“On the way back to school a car pulled up next to me. He was sitting in the front seat. He talked to me in German and asked: ‘Are you Ashwaq?’ I was so scared I started shaking. I said: ‘No, who are you?” After escaping from Iraq, Ashwaq, a member of the Yezidi community, met her captor on the streets of Germany. Her captor confronted her and began speaking Arabic, telling her that he knew everything about her life in Germany. Ashwaq was only 14-years-old when IS ravaged her city in northern Iraq and took her captive, using her for sex and servitude. After her encounter in the German town of Schwabisch Gmund, where she had hoped to start a new life, Ashwaq returned to northern Iraq.
This is not an isolated incident of an escaped Yezidi girl meeting their captors in Germany, according to Duzen Tekkal founder of HAWAR.help, an organization that helps Yezidi women settle into their new lives by providing resources and reintegration services. During ISIL’s reign of terror from 2014 until 2017, over 6,000 Yezidi women and children were taken captive and thousands of men were killed. Most Yezidis hail from the Sinjar province in northwestern Iraq, where 50,000 families have been expelled from. Now, it is a no-man’s land with approximately 70% of buildings damaged or destroyed. It is estimated that that about 400,000 Yezidis have been internally displaced throughout provinces of Iraq and Syria. Now more than 3,000 women, men, and children are still missing. Saad Babir, communication manager at Yazda Organization told VOA that basic needs such as electricity, water and education are lacking and that since IS’s dissolution no attention is paid to the victims of IS, especially in regard to rehabilitation.
The organized crimes of sexual violence against Yezidi women make them a particularly vulnerable population. The lack of resources in their displaced communities and the stigma surrounding sexual and gender based crimes stunt their ability to restabilize and re-enter their families and communities. In order to rebuild the Yezidi community, the United Nations and the international community should focus resources to rebuild Sinjar, provide programs that include PTSD support for crimes of sexual violence, and promote dialogue between families, religious, and community leaders to reintegrate Yezidi women back into society.
From Misunderstanding to Massacre
The Yezidi people are a religious minority scattered across northern Iraq, parts of Syria, southeastern Turkey, and Armenia. They practice one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions which involves the worship of the Creator and his seven great spirits. One of the names of the spirit is “Shaytan” which in Arabic means “devil” and has contributed to the stigma of Yezidi as “devil-worshippers.” This has led to a largely stigmatized understanding of the Yezidi people from their Arab and Kurdish neighbors.
Yezidi stigmatization reached an ultimate breaking point when in August of 2014, ISIS attacked Sinjar Province and its surrounding villages, where over 60% of Yezidis in the country lived. 35,000-50,000 Yezidis fled to locations on their holy place, Mount Sinjar, where they faced starvation and attacks from ISIS fighters. The IS fighters forced men to convert to Islam or die and abducted the women and girls to be held captive or traded as slaves. An FIDH report called this a fundamentalist revival of the Islamic practice of “Al-Sabi,” the capture and enslavement of non-believers.
A limited number of Yezidis have since returned to rebuild their homes, living instead in approximately 20 displacement camps within the Dohuk governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan. As of February of 2017, over 240,000 Yezidis were still living in camps. The women and children who do return do not realize the full extent of their trauma and victimization until they realize the majority of their close relatives have been either killed or are still missing. Humanitarian aid, medical & psychosocial support is disorganized and insufficient to respond to the needs of the Yezidi community. There are also legal complexities: the chaos ISIS wrought has caused the loss of identification cards and left marriages undocumented which has been a logistical barrier to gaining access to healthcare, government aid, and applying for visas.
In the Iraqi-Kurdish city of Dohuk, returning women report their cases to the Investigation and Evidence Collection Commission created by the Kurdistan Regional Government for the purposes of investigating and gathering evidence of crimes committed against Yezidis. Their testimonies are collected, followed by a medical examination which includes a virginity test. However, these women are not followed up with special post-traumatic psychological assistance.
Currently, Iraqi law does not provide for the prosecution of international crimes like crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocidal crimes committed by ISIS. Instead Iraq’ response to ISIS’s crimes has been through its counter-terrorism laws, specifically No 13 (2005), which is overly broad in scope and ambiguous. The law also imposes the death penalty for any act of “terrorism” or “crimes against state security” regardless of the severity of the act. These ambiguous laws reflect the social attitudes and values in relation to gender norms. There are no specific laws geared towards crimes of sexual and gender-based violence.
