Trouble for a forgotten people

Yezedi kids in Baronah, a village near the Sinjar Mountains.

Yezedi kids in Baronah, a village near the Sinjar Mountains.

Who are the Yezedis, the 40,000 people who are hiding in the Sinjar Mountains from the horror of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants?

They are not Muslims. They are a people largely forgotten by the world. In 2007, I had the opportunity to spend time in Nineveh province in the towns and villages around the Sinjar Mountains. Here is a blog post I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 6:

Caesar, an interpreter for the U.S. Army, shuttles us into the courtyard of his house in Baronah, Iraq.  He is anxious for Maj. Daniel Rice to see where he lives, meet his family.

Ceasar was proud to take us to meet his family. His daughters dreamed of leaving Iraq.

Ceasar was proud to take us to meet his family. His daughters dreamed of leaving Iraq one day.

Caesar (his real name has been withheld for safety reasons) is proud of who he is. “I am not Muslim, ” he says. “I am Yezedi.”

Rice, a border patrol transition team officer from Atlanta, sits on a white plastic chair and drinks a can of the local version of RC Cola. Today, he is the guest of honor.

The women of the family usher me into one of the rooms to show me the newborn of the family lying in a small crib. Caesar introduces me to his sisters. They are wearing slinky skirts and body-hugging blouses. Gold jewelry adorns their necks, ears and wrists.

The Yezedis are an obscure sect whose beliefs are ancient and whose practices are often misinterpreted.

No one knows exactly how many Yezedis are left in the world though it’s estimated that 100,000 live here in northwestern Iraq, along the Sinjar Mountains.

The Yezedis are an insular people who have their own customs. They never wear the color blue or eat lettuce.

They have kept their religion alive through oral history and have falsely come to be known as devil worshippers because they are followers of the fallen angel, Lucifer.

The Yezedis, however, believe Lucifer was forgiven by God and returned to heaven. They call him Malek Taus (the peacock king) and pray to him. They do not ever use the word “Satan.”

In the Yezedi villages, women don’t have to cover their heads. They consume alcohol. Cans of Heineken pile up on trash heaps. At a local new year’s festival, Georgia Army National Guard soldiers were offered whisky (they declined, of course).

The Yezedis, like their neighbors the Kurds, were persecuted by Saddam Hussein after he took power in 1979. When the dictator was toppled in 2003, the Yezedis had great hopes that their lives would take a turn for the better.

They believed in the Americans as saviors who would release them from their misery.

yez1

I took an instant liking to a Yezedi boy named Ahmed. I wonder if he and his family are safe now.

But now, in the fifth year of the war, frustration surfaces in Yezedi villages.

In nearby Yarmouk, the mukhtar (mayor), Qasim Sameer Rashu, sits down eagerly with Maj. Voris McBurnette, a high school principal from Raleigh, N.C., who is serving in Iraq on a military transition team.

Rashu leads McBurnette into a large hall lined with carpets on the floor and fancy lighting fixtures on the ceiling. There is, however, no electricity.

Rashu doesn’t hold back. He unleashes a torrent of complaints — no electricity, no water, no food supply.

“Electricity? We have forgotten what it is, ” Rashu says.

“In the beginning we were happy to see coalition forces. They got rid of Saddam. Now we are disappointed.”

McBurnette explains that coalition forces will do less from now on.

“It’s time for the Iraqi government to do more, ” he says.

“You are right, ” Rashu says. “But for three months, they have done nothing for us.”

He says insurgents often target trucks carrying food and medicine into the village.

“What if your kids were without food, without water, without power?, ” Rashu tells the major.

“We think the insurgents come from outside of Iraq but the Arabs here help them. And the Iraqi government — they are not hungry. They don’t know what’s going on in these villages far away from Baghdad.”

They are a forgotten people, Rashu says.

“We feel safer with Saddam gone but the services we have are worse.”

McBurnette explains that the Iraqi government must learn to respond to its own citizenry; that Americans can no longer do their job for them.

And then the mukhtar makes a politically-charged statement.

“We want to be part of Kurdistan.”

Though they practice a different religion, the Yezedis have much in common with the Kurds. They come from the same ethnic stock.

But because they occupy villages that sit on the borderlands between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan, the Yezedis were caught for years between the two.

The Kurds, who established an autonomous region after the 1991 Gulf War, now exercise influence in the Sinjar area but few Yezedis want to be co-opted by their northern neighbors. They have fought for centuries to maintain their identity. Rashu speaks out of economic desperation.

“In four years, the only help we have seen is from Kurdistan, ” he says.

