The landscape

The area of the Jebel Sinjar is located in northern Iraq, in the region called Jezirah, which in Arabic means island, and consists of a mountain range between the Syrian River Khabur and the River Tigris, that rises above the surrounding steppe plains of northwestern Iraq (Fig. 34a-b). The Jebel Sinjar itself is fertile and has water sources, with its highest peak reaching 1,460 m (Fuccaro 1994: 1). It was the mountain’s abundant water resources that favoured the settling of the Yazidi people there; the average of annual rainfall is 400-550 mm, sufficient for rain-fed agriculture (Fuccaro 1994: 13). Vegetation is relatively abundant, although it was more plentiful in the first half of the 20th century, when the mountain was covered by evergreen oaks, wild pistachio trees, junipers and other bushes and plants (Wirth 1999: 176).

On the south-eastern side there are low hills that function as intermediaries between the northern region and the region of Tell Afar, located between the Yazidi Mountain and Mosul (Fuccaro 1994: 2), the main urban centre in the area of northern Iraq west of the Tigris. This part of the mountain is in fact subject to abundant rains between November and April, which replenish the wadis flowing both on its northern and southern slope (Fuccaro 1994: 9). Since southern winds bring the heavy rains mostly to the southern slope, this part of the mountain is more cultivated than the northern. The southern parts of the hills are scarce in flora in the proximity of the steppe and the soil is dry and rocky. On the mountain itself two different landscapes are predominant: in the east, fig trees and vine terraces; in the west, oak forests (Fuccaro 1994: 9). The northern side of the mountain very fertile, and presents geomorphological traits that have favoured the relative isolation of the mountain’s inhabitants, i.e. the absence of communicating wadis that complicates the communication (Fuccaro 1994: 2). This side slopes into fertile hills overlooking the plain.

The Yazidis strongholds were located on top of the mountain, so that they could control the plain stretching between Sinjar and Mardin (Fuccaro 1994: 2). This is what is called ‘Yazidi country’, commonly referred to by Arabs, Kurds and Yazidis as ‘Shimal’ (Fuccaro 1994: 2). The majority of the Yazidi tribes were concentrated in the northern part of Sinjar (Fuccaro 1994: 3). The prevailing economic activities were agriculture and stock-farming (Fig. 35a). Agriculture was practiced by the greater part of the population in the mountain and also in the few Yazidi villages on the low hills and in the plain north of the Sinjar (Fuccaro 1994: 10). Rain water was usually collected and stored in wells, especially in the mountain and in the villages of the northern plain, and the abundance of water in the south, provided by wadis, was able to guarantee almost uninterrupted cultivation (Fuccaro 1994: 11). Crop-growing was restricted to the villages along the ridges on the low hills and in the plains below these hills. The most fertile lands were situated on the southern wadis and on the north-western flank of the mountain (Fuccaro 1994: 13). Cultivations mainly consisted of wheat and barley (winter crops), and rice and cotton (summer crops) (Fuccaro 1994: 14). Since the northern side was more suitable for agriculture also in the plain under the hills, Yazidis established advanced posts also in the plain, while in the mountain they practiced agriculture on terraces cut into the steep slopes, and cultivated figs, tobacco, lentils and grapes (Fuccaro 1994: 14-15). 

Alongside with agriculture, stock-farming was also largely practiced by the Yazidis in the Sinjar region, mainly sheep flocks on the hills and goat flocks in the mountain. Products from animal husbandry were self-produced by Yazidis in the households (Fuccaro 1994: 18). Connected to stock-farming, Yazidis practiced transhumance, especially in the southern and western Sinjar, close to the Jezirah steppe (Fuccaro 1994: 19). It was especially practiced by three tribes settled on the western edges of the mountain: the Samuqah, the Qiran and the Haskan (Fuccaro 1994: 19). Their flocks were mainly in the Jebel Jaribah, the only nomadic areas entirely controlled by Yazidis (Fuccaro 1994: 19-20), and the land in this area was divided among these three tribes (Fuccaro 1994: 20).

The main city of the Sinjar region is Shingal (Balad Sinjar; Fig. 35b), which was already settled in Roman (Singara) and early Islamic time (Oates and Oates 1959: 208). However, villages were the centres of the social and economic life of the tribes (Fuccaro 1994: 19). All these small villages do not exist anymore, since in 1975 the inhabitants were settled in collective villages by the Baath-party government (Wirth 1999: 187) with the claim of modernisation projects, serving the population from disadvantaged villages by supplying them with electricity, water, and sanitation (Savelsberg et al. 2010: 101). However, it soon became obvious that they were moved for security, in other words in order to prevent Yazidis from supporting the Kurdish National Movement, and in the collective towns people could be easily controlled (Savelsberg et al. 2010: 101). Along with this, properties were confiscated and passed to new owners (Savelsberg et al. 2010: 104), and the forcibly abandoned villages (137) were destroyed (Savelsberg et al. 2010: 102). The collective towns were built 30-40 km south or north of the mountain and one of the consequences of their construction was the progressive abandonment of cultivated lots in the mountain valleys (Wirth 1999: 188). Nowadays the majority of the Yazidis from Sinjar are displaced in refugee camps in the province of Dohuk (Figs. 36-38a), Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, and on the mountain itself, since a rebuilding action is required but still not possible (Nadia’s Initiative 2018: 1; Figs. 38b-c) and 15-20% of the IDPs could go back to their home (Nadia’s Initiative 2018: 2; The Danish Immigration Service 2018: 10, 17). The southern side of the region suffered a longer occupation and ISIS troops destroyed most towns and villages and left land mines (Nadia’s Initiative 2018: 2). The northern side was the first liberated from the ISIS occupation and comprises eight collective towns, running parallel to the mountain: Khanasor, Sinuni, Degure, Dehola, Borek, Zorava, Gulbal, Hardan (Nadia’s Initiative 2018: 14). At the current state of the situation, 60.000-70.000 returnees are now in Sinjar (Nadia’s Initiative 2018: 15). According to The Danish Immigration Service (2018), a majority of the Yazidis have not returned to Sinjar, because they are afraid of the local security situation.