Hollow Freedom for the Yazidi People

Ruined buildings in Sinjar captured in April 2019. (Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons)

Ruined buildings in Sinjar captured in April 2019. (Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons)

The warning that “IS is coming” spread throughout the city of Sinjar in the hours prior to the Islamic State, or IS, invasion on Aug. 3, 2014. Sinjar is located in Northern Iraq on the base of the Sinjar mountains and holds the largest population of the Yazidi people, a minority ethno-religious group that practices one of the world’s most ancient monotheistic religions. The Islamic State considers the Yazidis devil worshippers because of the religion they practice. As IS spread their dominance across Iraq, they approached Sinjar with a malicious message: convert or die. The invasion that day forced over 100,000 Yazidis within the city to flee to Mount Sinjar, a place that is considered a holy sanctuary to their faith. Those who could not escape in time were rounded up by IS forces. The men were slaughtered and thrown into mass graves. As for the women and children, those that were unmarried and above the age of nine were separated from the masses and taken to holding camps. Over the course of the invasion, now considered a genocide by the U.N. Human Rights Council, more than 6,000 Yazidis were captured and transported to prisons and camps. As reported by many taken captive during the invasion, this mass abduction would mentally scar Yazidi women and leave their people with divided families and little hope for reconstruction.

Life was brutal for the Yazidi women in captivity. Those who couldn’t escape to Mount Sinjar were hauled off to IS distribution centers in multiple locations around Iraq, where they were crowded into poorly maintained holding sites until they were sold as sex slaves.  Many accounts from women that have since escaped unveil the stories of rape, abuse and torture that occurred in the holding sites. Women were treated as the property of IS, with each being considered available for purchase. Often, women would attempt to make their bodies less appealing by rubbing dirt and blood on themselves in hopes that they would not get taken during the night. This went as far as some women taking their own lives because that was seen as a better alternative than being taken by an IS fighter. The inhumane treatment that Yazidi women experienced in these holding sites induced mental trauma that would stay with them even after they escaped captivity.

Though Sinjar has since been liberated, the true feeling of freedom has not completely materialized. About 3,200 women and girls remain missing, still enslaved by IS forces in Syria and elsewhere. This has left many families in distress, endlessly waiting for loved ones that may never return. To make matters worse, the environment for the Yazidi people remains unsafe. Those held captive have returned to homes that were demolished in the attack and now sit in disputed territory.

Restabilization efforts have been impeded by the lack of security due to multiple forces battling for the region. Since Sinjar was liberated from IS in 2015, four armed groups have fought for control of the region, preventing the effective execution of any region-wide security measures. Three of these groups are authorities from Baghdad. These include an organization of Iraqi militia groups called the Popular Mobilization Units, the Iraqi army and a group of trained Yazidi fighters called the Ezidxan Protection Force. The fourth group is the People’s Protection Units, which is an armed group affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Each has demonstrated control by displaying flags at intracity checkpoints and using abandoned homes as makeshift bases.

Yazidis have displayed wavering trust in both the Kurdish and Iraqi forces due to their history of continuously being overpowered by IS.  Some have expressed doubts that they would ever return to Sinjar if an international force doesn’t intervene and secure the area. However, international help has been difficult to obtain. Access to foreign aid has been hampered due to the tight security that armed groups keep across the network of security checkpoints into Sinjar. Any travelers deemed as foreigners that attempt to pass through checkpoints surrounding Sinjar are met with strict scrutiny by armed factions, making it very difficult for any organization without explicit permission to go through. Without easy entry into the city, aid organizations are discouraged from bringing any assistance to the Yazidi people, making aid deliveries rare.

The security of Sinjar is further compromised by unexploded munitions and traps left by IS that remain littered in the streets and homes, discouraging many of those that fled from returning. Most of the city is still without functioning electricity and water. Many Yazidis fear that IS will return to raid their homes once again, staging a reprisal attack and restarting the cycle of devastation. Much of this anxiety is fueled by the perception that many neighboring Arab tribes joined IS in the massacre of the Yazidis. As a result, Yazidis no longer trust the place they once called home, harboring concerns about the proximity of their malevolent neighbors.  Some even prepared bags full of clothes and money, just in case they must flee from a surprise attack. Although the neighboring Arabs’ involvement in the killings and capturings remains controversial, uneasiness felt by the Yazidis persists. Families have remained living in tents and cinder block homes atop the barren mountains of Sinjar, subjected to harsh living conditions such as limited access to food and running water as well as severe weather conditions.

The suffering felt by the Yazidis reaches even further past the insecurity of their homeland. Yazidi women remain crippled by the psychological trauma they experienced during their time spent in IS captivity. Many experience suicidal thoughts yet are hesitant to seek out the very limited resources available for therapy. This reluctance could be attributed to the stigma placed on rape victims by Yazidi society, which makes it especially challenging for Yazidi women to rediscover their value in the community. Available mental health resources themselves are usually inefficient because most initiatives that offer resources for those experiencing trauma are small scale and insufficient because of their passivity and moderate level of direct involvement.

Seeking medical treatment outside of Iraq is also extremely difficult for women, as most of their legal documentation was either destroyed or confiscated after the attack. Filing for necessary documents such as birth certificates and passports requires a male relative’s signature, which is often difficult to find after so many have been killed or gone missing. Fees and bureaucratic obstacles also stand in the way of replacing them, leaving little to no viable options for women hoping to leave the country.

A path toward justice and reconciliation for the Yazidi community remains complicated and distant. The foremost concern must be to mount an international effort to find the kidnapped Yazidi women and children. Local organizations such as the Office of the Kidnapped in Dohuk have displayed notable efforts in locating and recovering missing survivors, but a more collective effort is needed. The international community must also refer the genocide of Yazidi people to the International Criminal Court to establish accountability for the crimes against humanity that occurred.

Though efforts toward addressing immediate concerns must remain paramount in any mission toward reconciliation, in order to encourage the displaced to return to Sinjar, a dialogue must be created between the Iraqi forces in Baghdad and Kurdish forces in Erbil that can lead to an agreement for peace in Sinjar. Additionally, international agencies must collaborate with the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to fund reconstruction projects in Sinjar and give needed assistance to the Yazidi people. These funds must include programs that not only provide therapy to Yazidi women that continue to experience severe trauma but also implement a path for Yazidi women to reassert themselves as independent individuals in society.

Despite escaping from captivity, the Yazidi people remain chained by fear and strife. The tribulations of the Yazidi people show that the battle for true freedom continues even beyond the grips of IS.