The Plight of the Yazidis

The world looks away as a genocide against a people continues apace.

YazidisDespite the current focus on ISIS, the ongoing barbarity inflicted against the Yazidis, a group of people who have inhabited Iraq’s mountainous northwestern region for centuries, remains largely below the radar. And while this estimated population of approximately 500,000 has been the target of hatred by Muslims who see them as heretical devil-worshipers, ISIS has upped the ante. While the world largely looks away, a genocidal level of extermination proceeds apace. "Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth," warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil—last August.

Early August was the time the carnage ramped up in earnest. Approximately 40,00 Yazidis, including many women and children, were trapped in nine locations around Mount Sinjar, identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah's ark. Sinjar was once home to as many as 300,000 Yazidis, but as ISIS advanced, 130,000 fled north to Dohuk, capital of the Dohuk governate of Iraqi Kurdistan, or to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region and its largest city. Since last June authorities in Irbil have been forced to deal with one of the largest and most rapid refugee movements in decades. As of now approximately 350,000 Yazidis are encamped around Dohuk.

Those remaining behind faced a terrible choice of death by dehydration, or death at the hands of ISIS, who murdered 500 Yazidis, including 40 children, in an initial killing spree. By October the death total inflicted by ISIS had reached into the thousands. U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic aptly described what was occurring. “The evidence strongly indicates an attempt to commit genocide,” he said, adding that the only options being given to the Yazidis are “to convert or be killed.”

Not quite. As ISIS has boasted in its propaganda magazine Dabiq, around 300 Yazidi women and girls were abducted, subjected to sexual assault and subsequently sold as slaves to its fighters in Syria. The Islamist terror group considers the women and girls to be "al Sabaya," defined by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) as “women captured in war.”

The main reason the Yazidis have slipped below the media radar is because they apparently believe President Obama sufficiently addressed the problem last August, when he announced airstrikes aimed at a twofold purpose: protecting U.S. personnel stationed in Erbil, and saving those Yazidis trapped in around Sinjar without food or water. “People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide,” Obama said at the time. “And when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

The strikes and humanitarian aid were initially successful in alleviating some of the suffering, and also opened up an escape route allowing many of those trapped to flee. Yet by October, with U.S. attention diverted elsewhere and airstrikes dwindling, ISIS surrounded Mount Sinjar again. More than 10,000 Yazidis were once again trapped, and ISIS reprised its bloody rampage, capturing one mountain village after another, killing the men and selling the women and children into slavery.

Furthermore, the humanitarian airdrops were also halted. Iraqi helicopters were employed to pick up the slack, but they are old and fly only once or twice a week, according to Sameer Karto Babasheikh, the son of the Yazidi Supreme Religious Council leader, who met with a contingent of senior White House and State Department officials that same month to discuss the problem. “Our hostages, children, women, and girls, between 4,000 and 5,000 of them, have been captured by ISIS and sent to other areas. We need help to rescue these hostages,” he explained. “In Mosul, they opened a market to sell Yazidi girls. Some of them ended up in Fallujah, some of them were taken to Saudi Arabia and Raqqa in Syria.”

Kamal Elias, a Yazidi activist who was part of the delegation that came to Washington, put the crisis in far blunter terms. “President Obama promised that they are not going to let ISIS get any more land, that they are not going to let them get another genocide on the Yazidis,” he said. "But this is going to be worse than in August. If ISIS gets to the mountain, all of these people are going to be slaughtered, and then it’s going to take years for the U.S. or anyone else to get them out of the mountain.”

Elias also illuminated another facet of the problem. “Most of the ISIS members are from the towns around ISIS,” he said. “They were our neighbors. We lived with them for hundreds of years. Now all of a sudden they are ISIS. They joined ISIS.”

The animus directed towards the Yazidis spans centuries. "To this day, many Muslims consider them to be devil worshipers," says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. "So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions," he adds.

In fact Yazidis whose total population is around 700,000, the vast majority of whom have been concentrated in northern Iraq around Sinjar, are predominantly Kurdish. But they remain religiously distinct from Iraq’s Sunni Kurdish population. Some scholars contend the religion was founded during the 11th century by an Ummayyad sheikh. Others attribute its origins to Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir, who settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community mixing elements of Islam with local beliefs that predated it. The faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism, a 3500 year old monotheistic religion founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran, with elements of Christianity and Islam. Thus Yazidis embrace Christianity’s sacrament of Baptism, Islam’s tenets on circumcision, and Zoroastrianism's belief that fire must be revered as a manifestation from God.

The devil-worshipping accusations derive from their worship of a fallen angel, Melek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel. Unlike the permanent fall from grace of Satan in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Melek Tawwus is forgiven by God and returned to heaven, becoming a force for good in Yazidism.

Nonetheless, beginning around the late 16th and early 17th centuries, accusations of devil-worship arose because Muslims believe the story of Tawwus Melek resembles the Qur’an's Shaytan, a rebellious “djinn” (Muslim spirit) who leads men away from goodness.

