World quick to forget Yazidis’ suffering
In North America and Europe, how many people could name a single genocide that has taken place in the last decade? My anecdotal experience would suggest that a sadly woeful majority would not even have a clue about the Rohingya. Mention the Yazidis and, for the most part, you are faced with the same vacant look, even though so many states were involved in bombing Daesh in Iraq, in theory to stem the genocide. Some may have heard of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, but few have any idea of her origins or understanding of who the Yazidis are.
Largely based in Iraq but also to be found in Georgia, Armenia and Iran, the Yazidis follow an esoteric religion with multiple influences, including Islam and Zoroastrianism. Their beliefs include reincarnation, but it is a secretive religion that does not seek to proselytize. Some of their customs may seem curious, such as the prohibition on eating lettuce or wearing blue clothing. Historically, many falsely saw the Yazidis as devil worshippers, which is one reason why they suffered massacres during the period of the Ottoman Empire — 72 of them, according to their histories.
The recent Yazidi tale is grizzly. More than 500,000 Yazidis used to live in the Sinjar Mountains west of Mosul. Daesh targeted them, invading the region in August 2014. Thousands of Yazidis sought refuge in the mountains, but they were vulnerable to the ravages of these extremists, who view them as infidel heretics and delighted in recording their atrocities on social media for the world to witness. For a brief moment, the conscience of the world was pricked and the term Yazidi appeared in international media outlets.
The suffering of the Yazidis was far from the scale in terms of numbers of historically more infamous genocides, such as those against the Jews, the Armenians or the Kurds. But genocide it was: The attempted deliberate eradication of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group in whole or in part. It was recognized not just by the UN but also the European Parliament and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The crisis is not over. Six years on and 80 percent of the Yazidi population remains displaced. Returning is hazardous, as with so many war zones — the insecurity, the mines, unexploded ordnance and lack of housing.
For a brief moment, the conscience of the world was pricked and the term Yazidi appeared in international media outlets
Thousands of Yazidis and others are still missing. Daesh is making a good income from ransoms, with many Yazidi captives held in Idlib in northern Syria. Other armed groups also reportedly trade in Yazidi captives. Kidnappings and ransom requests have been a standard part of Syria’s war economy for years. It ensures a tough moral choice, given that the ransoms contribute to the very extremist group that oppressed them. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also makes this choice by assisting families in paying the ransoms, which range from about $5,000 to $20,000.
Yazidis have also lobbied the Iraqi authorities against moving Daesh detainees into their areas, such as at the Omla camp in Nineveh province, which has escalated their sense of insecurity. Nobody wants Daesh prisoners, whether in the Middle East, Europe or North America, but the Yazidis and other minorities butchered by the group have far more to fear. These anxieties were not helped by the precipitate announcement from the Trump White House last October that US forces would be leaving Iraq, as well as ill-judged comments that Daesh had somehow been defeated. Reports show that Daesh was able to mount more than 500 attacks in the first three months of 2020.
The physical dislocation is one horror, but the mental and emotional scars will be permanent. Many Yazidis were abused and tortured. More than 3,500 Yazidis have returned, according to the KRG. Dealing with the past is tough, not least as many bodies have yet to be discovered. So far, the UN says it has located 73 mass graves of Yazidis, 13 of which have been exhumed and 373 bodies found.
All captured Yazidis became Daesh property or chattel to be disposed of or abused as the militiamen saw fit. Daesh recruited children, or rather boys, to fight. In taking over a village, the men and older boys were given a stark choice: Convert and effectively become Daesh slaves separated from their wives and mothers, or be executed. Women would be sold off as slaves and frequently raped or even gang raped. Boys under 12 would be hived off to indoctrination camps, learning Arabic and Islamic studies and given military training.
A challenge for returning children is that many have forgotten their native Kurdish Kurmanji dialect, having been forced to learn Arabic, making it tougher for them to reintegrate back into their families and communities.
To rebuild these ancient societies, the requisite mutual respect and interaction needed to make countries like Iraq and Syria viable will require years, even decades. It will also require considerable international assistance, which is lacking at present.
The reality is that turning a blind eye to such atrocities has a rich and bloody history. The Yazidis are just one more to add to the list. Six years ago, as the massacres reached their height, the world did respond, only to quickly forget those they were meant to be helping. To properly honor our words and deeds of 2014, the international community needs to help the Yazidis both recover from their trauma and protect them from future threats.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech