From Germany to Iraq: One Yazidi Family's War on Islamic State
A Yazidi family from Iraq had finally found peace in Germany, but now the father has headed back to fight Islamic State and the son is waging his own war at home. Although they've both become heroes in the community, their story may not have a happy ending.
When Paruar Bako wants to take his father's Mercedes station wagon for a drive, a phone rings somewhere on a mountain in northern Iraq. Paruar's father, Ali Bako, is on the other end of the line. He briefly sets aside his Kalashnikov to attend to the business of his family, 3,200 kilometers (1,990 miles) away, in the northwestern German city of Oldenburg.
"Babo, may I take the car?" Paruar Bako asks quietly in Kurdish. "Please, just today."
Ali Bako doesn't like Paruar to drive his Mercedes. But he allows his son to take the car just this once, adding that he must drive carefully and shouldn't stay out too late.
Ever since Paruar's father went to war to fight against Islamic State, his family only interacts with his voice. War permitting, he calls twice a day: once in the morning and again in the evening. Ali Bako is a good fighter, and he is a strict father.
Paruar is sitting on a heavy, brown velvet sofa in the family's living room. He sets the phone down on the coffee table in front of him, as though he just completed a rather unpleasant task. "Give me the key," he snaps at his younger brother Schino.
Watfa, their mother, sits silently next to them -- she prefers not to get involved when her children argue. She has five sons and, now that her husband is at war, plenty of worries. The heater is broken, the telephone isn't working properly and the grass needs mowing. Watfa waves the remote at the television and flips through the channels, from Al Jazeera to Kurdistan TV.
Paruar has his laptop open in front of him and is posting a video to Facebook. The 21 year old is fighting against Islamic State like his father, but with a different weapon: social media.
He writes a couple of lines, deletes them and tries again: "There is a shortage of food and clothing. There is hardly any fuel and gas. They are making blankets out of plastic wrapping from US-dropped aid bundles. IS is only a few KM away. Take a look yourselves. Support. Share. Share. Share." The post gets 482 likes.
Videos from Iraq
A student of business law at the University of Osnabrück, Paruar travelled through Iraq during the recent semester break, documenting everything with his smartphone. He saw people fleeing in fear from the Islamic State terrorists and accompanied Kurdish fighters to the Sinjar Mountains, where his father is now fighting.
Paruar shows his brother Schino the videos he shot in Iraq, which he has carefully organized into various files. They show children desperate from thirst, women who have been raped and wounded fighters.
Schino asks: "You totally lost weight. Wasn't there anything to eat on the mountain?"
"Just dry bread and cheese."
"Was it cold?"
"Did you see the IS?"
"Only heard them. Their shooting."
Above the brothers' heads, a picture of Mullah Mustafa Barsani hangs on the living room wall, a symbolic figure in the Kurdish independence movement in Iraq. Their parents took the gold-framed image of their hero with them when they were forced to flee their homeland in 1994.
Now, they live with their children in Oldenburg, in Lower Saxony. The Bakos are Kurdish Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq and a group that has long been persecuted and condemned as "devil worshippers." Yet their religion knows no devil or hell. They believe in reincarnation and angels, but not in prophets. They have faith, but no Bible or Koran, just an oral tradition handed down across centuries. Under the Ottomans, they were persecuted as a secret society and the oppression has never really stopped.
When he still lived in Iraq, Ali Bako was a communist. He refused military conscription, then became a freedom fighter, withdrawing into the Sinjar Mountains, a Yazidi holy site. Ali fought against his then opponent, Saddam Hussein, for 10 long years.
He first took up arms at the end of the 1980s, after Saddam sent his soldiers into the Kurdish villages of northern Iraq. It was the beginning of a genocide that would ultimately cost the lives of 100,000 Kurds, many of whom were killed by chemical weapons. The operation was called Anfal -- which means "the spoils (of war)" and refers to the eighth sura of the Koran.
Looking for Peace
That's when Ali Bako lost his first family. When he was away on the battlefield, Saddam's forces attacked his home village, killing his wife and children. A total of 27 people from his family were buried alive.
He himself was taken prisoner, locked away in Baghdad and set to be hanged. But he managed to escape. One of his comrades took him home to his village near the northern Iraq city of Dohuk, which is where he met Watfa, who was a few years younger. She told him he stank, and then washed his shirt for him.