Back in Baronah, Caesar’s family don’t want to let Rice and his team leave. They want him to experience Yezedi hospitality.

Caesar’s family, meanwhile, shows me albums containing snapshots of weddings and vacations. They like to go to Dohuk, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, where “things are so nice.”

The Yezedis are far removed from the bustling streets of Baghdad. Overlooked even in a war that cruelly highlights ethnic and sectarian differences. There is no mention of them even by those who want to ethnically carve up Iraq into separate nations.

Sadly, one man tells me, the only connection to Iraq these days is through bloodshed. The Yezedis, he says, are prone to bombings and assasinations just as their Sahiite, Sunni and Christian brethren living south and east of them.

Caesar’s sister wants me to take home a photo from their family album. I tell her I cannot accept something so personal.

She tells me they have never seen a foreign journalist in their village before. She says she probably won’t again. She is part of a forgotten people.

‘Dead Man Walking.’ Live nun talking

me&helen

On my last night in New Orleans, Sister Helen and I visited death penalty attorney Denny LaBoef at her home. Denny took this photo of us.

My journalism brings me face to face with all sorts of interesting people. Over the years I have met extraordinary men and women and ordinary ones who have extraordinary tales to tell.

Occasionally, I run into exceptional people, the kind who make me stop to reflect, respect and admire.

Sister Helen Prejean is one of them.

I’d known about her work for decades — I first learned about her ministry on death row when I, as a young reporter, began covering criminal justice issues in Florida. When her book, “Dead Man Walking” was published, I read it and immediately connected with her. She vomited after witnessing her first execution in the electric chair. So did I.

Last week, I was finally able to spend some time with her. She came to pick me up at the New Orleans airport. “Text me when eagle hits tarmac,” were her orders.

She was waiting patiently for me in her Toyota outside Delta baggage claim. Immediately, I got a first-hand experience of her lead-foot driving.

Over the next few days, I came to know a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood, to the Catholic church, to the poor and disenfranchised. I also came to know a woman who is full of life and laughter and joy in her heart, despite the fact that she has been dealing with executions for 30 years. I could not get over her verve for life. I also gained a couple of pounds eating Oyster Po’ Boys with her. They were deelish.

My story on Sister Helen published today on CNN.com. Shortly after, I received another text from her — yes, she loves her iPhone.

“Moniiiiiiii!,” it said. “You amaze me. What a comprehensive, lively, piece. U r an incredible, encyclopedic, compassionate journalist. Even the parrot joke! I’ll call soon.”

I felt tears welling.

I’m raising a glass of Scotch in your honor tonight, Helen.

Sister Helen is perhaps America’s best known abolitionist. You and I may not agree with her position on the death penalty or other issues for that matter.

I was inspired not because she is a death penalty abolitionist but because she is a woman of courage, compassion and conviction. And a whole lot of strength.

Journalists often lose their sense of all the good in this world because we cover so much misery and suffering. Sister Helen gave me back a little bit of my diminishing faith in humanity.

Read the CNN story here:

http://us.cnn.com/2014/08/06/us/executions-dead-man-walking-nun/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

An ugly and jarring reminder

klansign

There it was, posted on a light pole outside my house — a flier that made my heart skip a few beats.

“The KKK Wants you. The Loyal White Knights Neighborhood Watch.”

I’ve seen several of these fliers around in Atlanta intown neighborhoods. Two others were posted in front of homes I know are owned by people of colour.

I called the Southern Poverty Law Center — which tracks hate crimes — yesterday to find out whether this was a sign of Klan resurgence. The intel folks there assured me there was nothing to worry about. Turns out that the KKK is trying to capitalize on the current immigration crisis with a recruiting drive. Apparently the group has been spreading their message of hate in other states as well.

I called the two numbers listed on the flier. One call went to the Richmond, Virginia, area. The other, to North Carolina.

Both times, I got a recorded message. The first was a diatribe against immigrants that urged shoot-to-kill orders along the Mexican border. The second was a racist rant against black people. Niggers, it said, have IQs barely above mental retardation.

I have lived in the South for a majority of my life. I know well the brutal history of racism.

As a brown woman from another country, I have felt racism’s sting many a time. I’ve been called a sand nigger, a camel jockey, an injun. I’ve had readers of my stories tell me to go the hell back to the dirty, stinkin’ place I came from. They’ve called me Osama lover. Some have even sent me death threats.

But something about these fliers made me stop dead in my tracks.

I spoke with my friend, Valerie Boyd, about it last night. We talked about how — despite the hatred, bigotry and discrimination that still exists in American society — we were (fortunately) never victims as our parents were.

