New Year's celebrations this year were hardly a joyful occasion for the nearly 1,000 Yazidis who are living in the refugee camp of the Disaster and Emergency Affairs Department (AFAD) in Midyat, near Mardin in southeastern Turkey. Their wish for the new year: that the Yazidi women and children, who have been kidnapped by Islamic State (IS) fighters, come back alive.
The Yazidis, who speak Kurdish and most of whom live in northern Iraq, have faced genocide in the past, including during the Ottoman Empire. Considered heretical devil worshipping by many Muslims, Yazidism dates back to the 12th century and integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Isolated geographically and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis are a closed community that struggles to keep its traditions alive. When IS forces captured Sinjar in 2014, many Yazidis were forced to escape to Turkey or Europe.
Those living in the AFAD camp try to preserve their heritage. The cornerstone of their culture is Cejna Roji Ezi, or Feast of Ezi, where they celebrate the birth of “Ezi,” one of the names of God. The Yazidis celebrate this tradition by fasting between sunrise and sunset during three days for three weeks. Their fast in the first week is for the sun; the second week is for relatives, dead or alive; and the third week is for God. The fasting ceremony ends with a large meal with guests on the Friday afternoon of the third week.
The Cejna Roja Ezi ceremony in the last month of 2017 was no different at the AFAD camp.
Ali Atalan, a pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) deputy from Batman, who is also Yazidi, came to see the Yazidis in the camp. Accompanied by a Yazidi delegation, his aim was to celebrate the meal together. Yet the camp authorities did not allow him access into the camp, with no explanation given, he told Al-Monitor. The two Yazidi groups, one outside the fence and one inside, simply greeted each other from a distance.
“It was a very touching moment,” Atalan said. “Yazidis have a different interpretation of religion as they have a deep attachment to the land and to nature and they celebrate their feasts in nature. Families come together; they wear their folkloric clothing and play games. The circumstances in the camp hardly make their lifestyle possible.”
Atalan noted that the Yazidis in the camp had been through genocide and that they have to be treated well, particularly on important holidays that they should be allowed to celebrate with others.
When Atalan could not celebrate the feast in the camp, he went to his own village, Bacin, which in Turkish is called “Guven,” literally meaning "trust." It is a village with only two residents left: his father Abuzet and his mother Zero. “It is just the three of us in the family,” he said.
Atalan said that his mother's wish is for the new year to witness the return of the Yazidi women and children who are in the hands of IS. He added, “I hope that the Yazidis can create an autonomous administration in Sinjar, with their own governing structures and economy. This would be the Renaissance for the Yazidis. My hope is that the Yazidis and the Yazidi culture will continue to survive.”
The Turkish government, which celebrates the feasts of most religious minorities, issued no celebratory message for Cejna Roja Ezi. However, another Yazidi deputy from the HDP, Feleknas Uca, extended a goodwill message from the rostrum in the Turkish parliament, saying, “I hope that the Yazidi women and children in the hands of IS will return."
She added a prayer in the Yazidi language: “I came before God and saw beauty and happiness. Everything starts with unity.”