The Yazidi Women’s Union of Afrin works for the protection of the Yazidi culture and promotes the integration of Yazidi women in all spheres of society. Eisha Sido, member of the organization, explains how the establishment of the Autonomous Administration has transformed the situation of the Yazidi people in North-East Syria. She presents some of the ancient traditions that characterize this religion and highlights how the Turkish occupation in Afrin threatens the Yazidi people and culture.

Yazidi New Year celebrated in Lalish, the holiest site of the Yazidi people

Within the Yazidi Women’s Union of Afrin, we organize among the Yazidi women. We organise our women and our young people, with regards to culture and to religion and we educate them. For example, we conduct conferences – our second conference was in September 2019.

We are connected to the Autonomous Administration based in Jazira, to Kongra-Star here as well, but first of all we are part of the Women’s Council of Shengal. This umbrella Council organises all the Yazidis, in Shengal, in Rojava, here, in Europe, in Russia, and takes decisions in its meetings.

Yazidis have remained without rights for thousands of years, of which the violence of the Turkish state is only the latest example. But after the establishment of the Autonomous Administration and the publishing of the Social Contract, the status and independence of the Yazidi religion is enshrined – it states that these people have the right to conduct their own religious affairs. So this is the first time, after thousands of years, that such a center has been established for Yazidis: the first time that we are seen as an independent religion, with our rights enshrined, and able to conduct all our own religious and cultural affairs. This right was given by the Autonomous Administration and we opened our center in Afrin on this basis in 2012.

Until the establishment of the Autonomous Administration, wherever we went, in any office, our official identity papers said: Islam.

Women face difficulties across the Middle East, and there are especial difficulties we face as Yazidi women. Until the establishment of the Autonomous Administration, wherever we went, in any office, our official identity papers said: Islam. Until the point that we couldn’t share with our own friends that we were Yazidi. Until the point that we didn’t let our neighbours and those around us know that we were Yazidi, because of the fear built up over thousands of years of violence and pillaging, Yazidi women were stuck inside four walls. Until the point that they told their children to tell other children that they were Muslim – you couldn’t tell even your friends you were Yazidi.

When the Autonomous Administration was established in Afrin, it brought a lot of hope for the Yazidi women. Consider – we have our religious festivals. Where do they come from? They are something natural. Such as the Festival Without Blood in February, these are natural things, to share together with our neighbours, but [under the regime] we were scared. It is natural that we would want to share these things with those around us, but we did not, due to our fears and the massacres we have faced. Our mutual trust was weak. Under the Autonomous Administration, we celebrate our various festivals every year, red Wednesday, the Festival Without Blood… we remember, we will never forget, we will celebrate them and we will never give up on our religion or our resistance.

The most important thing is that it is a religion connected to nature, that all of our festivals, art and practices are connected to nature.

The most important thing is that it is a religion connected to nature, that all of our festivals, art and practices are connected to nature. In December, it was our festival of fasting. It starts on 1 December as the sun gets less and the nights get longer, until you arrive to the longest night of the year. Why do we observe this festival, as the light gets less and the darkness grows? Because maybe at this time the sun will cease, and no longer emerge. So each week we fast for three days, and celebrate on the Friday, as the sun returns. After this third week of fasting, we arrive to the 21st of December. On this day, the night and the day become one. We fast on this day so that the days start to lengthen again. The meaning of this is the light and the dark, the struggle between them and the victory of the light. So we can see all our festivals are connected to nature.

The next example is the Pirxwin festival in February, that is, the festival without blood. All our festivals, our most ancient festivals, are not according to the Julian or Gregorian calendar, but according to the Eastern calendar. In Kurdish, we call this the ‘agricultural calendar’. This Pirxwin festival is also connected to nature. In these days, we collect seven different types of produce, barley, wheat, and so on… and a little salt. and we observe a day’s fast. It’s connected to the physiology of humans – in February, one’s blood is renewed.

At this time, our Christian brothers also fast and eat foods without blood [ie. Lent] – it’s the same thing. Eggs, yoghurt, meat – you don’t eat any of these things at this time, when one’s own blood is being renewed. This continues until the celebration of Wednesday in April [Red Wednesday, Yazidi New Year]. From February until this time, we do not eat animal products. This is the result of ancient knowledge from thousands of years ago, that one should not eat animal products while one’s own blood is being renewed. As such, this type of festival – where one does not eat animal products – is common to many religions, to our Christian brothers, to our Muslim brothers in their celebration of the prophet Khider, when they also do not eat animal products.

We worked in Afrin for as long as we were there. We continued with religious and political education programs, with women’s meetings, with our political organizing, until the very last day when we left Afrin.

Our organization was not set up in Shehba, the Yazidi Union already existed in Afrin. [Because of the Turkish invasion in January 2018] we left Afrin as IDPs [Internally Displaced People] and came to Shehba. We worked in Afrin for as long as we were there. We continued with religious and political education programs, with women’s meetings, with our political organizing, until the very last day when we left Afrin. We didn’t give up. Our Yazidi and Kurdish women joined protests and human shield actions even then, below airstrikes and bombardment. There are historical artefacts in Afrin, images of Lalish [holiest place of the Yazidis], the possessions of the prophets, things that even our neighbors in Afrin did not know of. And when we fled they were all left there, we left with only the basic things we needed to survive and the people spread out in fear. When Turkey invaded they flattened our center completely. Opposite our center in Afrin, we set up a statue of the prophet Zarustra [Zerdest], as a symbol: this was also razed to the ground. We have renewed our organization here in Shehba, some members have left and others have joined, we have set up a new center. And for the second time we have set up the exact same system that we lived among as Yazidis in Afrin, here in Shehba.

