Forgotten iraqi victims: ‘we don’t even have a place to bury our dead’

As one activist from the Iraqi ethnic minority, the Shabak, says, all of the other segments of society attacked by the extremist Islamic State group have had attention and aid. However the Shabaks, who have lost all their land and who have been targeted by extremists in northern Iraq for over a decade, complain nobody seems to care about them. 

“We are the forgotten victims of the extremists,” says Mohammed Abbas, a political activist and member of Iraq’s Shabak ethnic minority. “All the parts of Iraqi society that have been attacked by extremists from the Islamic State group have gotten a lot of media attention. Except us,” he complains. 

Abbas says that almost all of the land belonging to the Shabaks is now gone. “Even the Yazidis still have the Shikhan district, north of Mosul, which remained untouched by the Islamic State and the Christians still have the city of Qosh. Both those areas are under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military. But we don’t even have any land anywhere to bury our dead anymore,” Abbas concluded wearily. 

Previously there were an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 members of the Shabak ethnicity in the northern province of Ninawa where the Islamic State, or IS, group has wreaked so much havoc. The Shabak, who mostly lived in about 50 towns and villages in a crescent slung over the Ninawa Plain, are often Muslim and mostly Shiite Muslim. There are also some Sunni Muslim Shabaks too. 

Some consider themselves closer in ethnicity to Iraq’s Kurds while others consider themselves to be more aligned with Iraq’s Arabs. As the BBC explains, “the 30,000-strong Shabak community mostly live near Iraq's border with Turkey. They speak a distinct language and largely follow a faith that is a blend of Shiite Islam and local beliefs, and are periodically targeted in attacks by militants”. 

The division between the Shabaks themselves were made clear recently when Hanin al-Qado, a Shabak politician and member of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim State of Law political party, formed a militia to fight the IS group and became affiliated with another Shiite Muslim militia, the Badr Brigades. 

Meanwhile another Shabak politician but this time affiliated with the leading Iraqi Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mulla Salem Jumaa al-Shabaki, also formed a militia – but his had closer connections with the Iraqi Kurdish military. A few days after the Islamic State took control of the province’s capital city, Mosul, fighters from the group attacked the Shabak village of Omar Kan.

Forty of the young men there were kidnapped and the fate of 35 of them remains unknown. Several escaped and NIQASH spoke with one of them; he had escaped during heavy aerial bombardment and had gone from Mosul to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan before all the border crossings between Iraqi Kurdistan and Islamic State-controlled territory were closed. 

“The IS group consider Shabaks polytheists, so the same as Shiites,” said the young man who had to remain anonymous because members of his family are still living in IS group-controlled areas. The IS group themselves are Sunni Muslim extremists and they consider Shiite Muslims their enemy. “The IS group doesn’t acknowledge that there are Sunni Muslim Shabaks too,” the escaped Shabak said. 

The young men who do not pledge allegiance to the IS group are forced to act as human shields during battle, said the escapee, who did not know the whereabouts of the other young men from his village. “The invasion of Omar Kan caused fear among other Shabak villages,” says Muhannad al-Haj Mahmoud, another former resident of Omar Kan. 

“Nobody took the assurances that the Iraqi Kurdish military were giving to protect the Shabak seriously – after all they had not been able to protect Sinjar against the IS group.” As the IS group encroached on Shabak lands, many of the people in the villages tried to sell their herds of sheep – their main source of income – and those who didn’t saw the livestock confiscated by IS fighters. 

It is thought that over three quarters of the Shabak who fled their lands have sought shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan with a minority heading for southern Iraq, specifically Hilla. Mahmoud pointed out that the IS group had also confiscated thousands of tons of wheat and barley from the Shabak villages just as the farmers there were preparing to send them to the government’s silos. 

The Shabak have been under threat for a long time, explains Marwan Mahmoud, a local journalist. Over a thousand Shabaks living in Mosul have been killed since 2003 and many of their houses have also been destroyed; the IS group has been active in the city of Mosul long before June this year. 

When the group was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq it had a mafia-like grip on parts of the city, threatening, kidnapping and killing citizens as well as extorting and blackmailing them. 

Their activities included a similar sort of campaign of sectarian hatred and ethnic cleansing that the IS group is now enacting on a broader scale. As one policeman said in late 2013, after Shabak families in Mosul received a number of threatening letters from the IS group, telling them to get out of town or face the deadly consequences: 

The extremists’ plan is to isolate the different groups in order to divide and conquer. It is the same plan that seems to be being used in the rest of Iraq. 

by Nawzat Shamdeen

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