GERMANY, Nov 23 – Qassim Shesho stands on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, overlooking a vast mountain range that rises from the desert. The calm is deceptive. He worries about the village behind him. Sheref ad-Din holds one of the holiest shrines for the Yazidis. ISIS militants are only two miles away. “ISIS wants to exterminate us and they want to establish an Islamic caliphate, but Islam is not like what they are doing to us,” Shesho says. He says he commands about 2,000 Yazidi fighters.
Just months ago, he lived a peaceful life in Germany. “I came back because my people are here. ISIS are terrorists. I came to defend my land, my family and my religion,” he tells CNN by phone, speaking in Arabic. He didn’t come alone. Shesho’s 26-year-old son, Yassir Qassim Khalaf, is with him. Yassir arrived in September, shortly after ISIS’s initial attack on Yazidis left thousands stranded on the mountain without food, water or medical care. Their plight captured the world’s attention.
The Iraqi air force and fighters with the Kurdish fighting force — the peshmerga — rescued some families in a dramatic helicopter mission. U.S. airstrikes helped clear a path for thousands of Yazidis to escape the mountain into neighboring Syria and to Iraqi Kurdish territory. Yet the nightmare continues for thousands who remain on the mountain, surrounded by ISIS forces intent on eradicating anyone in their path.
“You can’t just stay in Germany, live in luxury and leave your family and your people alone while you are watching it all on TV, thinking, ‘It’ll work itself out,'” Yassir says in German. Shesho’s troops, in many ways, are fighting an existential fight. Yazidis are one of the oldest religious communities in the world, with a population estimated at only 700,000. They have suffered persecution through the ages. Many Muslims consider them devil worshipers.
Yazidis captured by ISIS have been forced to convert to Islam. Gruesome reports have emerged of Yazidi women being enslaved, raped and sold off by ISIS members while men and boys are executed. The United Nations concluded that the actions of ISIS “may amount to an attempt to commit genocide.”