Chapter (7) Seven
“Report of a Genocide on a Holy Mountain”
Bahaa Ilyas and Roza Saeed Al-Qaidi are Yazidi activists. This is mostly their words. Taken from reports after the genocide.
“The sun greeted me as I woke on the morning of 3 August 2014. I was a researcher at the University of Duhok, 200 miles from Sinjar. It was to be a happy day as I was waiting – first for my salary, and then for Roza, my then-fiancée. Roza and I had plans to go shopping for our engagement party, which was to take place a few days later. We were excited, our future now starting to unfurl before us. We have not felt that way again since.”
As Roza and I waited at the bank, uneasy murmurs started around us, and phones began to ring. My phone vibrated; a friend was calling. ISIS has attacked Sinjar, he said frantically. Time stopped as the news took hold of us. Roza phoned her sister who was at her home on the outskirts of Duhok. Her sister told her that videos were being published online of ISIS fighters in Sinjar, and that there were news of killings of Yazidis in the streets. I called another friend, a Yazidi man in a village in Sinjar, who described ISIS vehicles with banners and heavy artillery driving past his home. My mother who was in my family’s town of Bashiqa, also called to say she had heard that ISIS was slaughtering Yazidi men and taking away women. Yazidis are fleeing, she said, urgently.
I withdrew as much cash as I could and ran outside to flag down a car to take me to my mother in Bashiqa. Roza waited for a bus to take her to her family’s village outside of Duhok. We said goodbye tearfully, but quickly. We weren’t sure if and when we would see each other again. I made my way to my town, into which ISIS had not yet advanced. My entire family was put into the cars and drove to Lalesh, the Yazidi holy site near Duhok. Concerned that ISIS would advance to Lalesh, women and children were then driven by car to Duhok. Some of my uncles and myself followed on foot. Two days later, ISIS had occupied Bashiqa. My family survived, but thousands of Yazidis in Sinjar did not.
The Yazidis are a religious minority that has existed for millennia. With less than a million individuals, most of us live in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Other Yazidi communities live in Syria, Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, as well as farther afield, in Germany, the US and elsewhere. The Yazidi faith descends from the ancient religions of Mesopotamia, and today we believe in the one God. That the Yazidis are a pre-Judaic religion, and so are not ‘People of the Book’, has long motivated the political, economic and social marginalisation of our community.
At various points throughout our history, attempts have been made to wipe us out– we regularly refer to the ‘73 genocides’ that we have suffered. Prior to the ISIS attack, it was the Ottoman Turks who had made the most successful attempt. Misunderstandings of our faith are deeply rooted and it is not uncommon for people to casually – and wrongly – refer to us as ‘devil worshippers’ or ‘those who worship stones’. ISIS founded its genocidal attack on these old prejudices.
In the early hours of the morning of 3 August 2014, while I was still asleep in Duhok, ISIS fighters left their bases in Iraq and Syria and moved towards the Sinjar region in northwest Iraq, close to the Iraqi–Syrian border. Hundreds of villages are spread out around the base of Mount Sinjar, with one main town, Sinjar town, huddled at the base of the southeastern side of the mountain. Mount Sinjar, an arid 100-kilometre-long mountain range, forms the region’s heart. Before the ISIS attacks, the majority of the region’s inhabitants were Yazidis, with a smaller number of Sunni Arabs. The relationship between the Yazidi and Arab communities, who lived together in Sinjar town and in some of the other villages, was built on friendship and neighbourly relations that extended across generations.
ISIS attack on Sinjar came two months after they occupied Mosul in June 2014. It was quickly apparent that the Yazidis were their target, our existence perceived to be a stain on their so-called caliphate. Some families fled into the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Others escaped to the upper slopes of Mount Sinjar, where they were besieged by ISIS. Thousands were trapped under Iraq’s August sun, with no shade, water, food or medical care. Hundreds died on the mountain before the Syrian Kurdish forces, operating under the cover of Iraqi and American airstrikes, rescued the survivors.
ISIS captured thousands of Yazidis in their villages or on the roads during their attempt to flee. Within 72 hours, most of the villages had been emptied, with the exception of Kocho, which ISIS did not vacant of its residents until 15 August 2014. Upon capture, ISIS fighters separated Yazidi men and adolescent boys from their families. Almost all of the men and boys were executed, often by a shot to the back of the head. Their families were sometimes made to watch. ISIS fighters then moved the Yazidi women and children deeper into ISIS-controlled territory where they were registered. ISIS took note of the ages of the women and girls over the age of 9: whether they were married or not; whether they had children and, if so, how many. In short, they were pricing them.
Yazidi women and girls have been sold and resold into sexual slavery, beaten, starved and forced into labour in the homes of ISIS fighters. ISIS does not permit the sale of Yazidis to non-ISIS members, but the money to be made is enough for fighters to risk their own lives breaching this rule. Fighters sell women and children back to their families for tens of thousands of US dollars. Yazidi families are selling all they have, and borrowing more, to buy back their women and children from the men who raped and tortured them. There has been tremendous media attention on Yazidi women and girls who have been enslaved – but there has been little attempt to understand how the crimes ISIS commits against our women and girls fit into the group’s attempts to destroy our community. The Yazidi women and girls held by ISIS are not ‘sex slaves’. They are genocide survivors, and for those who did not survive, they are victims.
