When taking into account motives behind sexual violence and enslavement of the Yazidi community during the siege of Mosul in 2014 by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one must recognise that such acts go beyond male sexual pleasure. The acts committed by the group not only remind the world about the barbarism associated with the terrorist organisation but how the crimes committed are a by-product of war. Regardless of ISIS gaining large revenue via human trafficking, profit income was not the main motivation for the group. Rape is a weapon of war and was imposed upon the Yazidi community as an assault towards their culture. As noted by a number of commentators[i], there is a symbolic value to rape that situates those exposed to the act at the bottom of the hierarchal system through both embarrassment, as well as emotional and bodily damage. The belief that Yazidism had to be eliminated was ISIS’s main motive, whilst their aims were to obtain control and authority. ISIS utilized viewpoints in times of conflict that slavery is permissible and is the right of the jihadist to demand sex from their “non-believing” female slaves.[iii]
Following the liberation of ISIS-led territory in 2019, a number of protections to help with post-ISIS recovery have been granted to the Yazidi community. Thus far, such protections include the establishment of Yazidi survivors’ centres, the Yazidi Survivors Law, humanitarian aid, the recognition and conviction of the Yazidi genocide in European countries (e.g. sentencing of ISIS member Taha al-Jumailly in Germany), support from the international community, and being welcomed back into the Yazidi community by religious figures. Despite the measures introduced to support the community, however, there are a number of challenges within each milestone achieved so far that still needs to be addressed. Following discussions with key stakeholders working directly with Yazidi survivors, challenges which need to be addressed in 2022 include the following:
Reality of living conditions
At present, the vast majority of Yazidis are living in dire conditions in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. During the siege of Mosul in 2014, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled their homes, looking for shelter on Mount Sinjar, and eventually in camps in the Kurdistan region or overseas. Eight years on, the majority of the community are still living in camps, struggling to return to their homes either because of insecurity or lack of restoration efforts. Whilst the winters are harsh and cold, the summers are hot and dry. During the winter months especially, reports have been disclosed regarding the outbreak of fires caused by short circuits.[iv] Exacerbating the current state of living conditions is the continued risk of gender-based violence in camps[v] and elevated suicide rates, especially amongst the youth.[vi] As is known, unemployment is high and access to education is limited. Given these circumstances, it is no surprise that many Yazidis have tried to flee to Europe and seek refuge. Seeing refuge abroad as the only way out, Yazidis have had to go through a number of precarious journeys along the way. In September 2021, for example, a group of Yazidis who fled Iraq were stuck along the Poland-Belarus border for a week with nothing to eat. Also realising the harsh reality of living conditions abroad, many returned home from Belarus.[vii]
The Yazidi faith is religiously varied, with components of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. It is rigorously closed, so a child must be born a Yazidi to worship as one, and adults must marry a Yazidi to develop a family within the faith. Traditionally, any sexual relations with a non-believer will lead to dismissal, a strict ruling that views rape no differently from a consensual relationship. In some cases, women who have found themselves in such situations have been murdered by their fathers and brothers, in so-called “honour killings.”
Initially, captured women were not allowed to return to their Yazidi faith. In recent years, however, views have changed. In 2015, for example, religious leaders broke tradition and let women and girls re-join the Yazidi community after surviving abduction, imposed conversion, and rape. Baba Sheikh, the Yazidi supreme spiritual leader, issued an order to community leaders in September 2014 stating that survivors of IS captivity will still remain Yazidis and that survivors should be welcomed back into the community. Marking a significant shift in the Yazidi faith, survivors of abduction were and continue to be sent to Lalish, the holiest temple in the Duhok Governorate of Iraq, for rebaptism. According to Yazidi teachings, rebaptism ensures reintegration and intra-community resilience.[viii]
Despite the reintegration of Yazidis into their faith, difficulties in disclosing encounters with ISIS members have resulted in a number of mental health conditions. This includes dissociative seizures, said to be rampant amongst female Yazidis who endured sexual violence in ISIS custody.[ix] Moreover, in interviews with survivors of sexual slavery, perceived social dismissal by the Yazidi community was also linked with reduced mental health. As one study notes, “very few women want to speak openly about it because they don’t dare, because they are ashamed of what happened.”[x] That being said, “tainted” honour is an important negative concept in Yazidi culture that women continue to carry as a result of feeling concerned about being discriminated against by their own community. To date, some women have committed suicide because of this belief they hold on to. A recent study, for example, has indicated that the Yazidi community are still physically and culturally broken, a deep-rooted legacy of the genocide.[xi]
Taking the aforementioned challenges into account, interventions to meet the needs of Yazidi survivors have slowly started to come into fruition. Speaking to Pari Ibrahim, Founder and Executive Director of the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), Yazidi survivors, through the foundation, have slowly started to confide in professional clinical psychologists from countries such as the US, UK, and Canada. According to Ibrahim, bringing in expertise from abroad, which was not present in 2014, has helped treat severe trauma.[xii] While this is a positive change, further work is needed to overcome the ongoing stigma and shame felt when disclosing the atrocities committed by ISIS.
