In the arid summer heat and the dry earth of northern Iraq, human remains are quickly stripped to the bone as the flesh rots away. Wild animals help the process along by feeding off the corpses that lie exposed.
The mass graves that dot the surroundings of Mount Sinjar in Iraq thus do not look like evidence of a recent crime, they seem to point to another age. The shattered sculls, bones and rib cages, the tattered pieces of cloth that have emerged from the soil could be from a previous century; only the shoes and other personal possessions like wallets reveal the victims as our contemporaries.
Eighteen months ago, on August 3, the ISIS came to the Sinjar area. What initially looked like just another advance to expand the territory of the self-declared caliphate soon set new standards in the depravity that the terror group revels in.
Up to 5,000 Yazidis, members of an ancient religion that predates the Abrahamic faiths, were brutally slaughtered by ISIS when they refused to convert to Islam. They justified its bloodlust with its archaic interpretation of religion, and by denouncing the Yazidis as devil worshippers.
It was nothing more than a pretext. Like savages of old, they stormed into Sinjar to capture Yazidi women, which they hauled off in their thousands. To this day most of these women are held in ISIS territory, where they are brutally raped and traded between the extremists like cattle.
The attack on the Yazidi minority shocked the world, and prompted the U.S. to launch its air campaign against ISIS. With the help of American bombs and Kurdish PKK guerrillas, up to 30,000 Yazidis managed to escape Mount Sinjar, the elongated plateau scaled by those that managed to flee the ISIS onslaught. Later in the year, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces joined the fight, and together with the PKK pushed the extremists from the southern side of the mountain. In November last year, the Kurds finally pushed ISIS back from the northern approaches of Mount Sinjar.
Since 2014, Yazda, an U.S.-based organization lobbying for Yazidi rights, has worked tirelessly to record evidence of what it considers a genocide. Its field workers have roamed the area, meticulously noting the location, size and specifics of the mass graves they encountered. They corroborated their findings with witness statement of survivors or fighters that stumbled across the crime sites.
Last week, the organization released a report detailing the slaughter. It makes for grim reading. Yazda identified 35 mass graves, 10 of which lie in territory still held by ISIS. Dozens of ‘kill sites’ in villages or next to roads where small groups of Yazidis - often just an elderly couple - were shot and hastily interred complete the picture.
Numbers give an idea about size and scope, but they are abstract, and make it hard to relate to the suffering inflicted on the victims. Their grief becomes palpable, however, when the report retells the story of the barbarism of ISIS, and it deserves to be quoted at length.
Here, for example, is what happened in the village of Hamadan:
“There were 84 members of a larger extended family that were separated (men from women) in this location. The family were farmers and there was a group of houses in Hamadan that housed this family. The family did not flee on Aug. 3. On Aug. 4, IS came to their farmlands and rounded them up. The women were locked inside a building and the men were massacred at this site. Only one male family member survived, because he was not in the area on Aug. 3. [ ... ] He reconstructed the massacre event through the testimony of kidnapped female family members who were later rescued. The women saw IS jihadists marching the males to a bean field and then heard the shots. [ ... ] Of the 84 family members, 63 were women and children that were hauled off.”
With the report, Yazda aims to gain support for rebuilding the Yazidi community in northern Iraq, and enable displaced Yazidis to return to their homes. These efforts are hampered as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the PKK vie for control over the Sinjar area.
Distrubingly, there have been reports of Yazidis exacting revenge on their Arab neighbors, which they accuse of colluding or even joining ISIS. Several Arab villages in the area have been raised, and Yazidi militias have reportedly killing Arabs and even Sunni Kurds.
Such incidents do not only undermine the Yazidis case for international support. They also point to the fragmentation of the social fabric in Iraq, once the colourful patchwork of different religions and cultures that coexisted for many centuries, if not always peacefully. After years of religious extremism that culminated in the ISIS, tolerance towards other groups is almost non-existent. This throws into doubt the survival of minorities like the Yazidis, most of which want to leave the country.
Having failed to eradicate Yazidism in its campaign of bloody slaughter, ISIS might still succeed in wiping the exotic religion off the face of Iraq.SHOW MORE