Six months ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) pushed out from its strong point in the Iraqi city of Mosul and overran the ancient, non-Muslim Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. Among all the crimes by ISIL in the last 12 months, the attack on the Yazidis appears, from reporting, as the cruelest — a naked attempt at genocide.
Additionally, there is indication that the international community is aware of the catastrophe and yet has largely failed to help the doomed Yazidis.
“We went back to Mount Sinjar, aided by the peshmerga forces,” Murad Ismael told me recently. Ismael, a Yazidi activist in the Sinjar Crisis Group, was reporting on his daring journey in late December, when he traveled from Kurdistan into the war zone of western Iraq with desperately needed food. Until December, no Yazidis had been able to reach Sinjar since the mountain was abandoned in a mass exodus last August, with many thousands fleeing ahead of the ISIL onslaught.
“We did not see any civilians in Sinjar, except for a few Yazidis who had returned there to retrieve some of their personal belongings. For the 150 kilometers to the Mount Sinjar area, all has been abandoned,” he said after his return to relative safety in the small city of Dohuk in Kurdistan. “No sign of life, except for the forces defending the roads.”
For the last several weeks, there have been reports that Kurdish peshmerga forces have finally broken the ISIL siege around Sinjar.
Ismael said that this is only partly accurate. “The peshmerga and the Yazidi volunteers did get inside the city of Sinjar. About three-quarters of the city has been recaptured. However, there are still ISIL snipers. ISIL have been cleared from the northern side of the mountain, but they left behind IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. The southern side of the mountain is not safe.”
He said he saw all the Sunni villages abandoned too. Mosul is 60 kilometers to the east of Sinjar. He said ISIL controls everything to the east, including the small Iraqi city of Tal Afar.
“We saw many abandoned, burned cars,” he recounted when asked about airstrikes. “Burned Humvees, tanks at the road crossing at Sinjar. Clearly, they were attacked by air.”
“At least three mass graves have been found,” Ismael said of mass killings of Yazidis. “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,” he said of his birthplace on the northeastern side of Mount Sinjar. “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.”
Many Yazidis have fled north to the Dohuk governorate of Kurdistan, along the Tigris River. Ismael estimates that there are perhaps 350,000 refugees living in a spiderweb of encampments around Dohuk. There are no comprehensive estimates of either the number of Yazidis living in Kurdistan or the Yazidis left behind on Mount Sinjar, living or dead.
“We visited three camps today, with approximately 5,000 people each,” said Bill Devlin, a co-pastor of the Infinity Bible Church in the Bronx in New York, who traveled with Ismael. “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 1 million Yazidis are dispersed outside the official camps. The need is critical. The issue is dire.”
He summarized what he learned of the reports of mass abduction and enslavement of Yazidi women by ISIL starting last August, after the first of the attacks on Mount Sinjar. “We heard story after story. Girls and women abducted, slaughtered, beaten, forced to convert by the ISIL attackers. It’s unimaginable,” he said.
It is snowing in Kurdistan. Last night there were children who died of the cold. They do not have heaters.
Activist, Sinjar Crisis Group
Also traveling with Ismael and Devlin was Lee Mason, a producer for Cumulus Media, who reported in detail on the conditions in the camps.
“There are three kinds of habitation,” she explained. “Organized tent cities, many of about 100 to 200 acres, with bulldozed dirt tracks for streets. Then United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents are thrown up in a grid pattern. Rain pours in the door flaps. There are no streetlights. The showers and latrines can be a half-mile away. And there’s no hot water. The best camp I saw was a large village of 12-by-15 Quonset huts on foundations with actual electrical feeds and decent insulation. That was donated by Qatar.”
Then there are the unofficial camps. “The second kind is where people manage to put up a tarp or plastic as protection from the freezing rain. There’s not only no running water and a dangerously jury-rigged electrical system, but they have to construct toilet facilities out of tiny, makeshift sheds covered with blankets. Amazingly, everything is kept very clean and perfectly tidy.
“The third kind is abandoned buildings. There’s been a building boom in northern Iraq, maybe from the rapid oil and gas growth. Wherever there are unfinished buildings, you’re likely to see small indications of Yazidis living there. They gather in the gray, unheated concrete spaces, attach scavenged plastic sheeting to create room divisions and, if it’s possible, run in an electric wire for a lightbulb and a heater. Many of these families fled from prosperous lives and fairly elegant homes. Their stoical survival in these conditions is heroic.”
Mason said that in one of the abandoned buildings, she met a 19-year-old Yazidi woman who, with her two little sisters, had just escaped from five months of slavery and extreme brutality in Mosul. The details are horrifying. BBC reporters are starting to put out similar testimonies of ISIL’s crimes that indicate an extent of evil rivaling some of the worst genocides of the past 100 years.
Ismael told me of the peshmerga forces. “Although they’re very brave and fight as hard as they can in both Iraq and Kurdistan, they do not have the capacity to push out ISIL. They lack heavy weapons and also need both some tanks and some air support.” He added grimly, “All the Sunni tribes in the area are supporting ISIL.”
The Yazidis have started their own militia, modeled on the peshmerga, and they are seeking weapons and supplies. But even if their calls are answered, their abilities are limited. In sum, the region is turning into a vast battlefield of tribal combat.
No help in sight
In early January, Ismail traveled to Baghdad to plead for help from a long 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. Afterward, the Yazidis established a Yazda Center in Dohuk to provide for the traumatized and penniless women who have escaped ISIL and found their way to Kurdistan.
According to Ismael’s most recent report to me, there is no plan to rescue the perhaps 5,000 abducted Yazidi women and girls who have been moved to Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq and inside to Raqqa in Syria. Nor is there an imminent plan to dislodge ISIL from Mosul and retake Iraq from its savagery.
Separately, I learned from a source that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has been briefed most recently on the specifics that Ismael has reported. 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.
“It is snowing in Kurdistan,” Ismael told me recently of reports from the refugee camps. “Last night there were children who died of the cold. They do not have heaters.”
For now, there is sufficient evidence that the authorities in Baghdad and Washington and at the United Nations Security Council are informed of the scale of the failure to rescue or aid the Yazidis. No part of the international community will be able to say that it didn’t know.