One solution to tackling this challenge would be developing sustainability in humanitarian aid. Currently, humanitarian aid given to the Yazidi community is not built on sustainable models. Instead, the aid provided focuses on meeting immediate needs (e.g., tents, water, and food). As one would expect, this is not enough because it does not provide any skills to lift communities out of a poverty situation. In countries such as Iraq, sustainable models are only feasible when there is better infrastructure development and institutional capacity that can assist survivors and make individuals feel like they are part of a community. If the humanitarian sector can work on developing such models, it will then be possible to slowly tackle ongoing stigma challenges. By adopting a sustainable approach, survivors can return to environments which are hospitable, inclusionary, and safe. Indeed, all of these factors will encourage survivors to integrate into spaces where cooperation is possible, experiences can be shared, and trauma disclosure can take place without breaking down completely or feeling judged.
On the topic of sustainable models, Ibrahim believes that the most sustainable investment within the humanitarian sector is education. Investment in education will lead to a better future for the population, especially children having enough education to get jobs and care for their future families. Other sustainable models include training efforts and building the skills of IDPs so they have a better chance in the modern economy. Even though it is expensive, it also gives a better chance that the people will be able to find employment and better lives.[xiii]
More work needed from the international community
On 3 February, 2022, activists and religious figures welcomed the US-led raid targeting ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Eventually killed, many called for the international community to do more to achieve justice for the hundreds of thousands of displaced victims, and the thousands of women and children who are still missing eight years on. In her own words, Nadia Murad, founder of Nadia’s Initiative and a survivor of ISIS-captivity, commented on the raid by explaining that the act served to remind ISIS victims and survivors worldwide that they have “not been forgotten by the international community.”[xiv] In a more detailed statement, Murad added that, “While today’s actions remind my fellow survivors and I that out suffering has not been forgotten, there is more that must be done, including plans to support the recovery of the Yazidi community and efforts to bring other members of ISIS to justice, including in a court of law.”[xv]
Besides resource and political interventions, further work needed includes legal interventions. Simply put, a greater number of countries need to classify the atrocities committed by ISIS as genocide. Speaking to Ibrahim about this subject matter, it appears that there has not been a lot of interest from European countries to recognise ISIS’s atrocities as genocide. Whilst the House of Commons are currently debating whether or not the United Kingdom should recognise the Yazidi genocide[xvi], Germany is the only European country to indict and convict the crimes of ISIS as genocide. In November 2021, a court in Frankfurt sentenced Taha al-Jumailly for life for crimes against humanity as well as the murder of a Yazidi girl in Iraq. At the time of the trial, the court discovered that al-Jumailly enslaved the five-year-old in 2015, shackling her up and leaving her to die of thirst. Hoping that other countries will follow Germany’s footsteps, this milestone is significant because it shows that what happened to the Yazidis was genocide and that perpetrators returning to Europe are not getting away with the horrors they committed.
To ensure that other countries start recognising the crimes committed as genocide, the FYF recently completed a structural analysis of the atrocities committed by ISIS in the Yazidi village of Hardan in Sinjar. The report is private and intended exclusively for national prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and UN mechanisms to help build dossiers or enhance current dossiers for prosecution. The report has been sent to seven different prosecutors in different countries, and currently asks for information to make sure that perpetrators do not get away with the crimes committed.[xvii]
Locally speaking, prosecution in Iraq needs to be altered when dealing with ISIS crimes. Currently, court cases last for approximately five minutes and are based on terrorism charges and eventual hanging. Charging ISIS crimes in the name of terrorism is a lost cause because it provides no justice for the Yazidi community. Simply put, court cases need to be set to international standards.
Further assistance required from the international community includes locating and rescuing missing Yazidis. As we enter the eighth year since the start of the genocide, a clear plan must be devised to trace those abducted, and reunite mothers and children separated from each other.
