Advocacy Opinion 

Yazidis: the oppressed minorities of the Arab world

Who are Yazidis?

Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority group in the Arab World, most of whom reside in Northern Iraq/Kurdistan.

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Current persecution of Yazidis

If you do not know who Ms. Nadia Murad is, you may only need a little reminding. She is one of the Yazidi women who was kidnapped by Daesh to be a slave to their depraved actions. She managed to escape and return to safety. Afterwards, she was graciously represented by celebrity attorney Amal Clooney, who sued the Daesh leaders in international court. Nadia spoke courageously and told her story. After this, the United Nations elected her to be an ambassador, and continues to support her in her mission to tell her story as a cautionary tale of what can happen when minorities are not protected.

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To judge air quality in mines, miners used to put a few birds (canaries) in a cage in the mine. If the birds started dying, the miners would then know there was a poisonous but invisible gas building up in the air of the mine, and that their lives were in danger, too.

Minorities are not birds; they are people; but their condition is an indicator of the general health of the overall population of a society. If the minorities are in trouble, the whole country is in trouble.

Racism and bigotry are always a sad reality, but usually held in check during times of relative stability. When there is stress on society – as when the economy fails – people will look around for someone to blame. Many times they do not look at the policymakers whose decisions made the instability, or the corporations who had no concern for the worker.

Reminiscent of a bird turning its head, obtusely seeking at its own eye-level, too many search ignorantly for someone to blame. Instead of looking “up” at the power structure that may create the problem, their eyes latch on to the first human who looks “different”. This instinct is animalistic; if an animal can drive others away, there is less competition for resources. Maybe, that is it. Perhaps that is why minorities are the first targeted in times of strife or war.

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Extremist bigots such as Daesh are always bent on subjugating or destroying minorities and others who may not agree with their views. Throughout history we read of massacres of minorities (genocides), and we wonder how these things could have happened. Surely there were citizens who opposed the mass slaughter of men, women and children- but who dares to oppose monsters doing such things? It is death, too, for those that dare to object aloud. It is the rape and slaughter, also, of their own children. Especially in an atmosphere of such insanity; mass killings and modern-day regression into the slavery of humans… there is a desperate effort to make sense of it all.

Many fall into the traps of wild conspiracy theories. Anything seems more plausible than to think our own neighbour or cousin could be motivated to become a cold-blooded killer or simply to fail to protect their fellow innocent citizens.

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Ms. Murad wants to speak about what has happened to the Yazidi people; about how they were and are vulnerable to attack, and about how they need protection even in the future. She has wanted to explain to other people how the Yazidis feel as an ethno-religious minority group in the Arab world. They would like to feel they have allies in the region. They would like to have understanding and interaction on what happened from other tribes, sects, and states. They ask for an official genocide to be acknowledged as having happened against them, as Daeh targeted the Yazidi people for extermination.

There was also a confusion about how, when Daesh first came into Shingal on that horrible day, August 3, 2014, the military was so unprepared and could not, for whatever reason, launch a defence for the Yazidi people as they were being captured, lined up and murdered. Many Yazidi people felt abandoned, or worse; betrayed.

This feeling seems to cause outrage among many Kurdish and Iraqi people (though not all). The situation feels tense. Discussion should always be open, but discussion cannot happen among those angry and denying. Sometimes it takes time to consider.

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When Daesh took the city of Mosul in April, many of the people of Sinjar were, or course, concerned. At that time, most of the world’s population of Yazidi people lived in Sinjar, Iraq. They had been nervous about Daesh a good while, because it had quickly become obvious that Daesh would strongly target Yazidis.

On Western news outlets, much was said about the suffering Daesh was causing for Christians in the Middle East, but not much was said about their special hatred for Yazidis. As Daesh first invaded Mosul, most Christians were told they could either leave the city or convert to Islam, but they weren’t killed. Christians were given that choice, while Yazidis were given none, but these specifics were not covered in Western media.

I do not want to imply that Daesh adherents are strong examples of practicing Muslims, but perhaps Christians were treated differently as they are considered among many Muslims to be “people of the book”; monotheists who share the same God and Prophets as Muslims. However, for Islamic extremists, Yazidis are nothing more than adherents of a distorted, alternative religion, and for some bizarre, irrational reason, are therefore void of any fundamental human rights.

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Concerning Yazidis, Daesh policy was to kill all males over the age of 12, and older males were lined up and shot in the back of the head. Of the captured, older women were also murdered because they had no use for them. Younger males were kept alive to be brainwashed to fight or become suicide bombers for Daesh, or sometimes they were simple servants. Young girls might stay with their mothers or be adopted out, but many young children were killed at this time. In at least one especially insane show of cruelty, Daesh soldiers took a mother’s infant, cooked it’s flesh, and tried to force the mother to eat her own child.

Most of the captured young women and girls over the age of 9 were sold at market to be sex slaves to Daesh soldiers; with those considered finest reserved for the military commanders.

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Geostrategic importance of Yazidi “territory”

For those who do not understand; Kurdistan is and has been a contested region of Iraq for a long time. Kurdistan wants freedom from Iraq. The city of Sinjar sits in the Ninevah Plains; a historical area which is the subject of much controversy about rightful ownership. Assyrian Christians and others also claim part of this territory and wish an official homeland there.

From outside Iraq, the American war and activity on Iraqi soil was and is seen by many as an invasion. Others see it as a liberation. From inside Iraq, opinion about American presence is largely split along sectarian lines. While religion did not seem to play so strong a role before 2003, it has become a more serious issue now, particularly in the aftermath of Daesh’s persecution of all others except Sunni Muslims.

Before 2003, the city government of Sinjar was dominated by Iraqi Arabs, not Kurds, but this changed. After the American occupation, the Kurds had assumed the lead in local government in Sinjar, but a battalion of Iraqi (Arab) soldiers had remained in military control.

In modern recent days, Kurdish Peshmerga normally patrolled only the more immediate region surrounding Sinjar, manning numerous checkpoints in Kurdistan. The Iraqi Army was also stationed at Sinjar and mainly patrolled at the border between Iraq and Syria. One day in May 2014, another whole new battalion of Iraqi soldiers arrived, led by a very competent General Hassan. With them, this fresh battalion of Iraqi forces brought a very large amount of weaponry and ammunition.

This motion at least doubled the already large Iraqi military presence that was in Sinjar. However, there was a strong negative political reaction to the Iraqi military action from the (Kurdish) Sinjar city government and the Peshmerga military leaders.  The city even closed down the schools and government offices and directed the citizens of Sinjar to go and protest. Most Yazidi people felt no reluctance to participate in this protest. They had faith in the Peshmerga, and as Kurds, they felt loyalty to Kurdistan. With their other neighbours of different faiths, they took signs and tents and camped outside the base of the Iraqi Army, saying they did not need or want more Iraqi military there. And so, after a few days, the new battalion left, but the original Iraqi battalion remained.

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How Daesh captured Yazidi territory

The following month, the city of Tal Afar, and surrounding villages, with population 200,000 and less than an hour drive away from Sinjar, fell to Daesh. This area was on the route between Mosul and Sinjar. The Iraqi military had also been stationed at Tal Afar but were unable to hold Daesh back and retreated in return to the south.

The people of Tal Afar were mostly Sunni Turkmen, and many joined with Daesh, though many also fled to Sinjar. The citizens of Sinjar began to feel even more nervous. They asked reassurance from Kurdish leaders. The leader of Kurdistan, President Barzani, addressed the people of Sinjar; telling them to not worry because Kurdistan and the Peshmerga would never abandon them.

In early July, the original and remaining Iraqi Army troops of Sinjar also left, returning to Southern Iraq. It is told that when they left, the Iraqi Army also left a huge amount of weaponry and ammunition, but whether or not this is accurate cannot be confirmed.

