Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Peshmerga named Imad Diab infront of rubble of his destroyed house in Tel Laban/ Gazakan on 30 December 2016. The Kakai Kurds are returning to their homes as Mosul offensive continiues. The Kakai Kurds are one of several multi-ethnic groups who are part of the Yarsan or Ahl el-Haqq (people of truth), a religion founded by Sultan Sahak in the late 14th century in western Iran. Some Yarsanis in Iraq are called the Kakais. The Kakais are one of the religious minorities scattered throughout northern Iraq in the provinces of Sulaimaniyah and Halabja, in the Ninevah Plains of Ninevah province and in villages to the southeast of Kirkuk. Historians and researchers disagree on their classification, as mystery and secrecy shroud this sect. Extremists of the Islamic State group (ISIS) have vowedr to pursue and kill members of the Kakai religious group in northern Iraq, considering them infidels who must be eliminated. (Photo by Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Iraq’s forgotten victims

Iraq’s forgotten victims

Peshmerga named Imad Diab infront of rubble of his destroyed house in Tel Laban/ Gazakan on 30 December 2016. The Kakai Kurds are returning to their homes as Mosul offensive continiues. The Kakai Kurds are one of several multi-ethnic groups who are part of the Yarsan or Ahl el-Haqq (people of truth), a religion founded by Sultan Sahak in the late 14th century in western Iran. Some Yarsanis in Iraq are called the Kakais. The Kakais are one of the religious minorities scattered throughout northern Iraq in the provinces of Sulaimaniyah and Halabja, in the Ninevah Plains of Ninevah province and in villages to the southeast of Kirkuk. Historians and researchers disagree on their classification, as mystery and secrecy shroud this sect. Extremists of the Islamic State group (ISIS) have vowedr to pursue and kill members of the Kakai religious group in northern Iraq, considering them infidels who must be eliminated. (Photo by Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Kaka’i minority ethnic group found in Iraq and Western Iran has long been persecuted, and was recently subjected to attempted genocide by Isis. David Barnett meets the survivors

Seven years ago, in the still, dead heat of an August night in Northern Iraq, Majeed Mohammed Ali got the news his entire village had been dreading.

Isis were on their way in large numbers, advancing from their stronghold of Mosul towards their next target, the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of the country. And right in their path was the village of Tulaband.

Majeed gathered his extended family of 17 and they piled into all the available cars they had access to, fleeing in just the clothes they were in. There was one road into Tulaband and one road out, and with the marauding troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria just two hours away to the west, their only option was to go – along with the entire 3,000-strong population of their village – towards Erbil.

The residents of Tulaband and the three villages surrounding it – Wardak, Gazakan and Kulabor – had more reason than most to fear the arrival of Isis. The area is almost exclusively populated by a minority culture mainly concentrated in Iraq, where they are known as Kaka’i, and Western Iran, where the name Yarsani is more common. But Isis had other labels for them: heathens, heretics and even devil worshippers. And like the closely-related Yazidi peoples who Isis earmarked for either conversion to Sunni Islam or death, in a much more widely reported situation decried by the international community, the Kaka’i were also facing an enemy with genocide at the top of their agenda.

“Daesh have labels for everyone who is not the same as them,” says Majeed, using the Arabic name for Isis as he sits cross-legged on a carpet on the cool concrete floor of his family home in Tulaband, sipping the strong, sweet tea popular in the region. “For my people, it was that we were rejected by them. If we had not fled our village, they would have arrived here and…”

Now 76, Majeed looks across the hills to a small white and green domed building, the shrine of Baba Yadgar and one of the holiest places in the Kaka’i religion, the destination for thousands of pilgrims every year. He has the big, flamboyant moustache typical of Kaka’i men, and says quietly, “If it was not for the Kurds taking us in at Erbil, we would have had the same fate as the Yazidis. If you are Arabic then there is space to negotiate with Daesh for your life. Not for the Kaka’i. The men would have been beheaded on the spot and the women and girls taken.” 

