Driven by "unbearable" memories, the suicide rate among members of the Yazidi religious minority is increasing more than six years after the Islamic State (IS) terror group attacked Yazidis' homes in the Sinjar district in northern Iraq, according to Yazidi activists.
Many Yazidis who fled the IS into Iraqi Kurdistan's refugee camps are now facing mental health issues. The distress is particularly acute among women who experienced sexual violence while in IS captivity.
"There are multiple factors pushing some Yazidis to commit suicide, but the main reason is the unbearable memory of what happened during the IS genocide," said Khodr al-Domali, a Yazidi researcher and coordinator of social support to Yazidi women in refugee camps.
Al-Domali said thousands of Yazidis in refugee camps are afraid to return home because armed groups are fighting over who will control their villages and towns now that IS jihadists are gone. Yazidis who have returned home can't find work or educational opportunities, and they face discrimination by surrounding communities.
"Many Yazidis continue to experience the horrors they went through as their areas remain widely destroyed and they don't find adequate help ... so they could deal with the trauma," he told VOA.
In its rampage across Iraq and Syria in August 2014, IS attacked the area in northern Iraq where about 400,000 Yazidis lived. The jihadi group killed thousands of Yazidi men, kidnapped thousands of women and girls to use as sex slaves, and reportedly kidnapped young boys for training as suicide bombers and IS fighters.
The United Nations called the IS attacks a genocidal campaign.
According to the Kidnapped Yazidis Rescue Office in Duhok, Kurdistan Region, 3,543 kidnapped Yazidis have been rescued from IS, but some 2,800 remain missing.
Local activists say there is no official data about the Yazidi suicide rate, and some may be unreported. They are certain, however, that the majority of suicides are Yazidi women. The local news outlet Rudaw, located in Iraqi Kurdistan, estimated that some 150 Yazidi women have committed suicide since the genocide began in 2014.
"Yazidi women took the hardest toll during the genocide," said al-Domali. "We noticed that most of the women who committed suicide were waiting for the return of their kidnapped family members or they found out that their families were found in mass graves."
He continued, "The Yazidi community is ready to adapt and work on its issues, and the answer is psychological support, financial aid and social help."
Local media reported in September that a 53-year-old Yazidi woman, Dai Shirin, had set herself on fire and died in the Khanki refugee camp in Duhok province after failing to determine the fate of her husband and six children. In August, a young Yazidi man, Nashwan Sharaf, hanged himself in Duhok's Bajid Kandala camp.
Lina Villa, a mental health activity manager with Doctors without Borders (MSF) who works with the Yazidi and Arab communities in Sinuni Hospital in Sinjar district, said, "We see different levels of symptoms in the communities we are serving, like depression, angry and suicidal thoughts, suicidal attempts. Some patients have intrusive thoughts, and they are having revivals of the situations they have faced, flashbacks, delusions and hallucinations — also, anxiety, stress, fear and psychosomatic like short of breath, loss of appetite and lack of sleep."
Villa told VOA that between April and August, her organization received 30 reports of people who attempted suicide. Last month, 25% of the patients expressed suicidal thoughts, she added.
A 2019 MSF report based on a mental health survey from Sinuni Hospital revealed that all the families interviewed had at least one member who suffered either moderate or severe mental illness.
Giving Yazidis a voice that will allow them to feel dignified and settled in their homeland, accompanied by social support, will help address the problem of suicide, according to Villa.
"The main thing that Yazidis have lost is a sense of security and protection," she said. "The communities we serve return to their homes and fields, they find everything has been destroyed, and they feel their ordeal continues. When a traumatic situation doesn't stop, it becomes more difficult to cope with that situation."