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Interview With Rania Khalek On Her Time With The Yezidi PMF In Iraq

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Host Rania Khalek of the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast spent a week with the Yezidi Popular Mobilization Forces in newly liberated south Sinjar in August. She learned many Yezidis join the PM to protect their families, defend their towns, and save those in their family captured by ISIS.

In the first of a series of articles for “The Grayzone Project,” Khalek wrote about the stories she heard from Yezidis. They described tales of genocide and conflict to her, sometimes in utterly horrific detail.

We talked about her time with the PMF forces in a segment for the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast. Listen to the conversation by clicking on the above player or by going here.


The following is a partial edited transcript with Rania Khalek on her work as a war correspondent in Iraq.

KHALEK: I went to Iraq, and it’s so hot right now. I just want to say the heat was so out of control. There was a heat wave so it was hotter than unusual this summer. Climate change in this region is not good. It’s very hot and uncomfortable. But yeah, I was in Iraq.

Specifically, I spent a week in south Sinjar. So Sinjar is in northwest Iraq. It’s near the border with Syria and kind of on the outskirts of Mosul, and it is where the Yezidis were based before ISIS attacked Sinjar and enslaved Yezidi women and killed all the men. That happened three years ago, almost exactly three years ago.

I went to south Sinjar because south Sinjar was—a couple months ago—liberated from ISIS by the Hashd al-Shaabi or as they’re known in America, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or as they’re better known in America, the evil Iranian-back militias. So I got to spend a week with the Yezidi PMF.

After the PMF liberated south Sinjar, Yezidis have been flocking to the PMF by the hundreds and a lot of them have defected from the Peshmerga and the PKK to join the PMF and the reason for that is the PMF liberated—Forty percent of Sinjar was still under ISIS control so they liberated like forty percent of Sinjar. And Yezidis basically just want to protect their areas and they want to hold their areas, and they want to help liberate and free the rest of the women, who are still in ISIS captivity. There are still thousands in ISIS captivity.

So they’re willing to go with anyone who is willing to help them, and the thing is, as much attention as the Yezidis have received—because they have received a lot of international attention because of the horrors ISIS inflicted on them—despite all that attention, no one’s really helped them. They are a community completely abandoned by the world in so many ways. You can’t even imagine. These people underwent a genocide. That’s how the UN has described it, as a genocide. And it is a genocide in every way.

The places I saw—I saw former ISIS prisons for Yezidi women that honestly reminded me of concentration camps. What they did to these people was very Nazi-like. It was very systematic, very, very systematic, organized, and well-planned. They attacked Sinjar with the intention of killing the men. At first, they used the men for labor. Hundreds of the men they killed then and then the men they kidnapped they forcibly converted them and then ultimately decided they should be killed because they had no value to them. They killed the men and enslaved the women, and they did this everywhere.

The Yezidis joined the PMF because they feel like that is one of the few groups that is willing to help them, and they are. The PMF trained – I went to a graduation for almost a thousand Yezidi soldiers after they’d spent a month in PMF training camp. That’s on top of more that are joining. They want to liberate their people, liberate their land, and also not allow this to happen to them ever again. The way to do that is to get weapons, to be armed, and also they want to align with the central government of Iraq.

Right now, there’s a tension building up in Sinjar because the north of Sinjar is controlled by the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga is the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia of the Kurdistan autonomous region in Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan). Yezidis before 2014 were mostly pro-Kurdistan. They considered themselves as part of the Kurdish project, and they even speak a Yezidi language that is a different version of Kurdish but it’s very similar to Kurdish.

But after 2014, they basically blame the Peshmerga for what happened to them because the Peshmerga, the day that ISIS attacked, they retreated at the same time. They simultaneously retreated. The Peshmerga was responsible for security in Sinjar. They all left their checkpoints. A lot of them who left told the Yezidis we’re leaving just to get reinforcements. We’ll be right back. They refused to leave their weapons there. They basically left this population completely defenseless.

So they blame the Peshmerga for what happened to them, and no one knows why the Peshmerga pulled out like that. There’s been excuses made by the leader of the KDP, which is the dominant party in Kurdistan that’s very, very repressive and behaves like a mafia—There’s been a lot of excuses from their president, Masoud Barzani, about why they pulled out but none of them really make any sense. So the Yezidis, if you ask them, a lot of them will say that the Peshmerga is ISIS or ISIS and the Peshmerga were collaborating to get rid of them.

Have a lot of goodwill toward the PKK and PYD, which is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is also like a Kurdish nationalist group but they are the ones the U.S. labels terrorists because Turkey doesn’t like them. They helped when Yezidis were stuck on the mountain after they fled their villages. They opened up the corridor between Iraq and Syria to help them safely pass through to Kurdistan, and so they basically saved them. So there’s goodwill toward them.

