Smell of death permeates ruined Yazidis villages

A pink floral comforter holds the partial remains of a woman killed during a four-truck bombing last week in two isolated Yazidi villages in Iraq.
A pink floral comforter holds the partial remains of a woman killed during a four-truck bombing last week in two isolated Yazidi villages in Iraq. Leila Fadel/MCT

TAL AL AZIZZIYAH, Iraq — The pungent smell of the dead hangs low in this village, and not even the colorful headdresses the men have wrapped across their faces can keep it out.

“Come here,” a man shouts from atop a pile of rubble, summoning help from other men who are digging through the debris. His shovel has hit something. The digging quickens and dust fills the air. Then a lifeless arm appears, and soon the top half of a woman has been uncovered. The remains are placed in a pink floral comforter and carried off.

Nearly one week after four bombs blew apart this village and a neighboring one, Sheikh Khadar, the dead are still being recovered, adding to the toll that already had made last Tuesday’s bombings the deadliest terrorist attack since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

At least 354 people are confirmed dead and 80 more are known to be missing. The toll of the wounded stands at 600. Half of those are in serious condition, and many aren't expected to survive. On Sunday, 10 more bodies were discovered in the rubble of what used to be Tal al Azizziyah’s core. A bulldozer beeped constantly as it pushed through the rubble. American Humvees, absent until last week’s explosions, rolled along the dirt roads.

For most of the survivors, there’s no doubt why their villages were targeted.

“The problem is we are Yazidis,” said one man as he stood among the remains of what had been at least 150 clay houses, now reduced to nothing more than broken shards. “We go to Mosul and Tal Afar, the Arabs and Turkmen try to kill us. …We didn’t stand against anyone. What is our fault?”

The Yazidis are another minority in an Iraq filled with religious and ethnic divides, any one of which can burst into violent warfare, as last week’s bombings made clear. The Yazidis, who trace their religious roots to ancient Persia, aren’t Muslim and have for years been viewed disdainfully by Christians and Muslims as devil worshippers for the homage they pay to Malak Taus, the most revered of seven angels who Yazidis believe were God’s first creations.

That disdain turned to rage this spring when young Yazidi men stoned to death Doaa Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old Yazidi girl accused of dating a Sunni Arab man. Images of her head being crushed with cinder blocks were caught on a cell phone camera and spread across the Internet. Two weeks later, 23 Yazidi men were taken from a bus and killed.

Yazidis, Kurds by ethnicity, are discouraged from interaction with non-Yazidis, and Tal al Azizziyah and Sheikh Khadar, which Arabs called Qataniyah and Adnaniyah, are places from another time.

The low-slung clay homes have no running water or electricity. Little boys play with makeshift toys fashioned from tin cans and other leftover items. Travel here is difficult; a McClatchy Newspapers reporter reached this village only with the assistance of the U.S. military.

Villagers remain in shock at the extent of the damage. One of the craters is 15 feet deep and has been hastily filled with rubble — little flip-flops, shreds of children's clothes and men’s headdresses sprinkled amid broken clay blocks, dirt and twisted metal.

In Sheikh Khadar, where at least 27 people died, the local sheik’s house has become the point of mourning.In the courtyard, past the black flag and beige wall, hundreds of women, men and children danced in meditative circles. They chanted and beat their chests, and their chants rose into a mournful harmony. Women pulled at their hair and screamed; one fainted. All around them were framed pictures of the dead. For one month they will repeat the ritual from sun up to sun down.

Outside, Rezan Haji Youssef, 16, lifted his shirt to show his wounds. His tan stomach was covered with scratches; his knees were bruised and skinned. He listed the dead in his family matter-of-factly: his father, his sister and his brother. His mother mourned at their destroyed home, but he was stoic. His father had just returned from work and they were sitting together for dinner when he heard the first explosion hit Tal al Azizziyah. Then two explosions shook his village and brought his home to the ground.

“After that I lost control,” he said. “I don’t remember anything. Some Iraqi soldiers took me to the hospital."

Abdullah Hamad Khodayer pulled up his sleeves, revealing the raw wounds. He saw a pickup truck from the Arab villages nearby scouting out the area, he said.

“I believe they want to kill all of us …because we are Yazidis first,” he said.

Everyone lost a cousin, a neighbor, a father, a brother or a child. The lists were endless.

At the mayor’s compound, bags of wheat, sugar and rice were piled high, shipped in from the Kurdish Regional Government in the north: two bags of wheat per house, one bag of sugar, one bag of rice.

Little boys helped unload hundreds of bottles of water. The Kurdish Regional Government doled out 500 tents, 1,500 mattresses, 3,000 blankets, 500 kitchen sets, 1,000 bed sheets and 450 water tanks. For every family with a fatality the central government had promised 2 million Iraqi dinars, about $1,616.

Near Tal al Azizziyah, survivors are being housed in green tents. Salam, an 8-year-old boy, recounted the bombing, which claimed his father and wounded his brother.

With his hands, he showed how the explosion lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground, moving his hand up dramatically, then bring it down with a flat palm. It was unclear whether he understood that his dad and his home were gone.

The mayor of Tal al Azizziyah, Khodr Khodail Rasheed, was at home when the bombs exploded. He ran outside and was met with devastation. Hundreds of dead lay in the streets. Homes had collapsed on them, and a deep crater scarred the landscape. He shook his head when asked if the town could recover.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just like Hiroshima. We’ve never seen anything like this. It needs time, a long time.”

In tears, Saadour Katr Ali, 24, pointed to four homes that are now piles of dirt and rocks. These homes had been his and those of his extended family. He lost 16 family members.

Capt. Bradley Nelson, of Nashville, Tenn., was just north of the villages with the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Division, when he heard the booms and watched the smoke rise. He and his men rushed to the area to help. He couldn’t shake the images and couldn’t help but think of his 4-month-old baby girl.

“It was madness and pandemonium,” he said. "Women were screaming and children were running around with no parents begging for help.”

And the future? Everyone expects the attacks to continue to rid Iraq of Yazidi Kurds.

“We need more security only because we are Yazidi,” said Mayor Rasheed.

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