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Tracking Missing Yazidis Increasingly Harder Six Years After IS Genocide

Displaced Yazidis, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State group, head toward the Syrian border Aug. 11, 2014.

The Yazidi minority this week marked six years since the Islamic State (IS) attacked their homeland in northern Iraq. Their nightmare continues.

Even after their territories were recaptured and IS was defeated, activists of the religious community say they are still looking for thousands of their members who went missing during the genocidal campaign that began on August 3, 2014.

One of the activists, Ali Hussein al-Khansouri, told VOA that many of the missing Yazidis must be “bought” from their kidnappers who demand amounts that continue to increase. He said that locating and smuggling out the missing Yazidis is becoming more difficult, especially as they seem to be scattered across conflict areas of Syria to as far as Turkey.

Al-Khansouri, 34, who survived IS captivity, has rescued 43 kidnapped Yazidis across Iraq and Syria. His first mission in 2017 involved freeing an 8-year-old Yazidi girl from northwestern Syria under the al-Qaida offshoot the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group.

“I never imagined that I will be engaged in finding the missing Yazidis,” said al-Khansouri, who in his quest is also hoping to track 46 people from his extended family and relatives.

“As time passed by and thousands of Yazidis remained missing, and because of the network of people I know, I was compelled to take action,” he said.

According to the Kidnapped Yazidis Rescue Office in Duhok, Kurdistan Region, 3,543 kidnapped Yazidis have been rescued, with 2,800 still missing.

FILE - Relatives hug a Yazidi survivor boy following his release from IS militants in Syria, in Duhok, Iraq, March 2, 2019.
FILE - Relatives hug a Yazidi survivor boy following his release from IS militants in Syria, in Duhok, Iraq, March 2, 2019.

IS rampaged across Iraq and Syria in 2014 to establish its so-called Islamic caliphate. In August of that year, the jihadist group attacked Iraq’s Sinjar town and district where about 400,000 Yazidis lived. It killed thousands of Yazidi men and kidnapped the women and young boys. The women and young girls were reportedly used as sex slaves while the young boys were trained to become IS fighters and suicide bombers.

The United Nations has called the attacks a campaign of genocide.

Al-Khansouri was a Kurdish language teacher and a wedding photographer in Khana Sor village, north of Sinjar Mountain, when IS attacked. He was hiding with 34 members of his family at his uncle’s house when the terror group found them and transferred them with other captured Yazidis to Tal al-Shaer school near al-Shaddadi in Deir el-Zour governorate in eastern Syria.

“They told us that they were waiting for the Caliph orders to determine our fate. After a few days, they told us that the orders came and they will not kill us if we convert to Islam and perform the Islamic worship and rituals. We agreed because we wanted to live,” he said.

After spending one week in Syria, he was taken with a group of Yazidi men and boys over 9 years old in a bus back to Iraq where they were placed in Tal Banat village near Sinjar, close to an IS training camp. While at the training site, he and four other men escaped when a fighter jet targeted the group.

“We reached Kabara village in southern Sinjar where hundreds of Yazidis had fled to. There was a force of armed Yazidis defending the fleeing families,” he said.

FILE - Yazidi sisters, who escaped from captivity by IS militants, sit in a tent at Sharya refugee camp on the outskirts of Duhok province, Iraq, July 3, 2015.
FILE - Yazidi sisters, who escaped from captivity by IS militants, sit in a tent at Sharya refugee camp on the outskirts of Duhok province, Iraq, July 3, 2015.

Now in safety at Sharia camp in Kurdistan Region’s Duhok province, al-Khansouri said his community lives with the trauma they experienced during the IS conflict.

“Yazidi families just want to know if their loved ones are still alive or dead,” he said.

Finding closure

Iraqi and Kurdish officials say they are doing their best to help the Yazidi community reunite with their missing members.

Nineveh governorate authorities say they have found 83 mass graves, consisting mostly of Yazidis in Sinjar.

The search for mass graves and the exhumation of victims’ remains comes as part of a joint effort between a national team of Iraqi officials and the United Nations Investigative Team to promote accountability for crimes committed by IS in Iraq and Syria.

But some Yazidis say that the efforts to identify the victims must be accelerated.

“More than 70 mass graves were discovered, and until now these graves are open, and documenting the identities of the victims is going in a very slow pace,” Tahsen Shikh Kalo, a Yazidi journalist, told VOA.

Kalo lost his 32-year-old sister, Sarah, when IS attacked their village of al-Adnaniah in 2014.

He said his sister and her 6-year-old daughter were separated from the Kalo family and fled IS with neighbors. They were caught by the militants when the neighbor’s car broke down in the middle of the road to safety.

A few months into the kidnapping of Sarah and her daughter, the Kalos in a phone call were informed she was killed. Her daughter was rescued in April 2015 by another fleeing Yazidi family in Tal Afar, Iraq.

“Till now we don’t know where my sister is buried. My sister has no grave,” lamented Kalo.

Persistent insecurity

Tracking the missing family members and identifying bodies in mass graves are not the only causes of anguish for the religious minority, however.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis in Iraq are living under harsh conditions in refugee camps where they lack access to basic services. Those who wish to return to their homes in Sinjar are unable to because of mass destruction from war and persistent insecurity.

Kalo said that his village is contaminated by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by IS. The struggle of demining teams to clear the village, the existence of different armed militias who are competing to control the area after IS, and Turkish ongoing airstrikes mean the locals have no hope they could return in months to come.

“We need protection, and we want to live in peace. Sinjar is free now, but till now Sinjar is considered a disputed area under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which makes life hard for the Yazidis living there,” Kalo said.

Disputed areas in northern Iraq are defined by article 140 of the Iraqi constitution as regions inhabited by a mix of religions and ethnicities that went through demographic change and Arabization under the Baath regime. Both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil claim those lands.

Supporting Yazidi community

While Iraqi and Kurdish authorities continue to bicker over who should rule in the area, Yazidi representatives are questioning how long it will take before they can see some progress in the reconstruction of their areas and the provision of services.

“Yazidis are part of the Iraqi nation, and the Iraqi government must allocate funds to support local projects, rebuild the infrastructure in Sinjar, and compensate the families who lost their homes and businesses,” Dawood Jundi Shikh-Kalo, a Yazidi leader and member of the leadership council of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told VOA.

Shikh-Kalo, who led Sinjar Protection Units during the battle against IS, said different parties in the country need to support local initiatives from the Yazidi community to help it stand on its feet.

Iraqi President Barham Salih in March 2019 referred the Yazidi Female Survivors Bill to the Iraqi parliament, which could address many social issues agonizing the Yazidis, including helping them find their missing members. The law is still waiting an approval vote by the Iraqi parliament.