Traumatized Yazidis seek outside help to dislodge militants

‘There is no cure for the survivor, no support. We’re asking the international community, the United Nations and America: please help us, save us’

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Members of Iraq’s Yazidi community, joining academics and lawyers at the first conference devoted to their plight, spoke on Thursday of their brutal treatment at the hands of Islamic State militants who overran their homeland.

Eighteen months after the militants seized northern Iraq, killing, enslaving and displacing the Yazidis en masse, advocates are pushing for the massacre to be recognized as genocide, though some legal experts doubt this will happen.

Thousands of Yazidi women and children remain in the hands of ISIS, and most of those able to escape are living in camps in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region with scant psychological and medical care.

Women who had escaped the militants spoke at the conference, held in the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, in Kurdistan, of their experiences in ISIS captivity, and the challenges they face.

“They were killing people in front of us, raping eight-year-old girls. I was nine months in their hands, there is nothing they didn’t do to us,” said one Yazidi woman from the audience.

“There is no cure for the survivor, no support. We’re asking the international community, the United Nations and America: please help us, save us,” said another survivor of the killings.

Though several hundred women have either fled or been rescued from ISIS, some 3,400 remain captive, many forced into slavery or marriage. Most of the roughly 500,000 Yazidis are now displaced in camps in Kurdistan.

The ancient Yazidi faith blends elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam. ISIS militants consider the Yazidis to be devil-worshippers.

Several groups have been gathering evidence of the atrocities with a view to making a case for genocide at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but Timothy Waters, Professor of Law at Indiana University, said the bid was unlikely to succeed.

“I am skeptical that there will be an authoritative definition of [the massacre] as genocide. It’s not enough to think only of the moral consequences and outrage,” he said.

A series of panels touched on themes including the documentation of atrocities inflicted on the Yazidi community, trauma, recovery, reconciliation and the return of Yazidis to their home towns.

Between survivors’ vivid tales of massacre and the pragmatic approach of lawyers, the common thread was that while there is hope for a better future, bringing justice to the Yazidi community, both legally and socially, will be a major challenge.

Judge Qassim Rafu said there was a pressing need for reconciliation between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government in the north in order to rebuild Sinjar, the Yazidi-majority area from which many Yazidis fled 18 months ago.

“Sinjar is administratively linked to Iraq, but after the liberation it has been managed by the Kurds, it is important to sort out this legal problem,” Judge Rafu told the gathering.

Most panellists agreed that reconstruction of the Yazidis’ devastated home towns would not be possible without a political and legal agreement between Baghdad and the Kurds.

Sinjar, the judge said, is “a wounded part of a dead body - Iraq.”

Outside the hall were two photo exhibitions of everyday Yazidi life. The photographs, taken by a group of young Yazidi women, served as testimony to the challenges that face their community.

They are a visual reminder that while much of the Yazidis’ territory has been cleared of militants, their plight continues, with hundreds of thousands moving to Europe in search of a better life.