Uprooted from their homeland, Yazidis still live in fear of IS resurgence

7 years on, time could not heal all wounds

“They may be defeated for now but might come for us,” says a Yazidi woman as she recalls how the IS militants killed her husband and son in front of her eyes.  

“They may be defeated for now but might come for us,” says a Yazidi woman as she recalls how the Islamic State (IS) militants killed her husband and 12-year-old son in front of her eyes.

She had a sense of unease in her voice when she said “it is hard to trust or rely on anyone now” because it was our own neighbors who betrayed us. “They told the militants about our beliefs and that we were non-Muslims,” she added.

Speaking on the recent decision of the Syrian regime to impose Sharia or Islamic personal status laws, she says, “As if everything that we went through was not enough, they are finishing what ISIS had started.”

A Justice Ministry circular issued recently had ruled that the Yazidi minority were not exempt from Islamic personal status laws, essentially terming the religion a sect of Islam rather than an independent religion.

The decision has opened up old wounds, sparking fear and anxiety in the minds of this persecuted community once again.

With at least 3,000 women and children still missing or held by ISIS, the August 3, 2014 onslaught was just the beginning of a long history of oppression and genocide against this ethnic community practicing religion with elements from Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. Men and boys were executed, ripped from their families, indoctrinated and forced into ISIS training camps, girls as young as nine and women were kidnapped, sold, sexually enslaved, tortured and forced to work.

You should become a Muslim or we will kill everyone.”  

Some recalled how the militants would first examine them carefully and then keep them in captivity, torture them if they refused to convert.

“I was hit, brutalized, and separated from my family but I held the hands of my wife and son tightly as long as I could. I have scars all over my body,” says Suleiman (name changed), adding that the mental trauma is worse than the physical pain.

In an interview, while documenting the sufferings of the Yazidi community, Pari Ibrahim, founder and executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, an NGO based in the Netherlands, had mentioned how crimes ISIS committed against Yazidis appear to carry no judicial weight. Other than indicting the perpetrators for terrorism, the government has done nothing so far. That said, the perpetrators also walk free after a couple of years due to lack of evidence.

“What justice means for us is that our survivors have their day in court. That the survivors can go, point to the perpetrator, whether it’s a man or a woman, and say you did this to me,” Ibrahim pointed.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Suleiman. Apart from shooting us point-blank, the militants beheaded and burned us alive, he went on. “With no legal structure in place and more than thousands of Yazidis still missing, justice remains elusive as those who committed these heinous crimes, continue to live as if nothing happened,” he added.

It took two years for the independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to determine that “ISIS’s abuse of Yazidis amounts to crimes against humanity and war crimes”. In 2016, the Commission of Inquiry submitted a report, “They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis” where it acknowledged the atrocities as genocide. Despite UN intervention and recognition, Iraq failed to acknowledge these crimes as genocide.

Years on, the exiled hearts of the Yazidis still beat with Sinjar where they have left their blood relations and loved ones. “But how can we go back? There is no security, there are rumors that ISIS is trying to regroup. They destroyed our cultural sites. Sinjar is in shambles and it is that part of the bleeding earth where you can still find rubble strewn with IEDs in some places. There is nothing left for us there,” says Ramzya (name changed).

Though countries offering refuge to the displaced community is welcome, some political analysts believe territory is important. “The most pressing issues here are security and local governance, the absence of both have forced the Yazidis to seek refuge in countries like Germany, France, Canada, or Australia. Speaking of genocide survivors, space and territory are important,” said Siddiq Wahid, a political analyst and historian, adding that there should be concerted efforts from the international community to bring the Yazidis back to where they belong.

When ISIS fighters forcefully occupied the town of Sinjar, almost 200,000 Yazidis fled and took refuge in Mount Sinjar. Many died due to hunger and dehydration and some killed themselves.

Some blame both the governments — Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi government — for neglecting and leaving them to die. When the Yazidis were stuck in Sinjar in 2015, both Peshmerga forces (the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan) and YPG (Syrian Kurdish Forces) came to their rescue. At first, they helped them to escape by opening a corridor between Mount Sinjar and Syria but later withdrew halfway through the fight without any prior warning, which left the Yazidis defenseless and vulnerable.

“The government does not care because we are a small community. We have to protect ourselves. When we were attacked, my parents told me to take my sister and leave for Turkey. My parents along with a brother and two sisters stayed back in Iraq. I live in Germany now. Life is different here but no matter how much we try to escape our past, it catches up with us. It’s been seven years and I have not seen my family since,” says 23-year-old Salar.

Salar is now employed as a hairdresser in Bremen, Germany. He said his father is a doctor and his mother has heart problems. Not being able to be with them makes him anxious about his parents. His sister lives with him and goes to school.

He refused to even imagine what would have happened to his sister had he not taken her with him that day. “They called us unbelievers for our faith and that it was okay for them to rape our women and children in the name of religion,” he said.

Salar said he had no money or food when he fled from Iraq and did not eat for three days. “I still get flashbacks of my tormented past,” he added.

