(The Guardian newspaper) Beside the sun-bleached bones, the tangles of human hair and greying piles of clothes exposed by wind and rain, a leaflet newly dropped by the Iraqi army fluttered in the wind. “We are coming to save you from Isis!” the text announced, two years too late for those buried in the mass grave below.
Ten minutes’ drive away is the ruined city of Sinjar, where whole streets lie in rubble, shop shutters are still branded with the religion of their owners – ISIL marked them so that militants knew where to loot – and every tangle of steel and stone could hide an unexploded bomb.
Sinjar and the region around it in northern Iraq, a centre for the minority Yazidi group and symbol of their suffering under Isis, was liberated nearly a year ago. But since then there has been little clearance, no rebuilding, and no formal investigation of the mass graves that have been found – although some are now marked by wire fence or tape. There has been no restoration of public services or call for refugees to return.
The whole area still feels ghostly and abandoned, still waiting for life to return nearly a year after Isis left. The only residents are cats, wary soldiers, and a few shopkeepers who serve them. The destruction is so complete that officials are considering leaving the ruins as a monument to their people’s suffering.
“Seventy percent of the city is destroyed. There is an idea to build a new Sinjar and keep this just for a memorial,” said local government spokesman Nasir Pasha Khalaf. “Clearing this and rebuilding will be more expensive than just starting again.”
As the militant group is pushed slowly out of Mosul and strongholds in the villages surrounding it, the glacial pace of recovery is a bleak warning of the challenges ahead; a reminder that getting rid of the fighters is just the end of the beginning.
This is partly because the damage to communities under Isis rule was not just physical. Militants blew up streets, homes and churches, but also exploded the delicate web of relationships, political and personal, that held together one of Iraq’s most religiously diverse regions.
The trust that once meant Yazidis and Muslims served as godparents for one another’s children has been shattered, with many refugees saying neighbours joined Isis to persecute them. One of the group’s top emirs, or commanders, in the area came from the city. “They were all local people, hitting us, kicking us with cables, telling us we must convert,” said one Sinjar woman in her late 50s who was captured by Isis and held for nearly a year. She asked not to be named to protect relatives who were still in captivity.
In Sinjar city the Arabic letter Y, scrawled on buildings to alert Isis members to Yazidi property, provides further testament to the fact that attackers knew the families they would enslave and massacre.