“The Iraqi elections have not had any effect on our work”
An interview with Rîham Hesen, the co-Chair of the coordination of the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Council (MXDŞ)
Firaz Amargî, journalist
„I will take you to the White House,“ our driver tells us with a smile on his face already expecting our surprised reaction. Only a few days earlier, we had contacted Rîham Hesen, co-Chair of the coordination of the MXDŞ (Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Council), and had asked her for an interview on the situation in Sinjar after the Iraqi elections and the unclear future of the region. When she agreed, we left the bustling South Kurdish city of Sulaimaniah which had been shaken by huge student protests for days, traveled through the so-called `disputed areas` that are stretching from Kirkuk in the West all the way to the East of Iraq and passed dozens of security checkpoints manned by different competing factions. After a ten-hour drive, our arrival in Sinjar felt like entering a different world. The clouds of tear gas from Sulaimaniah and the grim-looking soldiers and militias on the Iraqi checkpoints all of a sudden seemed far away. Here we were, staring at the long-stretching Sinjar mountain while we were driving through small villages whose many uninhabited houses gave the observer a chilly feeling of loneliness but calm.
The White House looks different in Sinjar. An old man in traditional white Arab clothes sits under the only tree in the tiny but neat garden. He welcomes us and explains: “This is our White House, our `Koçka Spî`. Here, in the center of Sinjar city, our people met and organized day and night to defend our self-administration against the `Agreement of October 9`”. While we follow him into the center of the MXDŞ – a two-story, shiny white building formerly owned by an IS supporter – we cannot help but notice him having a slight limp and the prosthesis that replaces his right foot. “A mine explosion when I fought IS in Rojava”, he tells us while we drink a tea and wait for Rîham Hesen. The White House, October 9, IS...questions start to mount up in our heads and we are relieved when our interviewee arrives and we can finally start to find answers.
The future of Sinjar in crisis-ridden Iraq
Since the confirmation of the British-Iraqi binational Mustapha Al-Khadhimi as the Iraqi Prime Minister in 2020, the US supported the efforts of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) to broker an agreement over Sinjar. What has since been known as the `Sinjar Agreement` was signed on October 9, 2020 by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government without involving the MXDŞ or any other local representatives from Sinjar. This agreement has since been rejected by the population and the MXDŞ. In response, Ankara and Washington have tried to brake the determination of the Sinjar`s population by forcefully imposing the rule of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), the very same party that fled from the area in August 2014 thus allowing the Islamic State (IS) to carry out a genocide against the Ezidi population. “All this is happening as part of the preparations of the dictatorial Turkish regime for the year 2023,” says Rîham Hesen: “100 years after the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, Turkey is once again laying claim on Iraqi and Syrian territories. The Turkish government considers it its right to annex huge swaths of land stretching from Kirkuk over Sinjar in Iraq all the way to Aleppo in northwest Syria.”
Many different forces compete over influence in Sinjar and all try to push through their interests while ignoring the will of the mostly Ezidi population of the area. For Iran Sinjar and Mosul represent a strategic transit route which allows for continuous safe transport from Tehran to Lebanon`s capital Beirut. Yet, this constitutes the main concern of the USA and Israel which share their views on this issue with Turkey. The enforcement of the `Sinjar Agreement` would cause Iran to lose huge parts of the territory currently under its sway, Turkey would be able to use the KDP to pursue its interests in the area and destroy the self-administration of the Ezidi population which has the potential of becoming a model for all of Iraq. In this powerplay of major international and regional forces the Iraqi government plays along the plans developed by the US and NATO. Thus, the KDP`s and Baghdad`s role is to put into practice the plans that US officials and NATO bureaucrats develop in far away capitals. How will the MXDŞ navigate in these chaotic waters? Rîham Hesen responds with a self-confident smile and chooses her words carefully: “We want a solution for all Iraq. We are not against the Iraqi state but wish that the country achieves a peaceful and stable situation. Because the people of Iraq have become victims of the policy of all these other forces. We are working hard to turn our system of Democratic Autonomy into a democratic model and a source of inspiration for all other parts of Iraq. As the MXDŞ, we want to develop and strengthen our relations with other regions of the country along the principle of the sisterhood of the peoples. We are continuing our work to built unity of the different peoples, communities or religions in Iraq. We consider respect and autonomy for all the different peoples, each culture and each nation as the best way for achieving unity. This is the right path to democracy. This can only be achieved by the Iraqi peoples themselves. Therefore, we consider it the responsibility of the Iraqi government to not let foreign interventions destabilize the unity of Iraq`s people.”
