The Sinjar Mountains lie in the north of Iraq, rising above the Nineveh Plains. Mythology lists Sinjar as the resting place of Noah’s Ark after the Biblical flood, a place in which humanity was allegedly saved, and life preserved. Yet just four short years ago, it was the location of a deliberate and systematic effort to eliminate an entire ethnic minority: the Yazidis.
In the August of 2014, the Islamic State descended upon Sinjar – the spiritual and ancestral home of the Yazidi people. Some 5000 men were slaughtered and an estimated 7000 women were enslaved, before being sold as concubines and raped. Other women jumped to their deaths from the mountainside, preferring death to enslavement. Young boys were also abducted, with many forced to live with Isis families. Almost half of the 6,000 Yazidis kidnapped three years ago by Isis have still not been found. Those that were not massacred or captured fled to the mountains. In the baking 50 degrees August heat, many simply starved to death. 93 per cent of these deaths were young children.
How should Britain confront the horror of such an event? Where do we even begin?
The failure to initially protect them, followed by the inadequacy of the response, is a moral stain on our collective conscience. The Yazidis, in a symbolic marking of the failures of the international community, buried a coffin marking the date of the founding of the United Nations (24 October 1945) as the date of birth, and the day of the genocide (3 August 2014) as the date of death. The international community, including the United Kingdom, failed to stand in the way of this genocide and took insufficient retrospective action too.
It is estimated that around 120,000 Yazidis have sought refuge in Europe since 2014, many in Germany. It was here that I spent two months working with several Yazidi families at a refugee centre. I first met a Yazidi man while working in a clothes drop-off for refugees. He got out Translate on his phone, and typed, “I am minority. Daaesh (the term used to denote IS) kill my people. 74 genocide.”
Over the time I spent helping these families, they began to share parts of their traumatic experience which brought them to Germany. While sharing a meal, the Yazidi women showed me their wedding videos, in which they held hands and danced in a circle in front of Mount Sinjar. “This is my village that Daaesh destroyed, this is my cousin, she was taken as a slave; this is my uncle, he was killed; this is my brother, we haven’t seen or heard from him.” They also pointed to the 1500 metre Sinjar mountain behind the joyous celebrations, where for centuries Yazidi people have fled persecution and genocide. It was here that these families fled during the siege, eventually receiving food and supplies from the US Air Force.
I asked their husbands about the possibility of one day returning to their homeland. They responded by saying that they “can never return to Sinjar. The Peshmerga [Kurdish resistance] abandoned us to Daaesh, we are not Kurdish, we were betrayed. Many Arabs from the neighbouring villages joined Daaesh, we knew them. Now they have shaved their beards and returned, but how can we go home?”
Tragically, four years on from that fateful August week, several thousand Yazidis still live in tents on Mount Sinjar, destitute and afraid to return home. Only 4,000 Yazidis have returned to Sinjar and they have no money to rebuild their lives.
At Sinjar’s hospital clinic, Road to Peace – a small British organisation – is the only aid group or non-governmental organisation supporting the community. Cases of malnutrition and severe psychological conditions are common in this impoverished, traumatised and abandoned community. For many Yazidis, returning home is an impossibility. Many local Sunni tribesmen consider them “devil worshippers”, and steal livestock in land disputes. Many even fear that they empathised with the militants.
In Germany, the Yazidi women I worked with were hopeful. In Europe, their children are in school and will grow up with all the opportunities available to their German classmates.
Britain too must provide a glimmer of hope for the lives of the Yazidis. The House of Commons rightly condemned the genocide in 2016. However, concrete action since then has been negligible. The Government still fails to separate the Yazidis from regular Iraqis in the asylum process, with the total number of families that Britain has accepted standing at a shameful 12. Since returning home is impossible for the Yazidis due to the hostility, fear and instability that awaits them, surely they should be regarded differently in the asylum process. But many have already had their claim for asylum rejected, and some even face deportation.
Britain, and figures such as Gertrude Bell, played a large role in the shaping of the borders of Iraq and the Levant. Indeed, some go as far as to argue that we created this mess. While this claim cannot be accepted in its entirety, Britain should, nevertheless, play an active role in helping the people of this region whom we have failed to protect.
As a P5 member, Britain must take steps to hold accountable those responsible for the crimes committed against Yazidis, including locals who joined Isis in committing these crimes. We must take the necessary measures to prevent a recurrence of such horrors.
We must also ask ourselves why it is that we fail to give it the attention it deserves. Is it guilt from our complicity in the misery unleashed from the invasion of Iraq? Is it the sheer complexity of the Middle Eastern conflict? Or is it something deeper, rooted in our apathetic torpor?
Nadia Murad, a former sex slave of Isis fighters, documented her traumatic experiences in her book, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, in which she states that “[she] want[s] to be the last girl in the world with a story like [hers]”. The UK Government must do all it can, at home and abroad, to fulfil this wish.
The Yazidis claim they have, in their long history, suffered 73 cases of persecution over the centuries. The international community, Britain included, failed to prevent the 74th. Let there never be a 75th.