After years of murder and enslavement by ISIL, Iraq’s Yazidis are determined to liberate their own homeland

Yazidis join Shiite militias as they flush out ISIL militants from the village of Kocho in southern Sinjar.

KOCHO, IRAQ // When Naif Jasso rolled across the arid plains of Sinjar with his group of Yazidi fighters, it was the end of a journey home that had taken almost three years.

Mr Jasso and his men were on their way to the village of Kocho, riding on pick up trucks with their Kalashnikovs, determined to continue the liberation of their land from ISIL.

Shiite militias, also known as the Hashed Al Shaabi, entered southern Sinjar on May 12, methodically flushing out ISIL from villages they had taken in August 2014, when the terror group swept into the area to kill and enslave the Yazidi minority living in this remote part of northern Iraq.

The Hashed recruited from among the Yazidi survivors for their offensive. Mr Jasso, a tall man with black hair, a broad moustache and sad eyes, by his own account now leads a thousand men that threw in their lot with the Hashed.

He is the brother of Kocho village elder Ahmed Jasso, who was butchered by ISIL, along with thousands of Yazidis who perished at the hands of the insurgents.

Among the mass killings all over Sinjar, the Kocho massacre stood out. The southernmost Yazidi village in the Nineveh plains, its residents were caught by surprise when the extremists attacked. Surrounded, Ahmed Jasso surrendered to ISIL after the villagers were promised safe passage.

Instead, they were herded into the local school building, where the men were separated from the women and children. Around 380 men were driven off in groups and shot, while the women were trucked off into slavery.

Mr Jasso and his family were among the few survivors because they were not home on that fateful day. Now, he had come to avenge the death of his brother, the annihilation of the village, and to reclaim his land.

"I am from Kocho, I had to be involved in the liberation," he told The National.

Around 180 Yazidi fighters approached Kocho on May 25, says Mr Jasso, accompanied by a detachment of Shiite militias. The Yazidis had already helped liberate a string of villages in Sinjar, but they were still thirsty for revenge.

Inside a school building in Kocho previously used by ISIL. Florian Neuhof for The National

Upon reaching the outskirts of the village, the convoy fanned out to surround it, and Hashed heavy guns began to tear holes into the facade of the school building which was ISIL’s primary defence post. After two days of fighting, ISIL was vanquished, and a deathly silence fell over the empty houses and desolate streets.

In the surrounding farmlands lie the bodies of the murdered men. Six mass graves have already been discovered, according to Mr Jasso, some within sight of the school building that sits on the edge of the village. He expects more to be found.

Nadia Murad, the UN Goodwill Ambassador who was captured in Kocho but managed to escape ISIL captivity, visited the village a few days later. Video footage shows her breaking down in a school classroom, screaming in anguish and struggling to stay on her feet.

After she was gone, the silence returned.

Inside the school, a woman’s shoe or a discarded dress hints at the sinister use of the building. Mattresses and military apparel are all that is left. The single storey brick or mud houses stand empty and lifeless in the searing heat.

Mattresses and military apparel is all that is left in the school in Kocho that ISIL militants evacuated. Florian Neuhof for The National

Life may never return to Kocho again, which was once home to 1,270 people. Most of the men have been killed, and majority of the women and children remain in ISIL captivity.

Without their menfolk, families are unlikely to farm the surrounding fields, or to return to a place haunted by dark memories. The Yazidis fear their Arab neighbours, many of whom joined ISIL and took part in the killing and looting. On the southernmost fringe of Yazidi territory, Kocho lies exposed.

Those who joined Mr Jasso’s “Land of the Yazidis” brigade did so because, like many Yazidis, they believe the Hashed to be their best insurance against another possible genocide. Thousands of Yazidis had joined units tied to the Kurdish Peshmerga, or a Yazidi PKK affiliate in the aftermath of the ISIL blitz. But the Peshmerga lost their status as protectors of Sinjar when they left without a fight in 2014, and the PKK’s radical ideology is unappealing to most Yazidis, a traditional and conservative people.

The automous Kurdish government is intent on incorporating Sinjar into its territory, and harbours ambitions to break away from Iraq. Mr Jasso and his men want to establish self-rule in Sinjar, but remain under the control of the central government in Baghdad.

“We want Sinjar to be a separate province that is a part of Iraq,” he says.

This makes his unit an instrument of the Hashed, a government-sanctioned militia that is hostile to Kurdish territorial expansion. The Shiite militias also have close ties with Iran which wants to hang on to its gains in Sinjar to maintain a corridor leading from Iran to nearby Syria.

Aiming for self-rule and local security forces to defend them against future threats, the men from the Yazidi brigade are already tightly controlled by the Hashed. During an interview in his headquarters in the village of Tel Kassab, Mr Jasso is flanked by a media officer of the Hashed, who scowls at reporters asking difficult questions and interrupts to give favourable answers on Mr Jasso’s behalf.

The Kurds control the northern part of Sinjar after driving ISIL back. Should tensions between them and the Hashed escalate, Yazidis on both sides risk being dragged into a conflict over their land, fighting for parties imposing their agenda on the Yazidis’ fight for a future in Iraq.