Val’s parents grew up in a Jim Crow South. My parents grew up under the British Empire. The movie theater near my mother’s childhood home had two drinking fountains. One was for Europeans, the other for Indians and dogs.

We talked about how the Klan burned crosses in the front yards of black people. The fliers, Val said, were the crosses of our generation.

I am by no means making any comparison here. But that’s how it felt when I first saw the “KKK” in front of my house. I felt the Klan was sending me a message: We know who you are and where you live. And we don’t want your kind here.

The Southern Poverty Law Center assured me I should not be scared by this routine canvassing attempt. But to me, there is little that is routine about what I heard on the recorded messages. They were another reminder to me of how far America still has to go.

Even with a black man in the Oval Office, even with America on the verge of transforming into a minority-majority nation, racism is alive and well.

Perhaps it will take many generations to eliminate racism. Until then, it behooves us all to talk about ugly things in the open, to make sure the brutality of the past is never repeated.

 

 

 

 

A Romeo and Juliet love story from Iraq

Mike and me in Baghdad in early April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.

Mike and me in Baghdad in April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.

I met Mike when sectarian strife exploded in Baghdad in 2006. That was not his real name, of course, but it was what he went by in his job as a translator for American soldiers.

Mike and I spent several evenings chatting at a coffee shop on the vast Camp Liberty complex. He was a smart well-spoken man with Antonio Banderas looks. He told me about his life in Iraq before the war. He taught computer science at a small Baghdad college and ran a photo processing shop.

He told me about the hope he’d held in 2003 after the ouster of Saddam, after which he worked as a security guard for Kellogg, Brown & Root. Eventually he found a job as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

But things did not progress the way he’d expected and his homeland seemed on the verge of civil war.

The Georgia Army National Guard unit I was embedded with was then patrolling the streets of southwest Baghdad. Sometimes, Mike would peer out the sliver of a bullet-proof window in the back of a  Bradley Fighting Machine and look for a small stucco house on one of the main thoroughfares.

Over coffee one day, I asked him why he stared so intently through the glass.

“Asra,” he said.

“Asra? Who is that?” I asked.

She was the woman he adored. They shared dreams. Of going to Sulaimaniyah to see snow for the first time in their lives. Of getting married, having children.

He bought American shampoo for her from the PX at Liberty. She had long, thick hair, he told me.

Sometimes, he broke Baghdad’s curfew and snuck into Asra’s house late at night. They knew they could not be seen together.

But he could no longer do that. They knew their love could bring them serious trouble.

Mike was Shiite and Asra, Sunni.

Mike was unwanted as a Montague in the house of Capulet.

Mike wished Asra would stand on her balcony when the Bradley thundered past her house. But she didn’t step outside anymore. It wasn’t safe.

A month earlier, the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra worsened the sectarian violence in Baghdad. I remember seeing bodies strewn on the streets of the capital. I could see that many had been tortured or mutilated or shot in the head, execution-style. Revenge killings soared. Neighborhoods in which Sunni and Shiite lived side by side went one way or the other. Thousands of Iraqis were driven from their homes.

I have been thinking of Mike a lot lately as I watch the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents battle towards Baghdad. I fear there will be all-out sectarian war. Sunni against Shiite. Blood spilled on the very soil where the division began with the killing in 680 AD of Muhammad’s grandsons in Kerbala.

We may never know modern-day Iraq again. I can see how borders might get redrawn. I am not necessarily opposed to that – the lines, after all, were drawn by the British to serve colonial interests and Iraq was, in many ways, an artificially assembled nation. But it is heartbreaking to see the carnage.

ISIS makes al Qaida look friendly. There have been reports of crucifixions, mass executions and beheadings. The atrocities make Iraq look like Yugoslavia on speed. That’s how Middle East politics expert Gareth Stansfield described the situation in a recent National Geographic interview.

I wonder if Mike and Asra were ever able to be together, start the family they wanted. I don’t have any way of contacting him anymore. I wish I did.

He told me once that it made no difference to him that Asra was Sunni, though her family didn’t see it that way. He saved a huge chunk of his American paycheck every month to build a house for Asra and himself in a Baghdad neighborhood that was then still very mixed.

He knew he was fighting the odds. He told me it would take a miracle to realize his dreams in a country fraught with war. But he wasn’t going to give up — he still believed in love.

I wonder if he still feels that way.

Remembering Ramadi as Iraq suffers again

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

I fought off tears as I read Sunday’s New York Times. The news from Iraq was horrifying.

A vicious civil war seems imminent as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) point their guns toward Baghdad.

