The suffering of Iraq’s Yazidi community at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been laid bare in a new report by Human Rights Watch, which details the imprisonment, compulsory religious conversion, forced marriage and sexual assault of hundreds of men, women and children.
The rights group also provides evidence that ISIL fighters are buying and selling women and girls as part of their persecution of Yazidis.
The report on crimes against Iraq’s minority group provide the latest documented torments endured by civilians amid ongoing sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria, where extremists have capitalized on disorder in their bid to form a quasi-state straddling both countries.
Yazidi sources told HRW that more than 3,000 members of their community are being held by ISIL. Members of the group have been engaged in near-constant ground battles with Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian troops, even as U.S. and allied forces bombard positions from air and sea.
“The Islamic State’s litany of horrific crimes against the Yazidis in Iraq only keeps growing,” Fred Abrahams, an Human Rights Watch (HRW) special adviser, said in a news release about the report.
“We heard shocking stories of forced religious conversions, forced marriage, and even sexual assault and slavery — and some of the victims were children,” Abrahams said.
On Sunday ISIL appeared for the first time to admit to such practices, attempting to rationalize them in the latest edition of a magazine the group publishes.
"We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women," read an article in Dabiq magazine, attributed to ISIL spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani and addressing those who do not subscribe to the group’s interpretation of Islam.
"The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers," another Dabiq article read. "The Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations."
During ISIL’s blitz across Iraq this summer, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled into the Sinjar Mountains, where many were stranded for weeks. Hundreds died and tens of thousands fled for their lives, most to Kurdish-held parts of northern Iraq. Most Yazidis are now displaced in northern Iraq. Some have told the United Nations that ISIL had taken women and girls from them in raids.
HRW said many of the women it spoke to recounted having to fend off rape by the ISIL fighters who bought and sold them, but gave second-hand accounts of people they knew being raped. The human rights group said the women could be reluctant to report their own assaults due to cultural stigma against victims of sexual violence.
The report also said ISIL fighters pried male children from the arms of their mothers, fathers and brothers, saying the boys would receive religious education and indoctrination, then recruitment into the group.
“They took the small boys from their mothers. If the mothers refused, they grabbed the children by force. They slapped protesting mothers, shot their guns in the air, and said, ‘We’ll kill you if you don’t [let your children go],’” the HRW report quoted a 15-year-old Yazidi girl as saying. She said she had escaped from a Palestinian ISIL fighter who purchased her for $1,000.
On Oct. 2 the U.N. reported that ISIL has carried out mass executions, abducted women and girls as sex slaves and used child soldiers.
"The array of violations and abuses perpetrated by ISIL and associated armed groups is staggering, and many of their acts may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity," said a statement issued by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein.
Hussein repeated calls for the Baghdad government to join the International Criminal Court in the Hague, saying it was set up to prosecute such massive abuses and direct targeting of civilians on the basis of their religious or ethnic group.
The U.N. Human Rights Office and the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said in in the report that forces from ISIL — a Sunni group — have committed gross human rights violations and violence of an "increasing sectarian nature" against groups including Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims in a widening conflict that has forced 1.8 million Iraqis to flee their homes.
"These include attacks directly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, executions and other targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms,” the UNAMI report said.
It said ISIL in August took between 450 and 500 women and girls to the Tal Afar citadel in Iraq's Nineveh region, where "150 unmarried girls and women, predominantly from the Yazidi and Christian communities, were reportedly transported to Syria, either to be given to ISIL fighters as a reward or to be sold as sex slaves.”
The report also voiced deep concern at violations of human rights that it said were committed by the Baghdad government and allied fighters, including airstrikes and shelling that may not have distinguished between military targets and civilian areas.
Al Jazeera and wire services