Photo by Peter Bregg
Photo by Peter Bregg

Topics: Justice | Human Rights

After ISIS attacks, Yazidi survivors fight for their way of life

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery.


She tucks her long blond ponytail into her flak jacket, slings her shiny new Kalashnikov over her shoulder and strides confidently to the sandbagged wall at the edge of her post. First Lt. Adiba Saydo, 25, is making history. She became one of the first Yazidi women to bear arms when she joined the peshmerga, the military forces of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. What’s more, she’s serving at the front line on the liberated side of Shingal Mountain in northwestern Iraq, the ancestral home of the Yazidi people.

“It’s an honour to be a Yazidi girl and a peshmerga soldier,” Saydo says. “ISIS killed our people, raped our girls and sold them. They slaughtered our children. I joined the military to defend our honour and our homeland and to make sure this never happens to us again.”

ISIS (also known as Islamic State, Daesh and ISIL) attacked the city and villages in the region of Shingal, in Nineveh province, on Aug. 3, 2014. For almost a week, until the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party from Turkey) created an escape corridor, ISIS scorched the Yazidis’ emotional earth, beheading men, taking girls and young women as sex slaves, and killing older women, younger children, the elderly and the disabled — anyone considered unworthy of their hateful caliphate.

More than 40,000 Yazidis fled up Shingal Mountain to escape the onslaught but were trapped there without food, water or shelter while ISIS forces guarded the base. Babies died of starvation and dehydration; girls jumped to their death to avoid capture. Five days passed before western countries airdropped food and water. Survivors describe the horror of calling for help on cellphones, beseeching the international community to rescue them from the mountain, and waiting days and nights while their desperate pleas were ignored.

Estimates put the global number of Yazidis at about one million. Before the violence in 2014, the vast majority — 700,000 — lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, many along the Shingal Mountain range.
Estimates put the global number of Yazidis at about one million. Before the violence in 2014, the vast majority — 700,000 — lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, many along the Shingal Mountain range.

Today, an estimated 360,000 Yazidis are displaced and living in crowded camps on the outskirts of Duhok, two hours northeast of Shingal. They’re asking anyone who will listen why the world chose not to rescue them and when it will be safe to go home and restart their lives.

Yazidis claim that this is the 74th genocide they have suffered. History records their persecution as far back as the early Ottoman Empire. They have lived along Shingal (also known as Sinjar) Mountain for centuries, keeping to themselves and practising an ancient religion. Their enemies call them devil worshippers and infidels and therefore fair game for elimination. This time, the slaughter landed them on the world’s radar. When the Canadian government announced in February that 1,200 survivors of ISIS would be brought here to resettle, many wanted to know more: Who are the Yazidis, and why has this happened to them? What is the world doing to right this terrible wrong?

There are about one million Yazidis in the world today. Before the violence in 2014, the vast majority — 700,000 — lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, many along the Shingal Mountain range, which runs east and west for about 100 kilometres. The Yazidis consider it a sacred place and claim it has sheltered them since the beginning of time. No one’s done a head count since the attack, and many have fled to Turkey, Germany and elsewhere, but what is known is that about 450,000 are dead or displaced or being held by ISIS.

“Genocide is a deep wound that needs a profound form of restorative justice among people who need to live together and move on when they are no longer the flavour of the day in newspaper headlines and the UN Security Council has forgotten about them,” says Payam Akhavan, a former UN prosecutor at The Hague and presently a law professor at Montreal’s McGill University. But the stage for the truth-telling can’t be set until the guns are silenced in this fractious corner of the Earth.

Yazidi women have joined the peshmerga military force in northern Iraq. Photo by Peter Bregg
Yazidi women have joined the peshmerga military force in northern Iraq. Photo by Peter Bregg

Nineveh province is a hardscrabble place where modern architecture is plunked against cement-block houses on rocky foothills with thin topsoil and scrubby shrubs. Morning has just broken as we drive toward Shingal Mountain in late February. Trucks laden with cauliflower and tomatoes, onions and dates line up at checkpoints. Long-haired sheep bleat their discomfort from pickup trucks while grim-faced guards disappear with the passports of those who wish to proceed. It feels like a chess game. Waiting for the rook to make its move. Deals are made, many are turned back. We’d been told: if you get through the checkpoint after the Khabur River, your chances of getting to Shingal City are much improved. Every insurgent in Iraq has a piece of these hills, including ISIS and the PKK, considered terrorists by some and rescuers by others.

