Washington- At the sight of the Arab village on the road just ahead, Azar Mirkhan brought the car to a quick stop and swore under his breath in Kurdish. It was a poor and tattered place: off to the left, a compact cluster of earthen homes and walls and, to the right, four or five farmhouses climbing the hillside. It was the latter grouping that drew the doctor’s attention.
“They’re on the high ground? How was that allowed?” Azar stared darkly at the farmhouses for a moment, seething at the Arab encroachment, then slowly turned his gaze to the village center. No residents were visible, but here and there old cars were parked in the shadow of walls.
“You see? Until two weeks ago, ISIS controlled this village, and the people living here had no problem with them, they stayed throughout. We lost four pesh merga here.” Azar turned to me with his lopsided, grim smile. “You know what I would do? I would go to an Arab and ask to borrow his bulldozer. Then I’d bring in an Israeli adviser — they’re very good at this sort of thing — and in two or three days, I would erase this place.”
Azar has a flair for the outrageous statement, and I sometimes found it hard to know how serious he really was in such moments. But on that morning, I suspected he was quite sincere. It was Nov. 27, 2015, six months after my first visit with Azar, and we were on a back road to Sinjar, the Yazidi town that ISIS had so thoroughly savaged in the summer of 2014. In the intervening months, Azar had occasionally driven out to the pesh merga front-line trench above Sinjar to try his hand at shooting ISIS fighters — occupying an opposing trench just 40 yards away — but the pesh merga, with the help of massive American airstrikes, had recently recaptured the town itself. Azar had participated in the battle, and this return trip put him in a dark mood.
His ill temper only deepened when we reached Sinjar. Much of the town, home to perhaps 100,000 before the war, had been reduced to rubble. While still checking for booby-traps, the pesh merga had cleared a narrow path through the ruins, and here and there lay the putrefying remains of a few ISIS fighters. So great was the damage to Sinjar that it was initially difficult to differentiate between what had been destroyed by the marauding ISIS warriors during their occupation and what had been leveled in the battle two weeks earlier, but a pattern emerged.
In the small traffic circle at the center of town, ISIS had destroyed the minaret that stood there for more than 800 years. They also razed every Yazidi temple in Sinjar, along with its one Christian church. The hospital in the center of town still stood, but only because ISIS converted it into a sniper’s nest and barracks, knowing that American warplanes wouldn’t bomb it. Even so, they had taken the time to destroy all the medical equipment, even stomping on thermometers and glass ampuls.
It was in Sinjar’s residential neighborhoods, however, that ISIS’s policy of ethnic cleansing took on an Old Testament air. On street after street, some houses remained perfectly intact, alongside others reduced to piles of broken masonry and twisted rebar. What most of the surviving houses had in common were spray-painted messages on their exterior walls, each something to the effect of “An Arab family lives here.” Azar insisted that these were written not by the ISIS invaders but by the families themselves.
“This was their message to ISIS,” he said. “ ‘Spare us, we are with you, we aren’t Kurds.’ And just like in that village, the Arabs stayed here throughout.”
Those Arab residents were now gone, having fled when American airstrikes signaled the coming battle. On several of the residential streets, some of the few Yazidis who had returned were picking their way through the Arab homes, loading looted bedding and furniture into pickup trucks.
“And why not?” Azar said. “They have lost everything.”
It all became far more visceral and ghastly when two pesh merga fighters led us to a barren field a short distance out of town, near the new front lines. At the far end of the field, pesh merga engineers were cutting a tank trench — ISIS remained just a few miles to the south — but farther up, three irregular mounds flanked a seasonal water runoff.
From these mounds protruded the telltale evidence of a killing field: human bones and skulls, dirt-encrusted shoes, loops of tied cloth that had been blindfolds. In the rains over the previous 15 months, some of the remains of the mass graves had leached out, so that the dry streambed was littered with women’s clothes, more shoes, teeth. None of the graves had been excavated yet — the authorities were waiting for a criminal forensics team — but by best estimates, this had been the execution ground for about 300 Yazidis, most of them women too elderly to be of sex-slave interest to ISIS or children too young to be put to any use.
For a half-hour, Azar walked among the graves in silence, but I noticed he was becoming increasingly agitated and then that he was crying. I drew alongside to ask if he was O.K., if he wanted to leave. He abruptly wheeled to point a finger at the steeply rising flank of Mount Sinjar, maybe four miles to the north.
“The pesh merga were right up there,” the doctor said, his voice ragged with rage. “ISIS brought them out here to kill so that we could watch. They thought about it. They did it deliberately, to humiliate us.”
Returning to the center of Sinjar, Azar strode briskly into the town hall, one of the few downtown structures still habitable, and motioned for a senior official to follow him out to the terrace. For the next hour, the two men huddled in deep conversation, waving away any pesh merga underlings who thought to approach. Afterward, Azar apologized to me for having taken so long.
“I told him that he needed to destroy all the Arab homes here,” he recounted, “but he was hesitant. He thinks it’s better to give them to the Yazidis who return, but I said, ‘No; eventually some of those Arabs will come back with their titles and deeds and try to reclaim the houses, so better to just destroy them, leave nothing for them to come back to and start over again.’ He understands that now.”
When I asked if he thought the official would actually follow through with the plan, Azar nodded. “He promised me. I made him promise.”
That afternoon, we climbed the hairpin road that led out of town and up Mount Sinjar, the same path that tens of thousands of terrorized Yazidis had taken in their panicked flight of August 2014. All along the shoulders of the road were clumps of the clothes, faded and torn, that they cast aside as they ran.
