Surviving the 74th Genocide: Şengal’s Yezidis Endure

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

The Yezidi community is one of the most oppressed and marginalized minorities in the world. As a legacy of at least 74 genocides throughout their history, the number of Yezidis have dwindled to near extinction levels. From the 14th to the 18th century, the Yezidi population fell from 23 million to 2 million, before falling even further to less than 1 million by the 1990s. Forced Islamization across history has also contributed significantly to the reduction of these numbers. The history of cyclical violence imposed on this community has not only reduced their asset base, but driven them deeper into poverty and despair. This is why the effects of the 2014 genocide continues to have catastrophic impacts on the very existence of the Yezidis.

The invasion of ISIS and its attacks on Iraq resulted in at least 6 million Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs), including the Yezidis. While the majority of these displaced have returned home, the Yezidi community remains the least returned portion of that population. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Şengal “has the lowest return rates in the country, with just 36% of the original population returning.”

Yet, for millennia the Yezidis have managed to defiantly remain on their traditional lands of Şengal (Sinjar), which has been crucial to their survival both culturally as well as physically. However, the post 2014 genocide policies implemented by Western powers, ostensibly to help protect and preserve these indigenous people, has contributed – alongside ineffective post-conflict reconstruction – to promoting the displacement from their ancestral homeland. The ongoing displacement of the Yezidis from their traditional homeland is on some level a continuation of soft genocidal policies implemented on these vulnerable people for centuries.

Currently the majority of Yezidis officially live in Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate, though many of them would refer to their homeland by its Kurdish name Êzîdxan “Land of the Yezidis”. Other Yezidi communities can be found in Rojava in Hasaka, Qamislo, and Afrin (prior to Turkey’s 2018 occupation). There are similar small pockets of Yezidis in Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey), as well as Armenia and Georgia. Of note, a large diaspora community exists in Germany, in particular around the city of Celle, while the largest Yezidi diaspora in the US can be found in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The structure of the Yezidis, estimated around 500,000 to 1.5 million at the time, was irrevocably fractured with the 2014 invasion of Şengal by ISIS. The resulting mass displacement and human suffering has caused a scattering of these ancient people from their historical and traditional lands to surrounding villages, countries, IDP camps, and the global diaspora. Ongoing prejudices and ignorant stereotypes of  “devil worshipping” and other similar tropes continue to propagate the further marginalization and second class status of the Yezidi people at home, prompting many to see exile as a viable option. Local governments have failed to adequately support the post-genocide and war-shattered Yezidi communities at home and in the diaspora, leaving the community to struggle on multiple fronts.

According to UN reports, the goal in preserving indigenous communities should be “distinctly different from other groups within a state.” This process entails the urgency of attention on:

“a special attachment to and use of their traditional land whereby ancestral land and territory has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples; on an experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination because these peoples have different cultures, ways of life or modes of production than the national hegemonic and dominant model.”

The ongoing displacement and lack of effective and timely reconstruction of the war-shattered region of Şengal, has likely resulted or will result in the disintegration of the last remnant of the ancient Yezidi faith. But the added layers of geopolitical complexity facing the survival chances of these people has led experts to argue that the “Yezidi situation is dangerous in the light of regional powers’ (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) competition and rivalry in Iraq and Syria.”

For their part, Yezidi activists have argued that the continued ruins and lack of safety in their homes and villages have resulted in a “pervasive hopelessness… driving emigration to Europe.” The result is the prevalence of the view that “emigration – and indefinite exile in camps – is effectively a slow continuation of the genocide to eradicate the Yazidi population in Iraq.”

2014 ISIS Attacks

On August 3rd, 2014 ISIS launched a surprise attack on Mount Şengal (Sinjar) and horrific acts of violence and terror ensued. Close to 400,000 were forced to flee on foot, including the elderly, children, pregnant women, and the disabled. Essentially abandoned by the global community to the fate of ISIS, it was only the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) coming from the Qandil Mountains, alongside YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters who crossed from neighboring Rojava, who rushed to their aid on Mount Şengal. These Kurdish forces then carved out a corridor to shepherd Yezidis westward into Rojava.  But in the areas outside their protection, a number of massacres and gross human rights violations had already occurred. In the first few days of the genocide alone “1,293 people were killed and 6,417 people were abducted.”

Many who were trapped died of hunger and thirst or exhaustion. Thousands of Yezidis were taken as prisoners by ISIS or outright executed. As is typical in the case of genocides, boys older than 12 were violently removed from their families and forcibly converted to Islam and then placed into the ranks of ISIS. Those who refused were executed. Many of the women and children witnessed acts of violence against their men. These women and children were then trafficked into the ISIS Caliphate in Syria where a worse fate awaited them.

