The Yezidi Minority, Daesh/ISIL, and Iraq’s Human Rights Catastrophe

by Patrick Ball

Patrick Ball with Yezidi boys at an informal camp in Sharya, Iraq.

Patrick Ball with Yezidi boys at an informal camp in Sharya, Iraq.

Farhad (not his real name) got the call from ISIS on his personal cell phone just after lunch: we have your sister, and we will give her back if you pay us $6000, plus $1500 for the driver.

Carrying little more than his phone, a few clothes, some food, and helping his parents, Farhad and his family left his village in the Shingal municipality of Iraq three months ago when the multinational Islamist extremists of ISIS came. As they fled, his sister had gotten separated and was captured by ISIS.

I heard Farhad’s story—and many similar stories—during my mid-November week visiting the Yezidi people in northwestern Iraq. With my colleague Miki Takacs, I met with about a dozen young Yezidi human rights activists who were eager to find ways to respond. I told them stories from other projects I worked on, including the prosecutions of Slobodan Milošević for war crimes in Kosovo, and of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in Guatemala. We talked about what genocide means in the international treaty that defines it, about how to organize data, and most of all, how to secure data using the Martus software. I left them with a stack of textbooks about the international standards for documenting human rights violations, particularly killings.

Yezidi children in an internally displaced person (IDP) camp in Sharya, Iraq.

Yezidi children in an internally displaced person (IDP) camp in Sharya, Iraq.

The Yezidis (also spelled Yazidis) are an ethno-religious community that lives primarily in Iraqi Kurdistan (an overview can be found here). Most Yezidis are native Kurdish speakers, while others speak Arabic, and many speak both languages. They practice an ancient religion known as Yazidism, which is neither Christian nor Muslim. They have struggled for centuries against pressure from their neighbors to convert to Islam. During the Saddam Hussein period, the pressure to convert to Islam continued, and in addition, they felt strong pressure to conform culturally to Arab practices, including a strict separation of the sexes and to adopt Arab clothing styles. They call this pressure “Arabization.”

In Yezidi tradition, the current violence by ISIS is the seventy-fourth attempt to destroy them as a people. People I spoke to are confident that they will survive this assault on their persons, property, culture, and values as they have survived all the previous attacks. But this time, for the first time, they will respond by appealing to international law. Will the Yezidi people get their day in court?

My sense reading popular media since returning is that Americans are both underconcerned and overconcerned about ISIS. In the last section of the post, I outline what I learned.

Camp conditions

Formal camp with running water and electricity, where tents are built on concrete pads.

Formal camp with running water and electricity, where tents are built on concrete pads.

We visited people in the sprawling complex of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps southwest of Duhok, north of Mosul Dam Lake (the dam sits across the Tigris river). Some 80,000 Yezidi people are housed in this collection of formal and informal camps, and there are several hundreds of thousands more in other camps across northern Iraq.

The formal camps are organized by the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government; those governments provide running water, electricity, and sanitation, while the UN provides tents, food, and medical supplies. The informal camps, where families essentially squat, have no running water, electricity, or sanitation.

An informal camp, which has no running water or electricity.

An informal camp, which has no running water or electricity.

The tents at the formal camps are erected on concrete pads that keep the tent floor elevated above rainwater and mud. In the informal camps, families use shipping palettes to elevate their floors. In these same camps, some families pirate electricity and use LED lights (shown in photos).

As one of these photos show, some families cook on traditional bread ovens that they have built at the camp. The camps we visited are built on land that was formerly used for farming.

What We Did with Lalish Center

Miki Takacs (far right, standing) teaching at the Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Miki Takacs (far right, standing) teaching at the Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Lalish is the name of a Yezidi holy place, and Lalish Sharya is a cultural organization that is now mobilizing humanitarian assistance and human rights documentation among the community. Miki and I worked with eleven activists, many of whom are themselves displaced from the Shingal region. They brought all my favorite activist characteristics to the table: skepticism, a deep connection to their communities, and a powerful interest in figuring out what can be done.

We focused the technical part of the training on what information needs to be collected about each event, and how to store the information safely. The storage problem can be addressed squarely with Martus, the self-encrypting, self-replicating database from the Benetech human rights program. We also shared a wide range of electronic security tools with the students in the class, including gpg and tools for securely deleting files and erasing temporary files in Windows.

