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Haunted by genocide, displaced Yazidis demand justice

June 15, 2022
topics: Genocide
by: Pierre Sagnier
located in: Iraq, Syria
tags: genocide, Iraq, ISIS, Kurdistan, Yazidi

8 years after the ISIS genocide, Yazidis are still afraid to return to their ravaged villages. Thousands remain missing.

Waheeda Omer has been living with relatives in Dohuk, the capital city of Duhok Governorate in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, for eight years, having had to flee with family members from their homes in the nearby Sinjar district to avoid being murdered or enslaved by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group.

The fundamentalist organisation, which considered Yazidis as "infidels," was definitively expelled from Sinjar in 2018, but Omer and over 200,000 Yazidis displaced by ISIS genocide do not plan to return in the short term; this is despite the poor living conditions many of them face eslewhere.

"I’m not returning to my village because it’s not secure and my house is destroyed," explains Omer from Dohuk.

In November 2020, Iraq and Kurdistan's governments announced a "historic" agreement designed to facilitate the return to Sinjar of around 400,000 members of the Yazidi community who had escaped the 2014 genocide committed against them by ISIS. The settlement provided that only regular military personnel and police officers could patrol Sinjar. All the rest of the armed groups, including the Kurdish military and militias attached to the Iraqi Armed Forces, would be expelled. The agreement also lays out the reconstruction process of the district. 

Alas, thus far the agreement is far from being fulfilled. "Sinjar is a disputed territory between Kurdistan and the federal government in Baghdad, which means that there are a plethora of armed groups," Naomi Prodeau, lead lawyer from the Free Yezidi Foundation investigations teams, told FairPlanet. There is the presence of the Iraqi army, the peshmerga (Kurdistan Armed Forces), pro-Iranian militias and Syrian Kurdish groups. Even the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Turkish guerrilla considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, is operating in the district, which elicited airstrikes by Turkey’s Air Force and led to an additional displacement of people.

"Once a week you hear that somebody has been abducted or killed and nobody knows by whom," said Omer. "You do not know where to go to report these incidents, which occur without a proper investigation by a proper governmental agency. There are so many forces, and you don’t know who you can trust."

This lack of security and the trauma of the 2014 genocide make Omer reluctant to return to her village, Tel Banat, which she left at the age of 17.

"Once a week you hear that somebody has been abducted or killed and nobody knows by whom."

LONGING FOR THE 'GOOD old TIMES'

Omer looks back at her life before the arrival of ISIS in Sinjar with fondness, and while she acknowledges that Yazidis were discriminated against and that their living conditions were poor, she nonetheless longs for those days.

"Life there was hard, but we accepted it. Most of the Yazidi men were in the military and we didn’t ask too much from the government," she recalled. "We were making our income working in fields and had simple houses, we were happy like that. There were no killings, no rape and slavery or forced conversions."

In her village, Tel Banat, Yazidis were the majority and lived in harmony with their Shia (a branch of Islam also persecuted by Islamic State) neighbours, which comprised roughly 30 percent of the village population. "We accepted one another. We were really good friends and we never talked about religion."

Now, Omer dreads a repeat of what happened eight years ago. "There are Arab villagers who just went back to their villages [following the genocide], and that makes me more afraid to go back to my home, because maybe in ten years they would attack me again; they would abduct me, they would kill me."

But displaced Yazidis are not only fearful of armed groups. They are also weary of the landmines planted by ISIS, which are still in place. "Almost half of the Yazidis still displaced say that they haven’t returned because of their presence," Prodeau of the Free Yezidi Foundation pointed out.

Another obstacle to returning home  for Yazidis is the lack of public services and infrastructure. According to the Nadia’s Initiative, an organisation led by former victim of Islamic State and Yazidi Nobel Peace Price winner Nadia Murad, 80 percent of the public infrastructure and 70 percent of homes in Sinjar were destroyed during ISIS's invasion and the subsequent fight to expel it. "The Government has to start from zero, because there’s nothing there," said Omer. "It has to provide health care, education and so many other services."

Eight years after the genocide and four years after ISIS's defeat, "less than half of the displaced Yazidi population has returned to Sinjar," explained Prodeau. Around 80,000 have left Iraq and emigrated to other countries, according to a recent report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Others, like Omer, who had some relatives in Kurdistan before 2014, have managed to build a new life there. But the Free Yezidi Foundation estimates that 220,000 Yazidis are still living in 15 internal displaced camps throughout this region, and life there has become increasingly difficult over the years.

LIFE INSIDE displacement CAMPS

"In the beginning, there were many organisations helping people, giving people things for a living: food, water… But it’s been around four years now that nobody has done anything for the Yazidi community in the camps," said Shireen (who asked to use an alias) after eight years of living in the Sharya displacement camp. Sharya is located near the city of Dohuk, and has sheltered around 29,000 Yazidi people at its peak. Now many have left, particularly after 400 tents burnt in June 2021 in a big fire caused by an electrical accident. In fact, the defective electrical system is one of the main problems listed by displacement camp residents.

