When Islamic State militants attacked the Yezidi town of Sinjar in late July and early August, thousands fled. But Qasim Shasho and 20 of his relatives refused to abandon the town and its Sharfadin shrine, one of the Yezidis’ holiest sites.
Shasho and his kin grabbed their guns and got ready for a fight.
They were sure that if they didn’t, Islamic State—which had already destroyed Shia Muslim and Christian holy sites—would desecrate the shrine.
It wasn’t Shasho’s first experience with combat. He’s famous for his exploits as a Peshmerga guerrilla fighting against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. But the Sharfadin fight was very nearly his last.
But the Yezidi fighters swore they wouldn’t leave until they either liberated Sinjar—or died fighting. As word spread, more Yezidi men came to join them. Today, Shasho leads a force of 2,000 Yezidi volunteers.
For the first two weeks, the group was critically short of food, water and weapons. Eventually, the Kurdish Regional Government sent some supplies and light weaponry. That small boost helped the Yezidi fighters to protect the shrine and liberate five small towns from the militants—Dogre, Dohle, Borga, Gohbale and Zorava.
Shasho says that he and his men also rescued 57 civilians from Islamic State—many of them women and children—and escorted them to safety in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.
Shasho became a hero throughout Kurdistan, especially among Yezidis. In August, he became a sort of de facto spokesman for the tens of thousands of Yezidis who found themselves stranded on Mount Sinjar after fleeing the fighting.
He has said over and over again that he would not leave the area until he has liberated it from Islamic State.
But when Kurdistan Regional Government president Massoud Barzani visited Dohuk recently, Shasho decided to temporarily leave the mountain—after 42 straight days of fighting—so he could meet with the Kurdish leader. He wanted to ask Barzani for reinforcements so he could liberate Sinjar.
Shasho tells War is Boring that when they met, Barzani expressed strong support for the Yezidis. “The president is ready to do anything for Sinjar to be liberated,” Shasho says. “He was optimistic that Sinjar will be liberated.”
Shasho says he’s grateful for the Kurdish people’s help caring for Sinjar’s refugees. He tells the story of a Kurdish Muslim family from Dohuk that prepared a watermelon for a meal, only to have their youngest son refuse to eat it. “He took it and gave it to a Yezidi family who fled their home.”
Shasho says that as far as he’s concerned, Islamic State’s fighters are a cowardly lot. He claims they’re good at stealing and setting booby-traps, but they aren’t particularly brave soldiers.
He recounts a recent battle with the radicals. A group of militants tried to steal wheat from Gohbale. Shasho’s Yezidi fighters struck back. During the firefight, the Yezidis killed an Islamic State commander—a radical named Ammar Al Hassan—and four of his associates. The other militants promptly ran away.
During the battle, Shasho and his group captured four Islamic State fighters. He said they were Arabs from the local area who had turned on their Yezidi neighbors.
Shasho says he and his men held an impromptu trial … and executed the militants.
After the tragedy at Sinjar, many Yezidis have been trying to go to Europe—legally or illegally—to resettle. Many say they never want to return to Iraq.
But Shasho says those who want to leave are cowards and traitors—that true Yezidis wouldn’t abandon their holy shrines. He says he will die fighting for his land if he has to.
“I was in Europe for 24 years,” he says. “I have a German national ID, so I could be there now instead of fighting here. But what is my life if the Yezidis are hungry and trampled on?”