Graduation in the garden at Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Graduation in the garden at Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Discussions with the training participants helped orient and organize their approach to data collection; topics included methods for human rights investigations; database approaches, electronic security, and the logic of moving narrative testimonies into structured data tables.

The less-technical part of the training involved me telling stories. I shared experiences from the long process of gathering evidence, framing arguments, creating analysis, and working with prosecutors in war crimes trials. We talked about advocacy campaigns in El Salvador, war crimes trials of officials from the former Yugoslavia, and the genocide trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala last year. I was honored to recount to these young, engaged Yezidi investigators the long, committed struggle of Mayan Ixil people to have their case heard, against very powerful opponents. Of course we explored the appropriate data structures for the information collected, and the information security principles they should consider. Beyond the knowledge we shared, the session’s participants told me that they gained insight into what steps will be needed to bring a war crimes case to trial. I felt their enthusiasm rise through the course of the week, and mine rose with them.

HRDAG’s role


A tent with pirated electricity, in an informal camp.

While I was in Iraq, I was reminded of the reasons we do human rights work. Of course there are the big goals, including vindicating the victims’ experiences, establishing historical memory, preparing for criminal trials and other kinds of accountability. But there are individual, personal goals that are at least as important as the big goals, and this trip brought me back in touch with the personal goals.

The first of the personal goals is solidarity. I found it deeply moving to sit with people who have recently experienced some the most horrible events that can happen to people, that can be done by people to other people, and to listen to their stories. I believe that that act of listening helps people telling their stories to know that they’re not alone in the world (this has limits, see below). In this work, we risk becoming abstract, focused on the political and military analysis of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and ISIS; on the legal and advocacy meaning of human rights evidence and argument; or on the technical impact of data and the statistical patterns we might be able to understand from them. Solidarity helps me to remember the human meaning of the violence that we study.

The inside of one family's tent, where shipping palettes raise the floor above mud and rainwater.

The inside of one family’s tent, where shipping palettes raise the floor above mud and rainwater.

The second of the personal goals I remembered last week concerns what social science geeks call agency. As we walked through the IDP camps, several people told me that taking photos isn’t enough. We’ve told our stories before, two women who had escaped from ISIS told me: what are you going to do about it? When I asked if I could take their photos, some people responded by asking me if I could help them get kerosene for cooking, warmer clothes for their children, or an appointment with a doctor.

No, I said, I don’t have any aid to offer, I’m just a teacher. As we talked about what I was teaching, they realized that maybe what I brought was more valuable than a few liters of kerosene. By learning the skills I was teaching, people in their community became more effective actors in the conflict, not in the sense of being military combatants, but as people who can act on behalf of their community. They are gathering evidence with which to build arguments that may someday bring justice for this, the seventy-fourth time the Yezidi have been attacked.

Children in a Yezidi camp.

Children in a Yezidi market.

We were invited back to repeat our training at a half-dozen more of the Lalish Center offices, and I look forward to building a larger documentation training project with Lalish and our partners at Benetech and FreedObject. This trip has reinspired me. We are helping local activists to do it themselves, and for me, that’s the most satisfying part of being a human rights worker.

What You Can Do

There’s a Yezidi group organizing support for displaced people, and this is their Facebook page. There’s contact info and a donation process there, it involves transferring directly to the group’s bank account. The Kurdistan Refugee Fund is organized in part by one of our translators, and I recommend it.

The ISIS Situation

Tents in a formal camp, which was formerly farmland. In the background is Mosul Dam reservoir.

Tents in a formal camp, which was formerly farmland. In the background is Mosul Dam reservoir.

Starting in June 2014, the Islamist group calling itself the Islamic State (or ISIS) invaded Iraq from Syria and took control of substantial portions of western Iraq. Conditions for people who do not share ISIS’s extreme form of Sunni Islam have been very difficult, in particular for the Yezidi, who were displaced from their villages on 3 August.

Below I’ve give some detail, but here’s the tl;dr: ISIS is not an overwhelming military force rolling over big armies; they’re a ragtag bunch of lightly-armed militia guys who take over areas where they are welcome; they only beat the Iraqi army when the army soldiers flee or surrender; they are incredibly brutal to civilians under their control.

Last month HRW reported that “The armed group Islamic State is holding hundreds of Yezidi men, women, and children from Iraq captive in formal and makeshift detention facilities in Iraq and Syria.” Fred Abrahams, special advisor, Children’s Rights Division at HRW, said, “We heard shocking stories of forced religious conversions, forced marriage, and even sexual assault and slavery—and some of the victims were children.” According to the New York Times, several thousand Yezidi girls and young women have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS. The Middle East Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center recently hosted an event to bring attention to the problem of the enslavement of Yezidi women by ISIS.

