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The Yazidis (also spelled as Yezidis) are a religious minority found primarily in northern Iraq. In recent years, the Yazidis have received the attention of the international media as a result of their brutal persecution at the hands of Daesh. This persecution, however, is just the latest of its kind as the Yazidis have faced numerous persecutions throughout their history. The reason for this is their syncretic religion, which contains elements from Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Over the centuries, the Yazidis have been regarded to be heretical ‘devil-worshippers’, and therefore were subjected to persecution by the Muslims who ruled over their homeland.
Temple entry at Lalish (MikaelF / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Did a New Religion Arise from Disenchantment?
Although the origin of the name ‘Yazidi’ is unclear, some scholars have proposed that it is derived from the Persian / Zoroastrian word ‘Yazdan’, meaning ‘God’, and ‘Yazata’, meaning ‘divine’ or ‘angelic being’. Others have associated the name of this religious minority with that of Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah, the second caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate. The Yazidis believe that this caliph, though a Sunni Muslim , became disenchanted with his religion, and became a Yazidi.
The Yazidi population today has been estimated to number between 200,000 and 1,000,000. Although the Yazidis are a scattered people, the majority of them live in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan on the borders of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The largest Yazidi community is located in the Sinjar Mountains in northwestern Iraq. Ethnically speaking, the Yazidis have been considered to be Kurds and speak Kurdish. Nevertheless, the distinction between the Yazidis and their fellow Kurds lie in the religion practiced by the former.
The Archangel Yezidi (YZD / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Who is Melek Taus the Peacock Angel?
According to Yazidi belief, their religion is the oldest one in the world, and their religious calendar can be traced back 6756 years. The Yazidis believe that when God created the world it was entrusted to seven angels. The chief was Melek Taus, known also as the Peacock Angel. This angel is considered to be similar to Lucifer in Christian and Jewish beliefs and, like Lucifer, rebelled against God. The rebellion failed and Melek Taus was cast into the fire. Unlike his Christian and Jewish counterpart, the Peacock Angel repented. Spending 40,000 years weeping, his tears eventually put out the flames. Pleased with his act of repentance, God placed Melek Taus in charge of the daily affairs of the world. The Yazidis also believe that they were created by Melek Taus before any of the other races of the world.
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Yazidi man in traditional clothes (Max Karl Tilke / Public Domain )
How Did the Yazidi Religion Develop?
Alternatively, the Yazidi religion may be traced back to the end of the Umayyad Caliphate. In 750 AD, the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasids, and the last caliph, Marwan II (who was half-Kurdish), was killed. Some of the dynasty’s descendants and supporters fled to the Sinjar Mountains. The Yazidi religion continued to develop over the centuries, absorbing elements from other religions, including Sufi and Shiite Islam, Nestorian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. It was during the 13 th and 14 th centuries that the Yazidis began to draw the attention of neighboring Muslim rulers. The religious beliefs of the Yazidis developed further away from Islamic norms, while their political power and geographical spread continued to increase.
Yazidis flag ( Frizio / Adobe)
The situation alarmed the surrounding Muslims, who regarded the Yazidis as heretics and rivals for power. Due to the worship of Melek Taus by the Yazidis, their enemies considered them to be ‘devil-worshippers’. By the 15 th century, clashes between the Yazidis and Muslims ensued, in which the latter emerged victorious. The power of the Yazidis was reduced, while their numbers went into decline as a consequence of massacres and both voluntary as well as forced conversions.
Yazidi men (Bestoun94 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Yazidis Suffer a Non-Ending History of Genocide and Persecution
According to the Yazidis, they have suffered a total of 72 genocides throughout their history. The persecution of the Yazidis continued into the modern period. During the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, for instance, the Yazidis fled in large numbers to the Caucasus to avoid further persecution. Today this persecution continues in the form of Daesh. Many fear this will be the 73 rd genocide to be carried out against the Yazidis.
Who, What, Why: Who are the Yazidis?
Among the many victims of the advance of The Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East are a group of up to 50,000 Yazidis, who are trapped in the mountains in northwest Iraq without food or water. Author Diana Darke explains who these mysterious religious adherents are.
Suddenly thrust into the limelight by their plight, the Yazidis will not welcome the glare of international attention. On account of their unusual beliefs, they are often unjustly referred to as "devil worshippers", and have traditionally held themselves apart in small communities mainly scattered across northwest Iraq, northwest Syria and southeast Turkey.
Estimating their current numbers is difficult, with figures ranging from 70,000 to 500,000. Feared, vilified and persecuted, there is no doubt the population has dwindled considerably over the course of the past century. Like other minority religions of the region, such as the Druze and the Alawis, it is not possible to convert to Yazidism, only to be born into it.
The ongoing persecution in their heartland of the Mt Sinjar region west of Mosul is based on a misunderstanding of their name. Sunni extremists, such as IS, believe it derives from Yazid ibn Muawiya (647-683), the deeply unpopular second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Modern research, however, has clarified that the name is nothing to do with the loose-living Yazid, or the Persian city of Yazd, but is taken from the modern Persian "ized", which means angel or deity. The name Izidis simply means "worshippers of god", which is how Yazidis describe themselves.
Their own name for themselves is Daasin (plural Dawaaseen), which is taken from the name of an old Nestorian - the Ancient Church of the East - diocese, for many of their beliefs are derived from Christianity. They revere both the Bible and the Koran, but much of their own tradition is oral. Due in part to its secrecy, there have been misunderstandings that the complex Yazidi faith is linked to Zoroastrianism with a light/dark duality and even sun worship. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that although their shrines are often decorated with the sun and that graves point east towards the sunrise, they share many elements with Christianity and Islam.
Children are baptised with consecrated water by a pir (priest). At weddings he breaks bread and gives one half to the bride and the other to the groom. The bride, dressed in red, visits Christian churches. In December, Yazidis fast for three days, before drinking wine with the pir. On 15-20 September there is an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi at Lalesh north of Mosul, where they carry out ritual ablutions in the river. They also practise sacrifice of animals and circumcision.
Their supreme being is known as Yasdan. He is considered to be on such an elevated level that he cannot be worshipped directly. He is considered a passive force, the Creator of the world, not the preserver. Seven great spirits emanate from him of which the greatest is the Peacock Angel known as Malak Taus - active executor of the divine will. The peacock in early Christianity was a symbol of immortality, because its flesh does not appear to decay. Malak Taus is considered God's alter ego, inseparable from Him, and to that extent Yazidism is monotheistic.
Yazidis pray to Malak Taus five times a day. His other name is Shaytan, which is Arabic for devil, and this has led to the Yazidis being mislabelled as "devil-worshippers". The Yazidis believe that souls pass into successive bodily forms (transmigration) and that gradual purification is possible through continual rebirth, making Hell redundant. The worst possible fate for a Yazidi is to be expelled from his community, as this means their soul can never progress. Conversion to another religion is, therefore, out of the question.
In remote areas of southeast Turkey towards the Syrian and Iraqi borders, their once-abandoned villages are starting to come back to life, with new houses being built by the communities themselves. Many Yazidis are returning from exile now that the Turkish government leaves them undisturbed. Despite centuries of persecution the Yazidis have never abandoned their faith, testimony to their remarkable sense of identity and strength of character. If they are driven from Iraq and Syria by IS extremists, the likelihood is that more will settle in southeast Turkey where they are left to live out their beliefs in peace.