Boys over the age of 7 are taken from their mothers and forced into ISIS training camps, where they are indoctrinated and taught to fight. Some have died fighting on ISIS’s frontlines. It has been difficult to locate the boys and rescue them.
As ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria came under aerial attack by the US-led coalition, Yazidi captives, trapped in fighters’ houses and on ISIS military bases, were reportedly among the casualties. As the ‘caliphate’ crumbled, ISIS fighters fled, taking the captured Yazidi women and children with them. Their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.
Today, I am back living in Duhok and working as a research assistant on the LSE Middle East Centre’s project ‘Documenting Yazidi Victims of ISIS‘. The project aims to build a consolidated database of Yazidi victims by age, gender, location and crime(s) suffered, using rigorous demographic techniques modelled on the methodology accepted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Our team will – with the consent of the survivors and their communities – create and organise data collected for use in accountability proceedings, identification of remains in mass graves, humanitarian interventions, community-building and broader advocacy. It is specifically envisaged, and is an integral aspect of the methodological planning, that the documentation project will play a significant role in achieving justice for Yazidis against the crimes committed against them by ISIS. The data will ground existing advocacy for accountability processes in national, regional and international courts and tribunals. Once courts or tribunals seize the cases, the documentation project’s data will provide reliable information of high probative value for use before various existing and future accountability processes. I am proud to be part of this effort.
For the Yazidis who have survived, most of us now live in displaced people’s camps, unfinished buildings and in rented accommodation in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. A small number have received asylum in Germany, Sweden, Canada and elsewhere. Others, in their desperation to find safety, have fled on dinghies to Greece. Some, including people I know, have drowned in the Mediterranean. A few have taken the risk and returned to Sinjar, which – though destroyed – is now under the control of the Iraqi central government. The region, littered with IEDs, is not yet safe. Mass graves holding the remains of Yazidis are regularly uncovered. There is a need for forensic preservation and analysis, as well as more generally for the reconstruction. Living with dignity in Sinjar remains a challenge.
The Yazidis continue to hope for the rescue and return of the women and children still held by ISIS. We hold out hope that some of the Yazidi men captured have survived and might also be reunited with their families. We have survived, for now, ISIS’s attempt to destroy us, but we remain a deeply traumatised community in need of support: psycho-social support, educational and livelihood initiatives, including those specifically aimed at increasing female social and economic independence, forensic documentation of mass graves, reconstruction, including infrastructure for potable water, healthcare and education – our list is long. But if I were to summarise, I would say the Yazidi community, displaced from Sinjar and desirous to return, needs three things: assured security, justice for the crimes committed against us and recognition of the genocide. The prejudices against our community must be uprooted and made to wither in the light. This requires the calling of the crime committed against us by its true name.
The morning I awoke thinking about my engagement belongs to a more innocent time, one to which Roza and I cannot return. This morning, I sat in front of my computer. On its screen are the names of thousands and thousands of Yazidis.
They are categorised: killed, kidnapped, missing. I know they, like me, once woke up looking forward to the day ahead of them.
Bahaa Ilyas is a Yazidi activist who has been in close contact with internally displaced people through different agencies and organisations since 2014. Currently, he is a researcher on the LSE Middle East Centre’s ‘Documenting Yazidi Victims of ISIS‘ project.
Roza Saeed Al-Qaidi is a Yazidi activist. Since ISIS’ attacks on the Yazidis in August 2014, she has been involved in humanitarian aid and has interviewed Yazidi survivors, particularly women and girls who had been sexually enslaved by ISIS fighters, on behalf of a number of different organisations.
The Yazidis live in and around a holy mountain called Jabal Sinjar. It lies along the Syrian-Iraqi border 80 kilometers West from Mosul in the Nineveh Governorate. Their holiest site called Lalish, the tomb of their avatar for the Peacock Angel “Tawuse Melek”, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir is found between three mountains. The Arafat, the Misat and the Hizrat.
On the highest peak of Jabal Sinjar is the Chel Mera Temple. “The Temple of Forty Men”. The temple is so ancient no one actually remembers how it got that name, but it is believed forty men were buried there.
The Yazidis have three hereditary castes; the Murids, the Sheikhs and the Pirs. In some ways their beliefs are linked to Sufism and Zoroastrianism. They believe in reincarnation and forbid intermarriage with other groups. Although some claim they have holy books called the Kiteba Cilwe (Book of Revelation) and Mishefa Res (Black Book), there is great reason to believe these are forgeries created in 1911-1913 and virtually all Yazidi religious theology is a chain or oral transmission called Qawls; hymns with cryptic allusions and supporting stories.