Non-Yezidi Kurds are themselves tragically familiar with the concept of gender-based violence and abuses. Women and children are often the most vulnerable elements in society and usually end up paying the highest price in such conflicts. Kurdish history is tragically rife with hundreds of instances of wars and invasions in which the women and children are summarily kidnapped and taken as hostages, to be distributed among the victorious tribes and nations.

In 2014, as ISIS went on a shocking rampage of terror and violence in Şengal and the international community watched in frozen horror and ineptitude, close to 7,000 Yezidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold into slavery in Syria and Iraq. These women, some as young as 7 or 9 were forced to convert to Islam and married off to ISIS fighters, or sold in open slave markets. Many attempted to escape only to face further violence and brutality, others committed suicide, while many persevered bravely and managed to save themselves and sometimes their fellow captured Yezidi sisters too.

According to one of the freed Yezidi women, Nadia Murad, who later became a global ambassador for the Yezidi community, sexual violence was an active tool used in the genocidal policies of ISIS against the Yezidis and in a bid to permanently eradicate the community. On her website, Nadias Initiative, she argues that, “Sexual violence was strategically used as a weapon of war and codified in ISIS manuals that explained how to traffic Yazidi women. ISIS believed that violating women would destroy the community from within.”

But, young girls and women were not the only victims. Young boys were also major victims of the ISIS attack on Şengal. The young boys were taken and separated from their mothers and then brainwashed and trained as a separate squad of disposable fighters sent on suicide missions.

Yezidis fleeing Şengal on a truck in August of 2014. (Photo by Zmnanko Ismael for the “Nobody’s Listening” exhibition)

The ‘Sinjar Agreement’

To date, 9 years after the tragic attack on Şengal, thousands of Yezidis are still missing and yet to be recovered. Thousands of children have become orphaned, at least 80 mass graves have been discovered so far, and well over 200,000 are still living in 15 IDP camps across the region. While thousands have been recovered, many are still missing with their fates unknown as the Yezidi community remains in a state of perpetual anxiety and suffering. Mass trauma and CPTSD prevails in an atmosphere of increasing hopelessness and lack of international and regional support for the reconstruction of Şengal and surrounding towns and villages. The Yezidi leadership has found it difficult to effectively influence local and regional politics in their favor or that of the reconstruction of their towns and villages.

Scholars have argued that because of their often marginalized and poverty-stricken status within societies, indigenous peoples find it hard to “influence national policies, laws, and institutions that could improve their life chances and shape their collective future. As a result, most indigenous peoples have been socially, politically, and economically marginalized, endangering their survival in a rapidly changing environment.” This is deeply true of the Yezidi people and their current plight.

The reconstruction process in Şengal has been sporadic and fraught with political conflict and infighting. Years after its liberation, many roads, houses, and public infrastructure remain in rubble or barely re-developed. Initial estimations indicated that up to 70% of the infrastructure was destroyed in the ISIS attacks, with much of this yet to be reconstructed. For much of the past few years, Şengal city remained empty and devoid of life. Those who chose to return came back to a ghost town with no electricity, water, or basic services.

Back in 2021, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi stated that “We are proceeding with the implementation of the Sinjar Agreement, which will pave the way for launching reconstruction and construction projects in the region.” However, the evidence indicates that the normalization process has been a slow one at best, with thousands of IDP Yezidis waiting to return to their homes.

Şengal remains a contested site of ethno-religious struggles and supremacy of one group over the other. According to the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, the region remains as part of the contested territories between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi federal government. Until the ISIS attack on Şengal, the region was under the indirect control of the KRG, but the resulting assault by the terror group ruptured a number of unofficial truces regarding the region.

Currently, a number of para-military forces operate in the area, including the Kurdistan Region Peshmerga, Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic), Ezidikhan Asayish, YPZ, and the Iraqi army – causing ongoing tensions and conflict which result in prolonging the suffering of those who have returned to their homes. Iran and Turkey remain key players in the region, with Turkey targeting the YBŞ presence in the region and Iran endeavoring to increase the influence of the PMF.

The presence of the YBŞ remains a key issue for Turkey, which sees it as an offshoot of the PKK and as a result has repeatedly threatened a ground invasion to oust the group. According to experts, “The PKK helped train and support the YBS, assisting the flight and the return of Yazidi refugees, and fighting IS, complementing efforts by the US-led military coalition in 2014. After IS had been driven from the region, the PKK-backed YBS maintained influence.” Moreover, the YBŞ consists of local Yezidis who retain a legitimate presence and claim over the issues that continue to affect the region, including the security situation. Turkey’s problematic insistence on eradicating the YBŞ – especially when viewed in conjunction with their collaboration with the very ISIS militants who tried to destroy the Yezidis – can only create a security quagmire that will deepen the conflict.

