“When we get to Diyarbakir we will be met at the airport by our escort.” “Escort?”
“Turkey is relatively safe for foreigners, but we are heading towards the border with Syria and will need security. It will be rough going once we leave the metropolitan area, and there is always the danger of bandits, highwaymen, and the odd terrorist. Al Qaeda is not the threat it used to be, but the new group is. You’ve heard of it. The Islamic State…”
Angell nodded, “What they call ISIL.” “… or ISIS.”
Angell shook his head.
“I prefer not to use that acronym. These murderers have nothing to do with the gentle Egyptian goddess of the same name. ISIL is just fine; or just Islamic State, or even Daesh, which is how they are referred to in Arabic.”
“Well, however you want to call them, they are building up a force to attack Sinjar, the Yezidi capital. They have already been slaughtering Yezidi in Iraq and Syria, and not even the Kurds seem willing to extend themselves to help them. They consider the Yezidi to be devil worshippers, as you know.”
Angell turned in his seat to look Aubrey in the eyes.
“And you mean to tell me we are going to walk right into that crossfire?”
“Easy, Professor. This is just a fact-finding mission. We will proceed to a refugee camp—I’ll tell you where later—and ask a few questions, and then return to Istanbul for a flight back home. I have no intention of being anywhere near a military offensive. I’m much too old for that sort of thing.”
Their connection in Frankfurt was mercifully brief, and they landed in Istanbul in the late afternoon. It was morning in New York City, and Angell wondered if anyone had noticed he was missing.
The two men headed over to another area of the airport where they would catch a domestic flight to the regional airport at Diyarbakir. From there they would be met by their security escort and begin the drive to the Syrian border.
Diyarbakir is sometimes called the “unofficial capital” of Kurdistan, and it has been a center of violence between the official Turkish government and the Kurdish resistance movements that are based in that ancient city on the Tigris. The airport is both civilian and military, and in another few months it would become the base for the American anti-ISIL efforts known as Operation Enduring Freedom. In April of 2014, however, it was the Turkish Air Force that dominated the region from the skies, and the PKK—a Kurdish resistance movement declared a terrorist organization by the US—from the ground.
The flight to Diyarbakir was uneventful, which is the best one can hope for under the circumstances. Having already gone through Immigration and Customs in Istanbul, the men simply walked out of the terminal onto the pavement in front of the arrivals area where they were met by two of the largest men Angell had ever seen.
They were not especially tall, but they were muscularly broad with close-cropped hair and hands the size of hams. They were Americans, in their late twenties, and spoke with the accents of East Texas. Aubrey nodded at them as if they were old acquaintances. They were led to an idling Humvee at the arrivals area where another man, just as broad and just as young, sat behind the wheel and looked straight ahead.
As the car took off, heading out of the airport to the main road that would lead them south to the Syrian border, Angell noticed the automatic weapons stacked behind them. The sight was not comforting.
The men hardly spoke at all. The driver kept his eyes on the road, and the other two escorts watched the surroundings carefully as they drove, alert to any possible threat from any direction. Angell wanted to call them Tweedledum and Tweedledee; they seemed like twins, cookie cutter- spooks with assault rifles and hair-trigger reflexes.
The sun was going down just as they reached a vast camp made of tents near the Syrian town of Kobani (also known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic) on the other side of the border. Cooking fires could be seen everywhere, like votive lamps in a pagan landscape. Kobani itself was under control of Kurdish forces and had been since 2012, a situation that began with the onset of the Syrian civil war, but refugees had begun moving across into the Turkish side for quite a while as Kobani was subject to bomb and mortar attack from Syrians, Islamic radicals, and God only knew who else.
As the capital of the putative Kurdish state of Rojava, Kobani was a target for everyone.