The Yazidis are ethnically and linguistically Kurdish. They speak Kurmanji, like the Kurds of Syria and Turkey. They are concentrated in North western Iraq in a highly mountainous area called Sinjar by the Arabs or Shengal, by the Kurds. They are monotheistic, Gnostic religion. Over the years Sunni Muslim Arabs have typically accused them of devil worship, because of their belief in a pea cock fire angel. In 1414 their sacred Lalish was razed. In 1640, Ottoman Turks carried out a pogrom killing around 5,000 of them. In 1892 Turkish Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II mass conscripted the men to eradicate their faith. In 1974-1975 Saddam Hussein deported Yazidis and re-settled Arabs in Sinjar. Around 137 Yazidi villages were destroyed. In 2007 there was a Jihadi campaign of bus bombings, kidnappings and terrorism that left as many as 300 Yazidis death and over 1,500 injured. In 2009 Al-Qaeda used a series of truck bombs in Sinjar to kill upwards of 500 Yazidis in Qahtaniya and al-Jazira. So Turks and Arabs killing Yazidi is as Sunni Islamic as tea and shawarma.
The story of the woman being fed her one year old son. A later story.
In August of 2014 “Those who run from death”, the KDP Peshmerga, abandoned their positions and allowed almost all of Shengal to fall to ISIS without firing a shot. ISIS then began a rapid campaign of summary execution, forced conversions, sex slaving and out right genocide. On August 3rd 2014 ISIS captured the holy city of Sinjar. A massacre began. Over 200,000 Yazidis fled into the surrounding mountainside. 50,000 of them were trapped on Mt. Sinjar exposed to the elements with ISIS bandits raping and murdering their family and friends.
ISIS Cheta shot 70 to 90 men in Qiniyeh Village, 360 in Harden village. 200 Yazidis were lined up and shot in Sinjar city. 60 to 70 killed in Ramadi Jabal. 50 in Dhola village, 100 in Khana Sor and 200 more on the road between Adaniaya and Jazeera. Dozens in al-Shimal village and more on the road from Matu to Jabal Sinjar. Women were gang raped. Children were buried alive. In most cases the Yazidi girls and women were separated for rape and sex traffic to various ISIS held cities. Old women were shot.
Using “rape as a weapon of war” Daesh bandits actually had gynecologists examine their captives to set slave prices based on virginity. They were treated like cattle. There were online price indexes. Sales on Telegram, Facebook and WhatsApp. Prices varied. Between $2,000.00 and $10,000.00. Less than 5 women actually escaped. Many died in captivity or allied bombardment.
The Sinjar Mountains are over 100 km long range running east to west. The lower western segment in Syria and eastern higher segment in Iraq. The range is viewed as sacred by the Yazidis who consider them the place where Noah’s ark came to rest.
On August 8th the United States President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes against ISIS in the area of Sinjar. Air strikes and supply drops for the Yazidis hiding there.
The 50,000 Yazidi besieged on top of Mount Sinjar began to die from hunger and thirst and exposure to the elements. On August 10th P.K.K. and Y.P.G. guerrillas, with truck mounted heavy machine guns supported by mobile light infantry charges broke the ISIS siege and began guiding Yazidis to refugee camps and shelter. Some were evacuated by the Peshmerga via Cezanne and Telkocher roads to Dohuk, Iraq-K.R.G. Though the majority broke out with the P.K.K.-Y.P.G. safe corridor to Rojava.
They fought most of the rescue operation from pick up trucks or on foot. With small backpacks which mostly had been loaded with extra magazines and hand-grenades, canteens of water and sometimes a few cans of Mortadella. Or canned olives or whatever there was left before they shipped out. Clad in green baggy fatigues the PKK made a rapid incursion through ISIS held territory to launch the largest humanitarian evacuation of the war, saving the lives of tens of thousands of civilians hiding on the mountain.
By August 8th most of the remaining Yazidis had been evacuated by the P.K.K. to the K.R.G. areas and Rojava. On August 10th airstrikes opened up a passage for another P.K.K. evacuation into Syria of some additional 20,000 to 30,000 Yazidis. But there were still around 10,000 trapped on the mountain still by 13th August recipient air drops of food and water from the coalition forces. Eventually the guerrillas got almost everybody out.
On August 15th there was a large massacre in Kojo. Over 80 men were killed outright. The entire male population of Khocho, around 400 men were butchered. Around 1,000 women and children were abducted for sex slavery. In Tal Afar 200 Yazidi were shot at the prison. A report in late September concluded over 5,000 Yazidis had been exterminated. Several thousand, perhaps as many as 7,000-10,800 women and girls were carried off to Mosul, Raqqa and other ISIS strongholds. The confirmation of the missing verses the dead has not been cleared up yet many years later.
Repeated raids by P.K.K. commandos rescued 51 Yazidis in March and 53 in April. The majority of the abducted women and girls are still missing, having been living in brutal, in-human slavery for over four years. Most have all been presumed dead. Mass graves keep getting found all over the liberated areas.
“From time to time a young woman, an escapee jumps off Mt. Sinjar. That will probably go on for many years to come.”
“They were all mentally and definitely physically abused by the vile bearded ones in ways we cannot ever probably comprehend, that few can even bear to hear,” said the Guerilla Commander Jansher, Comrade Spirit of War, explains to a small cohort of internationalist volunteers recently smuggled into Rojava.