They’re the world’s forgotten refugees — the Yazidis of northern Iraq.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) quickly targeted one of the Middle East war-torn nation’s religious minorities as heretics or apostates of Islam. With roots in Zoroastrianism and other Mesopotamian religions, they have steadfastly refused to assimilate into Islam. And unlike Muslims, Christians and Jews, they have no sacred book as a bedrock text. Instead, their faith is passed from generation to generation through oral tradition.
So they are viewed in the Arab world as not being “people of the book,” and, therefore, unworthy of the least amount of respect.
Moreover, the Yazidis’ main deity — the “Peacock Angel” — has long been seen by radical fundamentalists as Satan himself. As a result, members of this ancient religion have been labeled “devil worshippers.”
One of their largest communities was in Sinjar near the northern Iraq border with Syria. And in early August of 2014, ISIS — or Daesh as the Islamic State is locally known — attacked the Yazidis city of Sinjar, which spread to become an even wider massacre. When it was over, 300,000 were forced to flee their villages, up to 5,000 were killed and 7,000 girls and women were kidnapped to become sex slaves for their captors.
Some 50,000 of the survivors fled to nearby Mount Sinjar, a mile-high ridge known by local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark.
Surrounded by ISIS, and with little water or food, their fate captured the world’s attention. The United Nations quickly condemned the attack, reporting that men, women and children were facing starvation, being enslaved and meeting violent deaths. The western media featured their horrendous predicament with front-page headlines and lead news stories on TV and across social media. Almost overnight, the trapped members of the Yazidi religion became an international concern.
On August 8, just five days after the attack, the United States conducted airstrikes on ISIS forces. And ground forces of mainly Kurds drove Daesh away, allowing the Yazidis to be safely evacuated.
ISIS’s aggressive assaults on the displaced religious minority, however, have continued. And U.N. investigators last June reported that the Islamic State is carrying out “genocide” against the Yazidis. This startling declaration was based on interviews with survivors, religious leaders and others, along with “extensive documentary materials.”
The U.N. commission found war crimes and crimes against humanity were being committed. These included ISIS radical Sunni fighters viewing Yazidis as infidels and pagans. As a result, men could be killed and women enslaved “as spoils of war.” Yazidi boys as young as seven were being taken to Islamic State camps in Syria for indoctrination and military training. And ISIS had sought to erase the Yazidis’ identity by forcing men to convert to Islam.
But two years after the Sinjar massacre, the Yazidis were forgotten on the world’s stage. And that was stressed by the commission’s chairman, Brazilian lawyer Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. He admitted being frustrated that the atrocities hadn’t really sparked any political action by members of the world body.
“The finding of genocide must trigger much more assertive action at the political level, including at the Security Council,” he told reporters. “Almost two years since the attack on Mount Sinjar, nothing has been done to save those people. And we urge stronger action by the international community.
“There are no rescue operations carried out specifically for Yazidi women and children being held by ISIS in Syria,” added Pinheiro.
But Father Patrick Desbois — a French priest who uncovered mass graves of Jews killed in Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine by Nazi mobile units before millions started being gassed in concentration camps — has taken up the cause of this new, still-ongoing genocide. “Action Yazidis” is an initiative of Yahad-In Unum, an international human rights organization that seeks to reveal and denounce the “moral disease of genocide in all its forms.”
During a March visit to Los Angeles, the director of Yahad-In Unum talked to Angelus News about the organization’s newest initiative. The project has been collecting the testimonies of survivors to document and provide evidence of every step of the Yazidi genocide.
“We were aware that it was happening in 2014 at Mount Sinjar,” said Marco Gonzalez, director of Yahad-In Unum. “The U.N. decided to say it was a genocide two years after in 2016. And people believe it’s over already. But it’s still happening.”
Gonzalez has traveled with Father Desbois to four Yazidi refugee camps in northern Iraq, along with translators, a videographer and sound technician, to interview survivors about the attacks on their villages by ISIS. And the team has, in fact, documented horrendous stories of men being killed outright, girls and women being taken as sex slaves and boys being kidnapped to become soldiers of the Islamic State.
“What did we find out?” the 42-year-old native of Guatemala echoed. “It’s a real human tragedy. Personally, when I came back after listening to those interviews what you really ask yourself [is], ‘What can we do for these people?’ And I wondered how is it possible that in this 21st century a human can do these awful things to another human being.
“So it is awful to hear the testimony of all these women who have had their lives destroyed, suffering for months many of them. Because they’ve been sexual slaves, so they’ve been raped, changed from one man to another. They have been sold like objects at auctions, treated worse than animals. So you have compassion for these women for what they have all been through.”
But Gonzalez said as much or more damage has probably been done to boys, who are taken away to be indoctrinated and trained to become child soldiers. He talked about a 9-year-old who had been with ISIS for two years. When he finally came back to relatives in his village, he could no longer speak their language. He’d forgotten everything and didn’t know who he was. Daesh? Arab? Muslim? Terrorist?
The team was also able to dispel a common belief that men had the choice of converting to radical Islam or being killed. They found that because Yazidis are not “people of the book,” they don’t have that option. Instead, all men are simply summarily killed.
Gonzalez said what happened in 1942, 1943 when the U.S. and other nations turned a blind eye to Hitler is occuring again.
“It is amazing when you are not concerned for the victims,” he pointed out. “It’s exactly what happened in the Holocaust when if you were not a Jew or Roma (Gypsy) or homosexual. People could sleep without any problem. And that is exactly what we’re discovering today. People don’t feel concerned about what’s happening to the Yazidis.”
After a moment, Gonzalez said, “So our mission is not only to document and denounce what is happening. But also I think it’s to build a conscience in others, especially the new generation. I think it is important to not forget that we are all humans, and we could be victims, too, at some time. Especially as Christians, we cannot allow this to happen to any other religion.”