On January 20, 2018, squadrons of Turkish warplanes appeared in the sky just before sunset, marking the start of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch alongside members of the Syrian National Army. The military operation, however, brought something else to the people of Afrin.
Though unacknowledged, there was a considerable Yazidi population in Afrin. The east and south of Afrin formed the largest contiguous settlement area of Yazidis in Syria.
Previously marginalized, Yazidis gained momentum under the egalitarian Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, thanks to the fundamental Article 33 of the Social Contract.
While their presence is engulfed by uncertainty, Yazidis are believed to have inhabited Afrin as far back as the 12th century. However, abundant religious shrines and archaeological sites attest to their long-standing presence in the area. Khirbet Lalesh in Raco and the village of Marata, among many others, all bear witness that Yazidis have their roots deep in Afrin history.
In 2012 Afrin fell to the full control of Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) after Syrian regime forces withdrew from northern areas. As Aleppo plunged into war, Afrin was gradually developing its administration.
In 2013, the Yazidi Union was founded. It served as a communal reference for the Yazidis of Afrin. Many associations came into being. However, the flourishing of the Yazidi culture in Afrin was curtailed in January 2018.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 58 Yazidi villages in Afrin, according to Sulaiman Cafer, Afrin Yazidi researcher and co-chair of the Afrin Judiciary Council, said. However, before the launch of Turkey’s operation, Yazidis lived in some 22 mixed villages and in Afrin's city center. Notably, of the 22 villages, Bafloun, Qibar, Qatmeh, Basoufan, and Shadeira were purely Yazidi.
Geographically, Yazidi villages are located in the east and south of Afrin extending from Qestel Jindo in the north, taking a southwest direction up to the village of Shadeira, close to Mount Leiloun (Mount Simeon) in the south.
This geographic isolation was important as it gave protection to Yazidis against atrocities similar to those committed against the ethnic group in Shingal.
Many were hopeful that the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) will ensure the Yazidi survival. However, things went a different way.
The Yazidi villages functioned as a shield and a de-facto border for Afrin. This weakened the sense of religion in the community as it opened the path for religious conversion, mostly to Islam, which was seen as a shield of protection.
Kurdish researcher Marwan Barakat argues that ''originally, the majority of Afrin Kurds were Yazidis. However, over time - due to Islamization, among others - they converted to Islam.
With no official consensus made by successive Syrian governments, there were 50 thousand to 60 thousand Yazidis in Afrin before 2011.
In 2014, about 35 thousand Yazidis were living in Afrin. However, the violent takeover of Afrin and the ensued human rights abuses led to the mass forcible displacement of the Yazidis of that area.
''There are now roughly 2000 Yazidis remaining in Afrin.'' Suad Hiso, the current co-chair of the Afrin Yazidi Union, said via WhatsApp. Nearly 90 percent of the Yazidi community has left - either fleeing the area ahead of the arrival of armed forces or were forcibly evicted after the forces arrived.
Historically, Afrin was inhabited by a tolerant Muslim population. Muslims, Alawites, Turkmen, Armenians, Christians, Kurds, Arabs, and Yazidis lived in peaceful communal coexistence.
''All peoples of Afrin lived on peaceful terms. There had never been communal prejudice against Yazidis in Afrin which was an oasis of religious freedom,” Barakat maintained.
The Yazidi community of Afrin was not a strict or tightly closed one in the sense that marriages to non-Yazidis (Kurds) were allowed.
However, with all the 19 shrines falling under the control of radical Islamic armed factions, it is impossible for those remaining to practice their rituals openly and freely.
According to reports, almost 18 out of the 19 shrines and sanctuaries have been wholly or partially desecrated or destroyed.
Shreds of evidence of demographic engineering and forcible displacement and resettlement are overwhelming. With no aid received from abroad, the plight of the Afrin Yazidis continues to be largely ignored.
Turkey, however, has shown little interest to address such abuses or to protect the cultural and religious life of the people of Afrin.
Since Afrin was occupied, three Yazidi men - Omar Shamo Mamo, Nuri Jimo Omar Sheref, and Khaled Abdo Elo - and two women - Fatima Hamke and Nergis Daud - were killed on separate occasions. Three families lost their lives in a landmine explosion while seeking safety.
Sixty Yazidis were arbitrarily arrested, including 15 women. As some were released others are still held allegedly for ransom, according to Hiso.
In the current situation of unruliness, cases of abduction, extortion, arbitrary detention, torture, and forced religious conversions are very common occurrences. They are seen as methods of demographic change.
The center of the Yazidi Union was turned into a Muslim religious school.
Mosques were built in Yazidi villages. Hiso claimed that Islam is being imposed on Yazidi children.
‘‘Settlements are built in Yazidi villages with the mere object of engineering a demographic change in Afrin'', she added.
While Yazidis of Afrin remain shattered as one of the most affected groups their disappearance from Afrin will however lead to an end to the religious diversity there.
Lazghine Ya'qoube is a translator and researcher focusing on the modern history of Mesopotamia, with a special focus on Yazidi and Assyrian affairs in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.