The Peshmerga has been romanticized in U.S. media so much, and they still are. They are constantly romanticized as this group of people who are fighting ISIS but they’ve been so repressive toward the Yezidis and the Yezidis say the exact opposite, which is that the Peshmerga has a collaborationist relationship or at least is using ISIS against us. Or also, in a way Iraqi Kurdistan did use ISIS taking all these areas as an opportunity to land grab. There are like 26 areas of Iraq that they call disputed areas because the Kurds claim them as part of what they want to be this independent Kurdish state. But these areas are technically a part of Iraq, and since ISIS took over all these different regions, the Kurdistan government has basically increased its territory by 40 percent and taken something like 90 percent of areas they call disputed. Now they’re trying to do this referendum to force this referendum so they can vote to have Kurdistan to be their own state.

A lot of non-Kurds live here, and they are not treated well. They are actually not only discriminated against but they have land taken away from them. There is a process of Kurdification taking place.

The Peshmerga and any Kurdish fighting group has been glorified because they’re U.S.-backed. Meanwhile, the PMF have been demonized repeatedly as an evil sectarian Iranian-backed group of a bunch of Shiite militias that are just going around killing a bunch of Sunnis when in fact the PMF is multi-ethnic and transcends sect completely. Not only do you have the Yezidi PMF, you have Christian PMF units, you have Shabaki PMF units, you have 30,000 Sunnis in the PMF, and these people are the front lines in areas to take back Mosul from ISIS. You also have Turkmen units in the PMF.

The PMF is completely demonized because it is majority Shia because Iraq is majority Shia, and the PMF was created after ISIS took over big parts of Iraq and the Iraqi army was not equipped or trained well enough to handle that. So the PMF was formed as a people’s paramilitary units. And they did. They saved Iraq from ISIS. If it hadn’t been for the PMF or Iran backing it, you might have had Baghdad falling to ISIS.

It’s a fascinating lens into everything in Iraq, viewing it through the Yezidi lens. I’ve got a lot more as well coming out from my trip there. I saw so much, and I talked to som any people. I was shocked by how oppressed Yezidis are. The majority of displaced Yezidis live in Dohuk, which is a part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Displaced Yezidi genocide survivors are being kicked out of Kurdistan by the KRG because they’re male family relatives joined the PMF. I met families, who have nowhere to go, after they survived ISIS trying to erase them. In some cases, they survived massacres. They’re being kicked out because they’re son or husband joined the PMF to fight ISIS. It’s insane.

Their plight has received so much attention yet somehow they are being repressed by the people we back.

GOSZTOLA: When you were going to Iraq, it sounds like your sense was these were people under attack from ISIS and that was the primary threat. Now you can say that there are all these other groups, who normally don’t get any sort of attention, who are actually complicit and participants in the erasure of Yezidis.

KHALEK: Why the Peshmerga retreated should be investigated because it happened in a very systematic and organized way. It wasn’t like just a couple units because they were overwhelmed by ISIS. They retreated as ISIS tried to move in and they all retreated at once. They lied to people about leaving. They said they were leaving and coming back with reinforcements. They refused to leave weapons.

The Yezidis have been portrayed as this totally helpless population, and while it’s true that they were mostly defenseless and weak as a group in terms of their ability to fight back, they did fight back. The towns that were on the front line of ISIS’ attacks, the men in those towns had weapons in their home. They got together and they fought back. They fought ISIS back for six or seven hours. Those men ended up mostly dying, and once they realized the Peshmerga wasn’t coming back, they knew they were likely going to die. They kept shooting ISIS until they ran out of ammunition. But their sacrifice is the reason so many Yezidi families were able to flee to the mountain because those men were holding off ISIS. That has been lost in the mix. That’s a story of heroism in the most blatant way possible.

There’s also the women survivors, who survived ISIS. I’m not a grief counselor and I’ve never in my life had to listen to somebody replay for me like being gang raped and being sold as a sex slave from one man to the next and being treated like an animal and being raped with your children in the room with you. The women, the wives of ISIS members, would help the men rape them. They would tie them up for the men, like just the most awful disgusting shit you can imagine. I’ve never had to listen to someone recount those kinds of horrors to me. But also in those stories the women did the best they could to survive and they tried awfully hard to fight back.

Things like, ISIS when they first took over would separate the men from the women and then they would start picking out the prettiest girls. And so the prettiest girls would get taken. Nobody knew what was happening yet. But they just knew the prettiest girls were taken, especially the younger ones. Immediately, the women and the girls, especially the unmarried ones, — that you could sell for hte highest — they would do their best to look as ugly as possible so they wouldn’t get picked. So they would rub ash on their faces. When I was visiting, I told you I went to a former ISIS prison for Yezidi sex slaves. When I was there, I found piles and piles of hair. I was so confused why there were piles of hair because I don’t remember reading about — I thought it was like a punishment.

When I went to where most Yezidi civilians live, in Dohuk, and I asked them about this hair issue. It turns out the women were chopping off their own hair to look ugly. It made me weirdly happy. It was a form of resistance to them. They would try not to bathe. And they were really smart too. These women who were kidnapped are from really rural areas to the point where some of them don’t even read or write. Some of them are illiterate. And they also not all of them speak Arabic.

