, schools, and businesses. Salwa’s team recently located and removed two ISIS IEDs from a home in the town of Borek at the foot of Mount Sinjar, enabling the displaced residents to return safely. Another U.S.-funded team recently cleared 21 ISIS IEDs from fertile land next to Route 47, which runs east to west just south of Mount Sinjar. The dangerous work of Salwa and MAG teams across Sinjar is facilitating the safe return of displaced residents, enabling local farmers and shepherds to use agricultural land safely for farming and grazing, and helping to revitalize the local economy.

MAG Team Member Lena

“I love my job very, very much. We allow people to come home - we help the community by removing the landmines. People can’t come home without us. We are saving their lives. My family and my community are very proud of me – especially my father. I am not at all scared – I am very proud of what I do and I am confident and I have been well trained.”

–Lena, MAG Team Member

The United States was one of the first countries to support ERW clearance activities in Yezidi villages liberated from ISIS and is currently the largest international supporter of ERW clearance efforts across Sinjar. The Department of State plans on funding five additional ERW clearance teams in the coming months. These teams will be recruited from villages across Sinjar, trained, and deployed to complement the important work of Salwa and her team. Smart investments in the work of partners like MAG have allowed the United States to provide rapid stabilization support across Sinjar through locally-staffed clearance teams. This assistance is enabling persecuted minorities like the Yezidis to return to their ancestral homelands and rebuild their lives free from the threat of ISIS bombs.

About the Author: Solomon Black Serves as the Program Manager for Iraq in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publciation on Medium.