Some of those who arrived here [in Shehba] were so scared, facing the prospect of massacres, that they said “I am not Yazidi.” We have brought an end to this fear.

Our enemies want to eradicate us, and on top of all the genocides they have carried out, they want us to lose our culture. Some of those who arrived here [in Shehba] were so scared, facing the prospect of massacres, that they said “I am not Yazidi.” We have brought an end to this fear, for some – so they can live as people connected to their roots. This is our work. And of course, a number of our people are still in Afrin and cannot leave. All the atrocities in Afrin, the kidnappings, the killings, the extortion – this is one thing they face. The second thing is the desecration of our holy sites. 18 or 19 of our holy places in Afrin have been despoiled, looted – they steal what they can steal and destroy whatever is left.

Turkish proxies, but also the Turkish warplanes bombed these historic sites. It is clear that they intend not only to kill people, but also to destroy history, the history of these people on this land.

This is connected to the proxy forces which Turkey uses, they are not content with killing people, they want to destroy people. These holy places are thousands of years old, and historic places in their own right, on top of their special value to us as Yazidis – such as Tel Ashtar [Ishtar hill/mound, referring to Ain Dara]. To us Yazidis, Ashtar was an angel. Turkish proxies, but also the Turkish warplanes bombed these historic sites. It is clear that they intend not only to kill people, but also to destroy history, the history of these people on this land. And they also looted, most significantly the large [statue of a] lion [from Ain Dara].

So this is also part of our work, to document these events in Afrin, working together with the Human Rights Organisation of Afrin, for example. We resist in this way. Of course we believe we will return, if we did not have this belief, maybe we would not be here today.

And of course, our political work continues here. If there is a meeting with five men, there will be five women there as well, if there is a march with a thousand men, there will be thousand women there too – may God protect them.

And of course, our political work continues here. If there is a meeting with five men, there will be five women there as well, if there is a march with a thousand men, there will be thousand women there, too – may God protect them.

Women and children are our future, and so – despite the fact that our enemy targeted schools in Afrin – we ensure that every one of our children here received an education, and also that they learn about their own religion, about what it is to be Yazidi. Don’t misunderstand me – we teach them what it is to be human. Someone who is cut off from their religion cannot protect their land. Ours is a religion which has faced massacres for thousands of years, and yet which has never bloodied its own hands in retaliation – we do not forget this, we make sure our children know it.

The Kurdish people are all Yazidis, originally. Yet we do not forget that even some Kurds were involved in violence against Yazidis, at the behest of the Ottoman Empire and Islam. This was also a betrayal, and they were also betrayed. Notwithstanding these betrayals which have taken place, we do not forget the Yazidi roots of the Kurds. And the Yazidis never occupied any land, never dirtied their hands with blood. We do not want anyone to be cut off from their religion, not the Muslims, nor the Christians – let everyone practice their own religion in peace, and let them live.

There are some Yazidis left in Afrin, but firstly they are forced to hide themselves, and secondly, they are being forced to change their religion. There is the Wasofani village, for example, which is entirely a Yazidi village, with just one Muslim family. Through violence, the Yazidi children are forced into a house which they have designated as a mosque and made to study Islam, while young Yazidi girls are being forced to wear black clothes and cover their heads. Some of the villagers protested against this, and they were arrested and thrown into jail.

There are some Yazidis left in Afrin, but firstly they are forced to hide themselves, and secondly, they are being forced to change their religion.

No-one can celebrate any of their own religious festivals in Afrin, it is forbidden. Our holy places, like our caves and religious places, have been desecrated, for the most part. As Yazidis, we are not against anyone else or the Yazidi religion. But we want to protect our own special practices and customs. As we see it, these people are not acting in this way due to religion, but due to their own personal interests and the interests of the Turkish state.

Everything that is happening in Afrin happens through the direction and control of the Turkish state, which is the system, the state, and the legal authority in Afrin. To take another example, an old Yazidi man aged around 60, named Omar Shamo from Khibari village, was forced through violence to say the ‘shahada’ of Islam [phrase which, if said, is believed to constitute acceptance of the religion of Islam]. He refused, and so he was killed.

Many of our people have been killed, kidnapped and brutalized. Our people in Afrin live in difficulty, amid fear and violence. If we want to connect with them [by the telephone/internet], they don’t accept, because they are scared that the Turkish forces will detect this and arrest them.

The last years in Afrin were the first time, after thousands of years, that our identity has been accepted and valued as Yazidis, in the system of democratic autonomy.

Our desire, of course, is to return to Afrin. But for us, as Yazidis, this is especially grave – it is an existential question of our continued survival. The last years in Afrin were the first time, after thousands of years, that our identity has been accepted and valued as Yazidis, in the system of democratic autonomy. It’s like a dream for us, that we can share our religion openly before the whole world. In those 4 to 5 last years in Afrin, we lived this dream out. And we hope that we can return to Afrin, and that Turkey and its proxies will leave, and we can once again follow our own religion, culture and practices in the land of our forebears. For this reason, we remain here and will not leave.

Read more on ethnic and religious minorities in North and East Syria in our report “After ISIS: Ensuring a future for Christians and other minorities in North and East Syria“.