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Ceaseless persecution marks the Yazidis' history
FILE - The sun sets as women visit a Yazidi shrine overlooking at Kankhe Camp for the internally displaced in Dahuk, northern Iraq, in this Wednesday, May 18, 2016 file photo. Over the past centuries, the Yazidi community, one of Iraq's oldest religious minorities, has repeatedly been subjected to brutal attacks leaving thousands of its members dead. One of their worst subjugations occ urred four years ago with the rise of the extremist Islamic State group.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
FILE - Clothing worn by a Yazidi girl enslaved by Islamic State militants, collected by a Yazidi activist to document Islamic State group crimes against the community, shown in this file photo taken May 22, 2016, in Dohuk, northern Iraq. Over the past centuries, the Yazidi community, one of Iraq's oldest religious minorities, has repeatedly been subjected to brutal attacks leaving thousands of its members dead. One of their worst subjugations occurred four years ago with the rise of the extremist Islamic State group.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
BEIRUT – Over the past centuries, the Yazidi community, one of Iraq's oldest religious minorities, has repeatedly been subjected to brutal attacks leaving thousands of its members dead. One of their worst subjugations occurred four years ago with the rise of the extremist Islamic State group.
IS committed genocide and other crimes against the Yazidi minority in Iraq as their power in the country peaked in the summer of 2014.
Hundreds of Yazidi women were captured, taken as sex slaves and subjected to horrific abuse by the extremists. Some managed to flee, including newly laurelled Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad who told the world of the horrors she and her community experienced.
About 5,000 Yazidi men were killed by IS when the Sunni militant group took control of Iraq's northwest four years ago.
About 3,000 Yazidis still remain missing, most thought to have been killed in the war that rolled back IS control in Syria and Iraq over the past three years.
An isolated religious minority, the Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries. Many Muslim sects consider them infidels many Iraqis falsely see them as worshippers of Satan. They speak Kurdish and their traditions are amalgamated, borrowing from Christianity, Islam and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.
In August 2014, IS militants swept into Sinjar, the ancestral homeland of the Yazidis near the Syrian border, after capturing the northern city of Mosul and declaring an Islamic caliphate across large areas of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis escaped to Mount Sinjar, where most were eventually rescued by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.
In November 2015, Kurdish militias with close support of U.S.-led coalition aircraft, drove IS out of Sinjar.
Before IS rose to power, the Yazidis were the subjects of one of the deadliest single attacks after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. On Aug 14, 2007, four suicide truck bombs targeted Yazidi villages north of the country, killing some 400 people and wounding many more. The attack was carried by out by the Islamic State in Iraq, IS's predecessor.
During the Ottoman empire, Yazidis were subjected to several massacres in the 18th and 19th century.
Who are the Yazidis?
Estimates put the global number of Yazidis at around 700,000 people, with the vast majority of them concentrated in northern Iraq, in and around Sinjar.
The region around Mt Sinjar. Photograph: The Guardian
A historically misunderstood group, the Yazidis are predominantly ethnically Kurdish, and have kept alive their syncretic religion for centuries, despite many years of oppression and threatened extermination.
The ancient religion is rumoured to have been founded by an 11th century Ummayyad sheikh, and is derived from Zoroastrianism (an ancient Persian faith founded by a philosopher), Christianity and Islam. The religion has taken elements from each, ranging from baptism (Christianity) to circumcision (Islam) to reverence of fire as a manifestation from God (derived from Zoroastrianism) and yet remains distinctly non-Abrahamic. This derivative quality has often led the Yazidis to be referred to as a sect.
At the core of the Yazidis’ marginalization is their worship of a fallen angel, Melek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel, one of the seven angels that take primacy in their beliefs. Unlike the fall from grace of Satan, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Melek Tawwus was forgiven and returned to heaven by God. The importance of Melek Tawwus to the Yazidis has given them an undeserved reputation for being devil-worshippers – a notoriety that, in the climate of extremism gripping Iraq, has turned life-threatening.
Under Ottoman rule in the 18th and 19th centuries alone, the Yazidis were subject to 72 genocidal massacres. More recently in 2007, hundreds of Yazidis were killed as a spate of car bombs ripped through their stronghold in northern Iraq. With numbers of dead as close to 800, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent, this was one of the single deadliest events to take place during the American-led invasion.
The Yazidis had been denounced as infidels by Al-Qaida in Iraq, a predecessor of Isis, which sanctioned their indiscriminate killing.
Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi MP in Iraq, broke down in tears on Wednesday, as she called on the parliament and the international community to “Save us! Save us!” from Isis.
Researcher Cale Salih (@callysally) interviewed the Yazidis’ spiritual leader Baba Sheikh for the New York Times last month. She wrote:
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism more broadly has pushed thousands of Yazidis to seek asylum in Europe. According to some estimates, 70,000 people, or about 15% of the Yazidi population in Iraq, fled the country. For a religion that does not accept converts and strongly discourages exogamy, the assimilation of Yazidi youth in Europe threatens the faith’s continued existence. “People have gone out of fear of attacks or fear of racism. This makes it hard to protect the faith,” said Baba Sheikh. [. ]
For the past several years, Baba Sheikh, the Yazidis’ spiritual leader, tells me he has canceled the official yearly religious ceremony at Lalesh temple, the holy site of the Yazidis, out of fear of attacks.
Lalesh has reportedly been turned into a refuge for internally displaced Yazidis.
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Starting in the 11th century, these ancient beliefs took on new forms. "Some say these messages became less comprehensible in the 11th century, when a Sufi mystic sought solitude in the mountains [of northern Iraq]. He was so charismatic that all these people who followed non-Islamic religions followed him," Kreyenbroek explained. This was Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a practitioner of mystical Islam, whom the Yazidis venerate as a holy figure.
The Yazidis began "using Islamic words and concepts to refer to their ancient beliefs," Kreyenbroek said. They also practice rites like baptism in water, which may or may not be drawn from cultural encounters with early Christians. But these overlaps are largely superficial—Muslims don't consider Yazidis to be a "people of the book," or one of the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
The Yazidis also hold many beliefs that aren't found in Abrahamic religions. "They shouldn't wear the color blue," said Kreyenbroek. " Some people say they can’t eat fish, a lot of people say they can’t eat lettuce, and some people say pumpkins as well.” But most people don't follow these rules strictly, he added —they're mostly limited to priests, or perhaps more orthodox Yazidis like those who live in Sinjar.
The origins of these beliefs are unclear. “The word for lettuce, for instance, in Arabic—the Kurds don’t speak Arabic, naturally—but when they speak Arabic, they don’t differentiate sounds, and the word for cursing, which is taboo, and the word for lettuce, are very similar. I’ve always suspected that this has something to do with it,” Kreyenbroek said. Others have linked this belief to the 13th-century execution of a Yazidi saint, who was pummeled with lettuce. (It's worth noting that Kreyenbroek is one of the few scholars in the world who studies the Yazidis, but he still went out of his way to say that a lot is unknown about the faith. Even as the ancient religion faces extinction, we still don't understand it very well.)
