Everyone whose followed the rise of the so called Islamic State or Daesh over the past 18 months will have heard of Sinjar or Shengal as it’s called by the people of the area. I’ve wanted to visit this area since I first watched the atrocities unfold on TV there last summer but was unable to at that time. This was my 3rd trip to Kurdistan and I wanted to see where the events took place that prompted my first trip last August. I would be traveling with my fixer Alan, a local Yazidi interpreter.
I arrived in Erbil in the late afternoon and stayed the night before making the drive to Duhok the following day. I didn’t want to make the drive after dark, as the roads are somewhat unsafe due to the poor standard of driving by the Iraqi’s and their “Inshallah” (if god wills it) attitude towards road traffic accidents, which used to kill more people than war up until last year. It’s bad enough driving in daylight so after dark was a no no!
Once in Duhok we pottered around the area for a few days looking at various potential stories we could do including spending a day and night in Telskuf, a small town about 20km north of Mosul and right on the front line with Daesh. Telskuf was a Christian settlement whose residents fled with the advance of Daesh fighters who ransacked the town after capture. We met a number of the residents of the town in a refugee camp later that week and after talking with one I realized I’d been in her now destroyed house.
After a few days in and around Duhok I decided to make the trip to Sinjar and set off early the next morning.
Leaving Duhok we drove North West for about 70km towards Zakho before turning off the main road for the Sehela Bridge that is right near where the borders with Iraq, Syria and Turkey converge. At the bridge there is a checkpoint where we were stopped and told by the guard we could go no further. Most of Sinjar Mountain and the area North into Syria is under Kurdish control and is relatively safe to travel, but as a westerner you need permission to be there. We would be travelling with the blessing of the Brigade Commander of the Sinjar Yazidi Peshmerga Qassim Shesho and his son Yasser, so after a quick call by Alan to the top man himself we were quickly wave though and on our way again. After crossing the bridge and making a right turn near the partly destroyed villages of Gunde Sehela and Gunde Sehela Jeri we drove virtually in a strait line for another 100km West along the border with Syria then south in to Snuny where Qassim Shesho’s Brigade HQ is. The road is dotted with checkpoints under control by mostly Peshmerga but also YPG and possibly other armed militia but we didn’t have any more problems on the road.
After stopping by the HQ and spending a few minutes with Qassim Shesho to express our thanks for allowing us to visit the area we left to meet up with a western fighter, Mike Rosa, who would be our guide for the time we would be there. We were to meet him in the village of Sherfadin and lucky for me Alan was from the area and knew exactly where to go.
Mike is a 54 year old ex banker who spent 5 years in the French Foreign Legion during the 1980’s and was trained as a reconnaissance sniper, he also worked as a dance instructor. He came to Kurdistan to join the fight against Daesh 5 months earlier but admits that most western fighters do little if any of the fighting out here and that if he had known this before leaving the UK he wouldn’t have bothered coming. He told me he was invited to spend 5 days with Yazidi Militia and went into Sinjar city with the group to snipe at Daesh fighters, but says that during that time he only saw 4 enemy fighters. The rest of his time there was spent shooting out the loud speakers on the sides of mosques. “I can honestly say I shot a lot of loud speakers,” he tells me with a cheeky smile.
The main purpose of the trip was to try and track down former Islamic State female captives who had escaped and are now fighting Daesh with any of the armed groups in the area. But first we would go and meet up with an American Family unit consisting of a father and his two sons who where helping to train Yazidi Peshmerga on the outskirts of Sinjar City on the other side of the mountain.
The City itself is situated at the base of Sinjar mountain, a 65km long cigar shaped mount that rises sharply 1,463 meters (4,800 ft) above the surrounding alluvial plains in north-western Iraq and was the scene of one of the worst atrocities committed by Daesh, when In August 2014 they abducted an estimated 5000 Yazidi women and children, and massacred at least 5,000 Yazidi civilians, mostly men and boys. An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Yazidis fled to the mountain and there are still roughly 1600 Yazidi families still living on the mountain over a year later that have chosen to tough it out in the harsh conditions.
Approaching the mountain from the North we made our way up the long winding road with multiple switch back hair pin bends, the road is in good condition which makes the dive more comfortable and less scary even though Mike who was driving was doing his best to drive us off the road at every turn. As we rolled over the crest of the ridge marking the top of the north side of the mountain a hidden valley reveals itself stretching for 6km running East to West though the center of the mountain. The barren landscape is dotted with thousands of tents that are now home for the refugee who decided to stay on the mountain. On the bends of the road as we drive down into the valley small shops have been set up selling everything from fruit and veg to beer, most of which is bought hundreds of kilometers from Duhok.
As we crested the ridge on the other side of the mountain the City of Sinjar becomes visible though the haze in the distance. The road down on the south side is even windier than the road up. Burnt out and bullet riddled hulks of cars and clothing abandoned by the masses fleeing Sinjar are strewn by the roadside on the lower slops. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like trying to make your way up this steep slope in the 50°c heat of August while being chased all the way by a bunch of blood thirsty psychopaths intent on murdering you or worse.
At the bottom of the hill we turned off the road aptly named mortar alley into an area where there were a few houses that were being used by the Yazidi Peshmerga and YPG. A young guy wearing a black bandana round his head, dark sunglasses with an AK47 slung over his shoulder and an American accent came over and introduced himself as James. James is the youngest son of 49 year old Harry Martinez who hales from New Jersey, USA. Harry arrived in Kurdistan 3 moths ago on August 18th with his sons Joshua age 29 and James age 23. Asked why Harry decided to bring his two sons out here he tells us, “it was James’s idea to come here, you better ask him about that”. James told us, “originally it was my goal to come out in the summer time and get a picture of what’s going on out here, no one knows what’s really going on back in the states, when I said I wanted to do it my brother said he wanted to go with me. Then it morphed into something else when my dad said hey, we have a lot more to give these people, we could actually train them”.
