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.

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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

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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

Looking like change in India

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Voters in India get their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting a ballot.

Today was the last day of polling in India’s mammoth parliamentary elections. Five weeks of voting; Nine polling days; 814 million eligible voters; 543 Lok Sabha (lower House) seats.

From all the exit polling I’ve seen, it looks like the worst loss ever for the Indian National Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi that for so many years led an independent India.

But people are fed up with corruption and inefficiency. The polls show a huge victory in the making for Narendra Modi, a self-avowed Hindu nationalist.

Modi has been a controversial and polarizing figure in India. Hindu-Muslim violence under his watch in 2002 earned him the nickname, “The butcher of Gujarat.”

But Modi’s Bharaitya Janata Party is known as entrepreneurial and business-friendly. That’s why a lot of people I know in India voted for Modi in the election, the largest ever in the history of mankind.

Exit polls have been proven grossly wrong in the past in India. But still, it’s not looking good for Congress. I think there are big changes looming in my homeland.

Read my story on Varanasi, a city that was the epicenter of the election on CNN.com.

Hotel Death

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My story on a home for the dying in Varanasi, India, came out on CNN.com today.

I spent a week reporting in the fabled holy city and was fascinated by its spirituality much more this time than I was on previous trips. Part of it was because I was reporting on faith. But another part of it was that I think I have transformed over the years; my rebellion against organized religion has mellowed.

As I have grown older, I have lost people who were close to me. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and good friends. I was in shock after I returned from India in February to the death of my colleague Lateef Mungin. He was 10 years younger than me.

That kind of loss makes you think about the things that are important in life and also about what happens to us after we stop breathing.

The people I spent time with in Varanasi were, for the most part, steadfast in their beliefs, though there is one man in my story who may surprise you.

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Read my story, “Hotel Death,” on CNN.com

Death: I’ve had 13 years to think

The most sacred cremation place in India: Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night.

A body lies on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night. Concepts of death are very different in many Indian communities.

I’ve been immersed in writing about death after spending a week in Varanasi at a home where ailing, elderly Hindus go to end their lives. They want to die there because they believe dying within the boundaries of the ancient city of Kashi will mean moksha, or salvation for the soul.

The story — I will write more about that later — took me back to the deaths of my own parents in 2001. I cremated my father, Debabrata Basu, 13 years ago.

Every year, especially on March 24, I think about the events of that day. Of bringing his body home to our flat in Kolkata. Of going to Park Circus Market to buy garlands of marigolds and bouquets of white, fragrant Rajanigandhas (tuber roses). Of all the people who came to pay their last respects. Family. Friends. My father’s students and colleagues from the Indian Statistical Institute.

I think of how summer had already cut spring short that year. The temperature soared beyond 90 degrees as we made our way to the crematorium in Kalighat. I waited with my father’s body, under a hot sun. I felt exposed to the entire world, for seven hours. Time stood still then. I looked down at his gaunt face, his cold body. I touched his hand from time to time. Was it to make sure he really was gone? Physically, he was.

But his soul was free. He would be with me always, I thought.

I also lost a dear friend recently. Lateef Mungin, a colleague at CNN and before that, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died after suffering seizures. He was only 41.

I attended ‘Teef’s funeral at an African-American Baptist church in suburban Atlanta. Everything about it was so decidedly different than what I had seen at the cremation grounds in Kolkata and most recently in Varanasi. The way a body is laid out. They way we honor a person. They way we say goodbye.

In the last few days, death has again entered my life with the story of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. I spoke with Mr. K.S. Narendran, whose wife. Chandrika Sharma, was on that flight. This is what he wrote to his friends last week:

I remain focused on what we have at hand by way of information, and stay with the knowledge that Chandrika is strong and courageous, that her goodness must count for something, somewhere. I carry firmly the faith that the forces of life are eternal, immutable and ever present to keep the drama ever moving. In the ultimate analysis, I am neither favored nor deserted. No one is.

(You can read the entire story on CNN.)

