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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Yazidi Genocide Survivors Still Suffering 7 Years Later

August 3 is a day burned into the memory of every Yazidi. In 2014, ISIS rolled into their home province of Sinjar and a nightmare of unimaginable proportions began. 

Yazidis have lived for centuries in the deserts of northwestern Iraq, with populations also found in Syria and Turkey. With origins dating back 4,000 years, research indicates their syncretic faith is a unique incorporation of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Church of the East and Muslim elements. And because of these differences, ISIS wanted to wipe them out. An attempted genocide began.  

The world watched in horror as men were murdered, boys ripped from their families and brainwashed to become “cubs of the caliphate,” and women and girls forced into sexual slavery. I remember meeting with Yazidis in their holy city of Lalish just outside of ISIS-occupied territory working as a State Department special envoy focused on religious minorities. A father handed me 15 pages of family member names who had been killed or kidnapped; he didn’t know which.  

Other groups in Iraq suffered genocide at the hands of ISIS too. Christians from the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac communities ran for their lives while ISIS ransacked their homes and desecrated their churches. Captured Shia Muslims were killed in mass. The shocking barbarity of ISIS was in full view.

Thankfully, the caliphate fell. But the specter of ISIS remains, with Iraq’s foreign minister requesting continued U.S. military assistance.  And ISIS’ battlefield defeat did not result in a victory for religious minorities, especially the Yazidis. Seven years later, the Yazidi community is still struggling to recover.  

Thousands of Yazidis linger in tent camps. This summer, their vulnerable existence was reinforced when a fire swept through a camp, forcing over 1,000 people to flee. And these camps are shutting down. The Iraqi government announced its decision to close many camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), yet there is no clear place where Yazidis can go. Conditions in Sinjar are a mess. Reconstruction is uneven, and the region is awash with rival militias. Turkish airstrikes also threaten from above.   

The Iraqi government has taken some positive steps. On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit, Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives, passed the Yazidi Survivors Bill, which authorized assistance to survivors of ISIS atrocities. Hopefully, the government will quickly distribute these resources.  

But more action is needed. Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, said while Yazidis appreciated the “outpouring of support” after the genocide, “in some ways corresponding action has not accompanied the expressions of sympathy.” 

Her organization outlined several urgent steps that are needed, such as improved conditions in the aforementioned IDP camps and ensuring accountability for ISIS genociders. While Iraqi courts have tried some ISIS members for terrorism against the state, none have faced justice for the crimes committed against Yazidis or other groups. Prosecuting ISIS members in Iraq for the crimes against Iraqi Yazidis would encourage a besieged community and send a powerful message. 

The United States, the United Nations and several other countries recognized ISIS atrocities targeting Yazidis as genocide. Yet the international community often overlooks their situation, due to the complexities of Iraq and the surrounding region. However, when governments recognize the worst abuses known to mankind to have occurred, the response from human rights respecting nations should be equally robust.   

To concretely assist Yazidis and move past platitudes and speeches, the international community must address key issue sets in new ways before the eighth anniversary arrives next August. There are four actions that can start now, using next August as a deadline to review progress. 

First, commit to locating the more than 2,000 women and girls who remain unaccounted for, something Ibrahim described as “frustrating and emotionally agonizing.” The United Nations, with support from the United States, France and the United Kingdom at the U.N. Security Council, could launch a “find our girls” effort in Syria and Jordan’s refugee camps to locate these lost souls. And for the rescued, provide desperately needed psycho-social assistance to equip survivors to deal with trauma. U.N. member states can provide the funds to help Yazidi children reenter their families and communities, as well as leverage the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF). 

Next, the important work of finding mass graves and documenting the lives lost must continue, both for evidentiary purposes and to provide closure for families. Lastly, and most difficult, devote renewed political and financial resources to see militias removed from Sinjar and reconstruction surge. U.N. Security Council leadership from the U.S., France and the U.K. will be required.  

Yazidis are vulnerable, without powerful tribal connections or an international community to support them from abroad. Their unique way of life is at risk of disappearing, which would tear another thread from Iraq’s multicolored religious tapestry. Defeating ISIS and its ideology will come in part by restoring Yazidis to their homeland, ensuring their safety, security and future.  

Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities during both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on 21 century strategies to combat religious persecution. You can follow him on Twitter.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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