Since Yazidis are not a "people of the book," "they [are] not protected in Islamic law," Kreyenbroek pointed out. And "they [are] thought to be devil worshipers—and there is nothing as horrible and unclean as devil worshipers."
This is why ISIS is so intent on eliminating the group—and why the international community is so concerned about a genocide against them, said Birgül Açıkyıldız Şengül, a professor at Turkey's Artuklu University who studies Yazidi art and culture. "It’s not the same as . with the Christians or the Shia Muslims," she said. The Yazidis "are not considered a religion."
That's not to say that ISIS isn't targeting Iraq's Christians and majority Shiite Muslims. Other religious minorities in northern Iraq, including the Kaka'is, a sister religion of Yazidism, and the Shabak, a cultural group that has some distinctive religious qualities, are also in the jihadist group's crosshairs. Instead of fleeing, some of these groups have chosen a different path: hiding. "Kaka'is are sometimes saying they're Shiites," Kreyenbroek said.
But the persecution of Yazidis in recent weeks has been particularly acute, and it's in keeping with the sect's long history. In fact, suffering has become an integral part of the group's self-narrative. "The Yazidis say they were persecuted 72 times in the past, but we don’t know. We don’t have sources until the 13th century," Şengül said. “The Yazidis became very strong in the 13th century … in northern Iraq to northern Mesopotamia, Turkish-tied Iran, and even Syria. At the same time Islam was becoming very strong in the region, so Muslim leaders started to persecute them.”
During the Ottoman era, the Yazidis faced pressure to convert to Islam, according to one 19th-century text. Some believe this is the origin of the symbolic number "72," representing the number of massacres committed by Ottoman caliphs. But again, as Şengül said, "we don't know."
In the 20th century, under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Yazidis faced killings and relocations because they are ethnic Kurds. "[They] were forced to take part in the war against Iran, and they were always sent to the front—they were the first to die," Kreyenbroek said.
Over time, these experiences have driven Yazidis to separate themselves from Iraq's Muslim communities. "This memory, the bad memories of being persecuted by Muslim leaders—it’s a reaction, a way of protecting themselves," Şengül said.
"They believe, as the Jewish people believe, that there’s a historic tendency to persecute them," Kreyenbroek observed.
This instinct to self-isolate may have contributed to the dire situation in Sinjar. " The Kurdish area in the Middle East is a mountainous area in general—and mountains protect people when they are attacked by outsiders," Şengül said. When faced with the threat of death at the hands of ISIS, the Yazidis fled to higher ground.
Now they're also fleeing from other areas of northern Iraq. In addition to the Sinjar region, many live around Dohuk, in Kurdistan. Şengül said her town in Turkey, Mardin, is seeing an influx of refugees, and others are heading to Syria. She's heard of at least three children who died on the Turkish border, waiting to cross from Iraq.
These forced migrations may further alter Yazidi identity. "They identify very, very strongly with the land," Kreyenbroek said. "The Valley of Lalish, that’s the heart of the Yazidi. It’s on the borderline of the Kurdish autonomous region, and [it's the location of] the sanctuaries of the various holy people, of the angels."
Here, "they’ve always felt secure. Sinjar, until recently, was talking about the possibility of establishing a Yazidi republic. I thought this was nonsense," he added, "but among the diaspora, it was quite seriously discussed."
The Yazidi population is heavily concentrated in Iraq, but there is a something of a diaspora in other countries—although it's impossible to know how big it is. Kreyenbroek spoke of communities in Germany, Turkey, and Holland roughly 200 families live in the United States, half of them in Nebraska. Recently, Yazidis in Armenia tried to establish themselves as an independent, non-Kurdish ethnic group for political reasons—Armenians are still wary of Kurdish Muslims because of memories of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians that took place during World War I.
Even so, among Yazidis, "there is a very close link with the land," said Kreyenbroek. "It's very difficult for people to give it up, to rein vent their religion without the physical presence of sanctuaries and holy wells and holy groves."
Now, "the fear is that the ISIS is so close, and the first thing they would do is to destroy this holy site," Kreyenbroek said. " W hen that goes, that’s virtually the end of this religion."
Slaves of Isis: the long walk of the Yazidi women
T he day before Isis came was a holiday in Sinjar district, northern Iraq. Yazidis gathered to celebrate the end of a fasting period. It was 2 August 2014. Harvested wheat fields stood short and stubbly under the shadowless sun. People slaughtered sheep and gathered with their relatives to celebrate the holiday, handing out sweets and exchanging news and gossip. In the past, they would have invited their Muslim neighbours to join the celebrations, but more recently a distance had grown between them, leading the villagers to keep mostly to their own.
The atmosphere was restless and the temperature peaked above 40C (104F). The top of Mount Sinjar, just north of the town of Sinjar itself, appeared to be shimmering in the heat, and the people living below mostly avoided travelling until after the sun had set, when the streets were filled with neighbours trading fearful rumours, and men patrolling with guns.
At dusk, unfamiliar vehicles started to appear. The lights of the cars could be seen moving in the desert beyond the outlying villages. A sense of foreboding grew as darkness fell. The Yazidi men took their guns and set out to check the horizon beyond the wheat fields, peering toward the villages.
On their return, they gathered in Sinjar town centre in small, tense groups. Convoys of cars, kicking up dust in the distance, had appeared two months before, just before the city of Mosul – the capital of Nineveh province, of which Sinjar is a part – fell to Islamic State (Isis). Mosul is 120km (75 miles) east of Sinjar, and its capture was quickly followed by the fall of other towns. Four divisions of the Iraqi army collapsed, including the third division, which was based around Sinjar and included many Yazidis. The area was almost completely defenceless.
When they seized Mosul, Isis freed the Sunni Muslims from the city’s Badoush prison and executed 600 Shia prisoners. The group plundered weapons and equipment from Iraqi army bases. Soldiers scattered their uniforms, and half a million civilians fled north and east. Within a week, a third of Iraq was under Isis control. Sinjar district, with a population of around 300,000, was surrounded. Only a thin strip of contested road remained, linking them to the relative safety of the Iraqi Kurdistan in the north – but the journey was dangerous.
The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq is semi-autonomous, and guarded by the peshmerga, who now had to defend the four Kurdish provinces against Isis. “Peshmerga” means “those who face death”, and the word is heavy with the historical import of the Kurdish struggle against oppression. In the south-east of the region, on the Iranian border, part of the peshmerga clashed with Isis, but near Sinjar, an uneasy stillness hung in the air like a tension headache that comes before a storm.
L eila is from a family of Yazidi farmers and shepherds. She is small with a pale, girlish face, even though she is 25, and gives off a kind, practical air. She has two younger sisters and three older brothers. As a child she worked on the family farm with her brothers, and after a spate of sheep thefts on their ranch, they decided to move closer to Kojo, a village below Mount Sinjar.
Leila’s brothers had joined the peshmerga after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. On 2 August 2014, their colleagues in nearby Siba Sheikheder came under attack from Isis and called for help. Siba Sheikheder, south of Sinjar, is the closest Yazidi town to the Syrian border, a collection of a few hundred squat buildings. By mid-morning on 3 August 2014, the peshmerga stationed in Kojo had fled. In the confusion, Leila’s family and around 100 others decided to run, but most people stayed, unsure what was going to happen to them.