Sorting clothing at a Yezidi camp.

Trading clothing at a Yezidi market.

The ISIS takeover is not strictly a question of military conquest. Many of the Yezidi told me that ISIS was welcomed by the conservative Sunni Arabs in Mosul and surrounding towns. The Arab Sunni, they said, are more worried about the Shia government in Baghdad than they are about ISIS (see this Human Rights Watch report about why Sunnis may have good reason to be worried about the Shia militias and the Shia-dominated Army). Furthermore, many Arab Sunni joined ISIS, which gives ISIS deep connections to the local community and geography, something ISIS fighters from as far abroad as Yemen, Afghanistan, and Egypt patently lacked. It is notable that the only areas ISIS conquered outside of the friendly Arab Sunni region were the villages of the powerless religious minorities, including the Yezidi, the Turkmen Shia, and the Assyrian Christians. In particular, ISIS made very little progress into Kurdish areas.

(A bit of detail here: most Kurdish people are also Sunni Muslims, but relatively few of them adopt the extremist interpretation of ISIS. Most Yezidi people speak Kurdish, but they are culturally and religiously distinct from the Sunni Kurds. I heard very different opinions from the Yezidi about whether the Kurdish peshmerga (the traditional militia now in the service of the Kurdish Regional Government) could be trusted to defend them, but most people seemed to agree that the peshmerga is the only option on the ground because the Iraqi Army’s infantry is too disorganized, badly led, and mistrusted by the Sunni Arabs to make much progress against ISIS.)

A traditional bread oven built by Yezidis in a Sharya camp.

A traditional bread oven built by Yezidis in a camp near Sharya.

There have been developments in the military situation since the displacement of the Yezidi on 3 August that offer hope to these besieged people. Everyone—and I mean every single one of the several dozen conversations I had about this—thanked me (because I’m an American, I suppose) for the Coalition airstrikes against ISIS and the weapons sent to the Kurdish peshmerga. There are still about 15,000 Yezidi people stranded on Shingal Mountain. Coalition airstrikes help keep open their thin and dangerous escape route west through Syria. The trapped Yezidis are being supplied by Iraqi Army helicopter convoys with humanitarian assistance and weapons for the peshmerga defending them. The Coalition airstrikes prevent ISIS from using armored vehicles or other heavy weapons to attack the Yezidi or interfere with the helicopter convoys. Without this support, my Yezidi interlocutors assured me, they would be quickly overrun by ISIS.

ISIS’s military situation may be more precarious than it seems. Nonetheless, the people in the displaced persons camps are preparing for a long wait through the winter, and potentially, for years while the conflict drags on. Like all refugee camps I’ve visited, these camps have poor sanitation, only the most marginal protection against the weather, and a palpable sense of fear and deep concern about the future.

[CC BY-NC-SA, including images] All images by HRDAG 2014.

Patrick Ball, PhD, is Executive Director of Human Rights Analysis Data Group and has spent more than twenty years conducting quantitative analysis for truth commissions, non-governmental organizations, international criminal tribunals, and United Nations missions in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, South Africa, Chad, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Kosovo, Liberia, Perú, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria.

Mirrored with author’s permission from Human Rights Analysis Data Group


Related video added by Juan Cole:

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “Iraq: The Plight of the Yazidis”

6 Responses

  1. There is an amount of flaws in your article.
    1st. The amount of enslaved Yazidi women/children. Matthew Barber has documented the names of enslaved people. His list contains already 5000 names. He thinks though that when he’s finished documenting the list will have about 7000 names..
    2. You don’t mention anywhere the role of YPG/PKK. There have been numerous interviews (taped & documented) that if it hadn’t been for the YPG/PKK, no Yezidi would have survived. They fought a corridor into Shengal from which 1000’s of people could escape. Ever since they stayed on the mountain to train YPG/PKK to defend themselves (HPS). The betrayal of the fleeing KDP Peshmerga that left the Yezidi helpless to IS has left deep wounds and distrust in the Yezidi community.
    3. Another issue is the fact that the Yezidi have asked numerous times for weapons to fight IS themselves, from the time IS was approaching their villages, but never received them. KDP Peshmerga have received weapons from all over the world, but none were given to the Yezidi fighters. The only actual help/assistance came from YPG/PKK. By not mentioning their important role you’re story isn’t correct. They were the ones that 1. fought the corridor to let them escape from Sinjar, 2. stayed on the mountain to defend te remaining Yezidi, 3. trained Yezidi forces to defend themselves (HPS).

