In the cinderblock Iraqi villages clustered around Mount Sinjar’s rippling, craggy slopes, the mood is euphoric.
Fighters who retook the city late last week from ISIS — with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes — race along cratered roads, cheering children crammed in the back of their trucks, flags cartoon-bright in the pure, intense winter sunshine.
But in Sinjar itself, where the last ISIS fighters were pushed out over the weekend and booby traps are still being defused, a frenzy of looting is underway: soldiers loading trailers with televisions, refrigerators, a hatstand, a foosball table.
“ISIS took all of our possessions,” says Suleiman Dakheel. “They took our homes, our women.”
The soldiers doing the looting are, like Dakheel, former Sinjar residents from the Yazidi ethno-religious minority, non-Muslims who are brutally targeted by ISIS. Yazidis formed a large contingent of the Kurdish-led force that retook Sinjar.
“There were many civilians who stayed with ISIS and worked with ISIS,” Dakheel says. All of them were Muslims, he says, and now that they’ve fled, he feels entitled to take what he needs from their houses.
Like tens — some say hundreds — of thousands of Yazidis, his family was displaced when ISIS advanced in August 2014. His people are living in poverty in the city of Dohuk, 100 miles away. Many more live in camps.
ISIS captured, killed and raped thousands of Yazidis, whom they see as heretics. The pain and humiliation Yazidis feel is still raw.
Two men driving a truck of looted goods out of Sinjar stop on the side of the mountain to talk to me.
“They took 93 people from my family,” says Bashouq Ali, an older man, hunched against the cold wind. “Men, women, children.” The dusk is gathering, so I don’t immediately see the tears running down his face.
Thousands of Yazidi women are believed to have been abused as sex slaves by ISIS. Some escaped — or were essentially bought back by middlemen — and have given horrific accounts of abuse they and their children suffered.
“They raped our women,” sobs Ali’s relative, Matto Matto, a younger man. “They forced them to do that.”
Ominously for the future of this ethnically and religiously mixed area, the men now direct their anger and grief toward Arab Muslims from Sinjar and its nearby villages.
“There are Arabs around us,” says Matto, “and those Arabs took our women, took our children, killed our men.”
None of the Yazidis I spoke with over two days in the area drew any distinction between ISIS fighters and the Arab families who stayed on in ISIS-held areas. But many Iraqis who share ISIS’ Sunni Muslim faith say they live under the extremists’ rule simply because they have nowhere else to go.
“In those Arab villages are innocent people,” says Hassan Alaf, a Sunni Muslim who used to serve in the provincial council in the nearby city of Mosul. “But we know that in any war, and especially in those areas, most of the people are tribal, whether Arab or Kurd or Yazidi. Second, the tribes in most of these areas use acts of revenge.”
And so, he warns: “There will be a violent battle in this area.”
South of Sinjar, there’s a string of ISIS-held villages, mainly populated by Arab Muslims. I ask a Yazidi commander named Badr al-Hajji if there are civilians there — families as well as men.
“Yes,” he says. “They stayed there, they are ISIS and what they did is worse that what the ISIS fighters did.”
And then he tells me that when his forces move on those villages, he’s sure all the Arabs will flee.
“If they stay,” he says, “it will be very bad for them.”