Angell knew that there were at least three main Kurdish political groups, each with its own militias and the territory they had won by force of arms. He had not stayed current on the situation and, anyway, his interests did not include either the internecine wars of Kurd against Kurd, or the struggle of the Kurds against the Iraqis, Turks, or Syrians. He was looking for the man Aubrey said would be in the camp, a Yezidi leader with important information about the book that seemed to be at the center of the whole operation. It was Angell’s expertise—not just with the language but with the religious and cultural background of the Yezidis— that was critical to the mission’s success.
Anyway, that was what they told him. Somehow the statue and drawing of the weird deity and that crappy short story by Lovecraft had something to do with all of this. He didn’t like what he was feeling: that the events of Mosul and the short story and the statue were all related in some way. He felt a kind of doom descending on him even though he couldn’t put it all together. Not yet.
He found himself longing for his Glock and the comfort holding it had given him.
The three men who had escorted them thus far got out of the Humvee first. They had no trouble in the drive down to the border, and had been stopped only once on the way by a Kurdish roadblock a mile outside the camp. Angell had remained silent most of the way down, leafing through the file Aubrey had given him and from time to time refreshing his knowledge of Kurmanji. He would look out the window at the passing landscape of armed men, wandering children and goats, and the minarets of mosques in the towns they passed and old memories came flooding through him like a familiar poison in his veins.
They had brought food and water with them, but Angell had no appetite. His mind was trying to accommodate two conflicting streams of thought at once: the reason for his being in Kurdistan on the one hand, and his memories of the Yezidi slaughter on the other. At the back of all of this, like a deep bass beat just below the surface of human hearing, was his own family’s background and that inescapable suspicion that there was much more to this operation than he was being told.
Lovecraft—his family’s tormentor—had hated the Yezidis, even though he probably had never met one in his life. The popular imagination at the time associated the Yezidis with devil worship and even the local Kurdish and Arab populations continue to harbor the same ideas about them. They were closed off, isolated. One could not convert to Yezidism: you were either born into the sect or you were an outsider. Their religion seemed like an amalgam of Christianity, Judaism and Islam with various pre-Abrahamic elements thrown in for good measure. They had a “black book”—that no one had really seen, despite claims to the contrary—and lived in an area of northern Iraq close to Mosul. Their coat of arms boasted a peacock, and writing in cuneiform that hinted at a Babylonian or even Sumerian origin. Indeed, their God was referred to as the “Peacock Angel”—Melek Ta’us— even though peacocks were not native to Mesopotamia but to India. Go figure. And then, they also revered a figure known as Shaitan.
The theology was complex, but in simple terms the Yezidi believe that Satan, the Fallen Angel, will be the first to be welcomed back to heaven at the End Times. Satan was the first sinner; he had refused to bow down before Adam, even though God had ordered him to do so. This much is consistent with the Qur’an. The Muslims believe that Satan refused to bow down to Adam due to the sin of pride. But the Yezidis believe that the reason he gave was that he would bow before no one in all creation except God himself, for it was only to God that he owed his loyalty and obeisance, and he had promised God since the beginning that he would be loyal only to him. For this sin of obedience/disobedience, Satan was cast out of heaven. Eventually, Satan would return to heaven and the first to follow him through the pearly gates would be the Yezidi themselves. For that reason, they never even speak the word Shaitan.
The Yezidi believe they are the first people, the most ancient of all peoples on the Earth, the inheritors of the Sumerian civilization. In fact, it is possible that the name Melek Ta’us is a corruption of the ancient Mesopotamian deity Tammuz, or Tawuz. This would reinforce the idea that they are descended from an ancient civilization. They are non-Semitic, are not ethnically or linguistically related to the Arab populations of Iraq or Syria, but have more in common with their neighbors in Iran. They are also not Muslim and that fact has led to repression and oppression from Muslims both in the Sunni and the Shiite areas. While the Kurds are
despised by Turks, Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians equally, even the Kurds discriminate against the Yezidis.