I admired Mr. Narendran’s quiet strength and how he coped with the knowledge that his wife may never come back home. It was a stark contrast to the way many of us display our anxiety and grief.

We all have to come to terms with dying. We will all die one day. That is certain. But there is so much uncertainty about what happens afterwards, about what we believe happens to us after our physical presence on Earth has ended.

Do you believe in heaven? In hell? Do you believe we possess souls?

Hindus believe in rebirth. They see it as another cycle of testing for one’s soul. That’s why people go to Benaras to die. That’s why they take God’s name and hope for moksha that will put an end to that undesirable cycle. It is an alien idea for Christians, Jews and Muslims. But who’s to say?

I am not sure I will ever come to any concrete conclusions. But I do know this. I feel my parents’ presence within me. And that will never go away.

The price of independence

Independence turned bloody as uprooted Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs crossed borders.

Independence turned bloody as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs crossed borders.

It’s too bad “Midnight’s Children” was a bust at the box office. I’m thinking that Deepa Mehta was perhaps the wrong director to give us the celluloid depiction of Salman Rushdie’s terrific book, which won the Booker Prize in 1981.

The protagonist and narrator of Rushdie’s story, Saleem Sinai, is born at the exact moment when India gained independence from Britain. The film, had it been a success, might have broadened knowledge of the painful history of my homeland, just like “Gandhi” had done years before. “Gandhi” won various Oscars in 1983, including best picture.

At 11:57 p.m. on August 14, 1947, the nation of Pakistan was born, carved out of land that was a part of British India. Five minutes later, at 12:02 a.m. on August 15, India was declared a free nation. To all my Pakistani and Indian friends: Happy Independence Day.

That independence came with a steep price. British India was partitioned along religious and political lines. Pakistan became the Muslim homeland and Muslims living in lndia crossed borders on the west and east. At the same time, Hindus and Sikhs in the new Pakistan made the trek to India. At least 10 million people were uprooted from their homes; some estimates say it was as many as 25 million.

It was far from peaceful, far from what Mahatma Gandhi, the father of non-violence had anticipated.

Hindus and Muslims butchered each other. Sometimes, entire trains from Punjab to Pakistan arrived with seats and bunks awash in red. Or vice versa. Women were raped; children slaughtered. There are no exact counts of the dead; just an estimate of 250,000 to 2 million.

Gandhi’s non-violent revolution turned exceedingly bloody. Brother against brother. Blood spilled in the name of religion.

My father’s generation remembers that ugly time in our history. His family was displaced from their home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and started over in Calcutta. I heard stories from him and his friends and other Indians I have met from that era.

Atlanta physician Khalid Siddiq was one of those people. He told me he boarded a crowded train in New Delhi with his parents and four siblings to make a terrifying two-day journey through the farmlands of Punjab.

“I was very young but I think I understood what was happening,” he told me. “I could see the fear and anguish on my father’s face. It was a terrifying experience for everybody.”

Sohan Manocha told me he witnessed hundreds of killings as a young Hindu boy in Punjab. “That kind of horror leaves memories that are hard to erase, ” he said.

The stories of the painful birth of India and Pakistan are dying with the people who lived it. I am sorry I never recorded my conversations with people I knew.

Luckily, an oral history project, 1947 Partition Archive, is doing just that.

“The 1947 Partition Archive is a people-powered non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving and sharing eye-witness accounts from all ethnic, religious and economic communities affected by the Partition of British India in 1947,” the website says. “We provide a platform for anyone anywhere in the world to collect, archive and display oral histories that document not only Partition, but pre-Partition life and culture as well as post-Partition migrations and life changes.”

I’m glad someone took the time to preserve history.

It’s especially important since tensions between India and Pakistan have never settled.

Just last week, five Indian soldiers were killed last week along the heavily militarized Line of Control, the de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir. Since then skirmishes have flared tension between the two rival nations. Again. (India and Pakistan have already fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir, which Pakistan argues should have been a part of the newly formed Muslim nation in 1947.)

So on this Independence Day, I remember all those lives that were lost in the making of free nations, in the making of our destinies.