Arguably the Yezidi population’s most immediate need is humanitarian assistance. The United States and other states must continue dismantling explosive remnant of war (ERW) because they kill returning civilians, deny access to repair teams to damaged critical infrastructure which would allow the delivery of essential social services, allow fertile farmland to be cultivated, and accelerate economic recovery in the region. The Iraqi government should direct its resources and NGOs to the Sinjar Province in an effort to rebuild the region through infrastructure. Having lost so many of their people, many of the young men who would be responsible for construction and rebuilding efforts, it is critical to send aid-workers to assist in the rebuilding. This includes the construction of medical centers and hospitals. Only then, Yezidis can repatriate their lands. In the meantime the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) should continue to facilitate the resettlement programmes for Yezidi victims and their families to third states, reaching out to displacement camps in Iraq and Kurdistan.
To ameliorate the lives of Yezidi women, international groups should sponsor special programs like that of HAWAR.help to empower, teach job-skills, offer literacy courses, and give post traumatic support to them. It is necessary to develop programs with specialized support to victims of SGBV and create frameworks for psychological support and community integration.
It is also important to keep an active conversation about the return of Yezidi women to their communities by de-stigmatizing their suffering and emphasizing that the crimes they were subjected to should not be used to stigmatize and reject them. Moving forward, local aid workers should educate girls’ families about the past injustices they suffered and the importance of inclusion, to promote community values and integration. One way is to advocate on behalf of the children born to Yezidi women by IS members and highlight that the children are innocent and the women should not have to abandon their children to be accepted back into the community. Baba Sheikh, a top Yezidi religious leader, has confronted this issue with the spiritual practice of “Lalish” — a renewal ceremony for followers of the Yezidi religion. Through this ritual, members can be spiritually cleanse themselves of their past.
As far as the available services for women, medical practitioners should outlaw the virginity test, which the World Health Organization calls “unscientific, unreliable, invasive and degrading”. Practitioners can enforce the international court ruling Aydin v. Turkey which held, “For offenses involving sexual violence, States must provide for a reversal of the burden of proof such that the victims are not obliged to provide any evidence other than their own statement.”
The Yezidi are a “disputed minority” and thus have no political consensus, preventing them from self-governance and a say of their affiliation to Baghdad or Kurdistan. However, giving the Yezidi community a voice, establishing a local government and recognizing their legitimacy may give them leverage to make demands from Iraqi or Kurdish courts or even develop their own international court system.
Part of bringing closure to Yezidi women and the Yezidi community as a whole is to hold the perpetrators accountable. Iraqi authorities may be obliged to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC in terms of crimes perpetrated in Iraq by ISIS and enact in legislation crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes as defined in the statute. They must ensure that all investigations and legal proceedings of IS members comply with international standards of fair trial guarantees and due process. In September of 2017, the UN Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 2379 establishing an investigative team to support the Iraqi gov’t in “collecting, preserving and analyzing evidence of serious crimes purportedly committed gby IS” however this has not been followed through due to barriers by the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. So, the UN must re-establish communication with these governments and a renewed commitment to allow the the team to investigate.
Caught in the midst of political powers, without political consensus or the power to self-govern, the Yezidi community has been political disenfranchised for decades. Now, because their peoples have been killed or displaced from their historic Sinjar province, there is a real lack of stability for the future. It is important that the displaced Yezidi population returns to their ancestral homeland and rebuild it for the preservation of their people.
The role of women is integral to the functioning of a society. With so much deep emotional, psychological and physical trauma from enslavement and witnessing the atrocious crimes of ISIL, Yezidi women need extra support through recovery programs. The community must work on removing stigma from SGBV in order to promote integration.
The importance of recognizing genocidal actions is integral for restoring justice to a community and continuing a peaceful pluralistic society. Recognizing and meeting the specific needs of Yezidi women and their continued struggle to find acceptance among their people after a terrible period of abuse is the only way to move forward from a very dark period in the region’s history. This stands as a testament that genocide will not go unnoticed and crimes against humanity will not go unaddressed. Through hard work and dedication, the Yezidi community can once again flourish and stand as a testament against the wishes of IS.