Yazidi Survivors Law
On 1 March 2021, the Iraqi parliament approved the Yazidi Survivors Law which offers a reparations framework for many survivors of ISIS crimes. Although the law focuses on the Yazidi community, it also involves in its reach reparations for survivors from the Christian, Turkmen, and Shabak minority groups. Speaking to Nezar Taib[xviii], child and adolescent psychiatrist and former Director General of Health/Duhok Province, the law doesn’t address the following factors:
- Inclusion of survivors from other minorities such as the Muslim Kurds who were also subjected to ISIS’s atrocities.
- Thus far, no progress has been made towards implementing the Yazidi Survivors Law. The prolonged and unproductive implementation of the law is delaying the pain and trauma of survivors, their families, and impacted communities, who time and time again feel neglected by the Iraqi central government.
- Male survivors who were subjected to ISIS crimes do not fall under the law, and therefore have to seek support elsewhere.
- Children who were born as a result of sexual violence by ISIS are not specifically referenced in the law. This is a significant omission which must be addressed to ensure justice for all Yazidi survivors.
So far, the findings presented in this article highlight the need to address Yazidis’ ongoing needs and concerns. As Iraq’s current government formation process undergoes major alterations to the Iraqi political scene, it will be important that the new government formed is both strong and unified. In the previous administrations, conflict and rivalry between existing political parties have delayed much needed reforms and key project implementations in post-conflict Iraq. As Iraq moves towards the path of stability, religious and political leaders need to come together in order to develop and advocate the assistance needed by the Yazidi community. This includes integration back into homes, heightened psychological recovery, further development of the Yazidi Survivors Law, and recognising ISIS’s crimes as genocide.
[i] Nouri, M. (2021, February 18). Weaponisation Of Female Bodies: The Forgotten Voices Of Yazidi Women. The Security Distillery. https://thesecuritydistillery.org/all-articles/weaponisation-of-female-bodies-the-forgotten-voices-of-yazidi-women
[ii] Jalabi, R. (2014, August 11). Who are the Yazidis and why is ISIS hunting them? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/07/who-yazidi-isis-iraq-religion-ethnicity-mountains
[iii] Callimachi, R. (2015, August 13). ISIS enshrines a theology of rape. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/14/world/middleeast/isis-enshrines-a-theology-of-rape.html
[iv] Dawood, S. (2021, June 6). Iraq: Displaced Yazidis face giant camp fire. Daraj. https://daraj.com/en/73589/
[v] Bracco, N. (2021, May 15). Iraq: Analysis of the work of the Security Council (2020). NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. https://www.womenpeacesecurity.org/analysis/iraq-analysis-of-the-work-of-the-security-council-2020/
[vi] Johnston, H., & Jangiz, K. (2021, January 18). ‘We need help’: Suicides spike at Duhok’s camps for Yazidis. rudaw.net. https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/180120211
[vii] Alboth, A. (2021, December 8). Helping refugees starving in Poland’s icy border forests is illegal – but it’s not the real crime. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/dec/08/helping-refugees-poland-belarus-border-forests-illegal
[viii] Wainscott, A. (2019). Engaging The Post-ISIS Iraqi Religious Landscape For Peace And Reconciliation. United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2019-11/pw_154-engaging_the_post-isis_iraqi_religious_landscape_for_peace_and_reconciliation-pw.pdf
[ix] Goodman, A., Bergbower, H., Perrotte, V., & Chaudhary, A. (2020). Survival after sexual violence and genocide: Trauma and healing for Yazidi women in northern Iraq. Health, 12(06), 612-628. https://doi.org/10.4236/health.2020.126046
[xii] Ibrahim, Pari. 2022. Interview concerning ongoing challenges facing the Yazidi community Ms. Pari Ibrahim Interview by Zoom.
[xiv] Nadia Murad. (2022, February 4). Statement by Nadia Murad on US-led raid targeting ISIS leader. Nadia’s Initiative. https://www.nadiasinitiative.org/news/statement-by-nadia-murad-on-us-led-raid-targeting-isis-leader
[xvi] Karim, A. (2022, February 8). House of Commons to debate UK recognition of Yazidi genocide. Rudaw.net. https://www.rudaw.net/english/world/08022022
[xvii] Ibrahim, Pari. 2022. Interview concerning ongoing challenges facing the Yazidi community Ms. Pari Ibrahim Interview by Zoom.
[xviii] Taib, Nezar. 2022. An interview about Yazidi survivor support. Nezar Taib Interview by Zoom.