When Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, fell to Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, the aspiring caliphate stepped up its campaign to expand and consolidate its control over the region. It did this in part by trying to exterminate the thinly protected enclaves of assorted ethnic and religious groups on the Nineveh Plains.
This entailed a massive assault on the villages of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, targeting an ethno-religious minority known as the Yazidis. The ensuing assault on Sinjar displaced roughly 200,000 civilians and forced almost 50,000 Yazidis to flee to the mountains.
IS set fire to Yazidi villages, obliterated their shrines with explosives, abducted women and children, and executed men who resisted conversion to Islam. Those Yazidis who escaped to the Sinjar Mountains found themselves besieged by IS forces. Eventually the Kurdish Peshmerga, People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Iraqi military, with support from US airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops, managed to get most of the refugees to camps in Iraqi Kurdistan or Kurdish areas of Syria and Turkey.
Public attention has since moved on. The crisis in Sinjar is subsiding, and the Peshmerga have gradually retaken some of the areas that IS had overrun. But the atrocities are still a relentless daily reality for thousands of Yazidis still in captivity, for those in precarious refugee camps and for their relatives abroad, bereaved or longing to be reunited.
Several thousand remain in the mountains, cut off from humanitarian aid – and the threat of annihilation has not abated.
Among the groups of the complex Mesopotamian cultural mosaic, the Yazidis have always been particularly vulnerable to religious violence. While even the strictest interpretations of Islamic law permit a degree of tolerance for those the Koran calls “People of the Book” – those who adhere to Abrahamic faiths – the Yazidis fall outside this category.
As long ago as the mid-19th century, Sir Austen Henry Layard reported how the Yazidis fled from Ottoman raids, only to be massacred where they sought shelter: they “took refuge in caves, where they were either suffocated by fires lighted at the mouth, or destroyed by discharges of cannon”.
Today, IS considers the Yazidis pagan idolaters or “devil-worshippers”. Under its regime, a Christian resident of Mosul would face the choice of exile, conversion, or execution; a Yazidi would have only the latter two options. This is also the basis on which IS justifies raping, enslaving, and trafficking Yazidi women and girls.
Despite the impressions that reports from afar might give, IS’s violence is not indiscriminate. By targeting the Yazidis, IS stands not only to capture territory but to shore up its image as a judge of infidels, playing to the gallery of potential allies worldwide. And an especially vulnerable, especially hated sect makes a prime target.
The Yazidis’ situation clearly demands urgent action, but any intervention by the international community must allow the Yazidis to define themselves on their own terms. They have had other identities forced on them before, by turns making them invisible and labelling them as targets.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq declared the Yazidis Arab by ethnicity and their religion a sect of Sunni Islam. This was part of a massive push to Arabise Iraq that included forced resettlements and official disregard for the Yazidis’ distinct linguistic, ethnic, and religious culture.
Equally, labelling the Yazidis as a splinter group of Sunni Islam has exposed them to new dangers, since perceived apostates face even harsher persecution from radicals than “pagans” do.
Today, things are very different. Yazidis are already being granted asylum in Europe and North America. Germany, which already has a substantial Yazidi population, recently agreed to take in 1,000 refugees.
Armenia, too, has been a destination for Yazidi emigrants for generations. A new Yazidi temple is due to be built there, and Armenia’s draft constitution might pave the way for proportional representation for the 40,000 Yazidis that now reside within its borders. This has all the hallmarks of a sustainable home away from their ancestral home.
But despite these encouraging steps, prospects abroad are grim for the Yazidis. We spoke to Dawud Khetari, a Yazidi historian from the Sheikhan region of northern Iraq, who managed only the weakest hint of optimism: “Yes, we will preserve our culture, but it will not be the same. We will lose our language. We will lose our traditions when far away from the burial grounds and pilgrimage sites.”
The Yazidis’ ancestral lands in Iraq, which include a sacred spring and valley, mausoleums and shrines, are vital for their continuity. Protecting these sites is no small task. One measure would be to secure the most significant holy sites in the Sinjar and Sheikhan regions to protect pilgrimages and traditional learning. Kerim Suleman, formerly a spiritual leader within the Yazidi community and currently director of the Lalish Cultural Centre in Dohuk, told us that: “we need a wall. We need boots on the ground, an international peacekeeping force.”
That may seem far-fetched, but it’s hardly unprecedented. A force protecting it could resemble the international militias that are currently mobilising to protect Shia shrines from IS, or the co-operative security at Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Down, not out
In one sense, the assaults by IS are nothing new for the Yazidis, but the advanced weaponry that IS captured in Mosul and then unleashed on Yazidi villages meant the scale of the 2014 attacks was far worse than anything seen before.
But on the flip side, advanced military technology greatly assisted the rescue of Yazidis from Mount Sinjar. Advanced communication meant the world was aware of the attacks as they unfolded; it may yet help the scattered Yazidis to organise across the diaspora. And advanced security and surveillance capacities could preserve the sites the Yazidis hold most sacred.
The outside world might never know the full extent of the atrocities inflicted on the Yazidis in the past year, and no single remedy will be fully effective or fully satisfactory. Still, we can begin to repair the damage. Even in the face of genocide, this resilient community can once again defy the odds – if it only gets the help it needs.