    Here are some links that support my comments:
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    • Re: The role of the YPG:

      In June of this year, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report that YPG was violating international law by allowing children to fight within its ranks – many are female.

      As a result YPG signed a protocol pledging to refrain from using children in combat. Although dozens have reportedly been demobilized, there are still reports of children fighting with YPG units.

      • That’s the best dirt you can get on them – some of their volunteers were under 18? Yeah. In a wartime situation teenagers often volunteer to fight and it’s hard to document who’s who.

        The HR Watch piece was largely Turkish propaganda. Considering that almost nothing Rojava was even accused of – most of the accusations being outright lies – come even close to the sort of human rights abuses Turkey actually does do on a daily basis, I find this comment peculiar.

        • Re: “The best dirt”

          I believe that YPG/PKK did an immense service for the Yazidis and deserve a “pat on the back” for their efforts – however dozens of the fighters were admittedly underage – some of these female as young as 14 – and these minors should at least have been deployed in non-combat positions.

    • Thanks for your notes. In terms of the number of people enslaved, are we counting the number who were ever enslaved or the ones who are enslaved at a certain point (for example, now)? I reviewed a number of lists of captured people, lists organized by Yezidi groups, and the estimates you note seem to me approximately consistent with the “ever enslaved” category. Many of those people have now escaped or have been killed, so the current numbers of captive people are substantially lower, I think. Note that the number I estimated was for people on Shingal mountain, not people held by ISIS. In terms of the YPG/PKK vs KRG’s peshmerga, I heard very differing accounts from different Yezidi people about the relative trustworthiness of these groups. Everyone agreed that the peshmerga fled when ISIS arrived in early August. Some people said that the peshmerga notified them that they couldn’t hold ISIS, while others (a majority, I think) say the peshmerga abandoned them to ISIS. I heard people say “our fighters” kept open the corridor through which people escaped the mountain. Whether that meant Yezidi fighters who got arms from the peshmerga (which is what I understood) or YPG/PKK helping them, I don’t know.

