In the Yazidi village of Tel Qasab, Iraq, delighted neighbors welcome Nofa Khudeda as she walks into the house she fled six years ago when ISIS invaded the region. Khudeda, wearing a beige print dress with a white scarf tied loosely around her dark hair, hands out colorfully wrapped chocolates in celebration.
"It's a beautiful feeling to be home," she says, surrounded by beaming neighbors and relatives who returned a few weeks ago from camps for displaced Yazidis in northern Iraq.
In the summer of 2014, ISIS embarked on a campaign of genocide in northern Iraq's Sinjar region, intent on killing, capturing and forcibly converting members of the ancient religion they considered infidels. Thousands of women were taken into sexual slavery.
Six years later, almost 200,000 Yazidis — nearly half of Sinjar's population before the genocide — are still living in displacement camps in Iraq's Kurdistan Region, either too traumatized or too poor to return.
Since June though, with coronavirus lockdowns making life increasingly difficult in the crowded camps, more than 7,000 families have come back to try to rebuild their lives in Sinjar.
Most houses in the region were either damaged in fighting or, like the home of Khudeda and her husband, Ali Edo, were looted by ISIS or the militias that followed.
In a region where the norm is chronic poverty, Edo's salary as an Iraqi Health Ministry employee has allowed him to repair the house and replace the stolen copper wiring.
Edo's neighbors pitch in to help unload a small flat-bed truck piled with a few pieces of furniture and foam mattresses wrapped in plastic. The women gather in what will be the kitchen once they have appliances and furniture.
One of the neighbors, Qute Murad, came back in September from the camp in the Kurdistan Region to a house so damaged that her family has been living out of two rooms they repaired. There's no electricity or running water. She says earlier that morning, the family killed snakes and scorpions in their yard.
"This is our homeland," she says. "In Kurdistan they took care of us and respected us," she says, referring to help from the region's authorities and aid groups, "but we would rather live on bread and water here than eat meat and rice as displaced people."
Edo is one of the relatively lucky ones. He didn't have children captured by ISIS and he has a job. But even here there is tragedy. Their 80-year-old mother couldn't walk and when they fled to Sinjar mountain to escape ISIS, the family left her behind in the house. She is believed to be buried in a mass grave.
At the security checkpoint to Sinjar, the drivers of small trucks piled with mattresses and other household goods wait for soldiers and police to check they have the proper documents.
There are a few covered trucks hired by relatively well-off families but most are small flat-bed vehicles piled high with the belongings of lives lived in extreme poverty.
Hassan Murad's truck carries sticks he used to prop up a tent in the camps, the last box of food rations his family received at the camp and a worn, handmade cradle for his infant son, the youngest of his five children.
There are no welcoming neighbors to help as the truck pulls up to the village of Wardiya, driving past a USAID sign touting projects in the village. The village, about 12 miles east of the Syrian border, is still largely deserted. A few sheep wander through dried-up patches of grass between the mud and straw houses.
The camps are less than a four-hour drive from here, but in the six years since ISIS invaded Sinjar, this is the first time Murad has seen his house.
The straw and mud roof has collapsed, and the concrete house he had started to build before ISIS is still just three walls and a roof. Like other Yazidis, he says he has received no help from the Iraqi government or aid agencies for moving back. There is no running water and no electricity. A project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development has restored main power lines but it doesn't extend to people's homes.
"This ruined house is all I have," says Murad, 52. But he still says he's happy to be back.
"If we stayed in the camp until the end of time, we wouldn't gain anything," he says. Murad used to farm but now there is no water for crops or transportation to his field. He says if he can get enough money, he'll put down concrete on top of the sand that is now the floor of their house.
He and his wife Wadha Ammo married while they were living in the camps and this is the first time Ammo, 28, has seen the place.
"What can I say? ... It's a destroyed house," she says, searching the rock-strewn yard for a place where the children, disoriented and exhausted, can sit.
"Life was good in the camp but we had to come back at some point," she says.
One of her 2-year-old twins cries as after losing a plastic shoe in the spiky dried grass; he's too small to climb over a concrete wall to reach his mother. The 3-year-old sings tunelessly to herself as she rocks the cradle with the baby.
They named their eldest son, born in the camp four years ago, Bewar — wanderer — "because we were without a home or land," Murad says.
Their Yazidi truck driver, Baker Haji Ali, calls a passing teenager to round up people to help unload.
"No one is here to come and help," the boy says.
Haji Ali says he has moved 17 families back so far, charging families like Murad's less than his normal rate of about $125.
He says the families he brings back will eventually clear out the rubble and install windows and doors. But the bigger problem is the fear that ISIS fighters who came from neighboring villages to kill and enslave them will come back.
"If I went to the city of Sinjar tomorrow, I'd be afraid of seeing the same ISIS men who took our Yazidi women ... and either I would have to kill him or he would kill me," Haji Ali says. "It's painful for us. That is the disaster of Sinjar."
Parts of Sinjar city are still in ruins. In five years since ISIS was driven out, the area has changed hands between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces and neither they nor the United Nations or aid groups have done much to help residents rebuild. Government and aid officials cite a mix of reasons: security concerns, including remnants of explosives and the presence of armed militias, an Iraqi cash crisis, local leadership struggles — and then the coronavirus.
"Due to limited government presence and the proliferation of armed groups, basic service delivery has yet to return to many parts of Sinjar," says Clara McLinden, communications officer for the USAID mission to Iraq. She says the lack of services, including schools, has prevented more Yazidis from returning to Sinjar.
A few Yazidi shop owners have come back. Ziyad Qirany returned three weeks ago after scraping up the rent to open a small clothing store. He is dressed neatly in a blue polo-shirt that shows the tattoos on his arms — his name and the date in August that the ISIS genocide started and Yazidis tried to escape to Sinjar mountain.
"It's a terrible feeling when you come back and you remember your friends who were captured and you still don't know what happened to them," says Qirany.
His teenage cousin, Najim Abdullah, who works in the shop, says they returned because the camps became unbearable under the coronavirus lockdowns. "We felt like we were in prison. After the pandemic [began] we weren't allowed to leave the camp," he says. His family is still searching for his sister Sa'ada, who was 10 when she was captured by ISIS.
From a stereo system inside the shop, Lebanese singer Fairuz croons loves songs to an empty street dotted with collapsed buildings.
Plastic mannequins lined up on the sidewalk model Turkish-made suits with boutonnieres, waiting for the pandemic to be over and wedding parties, a main source of business, to resume.
"This is the old part of town and it's mostly destroyed so business is not that good," Qirany says. "But step by step we hope it will improve."
Sangar Khaleel contributed to this report in Sinjar.
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