Leila’s younger sister was living in Siba Sheikheder with her new husband, and phoned home to her parents that morning: “We’re running – Isis is coming,” she said. Leila and her family drove north to Sinjar, leaving her uncle at home to guard the house. Arriving in Sinjar, they realised the town was already under attack and its people were fleeing. Gathering together in a patch of scrubland outside Sinjar, they phoned her uncle. He told them the area was surrounded and Isis would not let anyone leave.
Displaced Yazidis from Sinjar fleeing Isis walk towards the Syrian border, August 2014. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters
They were trapped. Shortly after the phone call, a group of Isis fighters approached them and told them to hand over money, guns, gold and phones. Leila remembers that the leader had a red face and beard and was called “emir” (“prince”) by the others. Fighters drove her family to one of the central government offices in Sinjar, where ID cards used to be issued. What seemed like thousands of women and girls had been gathered inside the building’s offices, with men crammed together on the second floor. At around 9pm, Isis guards brought lanterns inside and began inspecting the faces of the women and girls. The women huddled together for protection, and as the men drew near to Leila, she was so scared that she fainted. This saved her from being taken away that night. Five of her female cousins were not so lucky.
The Yazidi women in Sinjar didn’t realise it yet, but the Isis fighters were carrying out a pre-planned mass abduction for the purpose of institutionalised rape. Initially they were looking for unmarried women and girls over eight.
W hen Sinjar district was attacked by Isis, more than 100,000 people fled to take refuge on Mount Sinjar. Those who couldn’t flee were rounded up. Many of the men were massacred. Thousands of Yazidis were either executed and thrown into pits, or died of dehydration, injuries or exhaustion on the mountain. So many people were missing that the enslavement of women didn’t immediately come to international attention.
According to Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, herself a Yazidi from Sinjar, an estimated 6,383 Yazidis – mostly women and children – were enslaved and transported to Isis prisons, military training camps, and the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were raped, beaten, sold, and locked away. By mid-2016, 2,590 women and children had escaped or been smuggled out of the caliphate and 3,793 remained in captivity.
The Yazidis are a majority-Kurdish-speaking religious group living mostly in northern Iraq. They number less than one million worldwide. The Yazidis, throughout their history, have been persecuted as infidels by Muslim rulers who demanded that they convert. Rather than formal ceremonies, their religious practice involves visiting sacred places. Yazidis participate in baptism and feasts, sing hymns and recite stories. Some of the stories are about historical and mythical battles fought in protection of the religion. Others, told over the centuries by generations of women, detail methods of resistance to the same threats that Yazidi women face today.
The Yazidis had already been made vulnerable by forced displacement under Saddam Hussein, economic meltdown under UN sanctions, the breakdown of the state and security after the US-led invasion of 2003, and the political failures that followed. In Iraq there are now around 500,000 Yazidis, primarily from the Sinjar region in Nineveh province in the country’s north. The Yazidis of Syria and Turkey have mostly all fled to neighbouring countries or to Europe. In Germany, their numbers are estimated at 25,000.
“Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence, too, which takes its time and finally gets its way,” Teju Cole wrote in a 2015 essay about Palestine. Around the world, a broader kind of cold violence continues. It’s the violence of indignity, of forgetting, of carelessness and of not listening. It’s there in the way politicians talk about refugees, and in the way the stateless are sometimes written about and photographed by the western media. It’s there in the fear of outsiders. It’s there in the way humans dismiss other humans as less worthy of protection or care. When cold violence and hot violence merge, we get mass killings inflicted on the most vulnerable.
Yazidis have suffered massacres and oppression for generations. But there was something different about the Isis attack that took place in the late summer of 2014. This time the media took notice.
Many of the stories about the abduction and enslavement of Yazidi women and children described them as “sex slaves” and featured graphic, sometimes lurid, accounts by newly escaped survivors. The female fighters of Kurdish militias helping to free Yazidis from Mount Sinjar became fodder for often novelty coverage. The Yazidis became the embodiment of embattled, exotic minorities set against the evil of Isis. This narrative has stereotyped Yazidi women as passive victims of mass rape at the hands of perpetrators presented as the epitome of pure evil.
It was only much later in my reporting on how some Yazidi women managed to escape and return that I became aware of how important stories of captivity and resistance were to dealing with trauma, both historically and in relation to Isis. Yazidism is a closed religion and identity, one that is passed down through generations by stories and music. These practices have been extended to dealing with the traumas of their treatment at the hands of Isis.
Many of the women and children captured in Sinjar had seen or heard their male relatives being killed by the armed Isis fighters who now surrounded them. In jails across Iraq and Syria, where the women were held, they felt a sense of “abject terror on hearing footsteps in the corridor outside and keys opening the locks”, said a report by the UN commission on Syria that designated the Isis crimes against the Yazidis as genocide. “The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror. The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.”
At first, the women and girls were taken to prearranged locations in Iraq where they were handed out to the Isis fighters who took part in the attack on Sinjar. To avoid being raped, some of the girls killed themselves by slitting their wrists or throats, or hanging themselves, or throwing themselves from buildings.
Amid the panic in the Sinjar ID office, Leila decided to pose as a mother to her small niece and nephew after she saw the other women being taken away, and correctly assumed that being unmarried was dangerous. The following day, the Yazidi men on the second floor disappeared.
Leila was transported 50km east to a school-turned-prison in Tel Afar, where the women were crowded into classrooms functioning as cells, guarded by fighters who continued to pick out beautiful girls to serve as slaves. Each time they were moved, their names and ages were noted down on a list.
In the coming weeks, some Yazidis managed to escape by walking through the night across muddy fields, keeping to the valleys to avoid Isis checkpoints and reach the peshmerga. It was in those first few days that the Yazidis could most feasibly have been rescued. The captives were held together and some still had mobile phones hidden under their clothes to call relatives back in Kurdistan and tell them exactly where they were. But with little by way of rapid international or governmental support materialising, a sense of abandonment soon grew among the families waiting for their loved ones.
“Within days of what happened to the Yazidis on the mountain, the phone calls went from ‘help us survive’ to ‘they’ve kidnapped these women and can you help us to rescue them,’” said Tom Malinowski, then the US assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour, when interviewed in February 2016 during a visit to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. “Hostage rescues are one of the most dangerous things to do, but when they [the women] were still being held in large groups this was discussed, but tragically they were then dispersed … It is still very much on our minds and something we know has to be considered.”
To date there have been no known, large-scale rescue missions to free the Yazidi captives in Iraq and Syria, by either the US, Iraqi or Kurdistan regional governments.
A ccording to Isis, it has no choice but to attack and kill disbelieving men. Flowing from this, it justifies the enslaving of their women as an act of protection, a way of replacing the men who previously looked after them. This idea is crucial to the role of slavery in Isis’s conception of how a caliphate should function.
Implicit in the goal of eliminating the Yazidi community is the idea that society would be better without them, which is common to all genocides, said former UN investigator Sareta Ashraph. The enslavement, for Isis, is meant to eventually bring the women to Islam, and is part of their ideology of conquest. “[It is] among the greatest forms of the honour of Islam and its sharia [Islamic law], as it is a clear affirmation showing the supremacy of the people of sharia, and the greatness of their affairs, and the dominance of their state, and the power of their might,” according to an Isis pamphlet on slavery.