After the checkpoint, the road is scattered with villages: some Christian, some Muslim; some Kurdish, some Armenian. Oil wells dot the landscape as we skirt the Syrian border. Total destruction lies ahead, the sort of military pounding that comes from revenge. It’s not enough to take out the bridge or disable the power plant — it’s about smashing the place until the past is obliterated. The stripped carcasses of vehicles and the looming mountain signal the beginning of the Yazidis’ escape route. It is also ground zero for the genocide.

The biggest village along the route is Snuny, tucked in under the mountain where signs of life — ducks wandering on the road, a donkey braying from its tethered post, a bit of laundry hanging on a clothesline — suggest some have taken a chance and returned. There are road blocks, more checkpoints, a PKK camp and plenty of tension ahead in what could be either a viper’s nest of terrorist soldiers or a ruined city, deserted and waiting for the return of its people.

The road leads to the place where the Yazidi women’s peshmerga brigade is working today. They are such a mix of proud defenders and horror-stricken survivors that it’s hard to know when to cheer and when to gasp. Saydo tells a story about her cousin, 15, being bought by an ISIS man who said, “I’ll feed her until she’s [older] — then I’ll have her.” She managed to escape. Saydo explains, “They wanted all of us to convert.” While many did, to no avail when it came to saving their lives or their daughters, most refused. Says Saydo, “We’d rather be killed and have our own religion.”

The violence of ISIS was so brutal, so swift, that even now, two-and-a-half years later, Saydo’s face flushes when she recounts the day in summer 2014 that ISIS soldiers arrived at Mosel University, where her cousins and friends were students. Her story highlights the fact that Yazidis were not the only target of ISIS. “They separated the Yazidi girls and the Shia girls from the Sunni girls. Then a Daesh fighter brought two Shia girls together — face to face so their noses were touching each other. In front of everyone, he killed both of them by firing a bullet into the back of one girl’s head.” Her cousin collapsed and couldn’t speak for two days. She was locked in a room with three other girls but still had her cellphone. When she could talk, she managed to get word to the peshmerga soldiers, who helped all four of them to escape.

Stories from other Yazidis at the displacement camps in Duhok confirm the psychopathic modus operandi of ISIS. A young adolescent says the man who owned her as a sex slave would leave her at the end of his prayer rug when he turned to the east and prostrated himself to pray, and then he would turn around and rape her. Some young girls say, “I can’t even tell you what they did, as I don’t know what it is called.” They say their captors, who beat them and raped them repeatedly, were smelly, filthy men with huge ragged beards. Older women recount tales of unspeakable brutality. “They did everything to us that was morally dirty,” says one woman, age 37. About 2,600 girls and young women managed to escape. But 3,500 are still in the hands of ISIS. Their escapes — out windows at 4 a.m. into the black night, slipping behind sleeping guards, ducking into a shepherd’s hut, being betrayed and recaptured — sound like medieval horror tales. An interview with a captured ISIS fighter in a Duhok prison reveals the barbarous attitude of the captors: “Every fighter is entitled to four girls.”

Saydo was finishing high school and preparing to go to university that summer but joined the peshmerga instead. “I never thought about these things before, but after we saw the killing and the persecution, I lost my fear. I’m not scared.” In fact, with a conspiratorial look on her face, she beckons the translator to come closer as she wants to share another story. “Daesh are scared to be killed by a woman because they think they won’t go to paradise,” she says with an enormous grin. “The day of the liberation of Shingal by the peshmerga, all the girls picked up their guns and went to the front line to let them know they’d never go to heaven.” Then she adds ruefully, “ISIS will never get to paradise, no matter who kills them, because of what they did.”

