The genocidal Islamic State almost wiped out the Yazidis. They are still suffering

In January, a ceremony was held in Baghdad for 41 Yazidi victims slaughtered in the Iraqi villages of Hardan, Kocho, and Qney during an Islamic State (IS) massacre in 2014, which some countries have recognized as a genocide. So far, 60 mass graves have been opened and 20 have yet to be examined.

Neither ISIS nor Al-Qaeda have been prominent in recent headlines, since they were largely defeated by an international coalition. However, both still exist, and following the recent Hamas attack on Israel, they have urged their followers to target Jews. This resurgence of old adversaries comes amid a rising threat of violence and human rights abuses against ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East.

The Yazidis briefly captured global attention during the 2014 ISIS massacre, but they have since been largely overlooked. Nevertheless, the Yazidis continue to endure suffering. Currently, they face two significant challenges. They are seeking international recognition of the 2014 Yazidi genocide at the hands of ISIS and coping with ongoing persecution and attacks as they strive to reclaim and rebuild their homeland in Sinjar, also known as Shingal, in northwestern Iraq. Despite the immense cultural and historical significance of this region to the Yazidi community, they were forcibly displaced following the atrocities committed during the massacre.

The Yazidis, an endogamous religious minority speaking Kurdish, hail from the Kurdistan region in Western Asia, with an estimated population ranging from 200,000 to 1,000,000. Their community features a well-organized structure, led by a chief sheikh as the supreme religious authority and an emir, or prince, as the secular leader. Found primarily in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia, they follow Yazidism, an ancient monotheistic faith blending elements of pre-Islamic Iranian traditions, Sufism, and Christianity, with roots tracing back to the Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq.

Yazidis reside in tight-knit communities and adhere to a belief in reincarnation. Their religious values prioritize spiritual purity, resulting in the observance of various taboos regulating daily life, such as restrictions on certain foods and the avoidance of wearing blue clothing. Interaction with outsiders is discouraged, historically leading Yazidis to abstain from military service and formal education. Additionally, Yazidi society maintains a strict caste system. Throughout history, they have faced persecution from Muslim neighbors who refused to accept their cultural and religious practices.

In his book Do this for Love, Free Burma Rangers in the Battle of Mosul, David Eubanks, founder of the Free Burma Rangers—a faith-based humanitarian group operating in conflict zones worldwide—explains that ISIS viewed Yazidis as worshippers of Satan and targeted them for elimination.

In 2014, ISIS launched a brutal assault on the Yazidi community in northern Iraq, particularly targeting the region of Sinjar. The attack began in August, leading to widespread atrocities including sexual violence, forced conversions to Islam, and other forms of persecution. Women and girls were especially targeted for abduction and sexual slavery, enduring unimaginable suffering at the hands of ISIS militants.

During the massacre, men and elderly women were ruthlessly slaughtered, while boys were forcibly conscripted into training camps. Girls faced the appalling fate of being traded as brides or enslaved. According to Yazda, a global Yazidi human rights organization, the first day of ISIS attacks in Sinjar resulted in the murder of 1,268 Yazidis. Additionally, 2,763 children became orphans, 6,417 women and girls were forced into sexual slavery and labor, and 400,000 people were displaced, forced to live in camps in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Eubanks highlighted that prior to the attack, the Yazidis were a peaceful group without a militia. They foresaw the impending threat from ISIS and requested permission from the government to arm themselves, but their plea was denied. As a result, they were defenseless when ISIS invaded their villages. In 2015, during operations with the Yazidis to rescue civilians trapped by ISIS, Mr. Eubanks praised their bravery. The Yazidis had established their own militia and collaborated with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga forces in Iraq. The United States military also aided their rescue efforts by airdropping supplies to Yazidi civilians stranded on mountaintops while coalition forces targeted ISIS.

Despite surviving the massacre and arming themselves, the Yazidis continue to endure suffering even a decade after the genocide. In 2022, Syrian fighters backed by the US raided an ISIS camp, liberating two Yazidi girls who had been taken as sex slaves from Iraq years earlier. Then, in February 2024, US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria rescued a Yazidi woman who had been held captive by the Islamic State (IS) for a decade. She had been abducted at the age of 14 during the 2014 massacre.

One of the most egregious instances of abuse involved an EU citizen. In 2023, a German court reviewed the sentencingof a German woman convicted for her involvement in the death of a 5-year-old Yazidi girl. The child had been enslaved by the woman and her husband while they were members of ISIS in Iraq. Originally sentenced to ten years, the woman, publicly known as Jennifer W. due to German privacy laws, now faces the possibility of life imprisonment. Prosecutors allege she callously watched as her husband chained the young Yazidi girl in a courtyard, resulting in her death from dehydration.

 

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In August 2023, the United Kingdom joined the UN, US, and EU in formally acknowledging the 2014 genocide against the Yazidis. A statement from the British government emphasized, “The UK’s position has always been that determinations of genocide should be made by competent courts, rather than by governments or non-judicial bodies.” Previously, the foreign ministry had refrained from acknowledging the genocide, adhering to a policy of deferring to court determinations. This underscores the significance of establishing a clear definition of genocide.

According to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention) is an international legal instrument that defines the crime of genocide. Article II of the Convention defines genocide as "a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, in whole or in part."

The UN Convention excludes "cultural genocide." Thus, for the Yazidis to be recognized as victims of genocide, they must be a distinct ethnic, racial, or religious group, a status they fulfill as one of the oldest ethnic and religious communities indigenous to the Middle East. With their small population, approximately half were killed, enslaved, or displaced during the 2014 IS attack. The 2014 ISIS attack against the Yazidis clearly qualifies as genocide.

Yazidi human rights continue to be violated, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Despite the waning threat of ISIS, insecurity persists in Iraq due to armed groups and political instability. Reconstruction efforts in Sinjar are slow, with basic services such as education and security lacking. Although the Iraqi government has offered to build houses to incentivize Yazidis to return, construction progress has been sluggish, leaving many displaced individuals with nothing to return to. Moreover, many Yazidis suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and require psychological therapy, while those residing in internally displaced persons' camps in Kurdistan struggle to access necessary suppliesand support.

In Syria, Yazidis, especially those in camps or areas under the control of various armed groups, face similar challenges to their counterparts in Iraq, including restrictions on movement and limited humanitarian aid access. Additionally, Iraqi camps are slated to close on July 30, further exacerbating the situation. Meanwhile, Germany has been deporting Yazidis to Iraq despite their objections and fears regarding their return.


Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: demonstration in favour of the Yazidi people in front of the American White House in 2014 / Wikimedia Commons 


 

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