On the Greek island of Leros, in the dilapidated shell of a former mental asylum that served as a jail for political prisoners during the country's dictatorship, a 'hotspot' has been housing stranded refugees who have arrived on boats from Turkey since the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. Among the hundreds of people, young and old, from countries across the Middle East and Asia, a group of Yazidis from northern Iraq caught the attention of Panos photographer Georgios Makkas who worked extensively on the refugee situation confronting his country. All the people he photographed survived the genocide perpetrated by IS militants when they stormed into the Yazidi heartland in August 2014. In August 2014 Islamic State fighters overran Sinjar and other towns in the North of Iraq. Some 200,000 civilians were able to escape the IS advance but another 50,000 fled into the Sinjar mountains where they became trapped without food, water or medical care. Witnessing an unfolding humanitarian tragedy, then US President Obama authorised targeted strikes of IS positions and food drops for those trapped on the mountain and by 13 August Kurdish fighters had managed to break the siege of the mountain under cover of US airstrikes. In the course of IS's advance, however, some 5,000 Yazidi men had been systematically murdered in villages around Sinjar and thousands and women and girls had been abducted to be used as sex slaves.
For those who escaped their ordeal had only just begun. Most were shepherded to Internally Displaced Peoples' camps near Dohuk in northern Iraq where refugees and IDPs from across the region has been gathering since Islamic State's sweep across northern Iraq and Syria. Seeing little hope of improvement or a return to their homelands, hundreds decided to set out on the perilous journey through Turkey and onwards, ferried by unscrupulous smugglers, on rickety boats to one of the Greek islands. When they arrived in the spring of 2016, however, the land route across the Balkans had already been shut down by border closures, stranding thousands across the Greek islands and mainland.
Even in their supposed refuge on Leros island, Yazidis continued to experience attacks from young Muslim men, food shortages and a complete lack of schooling for their children. By the end of 2016, many families had decided to return to war-torn Iraq with the help of the International Organisations for Migration (IOM) rather than stay in a dead-end refugee camp on a Greek island.
Speaking to members of the Yazidi community that had collected on Leros, Georgios noticed that individuals generally thought of themselves as part of their community and referred to themselves in the plural, referring to collective, rather than individual, suffering. Their testimonies quoted here can be taken as a collective expression of what happened to them and how they see their future and what hope, if any, they have of rebuilding their lives in their ancestral homeland.