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Meeting the Yazidis: An Encounter with the 'Devil-Worshippers' of Iraq

08/08/2014 15:08 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 10:59 BST

When I went to meet the Yazidis, the "devil-worshippers" of Iraq, I thought I had found a strange and improbable oasis of peace in that ravaged land. I remember the Yazidis were so amazed to be visited by a journalist from another country that they took photographs of me. Though they were surrounded by the mayhem and violence of Iraq, their villages in the shadow of the Sinjar mountains seemed an echo of an older Iraq.

Children played in the fields, and the men chuckled as they told me how they had chased away Kurdish fighters who tried to take control of the area.

Now those villages are a battleground. Many of the people have fled into the Sinjar mountains, where they are stranded without food or water, surrounded by Islamic State (Isis) fighters intent on converting them by the sword or killing them. Unless help gets to them soon, there are fears they will be the victims of a genocide. One more group of innocent victims to reap the whirlwind we sowed in Iraq when we invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein without so much as a plan of what to do next.

But my mind goes back to that sunlit afternoon of 2003 when I finally tracked down the Yazidis of Sinjar, the last remaining community of their ancient community to survive in their homeland in the Middle East.

The quest to find the Yazidis has begun for me years earlier, when I was a young freelance reporter in Turkey, and I came upon reports of a strange devil-worshipping sect who lived in the south-east of the country.

I spent days on the road in Turkey, trying to find a Yazidi, but everyone told me they were gone, the last of them fled from an unrelenting campaign of perecution by the authorities because of their religious beliefs. Until one day, in the scruffy outskirts of a beaten down town in the Kurdish south-east, a man reluctantly showed me his tattered ID card with the telltale entry under religion, the "XXX" that told the Turkish police and anyone else who cared to know that he was Yazidi, a member of a religion too unspeakable even to name.

After that, I found a Yazidi organisation in Germany, where many of those who fled persecution in their homelands, in Turkey, Syria, Georgia and Armenia, lived. And I learned from a Yazidi activist called Telim Tolan that they are not Devil-worshippers at all, but one of the Middle East's most tragically misunderstood and persecuted communities.

The Yazidis do not worship Satan. But they do worship a fallen angel, Malek Tawwus, or the Peacock King. The difference is that in the Yazidi religion, God forgave the fallen angel and restored him to heaven, where he is an intermediary between God and man, who is also fallible, who also sins and must seek forgiveness.

And from Telim I learnt that there was a community of Yazidis still alive and well in the Middle East, in Iraq.

But it was years until I got the chance to visit them, when I found myself covering the occupation of Iraq for The Independent. When I told my translator and driver I wanted to visit the Yazidis, they weren't happy. To them, as to most Iraqis, the Yazidis were bogeymen, mad worshippers of Satan who lived far out from civilisation in their villages and practised their strange and demented ways.

As we set off from Mosul, the people there warned us "Don't even mention Satan there, or they'll make trouble for you." We had to pass through American checkpoints manned by lazy soldiers in the burning sun. Back then, the fighting hadn't come to Mosul yet, and it was a welcome holiday from the fear and danger of Baghdad.

The Yazidi villages were like travelling back in time - or into a land of stories. The men wore their hair in long plaits, like Asterix and Obelix, or had huge and wild untrimmed moustaches.Some wore exotic clothes and hats. One man pulled out a carved wooden flute, and began playing a strange and ancient tune.

I sat with them in the sun as they explained their traditions and culture to me, how they are not allowed to wear the colour blue or eat lettuce, although no one there could remember why. How one of their holy books, the Black Book, disappeared in colonial times, and the Yazidis believe it was stolen by the British and is kept in London. How they kept its teachings alive through the Talkers, who are taught the entire text by heart as children, and hand it on to their own sons in time. How most of the men there had married by "kidnapping" their wives in a formalised elopement ritual, with ther brides' consent. How they do not believe in an afterlife, but in reincarnation, which they call the soul "changing its clothes".

I had stepped into a world that had been preserved against all the odds, in the Middle East's most dangerous country, while all around it had been eradicated elsewhere. An ancient religion that had somehow survived where first Christianity and then Islam had wiped out all others.

There was something contented about the Yazidis that afternoon. They had just seen off an attempt by Kurdish forces to take over the area, and they were confident they would go on surviving, as they have for so long.

Now it seems a mirage, an illusion, that quiet afternoon of calm. In the villages I visited, the men are barricaded in, armed and ready to die to defend their homeland.

On the mountains above, men, women and children are facing a choice between starvation or surrender to the fighters of the Islamic State - if thirst doesn't get to them first.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, our leaders made grand speeches about guaranteeing the future for all of Iraq's people. But then we let the place slide into anarchy and bloodshed, while our soldiers stood helplessly by.

This is the future we made for Iraq.

Justin Huggler covered the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for The Independent. His novel, The Burden of the Desert, set in occupied Iraq, is available from all good bookshops.