'We are now free': Yazidis fleeing Isis start over in female-only commune

'We are now free': Yazidis fleeing Isis start over in female-only commune
The Guardian, by Bethan McKernan in Jinwar, Syria, 25 Feb 2019

In Jinwar, north-eastern Syria, a pioneering group of women are rebuilding their lives away from the constraints of patriarchy

A mural in Jinwar. The female-only commune in north-eastern Syria opened in November and is home to Kurdish, Yazidi and Arab families. Photograph: Bethan McKernan/The Guardian

Berivan runs over to join in the dancing, her traditional gold dress catching the winter sunlight. The 15-year-old Yazidi clasps hands with her best friend and stands among the line of women stamping their feet to a Kurdish pop song.

Berivan and her mother are from Sinjar in Iraq, the Yazidi homeland, but like thousands of other Yazidis they were kidnapped by Islamic State in 2014 when the group stormed across the border from Syria.

Far from here, in the eastern desert, Isis has almost lost control of its last stronghold, Baghuz, but there are at least 3,000 Yazidi women and girls whose fate is unknown.

During the genocide, Yazidi men were rounded up and shot then dumped in mass graves. The women were taken to be sold in Isis’s slave markets, many passed from fighter to fighter, who inflicted physical and sexual abuse.

Yazidi children have been brainwashed and rights groups say suicide among captives is common. Even for those who manage to escape after years of enslavement and rape, many struggle to survive without an income or identity papers.

Berivan and her mother have lost the other members of their family. But at a new women’s commune near Qamishli, in north-eastern Syria, they have had a chance to start over.

“I like it here,” she says. “I love going to school, I love mathematics. And I’m going to be a hairdresser when I grow up.”

Jinwar is a female-only community, set up by the women of the local Kurdish-run administration to create a space where women can live “free of the constraints of the oppressive power structures of patriarchy and capitalism”. It opened in November and 12 of its 30 adobe brick houses are home to Kurdish, Yazidi and Arab families.

The women built their own houses, bake their own bread and tend to the livestock and farmland, cooking and eating together. On Saturday, people from the neighbouring villages have been invited to a graduation celebration for a group of local women who had attended a course on natural medicines at Jinwar’s education centre.

Over chicken and rice, and later music and dancing, residents discuss how the newly planted apricot, pomegranate and olive trees are doing.

“We built this place ourselves, brick by brick,” says 35-year-old Barwa Darwish, who came to Jinwar with her seven children after her village in Deir Ezzor province was freed from Isis and her husband, who joined the fight against the group, was killed in action.

Families who fled Isis’s last holdout of Baghuz sit in a truck in Deir Ezzor. There are plans for a second commune in the Arab province.

“Under Isis we were strangled and now we are free. But even before that, women stayed at home. We didn’t go out and work. In Jinwar, I’ve seen that women can stand alone.”

Jinwar grew out of the democratic ideology that has fuelled the creation of Rojava, a Kurdish-run statelet in north-eastern Syria, since the civil war broke out in 2011.

The area has largely thrived despite the presence of enemies on all sides: Isis, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s troops, and Turkey, which regards the Kurdish YPG fighters as a terrorist organisation.

The women’s revolution, as it is known, is a significant part of Rojava’s philosophy. Angered by the atrocities committed by Isis, Kurdish women formed their own fighting units. Later, Arab and Yazidi recruits joined them on the front lines to liberate their sisters.

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