  2. I passed that particular refugee camp on my way to Rojava (the autonomous Kurdish-majority cantons of Syria) a few weeks ago. I was there as part of an academic delegation invited to bear witness to the experiments in direct democracy there. We’d actually passed a number of other, unofficial, Yezidi camps – one dramatic one inside a half-finished skyscraper just outside Dohuk (the residents told us they’d been chased out of a different one by the local government at the behest of the property owner). We then drove past a long strip of sumptuous mansions, in Dohuk, some of them presumably owned by those very proprietors.
    When we entered Rojava, crossing the Tigris on a ferry, one of the first places our hosts took us was a refugee camp, mainly populated by Yezidis, near Rimellah. Conditions there were difficult to say the least. The director of the camp explained to us that they had gotten no international support whatsoever – even the UN had been unwilling to do more than provide tents, arguing that since the area was still technically part of Syria, they were obliged to proceed through the Syrian government. Rojava was forced to provide what they could on their own, which was extremely difficult, considering that Rojava was under total embargo from its neighbors – Daesh to the south, which was in a state of war with them, Turkey to the north, which was not allowing anything to pass back and forth, even medical supplies, and until recently, Iraqi Kurdistan as well, which, pressured by Turkey, had not only refused to allow any movement of goods but was digging a ditch across the border to prevent smuggling. This policy had only recently been modified, after the PKK (and the PYD which is the dominant party in Rojava, and the PKK, are sister organizations) had helped to save Erbil when Daesh forces were no more than 20 kilometers away, back in August. Now there is one bridge where limited traffic is allowed for a few hours a day.
    There is an important difference between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava. Unlike in the ostensibly “democratic” areas of Iraq controlled by the KDP and PUK, the first thing Rojava did after they expelled the Syrian Baath regime in 2012 was to completely eliminate all secret police. Political debate is open. People can say what they like. (And most, we found, were extremely vocal.) The Yezidi refugees we spoke to were all quite demonstrative about their situation, and what they said was pretty much uniform: they were absolutely outraged at how the world had treated them.
    The director took us to a tent where a Yezidi matriarch told us of the situation of Yezidi girls who had been sold off, openly, as slaves by the Daesh forces back in the summer. “We know where many of them are. Some have been sold to people in Yemen, others Turkey, the Gulf States, even some in Europe. Why isn’t there an effort to recover them? Why hasn’t the UN, the international community done something about this? You would think that of all things, the open reinstitution of slavery might be of some concern to them! Yet we’ve heard nothing.”
    Gradually, more and more people filled the tent. One young man who spoke English – he said he’d studied in college in Iraq – sat down in the center of the room. I still have a vivid picture of him, in watch cap and glasses, of an obvious intellectual disposition, but simmering with rage. He had a message he wanted us to convey to the world, and I did my best to scribble everything he said into a rain-dampened notebook. Here’s a summary from my notes:
    “The international community has done nothing for us. The KDP told us the Peshmerga would protect us, we didn’t need weapons of our own, but when Daesh entered the area, they fled without even warning us. Thousands were slaughtered. Even now the bodies of some of my relatives are lying unburied on the mountainside, being eaten by animals. Iraq did nothing for us. Not a single Iraqi parliamentarian or politician has even so much as visited us here. We have received no military support, no material help, no aid of any kind. Or from the KDP either. They hold out our misery to the world when they appeal for aid, but when they get the aid, military or otherwise, they just give it to their own people, or use it to seize more oil resources. I don’t know what their plan is. Maybe they wanted us all dead so they could seize the territory to add to their little empire or something. Maybe they want us to remain in misery so they can use us for their propaganda. But they’ve done nothing. The UN has done nothing. With all their talk of human rights, when there was outright genocide, they did nothing. The United States did nothing to help us. They made all sorts of noise but in the end they did nothing. Neither did Europe. Neither did the Russians. Or the Chinese.”
    “What about the PKK and YPG?” someone asked.
    “Well, yes, they helped as best they could. We have no complaints about them. But they were the only ones. And they had very limited resources.”
    (This is a story I might add here that seems to have fallen outside the realm of acceptable discourse in most Western media outlets – this blog included. The PKK, a Marxist national liberation movement, fought a guerilla war against Turkey in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and as a result, is still listed as a “terrorist” group by the US and Europe. In fact, they have since completely changed their politics, announcing a unilateral ceasefire and also unilaterally giving up any demand for their own nation-state, asking only for political autonomy in areas of Kurdish majority, and proposing to base their self-governance on the “democratic confederalism” and “social ecology” of American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin (an idea their sister party, the PYD, is actually trying to put into effect in Rojava, which is one of the reasons Turkey has placed a total embargo on them.) At any rate, in August, when Daesh attacked the Yezidis who’d taken refuge on Mt. Sinjar, the Peshmerga did indeed flee the field, and the only local forces willing to step in were PKK guerillas based in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq (where they’d withdrawn from Turkey at the beginning of peace negotiations), and the YPG and YPJ, the Rojavan defense forces. The two combined to fight their way through Daesh lines and open a corridor through which they were able to evacuate most of the Yezidis trapped there, providing weapons for those who chose to stay. The reader might recall that there was a lot of talk about US intervention at the time, to head off genocide, then, suddenly, word went out that the Yezidis were no longer in danger and no indication was given as to why. That’s why. The only people willing to make any risks or sacrifices to save the Yezidi population from genocide were ones still officially listed as “terrorists.”)
    More and more people kept entering the tent, and all of them had pretty much the same thing to say. “We no longer consider ourselves Iraqis,” said one. “Where was Iraq when we were being slaughtered? But we want nothing to do with Barzani either. There’s only one solution. We need our own autonomous territory, with our own self-government, and our own autonomous defense forces. Because now we know we can’t trust anyone else – any government, anyway – to intervene for us.” Several others came up to us to make the same point as we toured the camp, observing the first aid station and schools the Rojavans had set up, all woefully understocked, since, as they kept noting, international NGOs and even the UN were systematically ignoring them.
    The hatred of the Iraqi Kurdish regime was palpable. We did not hear a single person express anything but outrage. Particularly resented was the way that government held out images of suffering Yezidis to the world to win further aid, and then immediately redistributed 90% of it through their own corrupt patronage networks, leaving virtually nothing for the actual refugees. Feelings about the “international community” were not much better. They asked us to convey this to the world. “Do they think we aren’t human?” one asked. “And if not, why don’t human rights apply to us?”

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