Unfortunately, goodness is currently in short supply in among the members of the international community. There is no doubt they are aware of the Yazidi’s continuing plight, but they continue to fail those who are facing imminent extermination.

Murad Ismael, a Yazidi activist in the Sinjar Crisis Group, reported on his December journey during which he reached Sinjar accompanied by Peshmerga forces who have seen 999 fighters killed, and 4596 wounded since they began standing against ISIS last June. It was the first time Yazidis had reached Sinjar since the mass exodus last August.

“We did not see any civilians in Sinjar, except for a few Yazidis who had returned there to retrieve some of their personal belongings,” Ismael revealed to Aljazeera America. "For the 150 kilometers to the Mount Sinjar area, all has been abandoned. No sign of life, except for the forces defending the roads.” Ismael also downplayed reports stating Kurdish fighters had re-captured most of Mount Sinjar in December.  “The peshmerga and the Yazidi volunteers did get inside the city of Sinjar.,” he explained. “About three-quarters of the city has been recaptured. However, there are still ISIL (ISIS) snipers. ISIL have been cleared from the northern side of the mountain, but they left behind IEDs. The southern side of the mountain is not safe.”

Ismael also revealed what ISIS left behind. “At least three mass graves have been found,” he said. “Seventy-five bodies have been found. Another mass grave of about 25 or 26 people. I did not get to that location. We saw evidence of destruction. People’s clothes alongside the road. My town, Khanasour, to see how it is now — it’s emotionally overwhelming. Everything’s been burned. All Islamic State banners or writing on the walls. Lots of mass graves, lots of people dead inside the houses. We didn’t look inside.”

Mass grave sightings were confirmed by the Peshmerga four days ago.

The plight of those in the aforementioned refugee camps has been largely ignored as well. Bill Devlin, a co-pastor of the Infinity Bible Church in the Bronx, New York who travelled with Ismael, was appalled. “We visited three camps today, with approximately 5,000 people each,” he said  “They’re living in unfinished buildings, living in the street, living with literally nothing. We’ve been going from house to house of unfinished buildings. No food, no kerosene heaters—it’s beyond belief. Some one million Yazidis are dispersed outside the official camps. The need is critical. The issue is dire.”

Co-traveler Lee Mason, a producer for Cumulus Media, illuminated the details, noting there are three types of camps. The first type consists of tent cities organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yet that organization is belied by dirt streets, no hot water and latrines as much as a half mile away. The second type consists of unofficial camps where people put up tarps or plastic sheeting to protect from the freezing rain. There are dangerous makeshift electricity systems and self-created toilet systems consists of sheds covered with blankets, but no running water. The last group of camps consists of unheated, abandoned buildings with similar makeshift electrical systems.

Last December, Yazidi women who escaped from ISIS detailed their abuse to the BBC. "They said: 'Yazidis are infidels,” a woman using the pseudonym “Hannan" reported. "Now you will live as Muslims.' They took many girls for sex. They told us: 'Forget the life you knew.’” She further reveals that ISIS took the younger girls first and sent many of them to the Syrian city of Raqqa ISIS considers its capitol. Many of women grew so desperate from the abuse they considered suicide a viable alternative. One actually carried it out. "She slashed her wrists,” Hannan revealed “(ISIS) didn't let us help her. They put us in a room and shut the door. She died. They said: 'It doesn't matter, we'll just dump the body somewhere.’"

Upping the ante on depravity, ISIS has published guidelines on the “proper” use of women as slaves, including a Q&A pamphlet, a video of men awaiting their turn at the slave market, and a statement in Daqib describing the events:

"After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to Sharia [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations…Before Satan sows doubt among the weak-minded and weak-hearted, remember that enslaving the kuffa [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly-established aspect of Sharia.”

The Yazidis blame several entities for their current predicamen,t including an Iraqi government that has never sufficiently protected them, Kurdish forces who abandoned the fight for Sinjar last August—and an Obama administration whose lack of continuity has given ISIS the impression they can exterminate Yazidis with impunity.

Last month Ismael traveled to Baghdad to plead for help. He met a list of VIPs that included U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart E. Jones, French Ambassador to Iraq François Bartley, Iraqi President Fuad Masum and Minister of Women’s Affairs Bayan Nouri. Al Jazeera America columnist John Batchelor confirms from a separate source that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is also aware of the Yazidis’ precarious circumstances. Yet he further notes that she and her staff have “several explanations for why so little has been done for the Yazidis, including the lack of security without U.S. forces in the region.”

No doubt. In the meantime, hundreds of Yazidi women abducted by ISIS remain unaccounted for, children in refugee camps freeze to death, and the Peshmerga remain without the necessary firepower to limit ISIS’s gain, much less defeat them.

Yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama once again reminded the world how far he was willing to push the boundaries of moral equivalency in order to spare bloodthirsty Islamists from being singled out. "Unless we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," Obama said. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Those would be the very same Christians, much like the Yazidis, currently being eliminated in the Middle East—even as the same can be said for leadership and morality in the White House.

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