Isis describes its own use of enslavement through a mix of clumsy metaphors about sex, war and power. Dividing up the captive women and children among the Isis mujahideen [holy warriors] and “sanctioning their genitals” is described as a sign of “realisation and dominance by the sword”.
Katherine E Brown, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Birmingham, explained that Isis mainly justifies its use of slavery through selective interpretations of the hadith, the reported accounts of the life and sayings of Muhammad and his companions: “They justify it on the basis that it is a reward for carrying out services for the community – slaves are presented as compensation for fighters. However, they chose particular ways of seeing these hadith, and selectively choose them so as to ignore, for example, the requirement not to kill your prisoners by focusing on the requirement to make sure they ‘don’t escape’ by being ‘secured at the neck’ until negotiations have taken place.”
A Yazidi woman in the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk, May 2015. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
The promise of sexual slavery is used as a sweetener when recruiting disaffected young men to Isis. At the same time, media stories about sex and violence involving non-Muslim women being enslaved by Muslim men feed stereotypes about Muslim men that create divisions that Isis can then exploit.
“Slavery serves to increase the Isis community because Yazidi women will give birth and the children will be brought up among its fighters,” writes the author of the Isis pamphlet.
The same document calls on fighters to treat their slaves well, citing words from the Qur’an calling for them to be good to “those whom your right hand possess” – a euphemism for a female captive – and cites Islamic texts with instructions not to hit the slave’s face, and to emancipate the slave who becomes a believer, for which the master will be rewarded by God.
But, as with other strictures, there is a gap between Isis proclamations and an abusive, often violent reality. Isis used gang rape as punishment for women and girls who tried to escape to further degrade and control them physically and psychologically. Despite this, many of the women continued to fight back against their captors, risking punishment and death in pursuit of freedom.
After the women were captured, they didn’t immediately become slaves to the fighters, but were held for a period while their details were recorded. The process was systematised. Women were then sold in markets, either electronically over a mobile phone messenger app where their photos and slave numbers were exchanged, or in market halls and prisons at prearranged times.
Away from the main markets, women and girls, supplied by fighters or Isis members who acted as middlemen, were sold by local brokers in smaller numbers. At the beginning, they were given mainly to Iraqi fighters who took part in the battle for Sinjar. Subsequently, the remaining captives were taken to Syria, and sold there, often to fighters who had arrived from around the world.
In late 2014, a group of young, bearded men sat on long sofas lining the walls of a living room somewhere in the caliphate, wearing ammunition-packed vests. They joked with one another. “Today is distribution day, God willing,” said one of the men, as he flashed a grin at his companions. “You can sell your slave, or give her as a gift … You can do whatever you want with your share,” said another fighter in view of the cameraman who was recording the exchange. The men didn’t seem to notice and continued discussing buying women for “three banknotes or a pistol”.
B y the summer of 2013, Raqqa, 370km west of Mosul in northern Syria, became Isis’s de facto capital, and supporters from all over the world flocked there to join the group. It was also the destination for other women from Sinjar.
“When we got to the farm [near Raqqa], we saw four or five buses full of Isis members with long hair and beards,” said Zahra, a farmer’s daughter from Kojo. “They were like animals. On the first day they came among us and started picking girls for themselves. Two or three of them would catch the girls, blindfold them and take them by force into a car. The girls were crying and shouting but they didn’t care.”
From the second floor of the building, the girls could see the Euphrates river, but they were hidden from view by the surrounding trees and fences.
“We were just like sheep, when the shepherd goes toward them and the sheep disperse that’s how we were, running away from them,” said Zahra. She fled when the men came, but she was blocked by a fence at the edge of the farm. On the first day the men took 20-40 girls. Food was delivered from a local restaurant for those who remained, but they were too scared to eat. They covered their faces with ash to try and look unattractive in the hope that they wouldn’t be picked.
After two days, Zahra and her sister were taken to an underground Isis prison in Raqqa. Hundreds of women were crammed into three rooms in what was just one of several similar structures that were used for holding women in Raqqa. The girls arrived at night and weren’t allowed to see the outside of the building – a tactic similar to that used by the Syrian government in its jails, said Sareta Ashraph.
A Yazidi woman abducted by Isis is carried to safety near Mount Sinjar. Photograph: Channel 4
Inside the prison, the women had to share a few filthy, overflowing toilets, forcing them to stand in raw sewage. Their bodies were crawling with sand flies. The only light came from two solar-powered lamps hanging from the ceiling, one prisoner recalled. Each morning the guards would give them a small piece of bread and cheese to share between two, and in the evening some rice and soup.
Some women sat on bags or clothes to try and avoid touching the filthy ground. Children cried constantly with hunger. The women waited under the constant fear of rape or death. “They were always beating us and we had diarrhea because of the fear,” said a woman I shall call Khulka, who is 30 years old and comes from the town of Tel Qasab. She had arrived at the prison with her four children, inside a refrigerator truck normally used for ice-cream. “We didn’t have a shower for one month and we always had lice in our hair. After two months they took us outside, but we couldn’t stand because we hadn’t seen the sun for so long,” she said.
While in the jail, Khulka tattooed herself with the names of her husband and father, so that her body could be recognised and returned to them if she was killed. She mixed breast milk from a lactating woman with ash, and used a needle she had smuggled into the jail. With the same needle and some thread, she began embroidering her underwear with the names and numbers listed in her phone in case Isis found it and took it away. Khulka had been to school, and unlike many of the women there, she knew how to read and write. She also sewed other women’s clothes with their loved ones’ names and numbers so that they would not be forgotten.
Historically, Yazidis associated formal education with repressive state authorities, the suppression of their language, and the threat of religious conversion. In the years before 2014, literacy rates had been improving in Sinjar, but many women and girls worked in the fields to support their families while their brothers went to school. Illiteracy made it harder for women to escape after they were taken into captivity, because they couldn’t read the signs on unfamiliar buildings in Isis-held towns and cities.
Khulka was taken to a side room in the prison with her children and photographed by the Isis guards who gave her the slave number 16, which was then printed above her photo. There were around 500 women in the jail, she recalls, and all of them had to pose with their children and were given slave numbers. Before the picture was taken, she cut her daughter’s hair to make her look like a boy and stop them being separated. If the guards recognised her daughter as a young girl, there was more chance she’d be taken. The other imprisoned women envied Khulka’s grey hair, thinking it might save her from being seized. They tried to imitate it using ash.
“Some of these women and girls resisted forced conversion, protected themselves against violence, or at least tried to, and protected their children. How they resisted really shows incredible intelligence, courage and strength,” said human rights lawyer and gender justice advocate Sherizaan Minwalla.
Yazidi women who fled what is now Turkey during the first world war and the chaos that followed passed down stories that are repeated among Sinjaris today. Among them are accounts of how they did as Khulka was now doing: covering their daughters’ faces with ash and cutting their hair.
In the same prison, Zahra and her sisters were put together into small rooms. They heard screaming and crying as Isis guards came in the middle of the night to drag away the girls. The guards came for Zahra’s middle sister first. When Zahra pleaded with them not to take them separately, one of the guards whipped her with a cable.
