<p>It was a dusty, rocky landscape, without adequate access to water or food, but it was also a temporary refuge from the horrors of the Islamic State. Almost three years ago, the Sinjar Mountains of Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate sheltered an estimated 50,000 people fleeing catastrophic violence. Those seeking safety were Yazidis, and they were fleeing what the advocacy group Yazda calls “a systematic campaign of mass atrocities against civilians in northern Iraq.” </p>
Content warning: references to genocide, sexual slavery and mass murder
It was a dusty, rocky landscape, without adequate access to water or food, but it was also a temporary refuge from the horrors of the Islamic State. Almost three years ago, the Sinjar Mountains of Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate sheltered an estimated 50,000 people fleeing catastrophic violence. Those seeking safety were Yazidis, and they were fleeing what the advocacy group Yazda calls “a systematic campaign of mass atrocities against civilians in northern Iraq.”
The Yazidi recently celebrated the anniversary, on 3 August, of the day IS’s (also known as Daesh) depravity reached Sinjar and the surrounding cities. By celebrating this day, they acknowledge their survival and the continuation of their people despite everything they have faced, and continue to face, struggling to get the world’s attention. Families gathered together on this day of mourning and remembrance, but it is impossible to forget those that have been left behind; some still surviving in the mountains, some radicalised and transformed into child soldiers for the caliphate, thousands still enslaved and thousands murdered.
The Yazidi people are an ethno-religious minority community whose religion predates all three Abrahamic religions, tracing its religious calendar back over 6,700 years.
You cannot convert to Yazidism, it is only passed down through the family. Significant debate surrounds their relation to Kurds, with some acknowledging Kurdish ethnicity, others distancing themselves from this claim.
Obviously the Daesh have opposed many religious and non-religious groups, including many Muslims. Diana Darke, a Middle Eastern cultural expert, points to several aspects of Yazidism that set it apart, and which have provoked the abhorrent treatment they have faced.
Firstly, the most important of their angels is Malak Taus, a peacock, to which Yazidis pray. Malak Taus has a second name, Shaytan, which is Arabic for Satan. This has led to the false belief amongst many that Yazidis are “devil-worshippers.” Secondly, while Yazidism is held by followers to be monotheistic, Daesh point to the fact that their God, the world’s ultimate creator, entrusted earth to seven angels as refuting this fact. Thirdly, Darke argues that the word ‘Yazidism’ is incorrectly assumed to stem from a significantly unpopular caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya. In fact, it comes from the Persian “ized” meaning angel or deity, with Yazidis translating to “worshippers of God.” However, their devotion to God, has not prevented wounding labels such as devil-worshipping, satanic and pagan.
The horrors that have faced this community are unimaginable. Yazda explains that during the escape from Sinjar Mountain, Daesh executed an estimated five thousand men, hundreds of children and about 86 women. They captured 7000, most of whom were women, girls and children. Boys were forced to fight as child-soldiers and attack their own communities, while women, including girls as young as seven, were used as sex slaves by Daesh fighters.
Videos have circulated online showing fighters joking about the sale of these women and girls. With haunting and disgusting frivolity, they speak to the camera: “each one is free to take whatever share he wants… the price depends, if she has blue eyes it will be different.” Footage of slave markets has been released, and price lists, with girls under nine typically garnering the highest price.
Yazidis have been forced to convert or face death, their holy sites have been desecrated. Daesh have argued in their publications that their “continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day.” This is only one example of numerous where they justify the murder and enslavement of this community, in actions that completely go against the views of most mainstream Muslims.
A Yazidi survivor of this slavery, and the Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking of the United Nations, Nadia Murad, explains that Daesh told her community they “want to wipe the Yazidi from the face of the Earth.” The community is working to have these atrocities globally recognised as genocide, which the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Amal Clooney, legal counsel to Yazda and Nadia Murad, argues what has happened to the Yazidis is a “clear case of genocide,” and that it is “shameful, that three years after the genocide began no ISIS member has been held to account for it in a court of law.” Add to this that the genocide is ongoing. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates over 3300 people are unaccounted for and 44 mass graves have been discovered in the Sinjar region alone. Yazda explains that the UN, the European Union, Canada, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, including the national parliament of Scotland, have all recognised these brutalities as genocide. Australia is yet to acknowledge this.
Sinjar Mountain, a sacred site for Yazidis, is described by the UN as “a craggy, mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark”. While many Yazidis have now made a home in Australia, their minds and hearts remain back on this mountain, with their people and their motherland. There will be no relief until the world recognises what has been done to this community, until fighters are brought back to their home countries to face justice and the consequences of their war crimes rather than having passports revoked, and until the actions of Daesh are called for what they are. “I want serious action, not just words,” Nadia Murad says. “Rescue our girls and women, and recognise the genocide.”