United Nations – Nayyef Abdo stood with a group of Yazidi protesters outside the UN’s headquarters last week, ensuring every few minutes the group of 75 – consisting of families who had traveled from Nebraska, Michigan and Buffalo – were offered water as the summer sun blazed down.
A former US Army translator, the 27-year-old with a cigarette in hand exhaled with a tired sigh. “Do you know how it feels to talk to a hostage who is being held in jail by the ISIS?” he asked.
The jail he referenced used to be a school in northwestern Iraq, about 45km from Mosul. Located in Tal Afar, it is now maintained by Islamic State fighters to hold religious minorities such as the Yazidis.
The sister of a friend smuggled a mobile phone into the jail, and a prisoner called Abdo to describe the horrors within.
“She said that 300 Yazidi men were beheaded in front of their families by the IS in a span of a minute because of their refusal to adhere to the IS’ religious beliefs and ideologies,” Abdo told Al Jazeera. “The children are young, it is easy to influence them. We fear that they will become part of the IS.”
Hoards of women and children were loaded onto trucks and transported to Mosul, he said, where they were gang-raped and sold as jihadi brides for as little as $10.
The acts of murder, violence, forced conversion and sexual slavery are crimes against humanity, Abdo said.
“Forget the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, it’s the responsibility of the entire world to stop this persecution, especially against a community whose population is only 600,000. Can you imagine we are experiencing a genocide in 2014?”
Forget the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, it's the responsibility of the entire world to stop this persecution, especially against a community whose population is only 600,000.
Trapped in Iraq
Abdo and the American Yazidi have been pleading for humanitarian aid and justice for relatives and friends trapped in Iraq. During the protest, Mirza Ismail, chairman of the Yazidi Human Rights Organisation, met with officials inside the UN building to urge the international community to recognise its duties and call for intervention.
Among Iraq‘s ethnically diverse inhabitants, the Yazidi are an ethno-religious minority concentrated around the town of Sinjar, in northwest Nineveh province. The Yazidi religion itself draws on elements from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. The group, which is ethnically Kurdish, has maintained a historical presence within the region, but often is derided and accused of being heretical devil worshippers, an accusation stemming from their reverance of Malak Tawous, a peacock angel, who the rest of the Muslim world refers to as “Shaytan” or the devil.
Their distinct religious affiliation and belief system, orally transmitted from generation-to-generation is considered offensive by the majority Sunni population in Iraq. Consequently, the Yazidi have been singled out by Sunni groups and have faced a long history of persecution in the Middle East. As a result, the community retreated from the centre of the country and chose the periphery of the Sinjar mountains to reside in, where their sacred village of Lalish is situated.
“They face double persecution – for not being Arab or Sunni Muslim – and occupy the lowest rank in the socio-economic hierarchy of the region,” explained Sebastian Maisel, a professor at Grand Valley State University.
The Yazidi do not belong to what the Islamic State considers to be “people of the book” – or religious minorities protected under Islamic law), said Maisel. Therefore, they are unprotected and open to attacks, kidnappings, rape and killings.
In early August, Islamic State fighters seized Sinjar, forcing a mass exodus of thousands of Yazidis to the neighbouring mountains in fear for their lives.
The Yazidi were stranded; if they attempted to flee the mountain they risked execution, and if they remained they faced starvation and dehydration. The world was being informed in real time of the tragedy as it unfolded. The United States air-dropped food and water as part of a humanitarian relief operation to help Yazidi civilians. While some reports claim the crisis on Mount Sinjar had been averted, American Yazidis have differing accounts.
“My family in Erbil is currently housing 50 Yazidi who escaped from the mountain, and they know of families with eight to nine children who have just one bottle of water,” said Shaemaa Darbo, 17, a refugee who now lives in Buffalo.
Her sister, Hiyam Darbo, said she is also fearful of the Yazidi’s legacy being completely wiped out. “My father says that if they bomb Lalish, his identity will be reduced to zero.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has acknowledged that the international community has a role to play in ensuring a proper humanitarian response to meet the immediate needs of the displaced in besieged areas with food and shelter. The next step would be to provide protection.
|According to the Yazidi, the latest violence is the 74th attempt to wipe out the community [Purvi Thacker]|
“It’s clear that there is a directed policy towards clearing the area of Yazidis, using terrorising methods,” Tirana Hassan, a senior researcher at HRW told Al Jazeera.
Such systematic and targeted killings show a pattern that could lead to ethnic cleansing. Because of the scale in which atrocities are being carried out, it could “most certainly amount to crimes against humanity, for which IS commanders, and local Arab groups who have joined them, should be held accountable”, said Hassan.
While the air strikes authorised by US President Barack Obama on August 8 temporarily helped combat the IS advances, the Yazidi want a more sustainable long-term plan.
“The air strikes were a stop gap measure and helped break the siege, but we want ground support to help the hostages,” said Abdo.
Scepticism exists among the community about the role of the Kurdish government and Peshmerga, Kurdish forces, in helping to protect Yazidis.
“In 2003, the Kurdish government had promised to protect us and now it seems like a conspiracy because they didn’t give the Yazidi any forewarning or weapons to defend themselves when the IS came,” said Shihab Ahmed Hami, another protester at the UN.
We do not want to flee and deserting our homeland is not the solution, but it must be very clear that this is what the Kurds and Arabs are pushing us towards.
Ismail said he is advocating for the truth on the ground to reach the United Nations.
“There are fake reports coming in from the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] and the central government in Baghdad as both have abused the international humanitarian aid for political purposes.”
He pointed to the thousands of Yazidi and internally displaced Christians who are still living in dire conditions and sleeping on streets, and he stressed the need for a UN supervised relief camp, where the flow of aid can be monitored and basic healthcare can be provided.
According to Maisel, comments from Yazidi laymen and clerics suggest they do not trust their Arab neighbours anymore. “In recent times, the Kurdish national movement picked up the Yazidi narrative as their own, calling them the original Kurds. This boosted the ranks of the movement where the Kurdish Regional Government – under President Barzani -supported Iraqi Yazidis financially and institutionally. They even brought some Peshmerga units to Sinjar. However, they proved to be incapable to stop the advance of IS.”
The larger issue is the fact the Yazidi are in danger of disappearing as a religious community from Iraq, even though it has been their ancestral land for more than 4,000 years. The community views the most recent agression by Islamic State to be the 74th genocide against them. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, most fled to Europe to escape increasing violence, but the current threat begs the question: Is complete exodus the only solution?
“We do not want to flee and deserting our homeland is not the solution, but it must be very clear that this is what the Kurds and Arabs are pushing us towards,” said Ismail. He added the community is pushing the UN for a separate autonomous region for the Yazidi and Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq in the Sinjar region and Nineveh Plain.
“We want police and security forces formed by people of those two regions with an international force on ground,” he said.
But according to Maisel, regardless of whether the Yazidi are able to retake Sinjar or not, the prevailing sentiment among the refugees is not to go back, but to find a safe place to live elsewhere. “The Yazidis look at the exile community where they can practice their faith without persecution. Only complete exodus makes sense for the Sinjar community.”
Maisel acknowledged this would bring an end to the ancient community in northern Iraq, but he said he feels the situation in Syria isn’t any better. Most Yazidi families have already fled the Syrian civil war and constant harassment.
“Thus, within a year or two, we can see the entire community vanish from their ancestral homeland,” he said.