The Plight of the Yazidis and their Hope for the Future
Two years ago, I went to Kurdistan and the Nineveh region in northern Iraq to visit the persecuted Christians. Driving through the war torn areas with a Catholic priest, I noticed some buildings with conical spires, something I had never seen before. I asked my confrere about them and he told me it was a Yazidi place of worship. Not knowing much about Yazidis, I came to the grappling truth that they too suffered the worst of atrocities under the ISIS onslaught.
Yazidis, an ancient religious minority, number anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000. Most of them are found in the Nineveh and Dohuk provinces with large communities in Sinjar and Shekhan, where a number of their holy sites are located. Like Christians, they too underwent brutal torments by the so-called Islamic State, yet their stories hardly get the necessary coverage in the West.
Genocide of Yazidis by ISIS
At the height of ISIS’ rampage through Iraq in the summer of 2014, over 5,000 Yazidis were massacred. Yazidi children were forcibly converted to Islam and taught Arabic, banned from speaking their native Kurdish. Thousands of Yazidi boys were starved, tortured and forced to fight for ISIS. Many former child soldiers today live with missing arms or legs.
As many as 10,000 women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State. Of notable mention, is the account of Layla Talu, who had been betrayed by her neighbors as they told the Islamic jihadists where she had fled with her family.
At 7 am on the morning of August 3, 2014, Layla, her husband, Marwan Khalil, and their two children, who were aged four and 18 months, left their home. Like tens of thousands of other Yazidis, they hoped to take shelter on Mount Sinjar, but were captured.
After her husband was separated from her, Layla and her children were transported with others to Baaj district, southwest of Mosul, where they were held for four days. From there, they moved to Tal Afar, where they were detained in a school before being transferred again a week later to Badush prison. When the prison was bombed by coalition aircraft, they were sent back to Tal Afar.
Layla says that the women and children were beaten, insulted, threatened and starved. Then, after eight months of this, when many were exhausted by illness, they were transferred to the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’ stronghold. She was continually moved from one place to another, raped and whipped by both Iraqi and Saudi Muslims faithful to the Islamic State.
Stories like these bring back to mind the Islamic jihad carried out by the Ottoman Turks to an Iraqi woman who vividly remembers them. Born on July 1, 1887, Roshi Qasimas,—oldest person alive according to the Guinness Book of world records—as her family says, she witnessed the Islamic “holy war” carried out during the Ottoman era. As early as 1890, the Ottomans set them an ultimatum to convert to Islam, when they refused, their homelands in Sinjar and Shekhan were occupied and the inhabitants massacred. Roshi witnessed 7 massacres committed by the Turks against her community, as the Ottomans killed thousands of Yazidis, though for her, the one carried out by ISIS is the most terrible.
ISIS Ousted but the Struggle Continues
While the threat of ISIS has been contained, like so many Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities, the Yazidis’ troubles are not over.
As personally told to me by a young Yazidi student, Basma Alali, who studies English at the Catholic University of Erbil (CUE)—founded in December 2015 by Archbishop Bashar Warda, of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil—the Kurdish ruling party is “secular and does not tolerate Islamic extremism which in turn has brought some stability in Kurdistan whereby all religions and ethnicities can live together. On the other hand, Arabs Islamists still see Yazidis as infidels, even some official members of the Iraqi government see us as infidels. Some of the ruling parties in the Iraqi government are Islamic extremists and they neglect Yazidis on a continuous basis.”
“Unlike the Christian minority,” Basma says, “who may have support from the outside world because of shared beliefs and religion, we as Yazidis have little to no support, except for humanitarian help by NGOs and some governments. Therefore, rebuilding our lives has been very challenging, not only for my family but more for all Yazidis.”
Fortunately, the Kurdish people tend to welcoming of the Yazidis, making them feel safe. There is also the aforementioned Catholic University of Erbil, providing young Yazidis (and those of other faiths) opportunities they would not find elsewhere in the country.
As recounted by another Yazidi, Safwan, who studies Computer Science at CUE, the university offers scholarships to Yazidi students “who have no possibilities to study at the universities of Mosul and Dohuk.”
For him, CUE has become his “family” because, as he recounts, “before I came to CUE, I had no idea who I was and what my life meant, but eventually I realized it with CUE.”
Yet students such as Basma and Safwan are just a handful of the fortunate ones.
Despite being within a minority among Iraqis, Yazidis are an integral part of the inclusive system of direct, local democracy with which the autonomous administration in Kurdistan is enfranchising Kurdish, Arabic, Yazidi, Syriac and Turkman people alike; all seeking to be seen as equals within the reconstruction of infrastructure and civil society. It is this which marks the Yazidis out for attack once again.
As Patrick Cockburn has reported, when ISIS fighters were re-armed under the Turkish flag for the invasion of Afrin in 2018, they immediately targeted Yazidi villages in a campaign of forced conversions, cultural genocide and the destruction of sacred shrines and temples. Further and systematic persecution of Yazidis.
There is great hope, however, for the Yazidi community in Iraq, though much still has to be done. Basma states:
“I think it is important that Yazidis build a bridge with other communities, especially, the International community to gain support to improve their status. But more crucially, we as Yazidis have to be dependent and rely on ourselves which will require us to develop further and reach positions of authority and power where we can provide help and support to the community to prosper.”
These are tasks, that some Yazidis, such as Safwan, have undertaken. Having the opportunity to develop “a strong background on computers,” Safwan says, “I’m working hard to use my skills to help my community and my country.”
Youngsters like these offer much hope for their brethren and fellow Iraqis, but they cannot do it alone, neither can institutions like the Catholic University of Erbil.
It has been six years since ISIS launched a genocide against the Yazidi people. Although ISIS was altogether driven out in 2016, nearly 200,000 Yazidis still live in displacement camps in the Kurdistan region. In a July report, Amnesty International warned that nearly 2,000 Yazidi children who were subjected to horrendous human rights abuses at the hands of ISIS were not getting the help they need to deal with lasting physical and mental trauma. Like the persecuted Christians and other religious minorities at the hands of Muslim jihadists, Yazidis have barely received significant attention by the international community, thereby making their burdens heavier.
Let us pray and hope that the stories of those like Layla, one of many, are not in vain. And that those, like Basma and Safwan, who have taken it upon themselves to pursue a higher level education will not only motivate others to do likewise, but will ultimately encourage others to come to the aid of a people that desperately need help.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.