For these women, it was really difficult. They were illiterate. They couldn’t read the signs in the area that they were in, the ISIS areas, which made it harder to escape. they also couldn’t communicate with their captors. But despite all of that, these women the ones they escapes—they made it because they were really clever and able to trick the men around them eventually and able to get smuggled out.

Those kinds of stories are lost in the mix. It’s not all just totally helpless. This in the face of the world—As much as they talked about the Yezidis, as many human rights reports have been written about them, as many New York Times articles that have been written about their plight or revealed the most disgusting details of what happened to them, somehow there’s never been a big operation to liberate them by anybody, by any entity ever. It’s just been allowed to continue. They’re still in captivity.

What’s really sad is the children. The children, who were taken by ISIS, were totally brainwashed, and they forget their identities completely.

One of the most shocking elements about all of this, and I have a piece forthcoming on this. It was their neighbors that did it to them.

When I say it was their neighbors, it was obviously ISIS. ISIS carried out this systematic pre-planned campaign to enslave women and turn them into an economy for ISIS. That said, the people who carried it out for ISIS were their local Sunni Arab neighbors and some Sunni Kurds. But their local Sunni neighbors who they lived next to for decades, hundreds of years, in some cases without any problems—These were their friends. This is the craziest story, where people who their next door neighbors who they had dinner with and went to school together—These are the people who turned on them and did this to them.

One girl who survived that I interviewed, one of the people that was helping to keep her captive in Tal Afar was her biology teacher. Her biology teacher. Can you imagine that? It would be like if the KKK was able to launch an attack on a minority population, and you notice, oh, that’s my history teacher. Her biology teacher was helping keep her captive cause he thought she was subhuman cause she’s Yezidi. I mean, it’s just insane.

So I have a piece coming out about that too.

GOSZTOLA: There’s a lot of free-flowing talk, and sometimes without consideration of the real people it would impact, from people at think tanks who talk about Iraq and what to do about the country. And there are politicians who very casually talk about partitioning and having an Iraq that’s just in three segments. So, when I listen to you talk about what it’s like for Yezidis in Kurdistan and when I listen to you talk about sectarian issues, it’s very interesting because it represents what people are really talking about. When you say you will empower a sect to manage and control a new country, it suggests you might be endorsing a level of brutality that moves away from a more secular-style of government.

There’s nothing soft about the way the Iraqi government rules the country right now, by any means. Obviously, when Maliki was in charge, there were tons of reports of torture, people rounded up, all kinds of stuff you could say evokes comparison to the brutality of ISIS in some ways.

It makes me concerned about how the outside players, who have their hands in Iraq, might try to resolve the situation and push for peace. When you think about what sects are going to be empowered, they’re going to be given the ability to impose their will against Yezidis or anyone else who is struggling. It’s concerning.

KHALEK: You mention Maliki. This is true. He was very repressive. But the thing that the think tankers like to say is this is why ISIS came about, because Maliki was so repressive. He was no more repressive than the previous government in Iraq. Or even the previous people the U.S. put in charge before him.

The thing is Iraq is a majority Shia country. I think 60 percent of Iraq is Shia. So, the reason that the think tankers are constantly going off about Iran and Iraq is because they hate the Shia. The think tankers are all at think tanks that are funded by the Saudis, receive State Department funding, or receive funding from the Qataris, from the UAE, and these people have a very anti-Iran agenda. That manifests as an anti-Shia. Because these are Sunni states.

The Iraqis don’t have a majority Shia PMF because Iran is backing the PMF. They have a majority Shia PMF because the majority of Iraq is Shia. Any large institution you have in Iraq is going to be majority Shia if it is reflective of the makeup of Iraq. And what’s funny is that before the U.S. invaded Iraq, they were the opposite. All the same think tanks, all of the pro-Iraq invasion arguments were about we have to go save the Shia from the evil Sunnis. Saddam is a Sunni ruler, and he has a Sunni minority that is ruling over a majority Shia population with an iron fist. We have to go save the Shias. And then after they went and they “saved the Shias,” the rhetoric shifted into we’re going to back the Sunnis because Iran is rising and benefiting from the war in Iraq.

Nobody has a memory long to recall that was part of the justification for invading Iraq and overthrowing Iraq—to protect the Shias. But the point is you’re right. When it comes to splitting Iraq the way the U.S. wants to do, if you are going to have an ethno state or a religious sect-exclusive state, the region doesn’t already come partitioned. This region is mixed.

All of the Sunnis don’t live in one place. All of the Sunnis don’t live in one place. All of the Kurds, who by the way are majority Sunni (that gets left out of the conversation), don’t already live in one place. These populations all live together. There might be some neighborhoods that are entirely or mostly one sect, but either way, they’re mixed together. You can’t just cut a place up and chop it up. You’re right. It’s going to require tons of violence to be imposed on people, tons of erasing, tons of demographic engineering to make your Kurdish state, when you’ve got a lot of non-Kurds living in the areas for a Kurdish state, or for your Sunni state, or for your Shia state. Or your Druze state or whatever states the U.S. wants to impose on this region.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."