What would happen to them in the next few months, however, would far exceed anything Saddam Hussein, the Syrians, or the Turks had accomplished in the past centuries. In fact, it would be the genocide of the Yezidis by the Islamic State beginning in June of 2014 that would bring the United States into open warfare with the terror organization.
In April, however, things were still relatively calm in the refugee camp. They parked their vehicle at one end and walked back towards a small wooden building that seemed to be the main office.
Their driver walked in front, his Glock conspicuous in a shoulder holster under his left arm. Aubrey and Gregory, unarmed, followed him, and were in turn followed by the two other security officers, one of whom held an AR-15 assault rifle.
So much for discretion.
Before they reached the building the door opened and a middle-aged European woman in khakis stepped out to greet them. She was of medium height and pleasant appearance, with a light coloring of hair, skin and eyes suggesting Dutch or perhaps German ethnicity, and was holding a satellite phone in her left hand. Her right hand was outstretched.
Aubrey stepped forward and grasped her hand in his. “Doctor DeVries?”
“Yes. You must be …”
“Anonymous, if you please. As is my associate here, who has come a long way to talk to Fahim. You have been contacted by my people?”
“Yes. They have been on the phone to me. As have my own people. I gather this is an important mission you’re on.”
The driver went inside the small building first, ahead of the others, to ensure it was secure. Then he stepped outside and nodded. Aubrey, Gregory and Doctor De Vries went inside and shut the door while their security contingent took up posts outside and around the building. There was no point in trying to be inconspicuous in that place. If you were not a Kurd or an aid worker, you were a foreigner of some kind and everyone in the camp knew you were there and what you were doing.
“You know I can’t discuss our purpose here, other than to say it is urgent we speak with Fahim.”
“The Daasin—that is what the Yezidi call themselves, by the way—are very cautious when it comes to bringing attention their way. They have their own section of the camp but I am afraid that their numbers are due to increase, perhaps exponentially.”
She moved some papers around on her makeshift desk and pulled out an old reconnaissance map of the area that had many penciled-in notations and large sections blocked off with striped lines.
“The Islamic State has its eye on Mosul. There are rumors that they will start a major offensive in the next six weeks or so. If they take Mosul, that puts Mount Sinjar right in their crosshairs.” She pointed to Mosul on the map and then drew a short line with her finger to the west, to Mount Sinjar. “The holiest site in all of Yezidi religion and culture will come under direct attack. It is only a matter of a month or two at most, maybe even weeks. Thousands of Yezidi are already making their way on foot across Syria to this border and to areas in the north under Kurdish control. The rest are determined to stay and fight.”
Aubrey nodded if he had been aware of this all along.
“Do you mean to say that this way is blocked?” He pointed at a road that snaked across the border into Syria and which led to a border crossing on the other—the Iraqi—side.
“You surely don’t intend to cross Syria by land?” Angell looked up, startled.
“No,” replied Aubrey, thinking. “No, that was not the plan. But if Mosul falls and Mount Sinjar is next, then we are really running out of time.”
She looked at Aubrey with an expression that was both wistful and angry.
“I wish the rest of your government felt the way you do about the plight of the Yezidis,” she said. “I doubt anyone in your State Department has even heard of them.”
At that moment there was a knock on the door. It opened, and the security officer filled the doorway with his bulk.
“There is someone here to speak with the doctor. He says it’s urgent.” He added, “He’s clean.”
De Vries looked at Aubrey, who only nodded. “It’s okay. Let him in.”
The security man stepped aside, and a much smaller individual entered the room. It was a Kurd, by his appearance and speech. He spoke rapidly to the doctor, who responded in the same dialect. Angell listened to every word, but said nothing.
The man bowed in the general direction of everyone, and then left the building.
“There are some vehicles coming this way. A Turkish Army patrol, most likely, but we shouldn’t take any chances.” De Vries began rolling up the map with the other papers on her desk, shoving them into a battered leather briefcase as she talked. “We need to hide you for an hour or so.”