Around 12,000 Kaka’i from the four villages found sanctuary in Erbil, most of them living either in refugee camps dotted around the outskirts of the city, or staying with relatives in the area. Isis never reached the city; in fact, the whole Kaka’i area became the front line as the Iraqi forces and the Kurdistan Peshmerga military, aided by airstrikes deployed by a US-led coalition, drove Isis back and out of Iraq.

It took three years before the villagers were allowed back to their homes. And although Islamic State had been beaten back – the Iraqi government declared the country free of enemy combatants in December 2017 – the Isis war on the Kaka’i was not quite over.

The concrete terrace of the home where I met Majeed was just sand back then, the house half-constructed. The family had been living in a red-walled, mud-constructed house, common to the area, and were in the process of building themselves a better home.

Majeed’s son and two of his nephews went immediately to the house, which still stands, when they were allowed back to Tulaband. They had left all their possessions when they fled, as well as all their sheep and cattle on the grazing lands surrounding the village. They wanted to see what Isis had looted from them. What they were not prepared for was what Isis had left behind.

Majeed’s son, a 31-year-old construction worker with a wife and four children, opened up a large plastic grain barrel in the house to see if anything was left. It was the last thing he would do. Isis had rigged it with an improvised explosive device (IED) and the act of lifting the lid caused it to explode, claiming his life and those of two of Majeed’s nephews.

In the next ten minutes a further six explosions sounded across the village as the Kaka’i returned to their homes, claiming more lives. There had been 350 houses in Tulaband; out of those that had not been destroyed by the fighting, the retreating Isis forces had booby-trapped every single one.

Majeed’s new house had also been laced with explosives, with trip-wires across the doorways and pressure plates in every room linked to TNT. He says, “If we had gone into the house there were enough explosives to blow it up completely, and the house next door. I could have lost my entire family.”

That they are still alive today, that there are grandchildren to peep mischievously at me around those very doors once booby-trapped by Isis, is largely down to the swift response of the Mines Advisory Group, a British, Manchester-based NGO that has been working in Iraq for almost 30 years, and to one man in particular, whose name is spoken in reverent tones in Tulaband and the neighbouring village of Gazakan: Salaam Muhammad.

Salaam these days is responsible for training new MAG operatives at their base in Chamchamal, a series of low-rise buildings in a secure compound just off a busy highway choked with oil tankers and honking cars. MAG employs 770 people in Iraq, and the deminers who are clearing the land and homes of landmines, IEDs and unexploded ordnance from not only the Isis occupation but also the Iran-Iraq War, the Kurdish uprising and Saddam Hussein’s offensives against his own people, are almost exclusively Iraqis.

But Salaam has been with MAG since they started operations in Iraq – their first overseas mission, and thought to be the most mined country in the world – in 1992, and he began his career as a hands-on deminer. He estimates he must have personally cleared up to 3,000 devices himself, and as soon as the first explosions sounded in Tulaband, including the one that claimed the lives of Majeed’s son and two nephews, he was first on the scene, personally defusing the Isis IEDs in Majeed’s home.

At Chamchamal, Salaam shows me a reconstruction of the grain-barrel bomb that killed Majeed’s son. It is a simple device, the lid attached to a wire that activates the explosives buried in the grain inside. Isis would use anything they could lay their hands on to make booby traps; kettles and pots stuffed with TNT and linked to tripwires, bombs hidden behind doors and cupboards, personal possessions such as clothes or piles of photographs left enticingly behind for the returning residents, hooked up to IEDs.

As well as the homes in the four Kaka’i villages, Isis seeded the landscape with IEDs, including around the schools and water pumping stations, and the Baba Yadgar shrine, which they destroyed and which was later rebuilt by a French construction company.