In late July, a warning was issued by Kurdish leaders that no one in Sinjar could leave the city unless it were an extreme emergency. The people were not told why; only that they could not not leave. There began to be a terrible sense of foreboding in Sinjar; as some did leave anyway, but very few. Then, on August 3rd, 2014,  Daesh began to enter the city. It soon became apparent that there were some among the residents in Sinjar that had expected and now even welcomed Daesh. When many Yazidis tried to escape, there were some among their neighbours who caught and held them for Daesh.

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In fact, most of the men with Daesh, at least at that time, were not Iraqis; they were foreigners, and these foreigners could not tell who was Yazidi and who was not. Yazidi and Christian women often wear head covering as Muslim women do, and the Yazidi men were also basically indistinguishable from Muslim or Christian men. So certain local Muslims were either elected or volunteered to go door to door in Sinjar, looking for Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, and Christians. This time, Christians were also not given a choice to save their lives.

Previously, in Mosul, Christians had been told they could leave; if they would leave immediately and with only the clothes they were wearing that day. They were told to leave anything else they owned of value in their homes, especially gold jewellery. For whatever reason, in Sinjar, Christians were also taken captives and suffered as Yazidis did.

Shiites were also especially made to suffer during the invasion of Sinjar. Some remember the fate of a high school principal who ran to escape towards the mountains with his wife. As they were being pursued, the wife finally collapsed in exhaustion, could not run any more and was captured. The husband escaped and news eventually reached him that his wife had been burned alive. He is a very tormented soul, remaining alive but inconsolable.

It can be said that the Sunni Muslims who helped Daesh knew that, if they did not cooperate, they would also be killed, or at least severely punished. There were quite evidently those that willingly took part; such as Sunni men, long time residents of Sinjar, who bought Yazidi women to be their sex slaves. There were also others that did nothing but were spectators of one of the most horrible events of modern history. Of course these men did not want their own daughters sold. That is understandable. This is how it is when the individual can change nothing.

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Yazidis and the Kurdish Peshmerga

There were some unharmed Sunnis who refused to stay in the city of Sinjar with Daesh, and they took very little and left. There were some who even risked their lives to hide Yazidis, saving them from death. In the meantime, Yazidi homes were ransacked by others for valuables; their home appliances became upgrades for others’ homes.

The question remains why the Peshmerga did not put up a defence for the Yazidi people. Perhaps there is an understandable excuse. Kurdistan’s President Barzani has made a statement concerning this; claiming that the Peshmerga were overpowered, outnumbered. But there are many unanswered questions.

Up until the capture of Sinjar, the Peshmerga and Daesh had been sharing the same stretch of road for their checkpoints; their roadside buildings just 50 metres apart. It was reported that they had sometimes walked over to each others’ shelters or met in the middle and made small talk; a Peshmerga soldier on occasion saying, “We don’t have a problem with you. We are against the same guys down in Baghdad.”

Everyone there knows the Peshmerga later fought Daesh and battled very valiantly, and many Yazidis, male and female, joined the Peshmerga to fight with them. Everyone wants to feel okay about their fellow man there, but the horrific events the Yazidis and other minorities endured need to be taken into consideration. How can they feel safer? How can they trust as fully as they once did?   

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Solving the problem

In the aftermath, Nadia Murad has tried to tell her story, the story of the Yazidis’ persecution by Daesh, and to bring awareness. What might have prevented it? How can it never happen again?

Can the Yazidi people be allowed the autonomy of their own police forces to protect themselves? This question is met with a very strong denial from many Iraqis as they emphatically insist all citizens of Iraq or Kurdistan, or even Iraq and Kurdistan united, are one and must stand together against agents such as Daesh.

In the aftermath and heartbreak of what has happened, many Iraqi people refuse to acknowledge and talk about the very real fragility of their new-found feelings for unity. Many insist this is especially a time to stand squarely against sectarianism, after Daesh tried and succeeded in turning many groups and individuals against each other. No, no, these deniers insist, this is not the time for Yazidis to stand apart from others in Iraq.

