Friday, August 21, 2015

What is our sin? What have we done?: the Yezidis remember.

Nine years ago this week the Spirit moved in my soul and will and I began the early steps of the journey toward working in Iraqi Kurdistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams. That afternoon I sat on a hillside in England with 15,000 people at the Greenbelt Christian Arts festival. During the Sunday service we remembered many who have been placed into slavery to meet the evil desires of people who considered themselves superior. We sang a protest song from the days of Apartheid in South Africa.   The words of  " Senzeni na? are translated "what have we done?;our sin is that we are black?; Our sin is the truth; They are killing us". At that moment  I recognized my privilege in having a life where I was able to live in peace and security.  In that moment my fear of the unknown was removed.  I knew I needed to step out of my comfort and privilege  to walk alongside to the best of my ability. .

 Three weeks ago I heard those words again. They continue to  ring in my head even now that I am back in my air conditioned home in quiet suburban Winnipeg. 

On August 3, my team mate and I attended the commemoration of one year  since the Yezidi genocide in Iraq. Our friend Sheik Shamu, a leader of the Yezidi community that lives in Arbat internally displaced persons camp, invited us to join the gathering at 11 am on that day. We entered the camp, greeting the guards who allowed us to pass.

We immediately saw the hand lettered signs attached to the tents in the area where the Yezidis live. Then we were met by three little girls, all wearing screen printed T-shirts. When Juliane asked if she could take a photo, one lifted a photograph up and held it sideways. The scene was one that little girls should know nothing about, but we knew that they had witnessed things that their little minds will never forget.

Photo: Juliane Assmann

 The event was held in the huge brick building that serves as a school during the year. Today it held all sorts of ages of the Yezidi community, as well as visitors from NGOs and politicians. Sheik Shamu noticed us very quickly and assured that we had seats alongside the mayor and other dignitaries. We received the bottles of water offered to everyone gratefully. There was no chance of a breeze entering the building and sweat was pouring in the 45 C heat.

 Sheik Shamu was one of the first speakers, presumably setting the stage for what was to follow. The Yezidis speak a different dialect of Kurdish than the one I was learning. I heard many recognizable words, but not enough to follow the speech.

Photo: Juliane Assmann

The program continued for over two hours. Young men and women came to the microphone to read poems and sing songs. The word, Shingal, came over and over again, and the tears flowed. It was not difficult to see that here was a people still in the centre of the trauma. They all seemed to be back in the middle of the days in Shingal when they were abandoned by the military who told them they had nothing to fear- just hours before ISIS/Da'ash entered the region and began the slaughter. They all seemed to be able to feel the burning sun and waterless days on Sinjar Mountain where they fled for their lives. And they all know someone, or many someones, who are still in slavery to the invading army. 

The most shattering point was when the invasion and genocide was re-enacted in a drama. I could not see past the journalists and TV photographers who surged forward to document it. But I heard the men dressed in ragged wigs and fake beards yelling, "Allah Akbahr" and the screaming of the children and women. And I could see the man sitting next to me desperately trying to cover his eyes with his notebook while plugging both of his ears. I was so glad when it was quiet again. The man then silently slipped away.

Just after noon Sheik Shamu's daughter went up to the microphone to read a poem. She was strong and eloquent as she told her story. Her voice broke as her composure was lost for a minute and the crowd gently clapped when she recovered and continued.

Photo- Juliane Assmann

 After she was done she came to the side of the room where I was sitting. I watched her  face as it crumpled and she began to sob, holding her scarf over her mouth. I ignored the activity on the stage as I wondered whether it was appropriate for me to go to stand beside her. Finally I decided that she needed someone so I got up, walked over and put my arm around her shoulders as she cried. I think that was OK as she later gave me a hug. 

 Usually we try hard to avoid the meal times as we know that food is scarce and it is a sacrifice to feed us. However, when the event was over we knew that we must accept the invitation to eat lunch with the family. We sat in the small room that houses Sheik Shamu, his wife and 5 children. The little ones warmed to our presence and began to have fun playing tickle games. 

The adults spoke again about the situation for their people. They told  of one family in the camp that has lost 36 members. They despaired for their daughter who needs to leave the country for treatment of a complex arm injury, but who can not find any place that will agree to give a medical visa.

 Sheik Shamu described one early morning when he followed their 2 1/2 year old's leading out into the camp. She insistently  told him to come to see where Da'ash had killed her friend. He was mystified until she took him to the wall of the International Red Cross Building that had been painted red.

 And they spoke of the next oldest who loves to draw, but who continually pencils monster looking drawings that she identifies as  Da'ash. 

 They told of their longing for a peaceful place to live, to be able to go back to life as it was just over a year ago in Shingal. But they know that this is an almost impossible dream, just as is the one to leave this country for Europe or Canada. 

It was then that I heard the question again, "what is our sin? What have we done? I could not speak out anything, although I knew what my answer would be. No, there is no sin. But I too question God as to why.