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  • Knox Thames

Yezidi Genocide: Remembrance is essential but not enough

Updated: Aug 5

In August 2014 in northern Iraq, ISIS perpetrated the unthinkable—they slaughter men and boys while enslaving and raping women and girls—all because they believe in something different. A genocide happened on our watch.

As we mark the eighth anniversary of the Yezidi genocide, remembrance is essential, but remembrance alone is not enough.


August 3rd is the day the Yezidi community marks as the start of their genocide. Many have paused this week to remember what happened just eight years ago and to recommit to "never again." However, much like "faith without works is dead," remembrance without action shows weighty statements to be nothing more than arid euphemisms.


The Yezidi community is clear on their needs: they want peace, to return to their homes to live in safety and dignity. But they need help.


Unfortunately, thousands of Yezidis still live in IDP camps around northern Iraq, a glaring failure by the international community and Iraqi government. Despite global recognition of the ISIS atrocities, efforts have fallen short to see Yezidis return in large numbers. The situation of Sinjar and other disputed areas needs to be resolved. But many Yezidis may not be ready to leave the relative security of the camps, with fear of ISIS reemerging and Turkish airstrikes.


However, what Yezidis want most is accountability and the reunification of families.

Justice and peace go hand in hand. Bringing to justice those who committed these evil acts would dissuade future perpetrators while also breaking the cycle of violence by demonstrating justice systems can work. German courts convicting two Iraqis are steps in the right direction for what observers consider the first trials for genocide against Yezidis. But more must be done in Iraq. No longer should ISIS members be tried in Iraq for terrorism against the state, but instead prosecuted for their crimes against Yezidis.


And too many women and girls are still missing. There are occasional good news reports of survivors finding their way home from Syria, but they are increasingly few and far between. Time is running out to rescue the children.


The international community must assist survivors and help search for the missing. Decisive action is needed to find the missing 2,763 Yezidi men, women, and children. Eight years after the genocide, many Yezidis believe loved ones are held with their captors in the Al-Hol camp in eastern Syria.


Last year, we launched an international effort to organize a global search and rescue mission. But sadly, no concrete actions have followed. So, despite findings of genocide and repeated pronouncements expressing concern for Yezidis, the international community has failed to organize any effort to locate them.


It is important to note that other religious minorities share the grim reality facing Yezidis. New reports about challenges confronting Christians and others paint a daunting picture. Efforts to assist one community in concert with efforts to help others could revitalize spiritual life in northern Iraq. At least one Assyrian Christian girl—Carolyn—is also known to be held captive by ISIS fighters in Al-Hol.


The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others, with the assistance of UN agencies, could lead an effort to look for ISIS survivors in Al-Hol. A simple census of the women's camp to collect names, date and places of birth, and cell phone photographs could be the key to locating the whereabouts of hundreds.


However, competing priorities, the unwillingness to make hard choices, and the ease of delay all dilute and undermine these opportunities. When a former Facebook executive said in January that "nobody cares" about the genocide against Uyghurs in China, he spoke an ugly truth out loud. The same seems to be true about helping Iraqi genocide survivors trapped in Al-Hol.


While the situation is dire for religious minorities, there is still hope for renewal. Since 2014, I have come to know the Yezidi people and consider many my friends. I have visited Lalish and Lincoln, two global centers of Yezidi life. I have been continually impressed by their kind spirit, steadfastness in the face of impunity, and commitment to maintaining their way of life and beliefs. And they are brave. Just look at the courage of Nadia Murad and others who tell her story to the world and the doggedness of groups like Yazda.


I saw this courage firsthand in September 2017 when visiting northern Iraq as a State Department official. I had the honor of cutting the ribbon on a reconstructed Yezidi temple in Khoshaba. The temple had been rebuilt by the community themselves, without international assistance. It was a significant event, with old men and women, youth, and young children crowding around to happily mark the revival of Yezidi life in this small town. Despite the uncertainty and loss, they celebrated. The Yezidis were not going to disappear.


It was a powerful symbol that ISIS would not exterminate them, that the genocide failed, and that ISIS had lost.


But the fight to protect and preserve Iraq's religious diversity is far from over. Threats still loom over Yezidis, either from terrorism or the slow disintegration of their community. Yezidis practice a unique faith, part of the intricate and delicate tapestry of religious life in Iraq. Their safe return to Sinjar would preserve this ancient culture in its ancestral homeland.


Yezidis have survived for thousands of years and will continue living out their faith and customs. But they need our help. The time for talk is over. We must commit to tangible action to help ensure they survive.


Knox Thames is a former State Department official, serving in the Obama and Trump administrations as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities. He is writing a book on ending persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.


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