In Gazakan I meet the mukhtar, or village elder, in the shade of the verandah of his home where his grandchildren play with shrieks and laughter with a flock of nipping geese. As with Tulaband, every house here was booby-trapped by Isis as they were pushed back by the local military. But Tulaband had been resettled first, and the deadly lessons learned there meant that MAG could come into Gazakan before the villagers returned and clear the houses of IEDs.

While the village has been declared safe, at least 50 per cent of the land surrounding the village is still contaminated, mostly by unexploded ordnance and landmines left over from the fighting.

“Before Daesh came we knew nothing about booby traps and IEDs,” says the mukhtar, fondly watching his grandchildren play. “We had to keep our children inside our houses until the village was cleared. We have a lot of children and young people here, and now they are taught all the time about mines and booby traps.”

Reporting anything suspicious to MAG is ingrained in the Kaka’i in this area. With Sattar, a local Kaka’i man who is part of MAG’s community liaison team, I visit a family home on the outskirts of the village where a risk education session is taking place.

Even seven years on from the Isis occupation, much of the countryside is still littered with explosives and these education sessions are vital. Khalid Hameed Rostam, 35, watches intently with his family, including son Hemin, just eight, as Sattar goes through a flip-chart of illustrations of devices they might come across in the countryside. Sattar shows them what they should do by placing a mobile phone in the middle of the tiled floor to simulate an unknown device; he apes coming across it and then pivoting on his heel and retracing his steps to get back to safety, then drills into them that they should immediately contact MAG to investigate.

It is a stark reminder that the people here are still living with the fallout of the Isis occupation… and that Islamic State wanted them dead at any cost, purely for their faith.

While not exactly secretive about their religion, the Kaka’i certainly do not flaunt it. It dates back to the 14th Century and, according to the Minority Rights Group, contains elements of Zoroastrianism and Shi’a Islam, leading to its persecution over the centuries from more fundamentalist Islamic quarters. It is quite an esoteric faith, believing in a Divine Essence who manifests as one primary incarnation and seven angels in each epoch of the world.

There are thought to be between 110,000 and 200,000 Kaka’i in Iraq, but as it is not registered as an official religion by the government, statistics are vague. Added to this, there are divisions within the community about whether they are a wholly independent religious group or are in fact a sect of Islam, a school of thought that seems to have been born of self-preservation, after the Isis persecution especially.

In neighbouring Iran, there have been more aggressive moves to get the government to formally recognise the Yarsani people, with the Yarsani Consultative Assembly of Civil Activists issuing in January a statement claiming they had been deprived of their rights in the republic including the ability to get jobs in government department, the right to hold public office, and even to access postgraduate education.

But there is a bigger concern now, arising since the fall of Kabul in August and the establishment of the Taliban as the governing authority in Afghanistan. With a fundamentalist group in control of a country that neighbours Iran and shares a border with Iraq, fears of persecution of minority sects such as the Kaka’i are now rising again in the region.

After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the Yarsan Democratic Organisation issued a statement warning of a “serious threat” to minority groups such as theirs across the entire Middle East as result of the Taliban taking control in Afghanistan, adding, “The rise of the Taliban terrorist group in Afghanistan, which borders Iran, could pose a serious threat to the Iranian people, including freedom fighters, women, and religious and ethnic minorities living in Iran, especially the people of Yarsan.”

In Tulaband, though the immediate threat has long gone, and the landscape is being slowly but surely cleared of mines and bombs, Majeed Mohammed Ali has seen enough persecution of the Kaka’i in his 76 years that he will never completely be at rest and feel his people are safe.

“It is safe here, in the village, thanks to MAG clearing the land,” he says. “I was born in this village and I want to continue to live here, farming with my family, and I want a peaceful future.” He takes a sip of tea and looks out at the reconstructed Baba Yadgar shrine, white and green against the brilliant blue sky. “But Daesh are still active in some surrounding areas. There is always a fear that they or someone else will come back, and that will mean more bad feeling, and even worse, against the Kaka’i.”

David Barnett is a freelance journalist, novelist and comic book writer.

Photograph by Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images