A short time later, they were in love and Ali got married for a second time. Watfa gave birth to their first son Jamal in a pick-up on a gravel road. Paruar was born at home and Watfa was pregnant with Schino when they fled Iraq via Syria to Turkey and from there to Germany. They applied for asylum and ultimately became German citizens. Two more sons were born in Oldenburg.
In Germany, Ali worked as a taxi driver and was able to buy a house for his family -- 165 square meters (1,775 square feet) of peace, located in a cul-de-sac. Their white-brick home with its 1970s-era kitchen is located in a quiet part of Oldenburg with little traffic, carefully trimmed hedges and green fences. It has a garage, geraniums in the front yard and a well-tended lawn. A German flag flies in the neighbor's yard next door. In the backyard, the Bakos grow tomatoes, hot peppers, squash and mint. Germany in the front, Iraq in the back: This is where Paruar Bako grew up.
Ali and Watfa wanted their children to grow up without being persecuted for being Kurdish and without having to fight in the mountains. They were sent to kindergartens and to German schools: It was a time of peace for the Bako family. Their oldest son fell in love with his cousin Salma during a visit in Iraq and brought her back to Oldenburg with him. The couple and their two sons also live in the family home. Ali and Watfa's youngest son became a boxing champion in northern Germany and Paruar became the first Bako to study at a German university.
In the evenings, Ali Bako would type his life story into a laptop, writing about the time he spent up in the mountains, his life as a freedom fighter and about his first family that had been murdered. His files are saved on four flash drives, carefully labeled with golden numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4. USB therapy. Ali didn't think he would ever have to take up arms again.
Until August 3 of this year. It was that Sunday evening when images from northern Iraq began spreading across the globe. The jihadists from Islamic State had launched an offensive against the city of Sinjar and the Kurdish forces had fled -- along with more than 100,000 civilians. The extremists drove Christians and Yazidis out of their villages, raped their women and slit the throats of the men or murdered them execution style with shots to the backs of their heads. Kurdistan TV brought images from the homeland into the Bako family's Oldenburg living room.
Ali would sit on the brown velvet sofa smoking. He stopped eating. When the television was off, he would surf the Web for more information. Schino even went so far as to destroy the modem in an effort to get his father to stop. But he didn't. "My people," his father kept repeating, before crying.
There are only about 800,000 Yazidis in the world, and the largest community of exiles is in Germany -- about 100,000 Yazidis live in Celle, Bremen, Bad Oeynhausen and Oldenburg.
'You Aren't Going'
Paruar knows many of the Yazidis living in Oldenburg and many of them know him as well. People in the community refer to him as the "lawyer without a briefcase" and his mother is proud of him for doing what he can for the community. Even as a child, Paruar was a helpful sort, accompanying his mother to various German offices and agencies to assist her with the language and fill out forms. He figured Germany out relatively quickly and is a good spokesman, a person who always wants to know what is going on and who enjoys feeling important.
When the images of the refugees began filling the Bakos' living room Paruar wanted to help -- which meant travelling to the region. But his father forbade it: "You aren't going," Ali said. Paruar didn't ask twice.
Months earlier, though, he had booked a summer vacation to Spain for a bit of relaxation, and it provided the perfect opportunity for him to disappear for a time. Paruar spent a couple of days partying on the beach near Barcelona before flying onwards to Greece and from there to the Turkish border town of Diyarbakir. An Iraqi friend picked him up there and Paruar drove with him through Syria to Iraq, a country that he had only visited periodically on vacations with his family. He had never been allowed to go out at night in Iraq because it was so dangerous.
During his trip to the region this summer, Paruar saw women walking barefoot through refugee camps looking for their children. He saw fighters, killed by gunfire, lying in deserted construction sites. One time, he watched as a car blew up in front of him. He also went into the mountains. One night, a cat attacked a chicken and flashlights went on all around -- the people thought Islamic State had arrived.
Meanwhile, his father had travelled from Oldenburg to Erbil. Paruar knew where he was staying, and one day, as his father sat in a room with other men discussing strategy, the door suddenly opened to reveal Paruar. It was a moment Paruar says he had been extremely anxious about. Ali stood up, went to his son and said they would talk about it later. Then, Paruar showed him the videos he had shot during his travels -- and stayed.
For a few days, he watched his father fight. Ali Bako had joined a unit armed with Kalashnikovs that had been tasked with protecting the remaining villagers from Islamic State fighters. Most of the men in the unit were older, experienced fighters, and many came in from Germany. Some brought along sons and nephews.
- Part 1: One Yazidi Family's War on Islamic State
- Part 2: The War in Oldenburg
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