Ever since its successful resistance against IS in 2014, Sinjar has developed into a beacon of hope for Kurdistan, Iraq and even more distant parts of the Middle East. Despite the genocide of 2014, a constant embargo imposed by the KDP, Turkey`s aggression and continuous bombings, IS attacks and intimidation policies from the KDP, the people of Sinjar have continued to develop their social, political and self-defense structures in the form of the MXDŞ. Terrorist attacks, foreign invasions and a corrupt Iraqi elite have led the country into a continuous political crisis, destroyed the infrastructure and caused a total lack of democratic participation. The protests of the youth since 2019, regular assassinations of leading opposition figures, the presence of a huge variety of armed groups, the increasing flow of refugees who leave the country and scattered families are the results of nearly 20 years of a US and NATO led intervention. In this chaotic and conflict-ridden context, autonomy and self-administration are more than abstract political ideas for the population of Sinjar in particular and for all the people of Iraq and the region in general. They constitute a vital necessity in order to escape this state of permanent crisis. In South Kurdistan and in Iraq a huge gap divides the interest of the ruling elite and the will of the people. A total loss of hope and confidence in elections or political processes plagues the people of the country. Sinjar, where not only the members of the MXDŞ, its many committees, communes and institutions are being elected and controlled by the local population, but the self-administration system itself is constantly being reviewed, criticized and improved through meetings, conferences and congresses, has given back hope to its own population, South Kurdistan and the entire country.
Increasing dangers for Sinjar after Iraq`s failed elections
The elections on October 10, 2021 were supposed to bring back stability to Iraq and establish the basis for a new democratically legitimated government. Yet, more than two months later, the exact opposite seems to have happened. Like large parts of the Iraqi society and many of the parties that took part in the elections, the population of South Kurdistan and Sinjar have since criticized the way the elections were they were conducted as intransparent, manipulated and therefore illegitimate. Many parties, including the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), the Justice Society of Kurdistan (Komela Dadgerî ya Kurdistanê), the Shiite parties of Nurî Malikî, Emar Hekîm, Heyder Ebadî, Hadî Amirî and Qeys Xez Elî and the Ezidi party PADÊ (Partiya Azadî û Demokrasiya Êzdiyan), have either fully or party rejected the election results and many protests have since taken place all over the country. It is no coincidence, that the recent student uprising in Sulaimaniah or the thousands of South-Kurdish refugees on the border of Belorussia and Poland happened shortly after the failed Iraqi elections. They characterize well the hopelessness in which the Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen or Assyrian people of the country find themselves in today.
In Sinjar itself, a lively election campaign had been led by the PADÊ candidate Şêx Semîr in the weeks before October 10. But shortly after the start of the election, reports of fraud and deliberate obstructions started to appear in Sinjar. Intimidation and threats by the KDP officials were reported by many Ezidi refugees who are still living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in KDP controlled refugee camps. At the time, Marwa Kalo, an independent woman candidate close to the Ezidi Movement for Reform and Progress, reported some of the KDP practices in the IDP camps1: "Some IDPs called me and said: 'We will vote for you, but please don't visit us because it will cause problems for us here. […] The Asayish has been going from tent to tent, visiting families and threatening them, telling people that if they don't vote for the KDP, they will have their benefits and food rations withheld.” According to the official election results, the three seats in the Iraqi parliament assigned to Sinjar were all won by KDP candidates. Yet, voters in Sinjar have since repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the vote in their region since many were not able to vote on the grounds that they were not registered voters.“The ballot box we are entitled [to vote at] in our neighborhood, named ‘Number 1,’ was not opened for voting until 12 pm on October 10. They first told us that it was broken. Then our friends found out later that ballot box ‘Number 1’ was for all three neighborhoods,” reported Dewresh, a local inhabitant of Borik village.2 Seydo Hisnî`s and his family’s ID cards, from the village of Guhbel, were not recognized by machines haphazardly installed at the last minute:“These elections were an attack against the Ezidi people. Many of the people`s voting registrations turned out to be in some IDP camps or towns of the Kurdistan region or Iraqi districts and the names of the residents from those areas appeared as registered in our ballots,” he said.3 83,000 people have been reported to have gone to the ballet boxes in Sinjar on October 10, but at the end of the day, only 13,000 people were registered as having voted. The fate of the votes of around 70,000 Sinjar locals remains unknown until today.4
