Iraq’s Yazidis gather to celebrate the first New Year following the defeat of ISIS in northern Iraq
The normally quiet road that winds up the mountain valley was crowded with cars slowly inching their way towards the parking lot as lines of people eagerly hiked upwards on foot towards Lalish, the holiest temple of the Yazidi faith. Located approximately sixty kilometres north of the city of Mosul, the holy site is where Iraq’s Yazidis have for centuries gathered each April to celebrate Sere Sal, the Yazidi New Year as it’s called in the Kurmanji language. Those celebrations came to an abrupt and brutal halt when Islamic State militants captured the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in August 2014. With the defeat of ISIS however, the ancient festivities and long held traditions could finally be resumed.
Groups of young women dressed in white with black headdresses draped in gold chatted playfully as they made their way up the hill surrounded by equally cheerful young men and families. According to the Yazidi calendar, Sere Sal is celebrated on the first Wednesday of April. Followers of the monotheistic faith believe that each April, Tawuse Melek, the Peacock Angel, descends from heaven to bless the Earth with fertility.
An ethnoreligious group, indigenous to the historical region of Upper Mesopotamia, the majority of Yazidis now reside in northern Iraq. Throughout their history, the Yazidi people have been the victims of multiple genocides, surviving several attempts of cultural and religious eradication. When ISIS militants seized control of vast swathes of northern Iraq in 2014, Iraq’s Yazidi population once again became the target of persecution, genocide, and the enslavement of their women and girls.
In April 2018, a few months after Iraq’s Prime Minister declared victory over ISIS following the recapture of areas that remained under the militant group’s control along the Syrian border, Yazidis returned to the holy temple of Lalish once again to celebrate their new year together. While carrying a deep sadness for their tremendous loss and suffering, they also embraced a shared sense of hope for a brighter and safer future.
Yazidi women gather outside the Holy Temple in Lalish to celebrate the first Yazidi New Year since victory over ISIS was declared in Iraq.
Every April, Yazidis gather at the shrine of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir to celebrate their new year with the lighting of candles in the Holy Temple in Lalish, near the city of Duhok in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
The Yazidi tradition of celebrating the New Year originates from Mesopotamian culture and is one of the oldest rituals still practiced.
Yazidis hold candles outside the Holy Temple of Lalish, near the Kurdish city of Duhok in northern Iraq.
Cone-shaped roofs over the tomb of Şêx Adî in Lalish.
Women and girls prepare themselves for the New Year celebrations in Lalish.
Inside the Holy temple of Lalish where colorful pieces of cloth are tied around pillars. Visitors to the temple are invited to tie knots in the material as a form of prayer.
The New Year celebrations are an opportunity for young Yazidis to get together and make new friends.
Yazidi women and children gather around the tomb of religious figures in the mountain valley of Lalish.
A young Yazidi woman receives medical treatment for a burn injury at a hospital in Shekhan after hot oil spilled onto her wrist during the candle lighting ceremony in Lalish.
A Yazidi woman who escaped from ISIS sits inside a relative’s home near the town of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Like thousands of Yazidi woman, Bahara, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was captured and enslaved by ISIS after the militants seized control of Sinjar in 2014. After being held for five months at what she describes as a slave market house in Raqqa, Syria, Bahar was taken to the Iraqi town of Tel Afar, west of Mosul, from where she escaped in December 2017.
Asmer Ismail, a Yazidi peer, conducts a baptism ceremony at a holy spring in Lalish.
Ismail now conducts baptism ceremonies for Yazidi women and girls who were captured and abused by ISIS militants in an effort to help survivors re-integrate into the Yazidi community. “When the women come, all they do is cry,” says Ismail. “They had families, they had money, houses, they had everything and they lost everything. That’s why all they do is cry.”