Back in October 2020, the UN brokered the ‘Sinjar Agreement’, which was signed between Baghdad and Hewlêr (Erbil), in a bid to rebuild the region and encourage the return of the Yezidi’s to their homes. The goal of the Agreement was to “to expel armed groups, integrate the YBS into local security forces, facilitate the return of displaced people to their homes, accelerate reconstruction, and improve public services.” Baghdad was charged with the responsibility of reconstructing the region. However, the deal has yet to be implemented effectively and the reconstruction has been slow and stilted. At the same time, Turkey’s repeated airstrikes in the region has caused further terror and fear on the part of the hapless civilians. Neighboring Iran, meanwhile, has close ties to Hashd forces and continues to support the Shi’ite armed forces in their efforts at regional supremacy against the various Kurdish factions. Amidst a precarious security environment, the Yezidi community has remained largely paralyzed amidst the complicated situation on the ground. While both the federal government and the KRG are equally responsible for the reconstruction of the region, experts argue that “neither has the political power or the local buy-in to put them into action.”

According to the International Crisis Group, “To address the dangerous delay in putting the Sinjar agreement into practice, Baghdad and Erbil should work toward greater acceptance of the deal from the broad range of local armed actors and community representatives concerned.” Similarly, on the importance of promoting return to ancestral lands and preservation of indigenous communities the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) has noted that the most effective “approach would start with developing assistance packages that take into account the on-going risks of displacement, while also addressing the causes of the conflict that are forcing people to flee in the first place. These include poverty and marginalization.” None of these efforts are currently present, resulting in the continuation of the uncertainty facing the Yezidis.

A Fraught Future

As part of their genocidal policies, ISIS would often engage in wholesale destruction of essential infrastructure including the deliberate destruction of schools, destroying farms and livestock, burning olive and fruit groves, as well as the destruction of farm equipment, hospitals, electrical networks, homes, and polluting water sources. Life became literally unsustainable in Şengal. Meanwhile recent estimates by the UN indicate that ISIS retains at least 6,000-10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, with sleeper cells active throughout the region which indicates that the threats against the community are far from over or effectively reduced.

The result of the events of the 2014 ISIS attack on Şengal has caused a mass exodus, with recent numbers estimated that 120,000 Yezidis have left the region. Many have taken the illegal and dangerous routes to reach Europe, while countries such as Germany, Sweden, Canada, Australia and more have taken large portions of Yezidis. Since 2015, a number of initiatives have resulted in thousands of Yezidis being accepted on special humanitarian visas. Yezidi women have been the main recipient of these initiatives as a result of their gender-based experiences in the war against ISIS. Between the 2015-2016 period, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) supported “over 1,000 Yazidi women to come to the German Federal State of Baden-Württemberg, among them 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad.” Yet, many challenges remain.

The diaspora Yezidis continue to face many challenges, displaced, and disconnected from their ancient roots. Reports have indicated that poverty, even in the diaspora, remains a key issue that limits the effective integration of the Yezidi community:

“Poverty is a root cause of social exclusion and must be addressed if social integration is to be achieved. Recognizing people’s right to development, and making it operational, are preconditions to finding effective solutions to many of Yezidi accumulating social problems, including the problem of social integration.”

Globally an anti-indigenous sentiment continues to determine the future of many indigenous peoples including the Yezidis. According to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in her text An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, when in 2007 the UN General Assembly passed the major turning point policy in indigenous rights with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, four nations stood in opposition. Of course, all of them were Anglo settler-states including the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. Even in the most advanced democracies notions of soft assimilation policies trumps ideas of multicultural coexistence.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council: “For a minority like the Yezidis, it’s important to stick together as people. But without more international support to ensure lasting peace, inclusion, and sustainability in Sinjar, we run the risk of the Yezidi people remaining scattered for all time.” But it can also be argued that the soft, cultural genocide of the Yezidi community is still ongoing as these ancient people are stuck between multiple competing and equally difficult existentialist struggles in a world which continues to uphold assimilation and one national identity above all else.

From choosing exile in the diaspora and facing a range of challenges including eventual assimilation and loss of their culture and language, to remaining in an unstable security, economic, and political environment, or continuing to live in plastic tents, the Yezidi community is facing perhaps its worst and final genocide. The ideal solution should be the immediate reconstruction, compensation, and post-conflict reconciliation process that will allow the Yezidi people to return to their homes, rebuild their communities, and reconnect with their roots and culture on their ancestral homeland. As a world we must ensure that Yezidis are protected, as their ancient culture is a thread in the wider tapestry of humanity worth preserving.

Author

  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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