After her sister was taken from the cell, the door opened again. This time Zahra was grabbed by two large men and shoved into a car. “I won’t go until you give me my sister!” she cried out. The men drove her to a house in Raqqa belonging to an Isis member who kept her as his slave, then sold her on after four months to another Isis fighter. He found her disobedient and sold her on straight away to a fighter of only 18, who lived at a compound for Libyan fighters near Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria.
Many Yazidi girls were by being held in the same compound of 100 to 200 caravans where the Libyan fighters lived. The women and girls were chained, beaten, raped and passed around like animals between the men. At the edge of the compound, a barbed-wire fence prevented them from escaping. The stories of privation and torture suffered by Yezidi women in this compound are some of the worst in a long catalogue of abuses.
A fter a little more than a month at the farm, Leila and three other girls from Kojo were taken back to Iraq and kept in a military base near the Iraq–Syria border, more than 200km south of Sinjar in Anbar province. The military base was in Al-Qa’im, a border crossing between Iraq and Syria, but by that time, under the caliphate, it was merely a pitstop between Isis-held stretches of desert. It was also a common crossing point for slaves passing between markets in Isis towns and cities. Leila was sold to a man called Muhammad, who looked familiar to her. Then she remembered who he was: his family were like godparents to her family.
When Leila recognised Muhammad, she was relieved: she thought he would rescue her, and maybe sell her back to her family. Instead, he sold her on. Three days later, Leila was taken to a military base near Ramadi and sold to an Isis military commander. Later, after she had escaped and was in Baghdad, someone asked her what she would do if she saw Muhammad again. “I would burn him alive,” she said.
The Isis commander who bought Leila in Ramadi was a notorious sadist known as Shakir Wahib, who had been terribly wounded in fighting, and was now trafficking women for sex and organising gang rapes. When one woman arrived in early 2016, having held on to a mobile phone, Leila managed to call her brother in Kurdistan and told him he needed to send someone to rescue her before the woman was moved on, and her phone with her. For two days, calls went back and forth between Leila and a smuggler called Abdullah, who eventually helped her to escape. Abdullah used to work in Aleppo and had a wide network of business contacts in Syria and Iraq. He had become a smuggler after 50 members of his family were kidnapped by Isis.
Most of the smugglers working to rescue Yazidi women are Yazidi businessmen. Some of the women are bought back from the Isis fighters holding them, or from the slave markets or online auctions. The cost of smuggling is reflective of the danger involved. It’s not clear how much of the cash ends up with Isis, and how much goes to middlemen or the smugglers.
This black market thrives because families are left with no other options. The war against Isis continues to win back territory from the militants, but Yazidis told me that they would prefer the focus to be on saving their captive women and children, rather than winning back terrain.
Yazidis displaced by Isis in a camp near Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, January 2015. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
After reaching Baghdad, Leila and her niece travelled north by plane to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, and then by road to the camps where many Yazidis from Sinjar had taken refuge, and where their families were waiting. When Leila arrived, she collapsed sobbing into the arms of her female relatives. She was in such a state of shock that, for the first few weeks, she had trouble understanding what her family were saying when they tried to talk to her.
“Sometimes I watch the TV and I see the news of the army taking more land and villages, but it’s not this that we are worried about – it is our people who are still imprisoned,” Leila said. “We know most of them are in Raqqa, so why are [the army] not going to save them there?”
The failures have been broad and deep. Earlier this month, Iraqi forces, backed by coalition air cover, declared victory over Isis in Mosul. But for many, the price of that victory was high: civilians were killed by Isis as they tried to flee, as well as being bombarded by Iraqi forces and the coalition. In March 2017 a US airstrike on a house where families were sheltering in western Mosul killed more than 100 civilians.
Attention has now moved from Iraq to the presence of Isis in Syria, and the battle for Raqqa. As Iraq’s politicians and their military patrons prepare to congratulate themselves, the Yazidi community looks on from displacement camps, rented homes or forced asylum overseas. Almost two years after it was cleared of Isis by Kurdish forces, Sinjar town remains in ruins. A new wave of fighting for Sinjar district is under way, with Turkey eyeing a violent incursion after bombing the area in April. The idea that this represents “liberation” is seen by Yazidis as a bad joke. The UN and others have tried to recognise and document the genocide, but justice looks a long way off. Meanwhile, the battle for survival of the women and girls who were taken by Isis continues long after their return.
Sinjar was recaptured from Isis by Kurdish forces, led by the peshmerga, in November 2015. Since then the peshmerga and other Kurdish armed groups have been in a hostile standoff with each other, with rival groups providing arms, training and patronage to local Yazidis. Brightly coloured flags of the various groups flutter above their respective checkpoints, which are sometimes only metres apart along roads that were recently controlled by Isis.
Yazidis now fear renewed attacks not just from Isis, but also from their Kurdish liberators. Yazidis themselves are not politically homogenous, and many distrust the rival Kurdish groups. By May 2016, despite the liberation, only 3,220 families had returned to Sinjar district.
While the infighting goes on, Isis stands only to gain. Yazidis are stuck in a complex series of client-patron relationships with Kurdish leaders, in which ethnic identification is used in exchange for promises of safety. Meanwhile, the Yazidis remain unable to define their future, militarily or politically. While military clashes continue, any political settlement to the rivalry between liberating forces looks a long way off.
Main photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters
This is an edited extract from With Ash On Their Faces: Yazidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten, which will be published by Or Books in October.
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The Plight of the Yazidis and their Hope for the Future
Yazidi refugees seeking refuge in the Sinjar Mountains as they fled ISIS in the summer of 2014. (Photo: en.qantara.de)
Two years ago, I went to Kurdistan and the Nineveh region in northern Iraq to visit the persecuted Christians. Driving through the war torn areas with a Catholic priest, I noticed some buildings with conical spires, something I had never seen before. I asked my confrere about them and he told me it was a Yazidi place of worship. Not knowing much about Yazidis, I came to the grappling truth that they too suffered the worst of atrocities under the ISIS onslaught.
Yazidis, an ancient religious minority, number anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000. Most of them are found in the Nineveh and Dohuk provinces with large communities in Sinjar and Shekhan, where a number of their holy sites are located. Like Christians, they too underwent brutal torments by the so-called Islamic State, yet their stories hardly get the necessary coverage in the West.
Genocide of Yazidis by ISIS
At the height of ISIS’ rampage through Iraq in the summer of 2014, over 5,000 Yazidis were massacred. Yazidi children were forcibly converted to Islam and taught Arabic, banned from speaking their native Kurdish. Thousands of Yazidi boys were starved, tortured and forced to fight for ISIS. Many former child soldiers today live with missing arms or legs.
As many as 10,000 women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State. Of notable mention, is the account of Layla Talu, who had been betrayed by her neighbors as they told the Islamic jihadists where she had fled with her family.
At 7 am on the morning of August 3, 2014, Layla, her husband, Marwan Khalil, and their two children, who were aged four and 18 months, left their home. Like tens of thousands of other Yazidis, they hoped to take shelter on Mount Sinjar, but were captured.
