Towards the end of February 2019, coalition troops engaged in the assault on Islamic State’s last stronghold – Baghuz on the banks of the Euphrates in eastern Syria – made a gruesome discovery. Dumped in dustbins they found the heads of 50 Yazidi women who had been forced to act as sex slaves to the jihadists. Bloodthirsty and utterly inhumane to the last, they had decapitated the women before fleeing.
This horrific slaughter came on top of the discovery, a few months earlier, of about 70 mass graves containing the bodies of Yazidi men and women.
If freedom of religious belief is a fundamental human right, then surely no people is more deserving of universal sympathy and support than the persecuted Yazidis. With a long history behind them of victimization and oppression under Ottoman rule – more than 70 genocidal massacres are on record – in recent years their maltreatment has, if anything, intensified.
The Yazidis are a minority religious sect within the Kurdish nation, and have preserved their own religious beliefs over the centuries. The Yazidi religion, dating back to the 11th century, is said to be derived from the ancient Persian doctrine of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith which is not Abrahamic. But the Yazidis have incorporated into it elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In post-Saddam Iraq Al-Qaeda, denouncing Yazidis as infidels, slaughtered them in their hundreds. To Islamic State (IS) their mere existence was like a red rag to a bull.
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It was in June 2014 that IS announced a world-wide “caliphate” to be ruled in accordance with Sharia law. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself caliph and demanded that Muslims across the world swear allegiance to him. In its first months IS appeared unstoppable, conquering huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. On August 2, 2014, IS forces captured the city and region of Sinjar, one of the two areas of northern Iraq largely occupied by Yazidis.
Civilians were told to convert to Islam immediately or be killed. More than 100,000 fled to take refuge on Mount Sinjar where hundreds died of dehydration, injuries or exhaustion. Those who couldn’t flee were rounded up by the jihadists. As far as the Yazidi men were concerned, thousands were massacred, often in the most brutal fashion. Stories abounded of beheadings, crucifixions, of being crushed by tractors or being shot and thrown into pits.
The fate reserved for more than 6,000 Yazidi women and children, according to Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, herself a Yazidi from Sinjar, was to be enslaved and transported to IS prisons or military training camps. Some were conveyed to the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were raped, beaten or sold. By mid-2016 some had escaped or been smuggled out of the caliphate, but more than 3,700 still remained in captivity, many as suspected sex slaves to IS members.
Today, with the villages that once made up their homeland in the Sinjar district completely destroyed, something like half-a-million Yazidis are in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps, spread across the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The camps are far from a place of refuge, for even here they are facing ethnic and religious persecution.
“The genocide is ongoing,” said officials of the UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry on August 3, 2017, “and remains largely unaddressed by the international community, despite the obligation of states … to prevent and to punish the crime.”
In the battle of Baghuz in Syria, still raging on 8 March 2019, the US-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces had pushed IS into a small enclave on the Euphrates River. More than 13,000 IS supporters had been allowed to leave the IS-held area and move to IDP camps. One Yazidi survivor named Bashe Hammo told the media how she had been held as a slave, and sold multiple times, and described being tortured by European IS members.
While many of these Europeans have now surrendered to the SDF and are demanding to return home, the Yazidis face an uncertain future. There seems little international interest in relieving the suffering of this embattled religious minority, in pursuing an investigation into the mass slaughter, the torture, the enslavement and the intense suffering inflicted on them, or in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
An even more urgent problem remains. More than 2,500 Yazidis – mostly women and children – are still in the hands of the IS and could be slaughtered at any moment. Yet there is no international outcry, no movement in support, nor any concerted move to rescue them. The Yazidis need help now.