Harry and his son’s are all Marine Corps Vets, each having taken part in combat operations in Afghanistan with Harry serving in Iraq and Central America also.
Harry tells us “unfortunately the Yazidi [Peshmerga] have receive little, next to none, or no training at all. They get a two week school once they volunteer with the Yazidi Peshmerga but it still has a way to go before it even comes close to western standards of training”
“We train them in patrolling, improvised explosive devices recognition and reaction too, we train them in reaction to ambush, reaction to snipers and close quarter battle, we train them in leadership at the officer level and at the non commissioned officer level and in first aid”.
At this point I decided to slip out as Harry’s eldest son Josh was in the middle of training troops in the use of a belt fed machine gun, teaching them stoppage drills with the help of another American volunteer and I wanted to get some shots before they wrapped it up.
After the lesson had finished Harry invites us to take a trek up to the main defensive position on top of the hill in front of the house that overlooks the City of Sinjar. I agreed and started getting my body armour and helmet out of the car.
“you wont need that, trust me its a steep hike up that hill, you might want to travel light” Harry said. I decided that I would wear my body amour anyway but opted to leave our helmet back in the car, a decision I would later regret.
Harry was right, it was a steep climb and I found it a little hard going, with me not being in the best shape of my life. After blowing a few cobwebs out of my lungs on the way up I eventually made it to the top and looked out on the sprawling city below. Sinjar was bigger than I imagined it and you could clearly see the area where most of the fighting was taking place. In front of a small hill with a water tower painted with the Kurdish Flag were buildings that were little more than rubble. It wasn’t long before we saw mortars striking the area. The only movement in the city that I could see was a few trucks moving along the main road between Mosul and Raqqa in the distance on the far side of the city.
Josh and James wasted little time servicing a US made Browning 50 caliber machine gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck that had commanding arcs of fire onto the city below. After stripping, greasing and resembling it, it wasn’t long before they got it into action opening up with short bursts of fire into a position near a mosque. “It’s call to prayer time”, Harry said looking at his watch, “the fighters who aren’t on the front will be making there way to the mosque for prayers and we might catch a few of them off guard”.
A Yazidi fighter told Josh that the gun was short on ammo so he switched to a lighter PKM machine gun and continued to put fire down onto the area around the mosque. However the gun kept jamming and it wasn’t long before the weapon became unserviceable with what josh suspected was a round jammed in the breach. I couldn’t help but think that it’s a good job it didn’t happen in the middle of a firefight when lives might depend on that gun for support. It was a perfect example of the substandard weaponry the Yazidis had been supplied with.
As Josh was busy trying to fix the problem with the PKM and I was in the middle of taking some GV (general view) photo’s of the city below, there was a huge explosion about 30 meters to the right of our position which sent everyone diving for cover with the sound of shrapnel whizzed over head.
“INCOMMING” Harry shouted as I pressed my face into the ground. Where’s my fucking helmet I remember thinking to myself as another round landed, this time thankfully it was further away. “OK guy’s get in under cover” Harry told us. We jumped into a small shelter not much bigger than a phone box in the corner of the sand bagged position, but on closer inspection I discovered it didn’t offer much protection, with the overhead cover being little more that a piece of carpet. Shit!!! I thought.
Now this was not my first time being under fire, I’d been shot at and RPG’d and even had the odd grenade fired in my direction while on embeds in Afghanistan, but this was my first time coming under fire from mortars. Being shot at by small arms is nothing really to worry about unless your caught out in the open, you just get down behind solid cover or in a ditch and the rounds either hit what ever your hiding behind or go over the top, no problem. But with mortars its different, they are falling down on top of you and unless you are under hard cover, like say, a nice big bunker with several feet of sand bags or concrete over your head, then your exposed. If the next round landed anywhere in our immediate vicinity we’d probably all end up dead or at the very least injured.
“Here comes another one” Harry shouts, “time of flight 30 seconds”
You can here the mortar being fired in the distance with a poof sound. It then takes the round about 30 or so seconds, depending on how far away it is, to cover the distance from leaving the mortar tube to striking its target. In that 30 odd second I had plenty of time to think about my family back home and why the hell didn’t I bring my helmet? It’s a horrible feeling waiting for the round to strike as you have no idea where it’s going to hit, you just have to sit tight and hope for the best. After about 2 or 3 more rounds all of which missed by a good 100 meters or more, it went quiet.
This was our que to get down of the hill we decided. Alan my fixer, was off down the hill like an olympic sprinters I, on the other hand, not being as young and spritely as I once was took a little longer to cover the ground and I hadn’t gone far before I heard Harry shouting “Incoming” once again. I looked up to see him and his boys disappearing into a small bunker near the top, I however was caught in the open. I quickly looked around for cover and spotted a small ditch several inches deep only a few feet away. That’ll do I though and I dived in. I was immediately hit with the stench of dried piss and a quick glance to my right confirmed my suspicions when I saw staring back at me, a large turd. I’d taken cover in the toilet trench. Fucking perfect!!!! The round landed somewhere out of sight and I quickly jumped up and checked my self over for “you know what”. It seemed I’d got lucky twice that day.
We managed to get our selves down and back over to the other side of Sinjar Mountain with out any more dramas and spent that night in Snuny. The next day we would be looking to find what we had originally come to the area for.