Layla hopes that by sharing her story, she can help other women in a similar position. (Photo: Salah Hassan Baban/Al Jazeer)
After her husband was separated from her, Layla and her children were transported with others to Baaj district, southwest of Mosul, where they were held for four days. From there, they moved to Tal Afar, where they were detained in a school before being transferred again a week later to Badush prison. When the prison was bombed by coalition aircraft, they were sent back to Tal Afar.
Layla says that the women and children were beaten, insulted, threatened and starved. Then, after eight months of this, when many were exhausted by illness, they were transferred to the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’ stronghold. She was continually moved from one place to another, raped and whipped by both Iraqi and Saudi Muslims faithful to the Islamic State.
Roshi Qasimas in her home. (Photo: skynewsarab.com)
Stories like these bring back to mind the Islamic jihad carried out by the Ottoman Turks to an Iraqi woman who vividly remembers them. Born on July 1, 1887, Roshi Qasimas,—oldest person alive according to the Guinness Book of world records—as her family says, she witnessed the Islamic “holy war” carried out during the Ottoman era. As early as 1890, the Ottomans set them an ultimatum to convert to Islam, when they refused, their homelands in Sinjar and Shekhan were occupied and the inhabitants massacred. Roshi witnessed 7 massacres committed by the Turks against her community, as the Ottomans killed thousands of Yazidis, though for her, the one carried out by ISIS is the most terrible.
ISIS Ousted but the Struggle Continues
While the threat of ISIS has been contained, like so many Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities, the Yazidis’ troubles are not over.
As personally told to me by a young Yazidi student, Basma Alali, who studies English at the Catholic University of Erbil (CUE)—founded in December 2015 by Archbishop Bashar Warda, of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil—the Kurdish ruling party is “secular and does not tolerate Islamic extremism which in turn has brought some stability in Kurdistan whereby all religions and ethnicities can live together. On the other hand, Arabs Islamists still see Yazidis as infidels, even some official members of the Iraqi government see us as infidels. Some of the ruling parties in the Iraqi government are Islamic extremists and they neglect Yazidis on a continuous basis.”
“Unlike the Christian minority,” Basma says, “who may have support from the outside world because of shared beliefs and religion, we as Yazidis have little to no support, except for humanitarian help by NGOs and some governments. Therefore, rebuilding our lives has been very challenging, not only for my family but more for all Yazidis.”
Fortunately, the Kurdish people tend to welcoming of the Yazidis, making them feel safe. There is also the aforementioned Catholic University of Erbil, providing young Yazidis (and those of other faiths) opportunities they would not find elsewhere in the country.
CUE students at an orientation session. (Photo: cue.edu.krd)
As recounted by another Yazidi, Safwan, who studies Computer Science at CUE, the university offers scholarships to Yazidi students “who have no possibilities to study at the universities of Mosul and Dohuk.”
For him, CUE has become his “family” because, as he recounts, “before I came to CUE, I had no idea who I was and what my life meant, but eventually I realized it with CUE.”
Yet students such as Basma and Safwan are just a handful of the fortunate ones.
Despite being within a minority among Iraqis, Yazidis are an integral part of the inclusive system of direct, local democracy with which the autonomous administration in Kurdistan is enfranchising Kurdish, Arabic, Yazidi, Syriac and Turkman people alike all seeking to be seen as equals within the reconstruction of infrastructure and civil society. It is this which marks the Yazidis out for attack once again.
As Patrick Cockburn has reported, when ISIS fighters were re-armed under the Turkish flag for the invasion of Afrin in 2018, they immediately targeted Yazidi villages in a campaign of forced conversions, cultural genocide and the destruction of sacred shrines and temples. Further and systematic persecution of Yazidis.
There is great hope, however, for the Yazidi community in Iraq, though much still has to be done. Basma states:
“I think it is important that Yazidis build a bridge with other communities, especially, the International community to gain support to improve their status. But more crucially, we as Yazidis have to be dependent and rely on ourselves which will require us to develop further and reach positions of authority and power where we can provide help and support to the community to prosper.”
These are tasks, that some Yazidis, such as Safwan, have undertaken. Having the opportunity to develop “a strong background on computers,” Safwan says, “I’m working hard to use my skills to help my community and my country.”
Youngsters like these offer much hope for their brethren and fellow Iraqis, but they cannot do it alone, neither can institutions like the Catholic University of Erbil.Almost 200,000 Yazidis are still living in displacement camps in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. Pictured here is Bajed Kandala in 2019.
(Photo: Andrea DiCenzo for NPR)
It has been six years since ISIS launched a genocide against the Yazidi people. Although ISIS was altogether driven out in 2016, nearly 200,000 Yazidis still live in displacement camps in the Kurdistan region. In a July report, Amnesty International warned that nearly 2,000 Yazidi children who were subjected to horrendous human rights abuses at the hands of ISIS were not getting the help they need to deal with lasting physical and mental trauma. Like the persecuted Christians and other religious minorities at the hands of Muslim jihadists, Yazidis have barely received significant attention by the international community, thereby making their burdens heavier.
Let us pray and hope that the stories of those like Layla, one of many, are not in vain. And that those, like Basma and Safwan, who have taken it upon themselves to pursue a higher level education will not only motivate others to do likewise, but will ultimately encourage others to come to the aid of a people that desperately need help.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.
Book available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or WestBow Press.
Displaced Yazidi children who fled Sinjar pose for photographer at a refugee camp on the outskirt of Duhok province. Reuters
Mirza Haj Mirza Qirani, chieftain of one of the Sinjar tribes, remembers the night Islamic State invaded on August 3, 2014. At about 2:20am, he received word that the jihadists had advanced and were attacking his village. Men immediately went out to fight, but had only light weapons – they were almost defenceless against ISIS' sophisticated weaponry. The battle continued for about five hours, when it became apparent that the only option was to flee. Militants captured and slaughtered around 350 of the villagers, while the rest – Qirani among them – were able to escape. He recalls the tens of thousands of people he saw on foot on their way to Sinjar mountain. The elderly, the disabled and children struggling to keep up, but having no choice but to push on.
Qirani was part of the most senior delegation of Yazidi religious leaders ever to visit the UK last week. Speaking at the Amar Foundation offices in Westminster, they told Christian Today that it's time for the world to wake up to the plight of their people.
Qirani's story is one of hundreds of thousands of similar testimonies. Harrowing scenes unfolded in Northern Iraq two years ago as Sinjar town and its surrounding villages were overrun, hundreds of civilians were slaughtered and more than 400,000 forced to flee. Some 5,000 were taken captive, 3,000 of whom remain hostage, and disturbing accounts of their treatment at the hands of militants have emerged from those who have since been smuggled out or managed to escape. Women and children have been brutally raped and abused bartered and sold among jihadists for as little as a packet of cigarettes. Men were rounded up and killed. Mass graves have been found, as well as underground dungeons where women were kept as sex slaves.
Kurdish forces discovered more than six mass graves in Sinjar after recapturing the Iraqi town from Islamic State last year. Reuters
In the weeks following the insurgency, the world watched in horror as 40,000 members of religious minority groups were stranded on the Sinjar mountainside without food, water or sanitation. Some were Christians and Shia Muslims, but the majority were followers of Yazidism – an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, which blends ancient religious traditions with both Christianity and Islam. Yazidis, native to the northern Mesopotamian region where they have worshipped for millennia, have been targeted relentlessly by ISIS, who consider them to be "devil-worshippers".