Besides, "There are no services in the camps - we do everything by ourselves," explained Shireen. In Shariya, residents are provided only one big generator to provide electricity for the entire camp, and are asked to pay for the supply. They receive gas for winter only once a year. 

Summers in the camp are extremely hot and winters are bitter cold, especially the last one, complained Shireen. "In the winter if we are at home, most of the time we are in our beds because it’s very cold and there’s no electricity."

There is a small health center "for emergencies only," and, according to Shireen, good primary and secondary schools; she stated, however, that the schools are "the only good things" in the camp.

But the camp's main problem, she claimed, is the dearth of job opportunities and subsequent poverty and lack of expectations among residents.

Shireen is working as a nurse in a nearby hospital. But "none of my three brothers are working. If I didn’t work, I don’t know if we could find another way to earn a living," she shared.

All in all, her family is not seriously considering returning to their home in Sinjar. "We want to return, we just want certainty that we’re going to be safe there," she revealed, adding that they still find it very dangerous. "The Iraqi army controls part of Sinjar and the peshmerga controls another part and sometimes they fight between them, so some people feel very scared of that."

"We want to return, we just want certainty that we’re going to be safe."

MORE THAN 2,700 WOMEN AND CHILDREN STILL ENSLAVED

Naomi Prodeau of the Free Yezidi Foundation said that another reason why many Yazidis don’t want to return to Sinjar is that they still have family members missing since 2014.

That year, ISIS militants killed 5,000 men and older women who could not escape from Sinjar in time. They buried them in mass graves. "Yazidi organisations counted 82 mass graves in Sinjar since ISIS attack," said Prodeau, adding that between 2019 and 2020, 18 of them were exhumed and the remains of 145 victims were identified and buried. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, "exhumations have been delayed."

But the search of Yazidis doesn't include only the deceased. Of the over 6,000 Yazidis enslaved by Islamic State since 2014, more than 2,700 women and children remain in captivity. 

"They are believed to still be living with families of ISIS fighters who are now dead," said Prodeau. Many of these families are secluded in detention camps in the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, an alliance of opposition forces operating outside the territory controlled by dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In some of them, like Al Hawl, an enormous camp of around 60,000 people - mostly women and children, 'sabayas' (the name given by Islamic State to Yazidi women they forced into sexual slavery) are rescued from time to time.

"In some cases, families are in touch with survivors who are missing and have been in contact with their captors, but they are asked for thousands of dollars to release and smuggle Yazidi women and children back into Iraq," Prodeau claimed. The problem, she went on, is that these families cannot find any international support to pay these ransoms - as that would be considered 'financing of terrorism'.

SOME JUDICIARY PROGRESS, BUT OUTSIDE IRAQ AND SYRIA

On the judicial front there has been some progress. In November last year, a Germarn court issued a judgement recognising for the first time that crimes committed by ISIS against the Yazidis amounted to genocide. The court convicted to life in prison an Iraqi ISIS member who had let a 5-years-old Yazidi girl he had enslaved die of thirst.

This conviction was widely celebrated by Yazidi and human rights organisations. That said, Yazidis are unsatisfied with the judicial processes in Iraq and Syria, where deficiencies in the legal systems shield ISIS members from full accountability.

Prodeau praised the efforts in some European countries to pursue Islamic State fighters who have returned to their home countries. "But these efforts remain very piecemeal compared to the scale of justice and accountability that is required to be able to try ISIS members in Syria and Iraq," where thousands of them are detained.

Iraq wants to trial the Islamic State terrorists in its territory, but, Prodeau pointeed out, "genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are not codified under Iraqi law," and Parliamentary interest groups have been opposed to passing a law to include them, as other important Iraqi stakeholders could be accused.

"One solution to that is to draft a law to create a special court that would only try crimes committed by ISIS," suggested Prodeau.

Kurdistan's government submitted a draft bill to do so, but tensions between the autonomous region and federal government dampened the process, and the Supreme Federal Court declared it unconstitutional.

"We are desperate for justice like so many survivors," claimed Waheeda. But even eight years after the genocide in Sinjar, "Iraq doesn’t have a system to gather evidence for these survivors and the witnesses."

Kurdistan’s autonomous region has one and the United Nations too, but Yazidis are beginning to mistrust these efforts due to lack of tangible results.

"It’s very hard to bring survivors forward to testify because they have been interviewed so many times, telling their stories so many times to different organisations, journalists and the commission and there’s no result," said Omer. "That makes them tired, that makes them lose the hope and at some point can be re-traumatising."

Image by Levi Meir Clancy.

Article written by:
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Pierre Sagnier
Author
Iraq Syria
A young Yazidi girl plays in a tent at an IDP camp for Yazidi people.
© Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Members of the Yazidi ethnic community from Iraq who escaped death and persecution at the hands of ISIS and fled to Canada hold a rally outside Queen's Park in Toronto, Canada.
© Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images
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