“There used to be a lot more,” Azar muttered as he looked at the detritus. “It used to be everywhere.”
Cresting the mountain, we entered a broad valley plateau that extended for the next 25 miles. Scattered over the land were the tent encampments of thousands of Yazidi families that still had no homes to return to. The historic heart of Yazidi society wasn’t the lowlands these people had so recently fled, but rather the very mountain on which they were now camped, and on the hillsides all around their tent cities were the remnants of their ancestral villages, old abandoned crop terraces and crumbling earthen homes. Some of these settlements had been inhabited for nearly a thousand years, but in the 1970s Saddam Hussein sent his soldiers in to destroy them as part of his anti-Kurd campaign. The mountain Yazidis had then been herded down to the lowlands where they could be more easily watched — and, of course, more easily slaughtered when ISIS rolled in four decades later.
Until a short time ago, Azar might have been derided as a xenophobe, even a fascist, for his radical separatist views. In seeing the results of ISIS’s barbarism, however, and in contemplating the hatreds that have been unleashed across the Middle East in the past few years, some observers have begun to believe that his hard way of thinking might offer the best — or, more accurately, only — path out of the morass. The despair over how impossible it seems to reassemble the shattered nations of the region has caused an ever-increasing number of diplomats and generals and statesmen to consider just the sort of ethnic and sectarian separation that Azar advocates, albeit in less brutal form. Coincidentally, the model they most often look to for how it can be done right is the Kurdistan Regional Government.
For 25 years, the K.R.G. has existed as a stable quasidemocracy, part of Iraq in name only. Perhaps the answer is to replicate that model for the rest of Iraq, to create a trifurcated nation rather than the currently bifurcated one. Give the Sunnis their own “Sunni Regional Government,” with all the accouterments the Kurds already enjoy: a head of state, internal borders, an autonomous military and civil government. Iraq could still exist on paper and a mechanism could be instituted to ensure that oil revenue is equitably divided between the three — and if it works in Iraq, perhaps this is a future solution for a Balkanized Libya or a disintegrated Syria.
Even proponents acknowledge that such separations would not be easy. What to do with the thoroughly “mixed” populations of cities like Baghdad or Aleppo? In Iraq, many tribes are divided into Shia and Sunni subgroups, and in Libya by geographic dispersions going back centuries. Do these people choose to go with tribe or sect or homeland? In fact, parallels in history suggest that such a course would be both wrenching and murderous — witness the postwar “de-Germanization” policy in Eastern Europe and the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent — but despite the misery and potential body count entailed in getting there, maybe this is the last, best option available to prevent the failed states of the Middle East from devolving into even more brutal slaughter.
The problem, though, is that once such subdividing begins, it’s hard to see where it would end. Just beneath the ethnic and religious divisions that the Iraq invasion and the Arab Spring tore open are those of tribe and clan and subclan — and in this respect, the Kurdistan Regional Government appears not so much a model but a warning.
Because of its two feuding tribes, the K.R.G. — a statelet the size of West Virginia — now has essentially two of everything: two leaders, two governments, two armies. For the moment this schism has been masked by the threat from ISIS and the desire to present a unified front to the outside world. But it remains an undercurrent to everything. It also goes a long way toward explaining the sad fate of the Yazidis. As Azar pointed out, any fool could see exactly where ISIS was headed in August 2014, but because the Yazidis existed outside the K.R.G. power structure, because they had no traditional alliance with either rival faction, they were left to largely fend for themselves. For all the excuses offered up by K.R.G. politicians and generals, the undeniable fact is that Sinjar simply wouldn’t have happened if its residents had been named Barzani or Talabani.
And what happens in the K.R.G. when the current danger subsides? If history is a guide, the Barzani-Talabani schism will worsen and may even lead to another civil war, for part of the hidden history of this place is the series of internecine battles the tribes have waged ever since they first came into contact, a legacy of mutual bloodletting dating back at least half a century and extending to as recently as the mid-1990s. It’s a hidden history that the Mirkhan family knows from personal experience.
Over the course of many conversations with the various Mirkhan brothers, I heard a great deal about the exploits and personalities of the two family members who lost their lives as pesh merga and who have now entered the pantheon of Kurdish martyrs: their father, Heso, and their brother, Ali. What I heard little about — and the brothers’ reticence on this topic became increasingly striking — were the actual circumstances of their deaths. It was only after repeated prodding that Azar finally divulged what I’d already ascertained independently: rather than by the Kurds’ myriad external enemies, Heso and Ali Mirkhan were actually killed by rival Kurdish pesh merga.
“It’s a disgrace that Kurds should kill each other,” Azar offered when I asked why he’d been so reluctant to share the information. “With all the other enemies we have, how can we ever turn on each other?”
An excellent question, but it is one likely to be asked again all across a partitioned Middle East, no matter how far down those divisions and subdivisions are made.
At about the midpoint on the Sinjar plateau, a bend in the road suddenly revealed an exquisite village on the far side of the river: a series of houses climbing the rocky hillside and, just below them, a number of ancient stone terraces. Some of the terrace walls were more than 20 feet high, the inhabitants determined to carve out any little piece of workable land from the mountain and, built in an age before machines, must have taken years — decades, perhaps — to erect. The homes were deserted now, their roofs caved in by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers, but they had left the terraces alone.
“It must have been so beautiful here then,” Azar said, gazing up at the village, “a kind of garden.”
But for Azar, the past was most useful for what it said about the future, and putting Sinjar behind us had set him in a happier, anticipatory mood. As we continued across Sinjar mountain, he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“This is our time now,” he said. “Iraq is gone. Syria is gone. Now it is our time.”
The New York Times Magazine