Those who will not focus on the issue of minority integration argue that the people who suffered most in numbers at the hands of Daesh were Muslim, not Yazidis, but it’s not a contest, and to attempt to “quantify suffering” is not the point of this article. Nonetheless, because they are a minority, proportionately, Yazidis suffered most severely, and were expressly targeted for extinction or slavery. They were largely accessible to Daesh by location and especially vulnerable to this horrific event due to the placement of Kurdistan along Iraq’s borders. This in no way is meant to minimise what others went through; only to address the issue of the Yazidi minority specifically.

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1. Understand the problem

There is a special and formal legal status that comes with declaration of genocide that will enable strong prosecution against Daesh in international court. Nadia Murad is seeking this status by gaining a consensus from nations, as well as to tell her story. She requested to give her formal address in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They both declined. She requested to give an address in Israel and they accepted, and it was met with much disapproval in the Arab region.

When Nadia Murad visited Israel to promote her mission in July 2017, a furor erupted on Iraqi and Kurdish social media especially. Again; politics interferes with what is needed to protect the Yazidis. If Israel accepted her address and Arab nations did not, what does this say about the progress of the Arab world in 2017?

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Finally, Kuwait accepted Ms. Murad to give an address there. Egypt should also be recognised, along with the great Sunni Islamic institution, Al Azhar University in Cairo, for accepting Nadia Murad there. These are showing themselves to be very humanitarian and caring.

Why was Murad refused an audience in several Muslim and Arab countries?  Surely they are not sympathetic of Daesh?  Was their decision at all influenced by her being a woman, or, more disturbing, because she had been raped?

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Yazidi women have refused to feel ashamed about anything that happened to them. Some survivors who had escaped capture were too busy taking care of orphans or even joined female Peshmerga units fighting Daesh.  Sexual abuse from Daesh is a difficult subject for many to hear about, but it is a reality that happened and is still happening, as some estimate that there may be as many as 3,000 Yazidi women still in the hands of Daesh.

Not all experiences were the same, and not all could deal with the abuse and torture at the same level. If these young women can be thought of as the warning “canaries in the mine”, their shattered condition will tell us the danger is extremely real.

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2. Integrate Yazidis into Arab efforts

Most Yazidis have still not returned to Sinjar, where the largest population of Yazidis, worldwide, lived just three years ago; over 400,000 of them. Today it is a very dangerous place as Iraqi military, Shiite militias and the Peshmerga continue to battle in and over those neighbourhoods. The Daesh insurgents themselves are now rare, but will Sinjar ever be safe for the Yazidis to return to as it continues to be a geographic intersection of the political struggle between Kurdistan and Iraq?

When Yazidis try to come “home”, will their properties still be there? Or will other people have taken them? Who will help Yazidis recover what they lost, and even support them for full integration and equal rights – or is their homeland lost forever As Ms. Murad recently said,  “I’m afraid this genocide, the one that continues today, will be completed if we are not able to return to our homeland”.

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Yazidi friends in the US will very soon attend a demonstration in Washington, DC, along with Kurds, to promote an independent nation of Kurdistan. They are still with and for Kurdistan, as this is their heritage; but Yazidis are also not against “Iraq”. Yazidis mostly do not wish to be in the middle of the struggle between these two (for lack of a better expression) nations.

This article is to challenge all people and countries to protect minorities. No minority should be left from this list. There is a challenge to all nations, for the sake of the Native Americans, African Americans, and others in the United States; for the Aborigines in Australia. There is a challenge for the sake of the Hazara community in Afghanistan, and the Rohingya in Myanmar. And many more.

We must all do better for our minorities, or our societies are not well and will not thrive in a good and healthy way, as demonstrated above. We can and must do better.

Peace and progress for all.

Written by 

Linda Wesson is a Communications Executive at Arab Millennial.

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