A look into the life of the Mount Sinjar Yazidis, one year post Islamic State siege

For the Yazidis, life has become a nightmare.

Yazidi women and children at the United Nations refugee camp at Arbat, near Sulaimani, in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq (photo credit: HAJIR SHARIFI)
Yazidi women and children at the United Nations refugee camp at Arbat, near Sulaimani, in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq
(photo credit: HAJIR SHARIFI)
For no crime other than practicing an ancient and peaceful religion, the Yazidi Kurds have been targeted for extinction by Islamic State. Last year’s Islamic State onslaught on the Yazidi homelands in northern Iraq’s Shingal Mountains drove an estimated 350,000 Yazidis into the Kurdish territories of northern Syria and Turkey, and scattered them across northern Iraq.
Last August, the world started paying attention when several thousand Yazidis found themselves trapped on Mount Sinjar without food, water or shelter. Parents had to dig into the rough soil with their bare fingers to bury the children who lost their lives due to dehydration and hunger.
But now, the world seems to have turned its eyes away. Last December, the UN Food Program announced that its budget for Syrian refugees had run out and that it was unable to provide food for 1.5 million people. In January, 11 children froze to death in a refugee camp in Aleppo.
For the Yazidis, life has become a nightmare. Depending on which country they’ve ended up homeless in, a Yazidi family might be classified as internally displaced persons (IDP) or as UNHRC refugees. Countless thousands survive on construction sites, in back alleys, along roadsides or under bridges, without access to clean water or any of the basic requirements of hygiene.
The UN announced on June 25 that nearly 60 million people around the world are displaced, an exceptional global exodus. Around 30 million of the displaced are children. In July alone 52 displaced children died under the scorching sun of Iraq. Terror and violence follow people to camps.
There are hundreds of thousands of Yazidi children whose names the world does not know. Some of them are girls who were captured by IS and managed to escape. “Yazidi girls as young as eight have bled to death from repeated rapes by the IS militia,” Mirza Ismael of Yezidi Human Rights Organization told me. When the victims of rape conceive babies, the militants kill the infants because they only want Muslim babies, not a kafar, an infidel, Ismael explained.
Roughly 70 per cent of the people in the IDP and UN refugee camps are children and their mothers. They remain in desperate need of urgent humanitarian aid: food, clothing, medicine.
People can recover from illness, from starvation, from feeling cold. But it is more difficult to recover from the trauma of rape. In the camps, the women are afraid of going out into the towns and cities. Random men readily identify them by their sunburned faces and shabby clothing, and they corner the women in cabs, on streets, and even at educational and medical buildings.
The women are too vulnerable, too powerless, too poor, too traumatized to be able to bring their tormentors to justice.
But staying inside the camps is no remedy. The camps are not safe.
“The more the women stay in camps and refuse to go to school, the more they become victims of domestic abuse,” said Bayan Azizi, a professor at Salahaddin University in Erbil who works with the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims and assisted in a recent UN study of rape epidemics in the camps.
The victimized women are often paralyzed by the stigma, the shame and the guilt that accompany sexual violence.
They are afraid of endangering the “honor” of their families. In the camps, “families marry off their daughters, as young as 13, to protect them from rape and hunger,” Azizi said.
At the United Nations refugee camp at Arbat, near Sulaimani in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region in Northern Iraq, a Yazidi woman holds her nine-month-old daughter, Aylin. The woman gave birth while running uphill to flee the Islamic State slaughter.
Unable to find anything else to cut the umbilical cord, she used a sharp stone.
Last year's tragedies shocked the world’s conscience. There was the BBC Farsi report on a disabled boy whom Kurdish fighters discovered in the Shingal Mountains, apparently abandoned.
He was transported to a hospital where the medical staff named him “unknown” and did all they could to save his life, but to no avail. Nobody knew what name to put on his grave. After the boy’s picture went viral on social media, his father arrived breathless at the hospital, only to find out that his four-year-old son had been buried a few hours before. The boy’s name, it turned out, was Aziz. It means “beloved.”
When his father and mother fled before Islamic State’s advance into the mountains, they were already carrying four young children in their arms. One had to be left behind, the heaviest, the one they called beloved.
The United Nations Human Rights Council’s 8,500-word report on Islamic State’s abuses, published in March, provides only the briefest glimpse into the torture that Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Assyrians, Arab Muslims and others have experienced. A woman was recently burned alive because she refused to engage in a sadistic sexual act, according to Zainab Bangura, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict. But although the March report highlighted the terrorist organization’s deliberate effort to wipe out the Yazidis, UNHRC officials stated only that Islamic State “may have committed” genocide.
Meanwhile, Islamic State continues to summarily execute Christian and Yazidi men who refuse to convert to Islam. They continue to evaluate the beauty of captive women to decide if they should be given as gifts or auctioned to their fighters. As you read these lines, an increasing number of people are suffering trauma, hunger, cold and disease.
International law and the UN charter state that when there is a need to halt horrendous crimes against humanity, massive expulsions and war crimes, the international community has a moral and political obligation to intervene collectively for humanitarian purposes.
There is a limited, American-led intervention under way. Canada is a participant. But Islamic State cannot be defeated by weaponry alone.
People have the unique chance to help the refugees through Health Partners International Canada (HPIC) which provides humanitarian physicians with Physicians Travel Pack for 10 percent of the retail price. Every dollar that is donated to HPI sends at least $10 worth of medicines and medical supplies to people who are dying from diseases that can be treated or prevented.
IsraAid, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, was also in Iraq in winter to provide blankets, foods, and clothing for the displaced Yazidis and Christians. They continue to accept donations to purchase mattresses, blankets, milk powder and stall bathroom structures for the victims of the Islamic State.
Save the Children, Qandil, Red Cross Europe, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, International Rescue Committee and Refugee Action all are nongovernmental European organizations that are doing humanitarian work overseas. Even the smallest contributions go a long way.
Much must be done to prevent IS and similar ideologies from spreading and sprouting elsewhere, but for now, it is a must to prevent further mass killing and displacement from happening through military intervention and to pay more attention to the situation of the sick, hungry, and traumatized displaced people through donations.
While there is still much work to be done to prevent Islamic State and similar ideologies from spreading and sprouting elsewhere, it seems that for now there is plenty to do in terms of preventing further mass killings and displacement – through military intervention, but also by paying more attention to the sick, hungry, and traumatized people who have been harmed in the conflict.
Ava Homa is author of Echoes from the Other Land (TSAR, 2010) and a freelance journalist, editor and translator. Born and raised in the Kurdish region of Iran, she earned a master’s degree in English and creative writing at the University of Windsor and works as an instructor at George Brown College in Toronto.
Hajir Sharifi is a Kurdish-Iranian activist and author of two translated books in Kurdish. A member of PEN Canada’s writers- in-exile group, he studies human rights and philosophy at York University. He recently visited the Kurdish region of Iraq to reunite with his exiled family.