There are 137 Yazidi women in peshmerga uniforms and another 400 registered and waiting to start their training. The clarion call the women issued after the genocide — never again — is being heeded at last. “We are determined this time to stop the genocide,” says Saydo, “to defend our people and to keep our land.”

From the top of the venerable old mountain, you can see the route some of the ISIS fighters took from the Syrian border when they launched their attack. Hussein Hasoon, the Yazidi member of the Kurdistan High Government Commission on the Recognition of Genocide Against Yazidis, Kurds and other Religious and Ethnic Groups, calls this a shameful record for the international community. “There’s no way they didn’t know Shingal was going to be attacked by Daesh. And when we were attacked and tried to escape up Shingal Mountain, they could have rescued us but they did not. I used skills I had learned about living in nature to survive that terrible ordeal.”

A so-called lovers’ bench sits at the bottom of the mountain on the road that approaches the city of Shingal. “It’s where young people come to talk to each other,” Hasoon says wistfully as he points to the deserted bench. The city itself is eerily silent; it looks like something akin to Pompeii, with evidence of people going about their daily business when an alarm sent them running. The place is flattened, but amid the ruins are pots on the stove and children’s toys in the yard. The livestock are gone, the gardens are withered, and block after block looks like Dresden, Sarajevo, Kabul: the cities whose demises were supposed to have taught the world a lesson. But for a few soldiers and a couple collecting scrap metal, Shingal City is a ghost town.

Lt. Col. Jadan Darwesh, a 45-year-old peshmerga soldier assigned to protect the city, describes the dangers created by the remaining pockets of ISIS in Nineveh province. “They throw small bombs and tear gas at us and sometimes send in chlorine gas.” And he says fresh recruits, mostly foreigners, are still joining Daesh. “They’re not organized; they’re crazy and always ready to blow themselves up and use illegal weapons like car bombs and human shields and chemical weapons.”

A woman scavenges in the Shingal region, in northern Iraq, on Feb. 18, 2017. Photo by Peter Bregg
A woman scavenges in the Shingal region, in northern Iraq, on Feb. 18, 2017. Photo by Peter Bregg

On the far side of the city, in front of the stripped remains of the Technical Institute of Shingal, lies a mass grave, one of 35 that have been found. Bones and skulls are sticking out of the hastily ploughed plot. So is a woman’s dress. “This is where up to 78 older women — mothers and grandmothers who Daesh didn’t want — are buried,” says Hasoon. The grave is not tended. He worries that important evidence is being lost. From this site, a soldier points to smoke in the distance. “That’s Daesh,” he says and suggests we leave. On the way back to the truck, he tells a story about his sister who was raped by ISIS and became pregnant. She jumped off a four-storey building and died.

The level of atrocity, the utter horror these ruined buildings were witness to, is hard to fathom.

How did the Yazidis become the target of terrorists? Christians, Jews and Sabians — those whom the Qur’an calls the “People of the Book” — are usually spared when the ISIS mob arrives. They are told to leave the caliphate, areas of Iraq and Syria under ISIS’s theocratic rule, and abandon their property and money. But they are not killed unless they disobey or try to take their belongings. Neither are Hindus or Armenians or Kurds. “This selective artificial construction of identity is scapegoating; it’s contrived ideology built on hatred,” says Akhavan. “It’s been going on for centuries.”

The truth for the Yazidis lies in a place called Lalish, their spiritual home, about a 20-minute drive east of Duhok. “This place is as old as the world,” says Hasoon in hushed tones. According to Yazidis, it’s the actual Garden of Eden. The winding road up to the temple whispers spirituality, with gnarled trees and twisted vines covering cell-like stone buildings that are protected by rolling mountains on three sides. Even on a winter day, with leafless trees and an unexpected snowstorm, the ambience evokes yesteryear. The huge temple, where one must go barefoot on old stone floors worn to a shiny white finish, has the rarefied air of a holy place.