According to a 2018 report titled, “Unearthing Atrocities: Mass Graves in territory formerly controlled by ISIL” by the UNAMI and OHCHR, at least 5,000 Yazidis have been killed since IS began its offensive.

“A few weeks back, I heard some of my relatives went to mourn their losses at the reburial of their close ones in Kocho where 104 members of our community killed by the militant group were reburied,” Salar said.

More than 80 mass graves were discovered by UNITAD, the UN team investigating IS crimes in Iraq, in Sinjar, and exhumation of only 19 was completed since March 2019. Over a hundred bodies have been identified by DNA samples so far. Several others are yet to be found.

“This might mean closure to some of us,” Salar said.

It is not enough.

“Given the magnitude of violence against the religious minorities, more particularly the Shia Muslims and Yazidis, mere remembrance is not enough. The solidarity has to go beyond symbolism and remembrance events. The rehabilitation of the persecuted minority has to take precedence over symbolism aimed at attracting headlines,” said Gowhar Geelani, Kashmir-based author and journalist.

He believes any ad hoc arrangement won’t fetch results. “A robust mechanism and structure need to be put in place to change and improve the lives of the minorities who have already suffered imagination,” he added.

According to the Yazidi Rescue Office in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s data, the extremist group kidnapped 6,417 Yazidis, of which 3,451 have since been rescued, and 2,966 remain missing. Almost 2,745 children have become orphans and hundreds of thousands of Yazidis remain displaced, and the possibility of return has proven futile amidst continuing security threats.

Meanwhile, Stanly Johny, an expert in international relations and author of “The ISIS Caliphate: From Syria to the Doorsteps of India”, believes what countries like Georgia, Armenia, Iraq, Syria and Turkey need are constitutional mechanisms and the government has to be more open and forthcoming with respect to equal religious and civil rights of these minority communities.

However, one move can have ripple effects everywhere.

Geopolitics played spoilsport when other countries were focused on their own strategic interests

When initially ISIS had captured parts of Iraq and Syria, the focus of the regional powers and international powers was on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to topple the government. Turkey had kept its borders open so that the jihadis could use that for transit and other countries in the region started pumping money and weapons into Syria because they wanted to strengthen the Syrian civil war against the Bashar al-Assad-led government. ISIS had exploited this lawlessness or the civil strife and captured these weapons.

“In Iraq, the governments are either sectarian or divided on sectarian or ethnic lines. For instance, Baghdad has a Shia majority government, and Sunnis mostly live in northern Iraq. There was no meaningful attempt from the part of the government, neither from Baghdad nor from Erbil to address the issues of the minority communities,” Johny said, adding Yazidis are facing problems even in Turkey.

Yazidis claim they are a different ethnicity but in Turkey, they are seen as a subset of Kurds, who are themselves a persecuted minority there.

To make matters worse, Iran forging a partnership of sorts with the Kurdistan Workers Party will only exacerbate the internal problems caused by factionalism and failed governance in Iraqi Kurdistan. “This emerging confluence also has regional and external dangers. Turkey won’t take it kindly,” said Geelani.

He also said the Kurdistan Workers Party is looking for ways to consolidate its gains. “In this context, it is important to understand that Americans will up the ante against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That will also pave the way for the PKK to maximize its gains,” he said, adding that it is no secret that the PKK is focused on gaining further ground politically in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is hoping for a potential escalation in Turkey and Syria. That is where Iranian interests are factored in.

While talking about Sinjar becoming the PKK’s hotbed, Geelani said: “Iran would ideally want to lessen Turkey’s influence in the region and bolster Baghdad’s leverage on the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. Turkey, for this reason, seeks to cement its ties with the strongest faction in the Kurdistan Democratic Party.”

The de-Trumpization policy 

With the Democrats ascending to power in the US, there is cautious optimism among the marginalized communities in places like Kashmir, Palestine, and also in Iraq that there will be some pressure put on India, Israel, and the Iraqi government respectively to improve the human rights conditions of Kashmiris, Palestinians and religion and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq, and elsewhere.

The minority communities are hopeful that the new President will not remain silent on the violations of civil liberties. Unlike the Trump administration that cut off ties with the Palestinian Authority, supported Israel’s unilateral moves, moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and overlooked the crisis in Iraq after ISIS was defeated, experts think President Joe Biden at least talks about the country’s core values.

In his recent speech at the Munich Security Conference, Biden said that the US foreign policy should be focused on democracy and human rights. “We have to see how far an administration would pursue this as America has all kinds of alliances, not just with the Democrats, there are Monarchs and Wahhabi states. It is too early to say anything but still there is a marked difference in the way both the administrations approached the Middle East,” said Stanly Johny.

But be it a reconciliation process with Iran or dealing with a strained US-Turkey relation, the new normalization process in the Middle East will not be that easy.

Despite all this and the unpredictability in their lives, the ethnic minorities in Iraq are resilient, trying to live in harmony with an unforgettable past.

As for the Yazidis, survival itself was a big test.

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