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Frontlines photographer Andrea DiCenzo captures the 'liberation' of Sinjar, northern Iraq

  • Written by  Katie Burton
  • Published in Geophoto
Andrea DiCenzo: These men are part of an all-Yazidi militia that formed after the attack on Sinjar by ISIS. There are both men and women in the militia but it had limited funding and sort of ping-ponged between Erbil and Baghdad alliances. They aren't considered an effective security force in the region, but they do guard a number of Yazidi shrines that weren't destroyed. Andrea DiCenzo: These men are part of an all-Yazidi militia that formed after the attack on Sinjar by ISIS. There are both men and women in the militia but it had limited funding and sort of ping-ponged between Erbil and Baghdad alliances. They aren't considered an effective security force in the region, but they do guard a number of Yazidi shrines that weren't destroyed.
29 Jan
Andrea DiCenzo is a photojournalist, who has covered conflicts for many years. On November 15th 2015, she encountered scenes of destruction in the newly 'liberated' town of Sinjar, northern Iraq

On 12 and 13 November 2015, Kurdish fighters entered Sinjar, the town in northern Iraq that sits beneath the Sinjar Mountains and which was once home to thousands of people, mostly Yazidis. Backed by US-led air support, the fighters regained the region from ISIS and the ‘liberation’ of Sinjar was announced. This liberation followed the 2014 capture of Sinjar by ISIS and the massacre and kidnap of thousands of Yazidi people. 

For photojournalist Andrea DiCenzo, who entered the town on the 15th, the scene was primarily one of destruction. ‘They heavily bombed the city in order to get rid of ISIS militants,’ she says, looking back on her time in the town. ‘It was a precursor to what the USA did in Mosul and Raqqa, which was a lot of air support in order to protect the small groups that they were supporting on the ground. It was a pretty stunning sight to see it destroyed like this. They are still finding dead bodies five years on.’

Andrea DiCenzo 2Andrea DiCenzo: This is Sinjar, the morning of 15 November 2015. The previous day it had been 'liberated' by the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces). I was shooting with both a Canon Mark II and a Mark III. I don't really work with a tonne of lenses in general. I had my favourites: a 24-70mm on one and a 35mm on the other.

DiCenzo, who works for a number of predominantly US-based news outlets, spent a lot of time with the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the YPG (a mainly Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units) – groups that are still vying for power in Sinjar today. She explains that these are the people the Yazidis appear to feel closest to because they offered support when ISIS attached, working to open up a safe corridor off Mount Sinjar, where many Yazidi people fled. ‘I went around with the YPG/PKK as they were dismantling bombs and trying to search for ISIS members who might still be hiding in caves and in different pockets around Sinjar,’ DiCenzo remembers. ‘We didn’t find any leftover ISIS members, which was good. Looking back, I think: “Oh my goodness, we were really lucky that nothing bad happened.” There was an aspect of naivete in that. I’m counting lucky stars on that one.’

Andrea Dicenzo 3Andrea DiCenzo: When I was in Sinjar, I spent a lot of time with either the PKK or YPG, which these three people in the centre of the photo are members of. The PKK is unique in that it has both men and women among its forces.

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DiCenzo has been covering conflict for many years. After studying photography in London, she moved to Jerusalem, where she covered the Gaza War, then moved to Iraq. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Long days, lack of food and safety concerns combine with ethical decisions in the face of extreme suffering. How do you take pictures of people in such distress? ‘With really stressful, intimate situations, I feel like I’m doing a big circle from the outside and slowly getting closer to my subject. That’s how I think about it,’ explains DiCenzo. ‘It’s almost like this physical dance for me. I want to make sure that they know that I’m there – if I haven’t been able to call and ask for permission ahead of time – but then I also don’t want to make myself too known or get in their face.

Andrea DiCenzo 5Andrea DiCenzo: This was taken in 2019 on the anniversary of the 3 August 2014 massacre of the Yazidis. These women are from Kocho, which is a village in Sinjar. Most of the villagers were killed because of ISIS but a few women were able to find a way back from Syria or from other parts of Iraq where they were trafficked to. They walked around the graves after they had their mourning ceremony in the school. Mourning is a very visceral and public display in Iraq and in the Yazidi community.

 ‘The majority of the time, were they aware that I was there with the camera? I would think so,’ she goes on to explain. ‘But were they psychologically there enough to make the decision to allow me to photograph? It starts to become a little bit more questionable. That’s a larger conversation within the photographic community about how you document people in distress.’

Andrea DiCenzo 4Andrea DiCenzo: This was taken in 2019. The Yazidi community was preparing to dig up the mass graves for the bodies that they were hoping to find.

DiCenzo returned to the region in 2016 and 2019, so she now has a series of photos that demonstrate how little has changed in Sinjar and the mass destruction that remains. ‘Five years on, not a lot of development has happened,’ she says. They’ve paved this one road and there’s a little bit more, but downtown is decimated. My first images, where you see what happened after the liberation, only tell a very small part of the story which is still unfolding for the Yazidi community.' 

Andrea Dicenzo 6Andrea DiCenzo: ISIS put sheets across the streets to serve as protection from snipers. Here, a member of the PKK/YPG is taking a look through.

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