Yazidis describe their religion as the first and most unique. Scholars say they represent one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, and that they added bits of other religions as a means of survival along the way. The Yazidis believe in one God and seven angels. Tawsi Melek, a sort of angel-in-chief, is also known as the Peacock Angel. There is no devil, as they feel that God created everything and would never create anything evil. They claim to be the oldest people on Earth, direct descendants of Adam (not Eve, as her reproductive matter was apparently impure). Yazidis believe Adam’s son, Shehid bin Jer, was incubated in a jar containing only his father’s seed.

The edicts of this old faith vary from minimal observances to severe rules with consequences. For example, the majority believe in the faith but don’t practise it. There are no prayers, per se, but rather supplications they repeat with their hands held up to the sun. The majority live within the Yazidi community. Yazidis must marry Yazidis, or risk being shunned. Some Yazidi men have two wives. Divorce is allowed. They have a caste system: the prince and his relatives are the Mir caste; next in line is the Sheikh caste, which includes the teachers of the religion; and then there are the Pir and Murid, better known as the commoners. Wednesday is the holy day — it’s the day God created the archangel, but it isn’t marked in any religious way.

Baba Chawish, leading monk at Lalish, the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith. Photo by Peter Bregg
Baba Chawish, leading monk at Lalish, the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith. Photo by Peter Bregg

Prince Tahseen Said is the leader of the Yazidis, but he doesn’t live here in Lalish. His residence is in Germany, and he’s sometimes criticized for his time in Europe and lavish lifestyle. Those who visit Lalish are instead greeted by a monk called Baba Chawish, a member of the spiritual council. He’s a tall, lean gentle man who patiently answers endless questions while touring visitors around the grounds. He ambles from one area to another in a plain ankle-length robe and his homemade white leather slippers. Climbing a steep path, he points out a grove of olive trees from which they make olive oil, the rock where he says Adam was created, the running holy water where children are baptized — girls on the right of the rock, boys on the left.

This is where Yazidis who practise their faith come on a pilgrimage from Oct. 6 to 12 to mark religious traditions — the slaughtering of a bull, the visit to the holy door of Lalish, the pinning of coloured cloths to decorate the temple. While they’re not required or even expected to come, about 60,000 turn up each year, and most see it as a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. Because of the danger in the region since 2014, the pilgrimage has been cancelled, but Baba Chawish says they are looking forward to welcoming Yazidis back to these holy grounds, hopefully to celebrate the end of the hostilities.

Rolling a cigarette, Baba Chawish puts it in a tortoiseshell holder and takes a long inhale; he exhales a cloud of smoke, discreetly tucking the cigarette into the folds of his robe. In his calm, unhurried motions, he is the epitome of the spiritual sage who waves the believers in. “This religion is related to nature, to beauty,” he says. “It promises human spiritual development as well as human rights.” The day we visit is the Khidr Elias feast day, he explains. To celebrate, he offers us pekhon, a salty chocolate fudge with a texture more like cake.

The accusation of devil worship comes from the Sufis (the mystical arm of Islam), who claim Tawsi Melek is actually Satan. Baba Chawish won’t even speak to the accusation. “They only make up that nonsense to tarnish our name and give themselves a reason to kill us,” he says. He speaks slowly and carefully when he describes what they do believe. “In our religion, we have one God; God has no partners. God created angels and everything in the universe. Why would he make an enemy called the devil? Goodness and calamity both come from one God.” He says the Yazidi religion is not against anyone; it promotes love and coexistence. “We respect all religions. We oppress no one. But we have been oppressed.”

A Yazidi child peers out from a tent in Duhok, Iraq, in February. Camp Kabarto hosts 5,000 families displaced from the Shingal region, site of the massacre by ISIS in August 2014. Photo by Peter Bregg
A Yazidi child peers out from a tent in Duhok, Iraq, in February. Camp Kabarto hosts 5,000 families displaced from the Shingal region, site of the massacre by ISIS in August 2014. Photo by Peter Bregg

While most Yazidis live a pastoral life as farmers and shepherds, they are not without struggles within the community. One current issue is the PKK, which has taken up residence at the base of Shingal Mountain before the Yazidi people have even returned. Kurdish president Masoud Barzani has repeatedly asked the group to leave Iraq. Hasoon also wants it out. “It’s an illegal Turkish political party,” he says. “But they helped us at the beginning to build roads and to escape. Now it’s like having a house guest who doesn’t want to leave.” Hasoon worries that the international community, whose help the Yazidis badly need, will stay away as long as the PKK is waving its flag in the territory.