They are men who make al-Qaeda look like nice guys. And the Taliban, wimps.

They have taken over much of Nineveh province — Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tal Afar. They are now taking aim at Samarra and threatened to destroy a historic Shiite shrine there. An attack on that shrine in 2006 unleashed sectarian bloodshed. Entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and other places were ethnically cleansed.

I remember how hard it was after that to make amends.

I was in Anbar province when the Sons of Iraq program was just getting off the ground. It began with Sunni Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi who helped launch the Anbar Awakening, a movement to stop the extreme violence that had gripped Iraq’s only Sunni-majority province.

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi "the heart of darkness."

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi “the heart of darkness.”

Cities like Fallujah and Ramadi looked apocalyptic. I don’t think I saw a single building in Ramadi that had been spared from bullet holes.

I walked the streets of a Ramadi neighborhood called Melaab with Able Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers called the place “the heart of darkness.”

When I asked residents what it was like to live there, they glided their right index finger across their throats. Sunni insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions.

Ramadi, back then, was the perhaps most dangerous place on Earth. And it was widely believed that the sheiks of Anbar were supporting the insurgents.

Then they began withdrawing that tacit support. I sat with Sheik al-Rishawi’s brother, Ahmed, to understand why his family and others had come around to helping the Americans establish peace.

He showed me his camels (see the photo at the top of my blog), sipped sweet chai and told me the people were just weary from that kind of extreme violence. His own father and brothers were killed by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

He invited U.S. commanders into his palatial home and talked strategy with them. Such friendships had seemed improbable just months ago but the sheiks were determined to bring peace.

From that movement came the Sons of Iraq. Insurgents who once pointed their guns at Americans and their Shiite brethren began to help keep the killing out of their territories. During the so-called surge in U.S. troops, the Sons of Iraq program was in full swing. The Americans paid them $10 a day to keep terrorism at bay.

When the Anbar Awakening first took hold, an uneasy calm came to Ramadi. I went to a polling station where people were voting in a city council election. Amazingly, there was no gunfire that day.

Outside, Capt. Jamey Gadoury, commander of 1-9 Inftantry’s Charlie Company, took his helmet and flak jacket off. We shared lamb and rice with community leaders and members of the Iraqi police.

There were three ways to deal with insurgents, Gadoury told me as he tore a piece of bread and scooped up a chunk of meat. “You either want to kill them, make them go away or get them on your side.”

“So what happened to the Sunni insurgents here?” I asked.

Gadoury stopped chewing and grinned, as though he were onto some awful secret.

“You’re eating with them, ” he told me.

I looked around and suddenly lost my appetite.

I think of my days in Anbar now as I read the tragedy unfolding in Iraq. All that ingenuity to befriend the enemy and make peace. Where did it all go?

Many have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for stirring Iraq’s cauldron of ethnic strife. Others have blamed President Barack Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think that violence has come back with a venomous vengeance — I’ll save that for a later post.

I will only say this: my heart is broken.

No longer one

India now has a 29th state. Telangana.

It was six decades in the making, the fruit of a strong separatist movement that argued neglect by successive governments and finally succeeded in breaking off a chunk of land from Andhra Pradesh. The man who once went on a hunger strike in defense of Telangana, K. Chandrashekar Rao, became its first chief minister Monday.

The celebrations began Sunday night. Hyderabad, which will now serve as capital for both states, was awash in pink, the color of Rao’s party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the newest state in the republic.

Amid the joy, however, there was reason for pause, especially among the citizens of Andhra who were against the carving up of their state. For economic reasons. For political reasons.

Proponents of Telangana argued that holding together different peoples under linguistic lines was silly; that it was better to have a more culturally cohesive state. Others pulled out proof that small states can prosper in India. The cited Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh as examples.

It’s a good thing the two states will share Hyderabad, a city that was at the forefront of India’s high-tech boom and houses corporate giants like Infosys. I visited there in 2000 and remember being so impressed with the efficiency and cleanliness there compared to my hometown, Kolkata. Without Hyderabad, I worry Telangana might flounder.

I am always wary when states are split because I fear that it might lead to a deeper division of people. We certainly don’t need to add to that problem in India.

But now the deed is done. I hope for Andhra and its sister Telangana to both prosper. Only time will reveal if this was the right decision.

‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise’

 

I met Maya Angelou in 1983.

I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”

She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.

She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”

I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.

She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.

Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.

“Was the story about ​the rider requesting ​30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “Th​at rumor​, and the way she carried herself ​ were the source of​ ​caricatures in recent years. ​How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”

If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.

She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.

I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.

Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.

The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.

Read the CNN obituary.

Here is Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.