Food and water drops were made by international agencies, but at least 300 people, most of them children, perished in the blistering temperatures. And two years on, the Yazidi community remains vulnerable to ISIS' advance. There were once more than 600,000 Yazidis in Northern Iraq, but there are now believed to be fewer than half that number. Thousands have been killed, and many more are forced to live hand-to-mouth in Iraqi refugee camps, or have fled further afield to Europe.
The European Parliament and the US administration has declared ISIS' atrocities against Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East to be genocide. The UK has failed to follow suit, though MPs voted unanimously in favour of the label in the House of Commons last month. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he hopes that the word 'genocide' will be used, but maintains that it is a matter for the International Criminal Court.
This isn't the first time the Yazidi community has been persecuted – staggeringly, they say this is the 74th time they have been the target of genocide. But despite a troubled history, none believed they could suffer to the extent they have under ISIS.
"We are a peaceful religion. We have no intention to take power, and we would prefer to be killed than converted," Qirani said, speaking through an interpreter. "The attack by ISIS was unexpected, unpredictable, and we thought that if such a thing would happen, there are foreign forces – the United States and the UK – who would intervene directly and stop such atrocities. But they came too late."
The religious council insisted that forgiveness is the only way forward for Iraq. Amar Foundation
The delegation insisted they were thankful for the eventual intervention of Western forces, however. Without the US-led coalition air strikes, they said, the entire Yazidi and Christian community in Iraq may have been wiped out. But they called for stronger action: "We thank God that finally the air strikes came. Not only for Yazidis, but for Christians the same. Their [ISIS'] plan was to eliminate all minorities. It's time for this evil to be eliminated and stopped in its place."
Revenge, though, remarkably isn't on their radar. In the aftermath of the Sinjar massacre, there were some reports of Yazidis extracting revenge on local Arab villages, but the senior religious leaders insisted that reconciliation is the only way forward for Iraq.
"We must learn from each other how to forgive, and remove the darkness which is prevailing on this earth," Farooq Khalil Basheer, a member of the Yazidian religious council, said. "We must accept each other, and forgive, like brothers. That's the most important thing – how to live peacefully with each other."
There was some discussion, and disagreement, about whether this was possible, given the scale of the atrocities against Yazidis, Christians and others. "This is our dream, but it's not possible. Not possible," Jameel Sulaiman Haider, an advisor to the religious council, said.
"God is there to punish the evil deeds of human beings," Basheer added, but he emphasised the importance of forgiveness. Without it, he suggested, there is no hope for Iraq's future.
Part of the reason the delegation were in London, supported by the Amar Foundation, was because the Yazidi leaders want to urge the international community to create a "marshal plan" for when ISIS is eventually defeated. The council has already begun to make changes in its own community. Reports surfaced last year that claimed women and girls taken captive and used as sex slaves by ISIS militants were having secret abortions and vaginal surgery to avoid being ostracised by their own communities when they escaped and returned home. Yazidi leaders therefore issued an official law which said women who had been raped and abused by ISIS must be welcomed back without fear of discrimination.
"They were raped, enslaved, assauted. Why should we treat them like them [ISIS]?" Basheer said.
"They are members of our community and we respect them. nobody is an outsider."
"We want the UK to acknowledge these attacks as genocide against the Yazidis, but [also] to move beyond that border," added Dr Mamou Othman, a former Iraqi minister and now director of the European Studies Centre at the University of Dohuk. "When ISIS is defeated, and Iraq is liberated, how do we let people go back? And more than that, how to give them a feeling of security that they can continue living there. We don't want our people to leave the country."
The delegation were adamant that it be made possible for Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East to live there in peace without fear of persecution. Yazidism, Basheer explained, holds connection with the land highly. It is therefore vital that Yazidis remain living in their Mesopotamian homeland. "We are hoping that the UK government will be involved more and try to do more for the indigenous of Mesopotamia to let them continue their lives and practise their festivals, their rituals, their religions, because we are connected with the land," Basheer said.
"Our shrines are there, our festivals, our rights and rituals, everything. If we go abroad, we are afraid they will be lost.
"It's just like a tree without roots, it will die."
The religious council were in the UK supported by the AMAR International Charitable Foundation. For more information on their latest appeal on behalf of persecuted communitues in Iraq, click here.
She escaped Islamic State captivity. Now, Nadia Murad is giving a voice to persecuted Yazidis
Yazidi activist Nadia Murad has written a new memoir called The Last Girl.
This article was published more than 3 years ago. Some information in it may no longer be current.
It's time for Nadia Murad to figure out what comes next.
Ms. Murad, 24, is the United Nations' first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. She's also a survivor herself: In 2014, she was kidnapped during an Islamic State attack on Sinjar, the northern Iraq region that is the ancestral home of her people, the Yazidis.
The Yazidi faith combines elements of the Abrahamic religions and Zoroastrianism, and has long made them targets – they count themselves the victims of 74 genocidal attacks over the last eight centuries. This last one obliterated the community: of the 400,000 Yazidis estimated to live in the area at the time, only about 1,000 families remain.
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Some refugees have been placed internationally, including about 800 in Canada, but most survivors now live hand-to-mouth in camps. That's still a better fate than that met by those murdered and dumped in mass graves, the thousands still missing, or the boys raised to be child soldiers. Ms. Murad was one of thousands of Yazidi women and girls sold as "sabaya," or sex slaves.
In a new memoir, The Last Girl, Ms. Murad recounts enduring sickening humiliation and violence before escaping out of an open window and sneaking into Kurdish-held territory with the help of a poor Sunni Muslim family. These are horrors she has been reliving continually since they first happened as she has travelled the world trying to convince politicians, diplomats and regular people to help the Yazidis.
"This book, that can be a conclusion for telling her story in detail," said Abid Shamdeen, Ms. Murad's translator, during a phone call from New York. "She's thought about taking a little break after this and just slowing down from this work."
Her book comes out this week, just as the IS caliphate appears to be defeated in most of Iraq and Syria. Even so, to consider a life beyond relentless advocacy is a turning point for Ms. Murad. She writes that her drive came both out of a desire to see justice for her people and a sense of hopelessness after shattering loss. Six of her brothers and her mother were murdered. A niece was killed by an IED while trying to escape.
Family members are still unaccounted for and one of Ms. Murad's nephews has been brainwashed into becoming an IS soldier himself. "He said he was happy where he was," Ms. Murad said about the last time he called the family. Unable to imagine happiness again for herself, she became an unceasing advocate for her people's survival.
Her work has had results. Last spring, she testified at the United Nations and in September, the Security Council directed its investigators to collect evidence about crimes against the Yazidi perpetrated by IS, in order to build a case for genocide and war crimes.
But human-rights awards (she has been given the Vaclav Havel and Sakharov prizes, and was nominated for a Nobel) are small recognition of just how brave it was for Ms. Murad to tell her story. Centuries of persecution have made the Yazidis insular. They are a rural, modest people who don't accept converts and consider premarital sex a great shame.