Matters are further complicated because the Yazidis are part of Kurdistan. In fact, their roots are in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq that is begging for full autonomy, a dispute that creates undeniable tensions between Kurds and Iraqis.

And then there are tensions and outright discrimination between mainstream Muslims and Yazidis. Yazidis’ identity cards, issued by the Iraqi government, are marked “Yazidi.” Most people, including Iraqis and Kurds, agree this is an invitation to violence. In the displacement camps around Duhok, UNICEF staff say most Yazidi kids turn up without their ID cards. They have thrown them away lest the help they need is denied.

Furthermore, there’s bad blood in the neighbourhood: not only did many Sunnis join ISIS, but more than 400 Kurds joined them, too. “We used to play football with our Arab neighbours,” Hasoon says. “We socialized together. When we were running away from Daesh, we called our friends and asked them to rescue our houses, save our money and gold. Instead, when we went to get it, some of them slaughtered the men and took the women and girls as sex slaves. Now it’s our land, but they don’t want us there.”

Like others, Hasoon calls on the international community to help make things right: to liberate the occupied areas, rebuild the cities, rescue the 3,500 girls and young women who are still with ISIS, get psychological help for the women and girls who were taken captive, rebuild trust in the region and, above all, guarantee that this will never happen again.

It’s like the chorus of a song. From teenage girls who escaped ISIS to Yazidi leaders, the refrain is the same: never again. “ISIS is in retreat; it’s possible now to think of social reconstruction,” says Akhavan. The 2017 Massey lecturer in Canada, he has been invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government to examine the way forward, whether via a truth-telling commission or justice in a court of international law.

While some say the perpetrators should be sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, doing so would be a very costly and lengthy procedure. What’s more, Iraq hasn’t ratified the Rome Statute that gives legitimacy to the ICC, which means Iraqi ISIS fighters would not be turned over to the court without intervention from the UN Security Council. Iraq did, however, ratify the UN’s 1948 genocide convention.

Akhavan believes the best way forward is to hold a truth commission — and if anyone in the international community has the experience and clout to make this happen, it’s him. “One of the instruments of tyranny is to victimize people by harming them and denying the truth,” he says. “When the dispossessed speak truth to power, the cathartic effect alone is worthwhile. These people need to unbind their wounds; they need to know that people care. When you’ve lost everything, the only thing you have is your voice. People can reclaim their humanity when they hear, ‘I believe you; I respect and honour your dignity.’”

In addition to being more expedient and less expensive, a commission would help the Yazidis to heal, Akhavan says, and would inspire others and show there are alternatives to mass violence.

Hasoon agrees that a truth commission is the way forward. But he also thinks the international community needs to create a judgment mechanism with a judicial verdict from international law. “The Iraqi court cannot provide the justice we need,” he says.

The Yazidi women soldiers speak with less nuance. “We need big weapons to defend ourselves,” says 1st Lt. Adiba Saydo. “We need to open the mass graves. We need to bring our people home.” And for all of that, she says, they need the help of the international community.

Groups within Toronto’s and Winnipeg’s Jewish communities are raising money to bring families in the displacement camps to Canada. The federal government is trying to bring women and girls who have been held as sex slaves to Canada for treatment.

As for a mass exodus, Akhavan says that “facilitating the Yazidis’ departure from their ancestral lands is akin to ethnic cleansing.” Their culture and religion are based on living together, marrying each other, keeping the ancient rituals. If they scatter to the four winds, they will surely assimilate and their culture will be lost. Providing the protection they need when they go home to Shingal is the promise they’re waiting for. The Yazidi people belong here in the villages and on the farms and in the temples around Shingal Mountain. Their history calls to them. They need to go home.

This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Observer with the title “Resisting genocide.”


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