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'The Old Tiger of Mount Sinjar': Meet Qasim Shesho, the Yazidi Commander Battling the Islamic State

VICE News traveled to Sinoun in the foothills of Iraq's Sinjar Mountains to meet the head of the Yazidi militia fighting to defend his people from the jihadist group.

by Celia Mercier
Feb 12 2015, 4:20pm

Images via Celia Mercier

Qasim Shesho is a hero to the Yazidi community — the "old tiger" of Mount Sinjar who never gave up in the face of the forces of the Islamic State. He battled to protect the mountain's holy shrine of Sharaffadin that the Sunni jihadists wanted to burn down; he stood his ground with his militia while the Iraqi military fled the group's advance.

For months Shesho was the Yazidis' lone symbol of resistance against the radical Islamists enslaving and massacring their people. I had seen him on TV in Iraqi Kurdistan, with his distinctive bushy moustache and his hoarse bossy voice. I heard about him from Yazidi prisoners who had managed to escape the Islamic State and reach his safe haven of Sinoun village in the Sinjar mountain range. Then one day, I had the chance to visit the old man.

For five months, his stronghold had become part of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, following the group's overwhelming surprise assault on the district on August 3.

The summer onslaught led 200,000 Yazidis, the small Kurdish minority who follow an old Persian religion, to flee for their lives, many of them seeking refuge on Mount Sinjar. Stranded on the mountain and besieged by the Islamic State for months, hundreds of old people and children died of exhaustion and thirst. In the region's towns and villages, hundreds, maybe thousands, of men and teenage boys were killed in what has been denounced as genocide. Women and children were captured as war booty, and sold as slaves. The men of the "caliphate" regard the sect as "devil worshippers" due to its veneration of the Peacock Angels, who some Muslims and Christians identify as Satan.

For months, after a first supply corridor fell into the Islamic State's hands, Shesho's den was only accessible by helicopters which would bring meager amounts of weapons and food.

But in December, the Kurdish peshmerga finally launched an offensive to retake Sinjar mountain, with the help of guerrilla fighters from Turkish Kurdistan's PKK and airstrikes by the US-led coalition.

Related: Meet the PKK 'Terrorists' Battling the Islamic State on the Frontlines of Iraq.

The operation had been successful, and the road to Sinoun was once again passable. The trip took us through recently retaken villages, eerie and deserted, the twisted carcasses of shops and homes lining the path of the fleeing fighters. "We are not going out of the car", said the driver. "The Islamic State has put booby-traps in the houses before leaving."

The remains of shops and homes line the road to Sinoun.

We passed through Rabia, formerly home to the Shammar Arab tribe and now a ghost town. "The Muslim tribe here took the Islamic State's side. They are considered traitors by the Kurds and there is no chance they'll come back," explained the driver.

Piles of rubble, crumbled buildings and burned vehicles stretched along the roadside. Fields of crops that had not been harvested were rotting under the sun. Graffiti on walls boasted that "The Islamic State will be eternal." Peshmerga-manned posts on rooftops and small hills said differently.

Signs of fighting are evident everywhere.

Then the shadowy silhouette appeared on the right side of the road: the Sinjar mountain range, the holy refuge of the Yazidis — and now, for many, their tomb. Finally, in its foothills, we reached the village of Sinoun, home to the ancient shrine of the saint Sharafuddin built in 1274. The temple displays the typical conical dome of Yazidi architecture, representing the rays of the sun illuminating the earth, and statues of the Peacock Angel, Melek Taus. The priest gave me a tour, accompanied by a young man from the local Yezidi militia.

Next to the grave, he explained, one has to pile up three black stones to bring good luck. Colourful pieces of clothes are hung on the wall, where one also has to tie a knot to make a wish come true. It is a site of pilgrimage every August 15, though this year no one came — except to fight.

Qasim Shesho says he and his men vowed to fight to the death to protect the shrine in Sinoun.

The guesthouse of the shrine has been used as a garrison since August. Qasim Shesho is there with his men, dressed in camouflage uniform, his eyes piercing through his glasses. People stand as he enters a huge hall filled with sofas, a show of respect for the old Tiger of Sinjar.

When the Islamic State arrived in Sinoun, he was there with just 18 men, all from his clan, he told VICE News. "We decided ISIS would have to walk on our dead body if they wanted to desecrate Sharafuddin." Others soon joined the fight, arriving from all over Sinjar to form a 2000-strong militia force. They saved the shrine, and took four Islamic State fighters prisoner, he said. 

"We executed them in the name of our people," Shesho added.

Shesho's fighting career began in the 1980s against Saddam Hussein. "He had destroyed my village. I went to the mountains to fight his Ba'ath regime." Then in 1989 he left with his family to settle in Germany and they eventually became citizens, but retained their huge piece of land in Kurdistan. "Now, two of my sons have come here to join the fight. One was in the German army, he left his job, and the other was a student."

For him, this latest confrontation with the Islamic State is another chapter in a never-ending battle. "This Islamic State is the son of (Saddam Hussein's) Ba'ath party and al Qaeda," Shesho said. "I would say they may be even worse than Saddam in terms of cruelty. They have no morals, they kill prisoners, they rape. They are just perverts and losers."

The priest of the Sharaffadin shrine and members of Shesho's militia.

The commander said that the jihadists want to wipe out his people entirely. "As we are non Muslims, they want to erase us from the earth. They have killed babies, old women, cut people in pieces. No religion, no country, no democracy can accept what they are doing". Nine mass graves have already been found in Sinjar area according to officials.

But Shesho now believes that the Islamic State will be defeated, "with the help of God and of the coalition."

He said that the Yazidi militia could have seen off the August assault entirely had they been better armed. "If I had been given weapons in August itself we could have repelled the attack of the terrorists," he said. "ISIS had taken heavy weapons in Mosul, that is why they are powerful. But despite that we've managed to fight back, because they are cowards," he claimed.

At first his militia had just old rifles and Kalashnikovs, he said, but nevertheless managed to inflict some damage on IS forces. He related how they managed to bring down an armored vehicle, the burned shell of which lies on the nearby road, saying: "Twenty of my men kept on shooting it together, they destroyed it." 

Shesho says that despite being poorly equipped, they managed to inflict damage on IS forces, including destroying this armored vehicle.

"The Islamic State attacked Sinoun 16 times, they even blew up my brother's house down the road," he told VICE News, pointing to the damaged building two hundred yards away. Later the Kurdish Regional Government sent him some supplies. "Now we have better weapons… But we always need more and better weapons."

Sinoun has become a haven for Yazidi prisoners who have managed to escape the jihadists, most of them women and children arriving exhausted with blistered feet after a terrifying flight. "Whenever they contact us, we help them," he said. "We send our men to pick them up whatever conditions and weather." About a hundred freed Yazidis were recently picked up by helicopters and taken to Dohuk, a Kurdish town sheltering the displaced. 

Meanwhile the battle continues. The next step for the peshmerga and the PKK fighters will be to retake the city of Sinjar itself. Though many of the traumatized masses who have fled these bloodied lands are unlikely to return any time soon.

Related: 'We Need People to Stand for Us' — The Yazidis Escaping Sexual Slavery in the Islamic State.