Rîham Hesen`s smile fades when we ask her about the recent Iraqi elections. No matter how hard she tries, her anger about the events of October 10 don`t escape our notice. “The elections were clearly a plan not only against Sinjar, but against all of Iraq,” she tells us. “But the election results have not had any effect on the work of the MXDŞ. Because we know the dirty plans that our enemy pursues against us and we have been leading a struggle against these plans for many years. Many of our community members have given their lives during this struggle and as a response we have promised to organize ourselves and take revenge for the genocide that was carried out against our Ezidi people. After the elections, we have renewed our promise.” But what about the reports about fraud and manipulations? What affect has this had on Sinjar and Iraq as a whole? “They might have achieved their goals through fraud and manipulations but they have not won the support of the people. That is why their policy will never succeed,” Rîham Hesen continues. “There is a huge chaos in Iraq. As a sign of protest, many people in the country refused to go to the ballot boxes. Because they knew that the elections would not be democratic and transparent. The people are very unhappy about the situation that Iraq finds itself in today. Thousands have left the country since the elections and are today facing tremendous hardships on the borders of Europe. The European countries don`t let them in and simply leave them in a hopeless situations. In South Kurdistan, many protests have recently taken place. Many thousands of students and teachers have taken to the streets but were beaten brutally. They protest because they want their rights to be respected.” Despite the unclear future that seems to await the country after the recent elections, Rîham Hesen insists that the MXDŞ will continue its work: “Our work will continue and we are clear about our goals. We will insist on holding those accountable who are responsible for the genocide against our people in 2014. The support of our people is great and our şehîds [fallen] give us strength. They have given their lives for the project of Democratic Autonomy that we are building in Sinjar today. Their sacrifices have only increased our conviction. As the MXDŞ, our primary goal is to secure and strengthen the autonomy of Sinjar. Neither elections nor anything else can weaken our struggle for these goals."
The women of Sinjar
Our time in the White House is almost over. While we were speaking to Rîham, several old Ezidi women joined us and observed our conversation patiently. The light purple scarfs all of them are casually wearing and the attentive, warm look in their eyes catches our attention. Before coming to Sinjar, we had heard a lot about the role these women, mothers, wifes, daughters or sisters played in the rebuilding, self-administration and defense of Sinjar. Rîham, what is it about the strong participation of women in the MXDŞ? Where does this come from? When she hears our question, we can instantly tell that the co-Chair of the coordination of the MXDŞ is more than happy to speak about this topic: “As women we believe that society can only be free, if all women are free. That is why in Sinjar women play a leading role in all walks of life – no matter if politically, socially or militarily. This is due to the anger that we women feel in our hearts. Women don`t want to accept slavery. We want to live a free life. It is our goal to build this free life and consequently bring out the strength of women. The ideas of Rêber Apo [Abdullah Öcalan] are our source of strength for this struggle. We strive to increase the leading role of women even more. A good example is the determined stance of Sinjar`s women when the KDP tried to enter Sinjar in early October. Due to the treason of the KDP more than 7000 Ezidi women were taken hostage by IS. But today, the women of Sinjar have organized themselves and are thus taking revenge for the genocide of 2014. We are working hard to reach every single women of Sinjar so that we can educate, organize and unify them."
The White House
The center of the MXDŞ in Sinjar city – this shiny two story building everybody here calls the White House – could not be more different from its counterpart in Washington. And this holds true for the political ideas that these two symbolic institutions stand for today. On the one hand an exclusive, opaque power center in the US capital where powerful lobbyists, politicians and generals convene to impose their plans on their own and all other societies in the world. And then there is the White House of Sinjar. A place where Rîham Hesen seems to have all the time in the world for our many questions, where she and all the people who casually pass by during our hours-long interview happily give insights into all aspects of their daily work and where so many people work together for a peaceful future in the region. Two White Houses that have very different plans for Sinjar – this small but strategic place in a far-off corner of Iraq. What we saw and heard during our short stay here gives us hope that it will be the people in Sinjar itself who will determine the future of their home region, their community – and their very own White House.
This article was first published in the January/February 2022 edition of the Kurdistan Report.