For more than a year, Iraq’s Yazidis have watched a human tragedy unfold as members of their quiet, religious community have been enslaved, tortured and killed by Islamic State militants.
The community and its Iraqi and Kurdish defenders have repeatedly pressed for more U.S. intervention, with limited success. A delegation was in Washington last month to make the case.
“Since ISIS attacked Mosul last year, the genocide hasn’t stopped for one moment,” said Iraqi parliamentarian Haji K. Samo, who was part of the delegation that came to Washington to meet with the State Department a few weeks ago.
He and his colleague Khadeeda K. Eedo, a member of the Nineveh Provincial Council, represent the Yazidis, whose monotheistic religion combines elements of Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.
But frustration at the slow pace of Western intervention has forced some elements of the Yazidi community to look elsewhere for help — Russia.
Saad Barkash, the translator for the delegation that met with State Department officials, said Mr. Eedo confirmed that the Yazidi pope, known as the “Baba Sheikh,” has been in Moscow since Monday seeking Russian help to protect the community from further violence and persecution by the Islamic State.
The Baba Sheikh and his delegation went to Moscow to ask for assistance to the Kurdish Regional Government and the peshmerga, the Kurdish military force, which seeks to extend its sovereignty over the Sinjar region where the Yazidis are based. Among the officials they met with was Mikhail Bogdanov, deputy foreign minister of Russia.
The Yazidi delegation to Russia made several other requests, including humanitarian aid for more than 400,000 Yazidis living under difficult conditions; support from the Russian military to liberate more than 3,500 Yazidis held captive by the Islamic State, including children in jihadi training camps; and Russian support to refer a case of genocide from the U.N. Security Council to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Late Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov vowed that Russia would play a larger role protecting Christians in the Middle East, according to the official Russian news agency Tass.
“The Middle East is a cradle of Christianity,” Mr. Lavrov was quoted as saying. “Christians have been living there for 2,000 years. It should be done so that the civilizational tissue of that region would be preserved and would not be breached.”
Nearly 100,000 ethnic Yazidis also are living in Russia.
Mr. Eedo objects to the Yazidi mission to Russia, fearing it will undermine the effort of his delegation to gain the help of U.S. officials.
“The U.S. will not work together with the Russians,” said Mr. Barkash, speaking on behalf of the delegation representing the Yazidi Movement for Progress and Reform. “If the Russians get involved with helping the Yazidi hostage problem, the U.S. officials will pull back.”
Crisis and flight
The crisis began in August 2014, when hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled their ancestral homeland near the Syrian border and sought protection in the Kurdish provinces north of Mosul. Approximately 10,000 Yazidis were trapped on Mount Sinjar and remained there for four months until Kurdish militia could clear an escape corridor in December.
One year later, the south side of Mount Sinjar is still occupied by Islamic State fighters, while the northern part is held by approximately 5,000 Yazidi tribesmen who refuse to leave.
“The people fear to leave their flocks and fig orchards for the harsh life of the [refugee] camps in Kurdistan,” said Saad Barkash, a Yazidi-Iraqi immigrant who lives in Austin, Texas.
“Of 5,000 Yazidi civilians taken hostage last year, 2,129 have been released, including many women and children suffering from PTSD,” Mr. Barkhash told The Washington Times. The remaining 3,000 hostages are unaccounted for, and some may have been executed, the delegation reported. Mass graves were discovered north of Mount Sinjar after the Islamic State was pushed out, Mr. Samo said.
“Until about July of this year, many of the women sold as brides or as sex slaves had kept their cellphones and were able to call relatives to report their conditions. Some called from Raqqa, the Syrian capital of ISIS, or from various towns of western Iraq. Other women were calling from Saudi Arabia. Our women are being sold all over the Middle East,” Mr. Samo said.
“Mental conditioning has been forced upon the underage hostages, many of whom are being trained as ISIS cadre,” Mr. Samo said. “We have seen videos of Yazidi children as young as 5 demanding that their mothers and brothers and sisters convert to Islam.”
For Yazidis and other minorities living in internally displaced camps in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the coming of winter will only exacerbate the dire living conditions.
A shortage in humanitarian aid means more cuts to basic services on which these ethno-religious minorities heavily rely.
“Throughout the meetings, the Iraqi delegation spoke of the needs of the internally displaced people — asking for pycho-social services, counseling and support services for women and girls who have fled captivity from [the Islamic State] as well as aid to combat the harsh winter conditions that are expected to hit northern Iraq,” said Delia Kashat, director of the Nineveh Council of America, an organization that advances the concerns of ethno-religious minorities from Iraq and Syria.
The mountainous terrain of northern Iraq receives snow and freezing rain every year, which increases the stress on families taking shelter in light plastic tents.
There are 350,000 civilian Yazidi refugees in Dohuk, a large Kurdish city near the Turkish border, lodged in 17 teeming tent cities. The remainder are sheltered in two tent camps near Irbil and two in Sulymaneia, in the eastern part of Kurdistan. Still, the Yazidis are outnumbered by Muslim and Christian victims of violence who fled into Kurdistan last year as well.
The Kurdish Regional Government is struggling to find food and space for approximately 1.8 million refugees.
The Yazidi delegation came to Washington on Oct. 20 to press its case for urgent relief, Ms. Kashat said. One goal of the visit: petitioning the Obama administration and Congress to classify the atrocities committed against the Yazidis as acts of genocide.
“If the U.S. Congress declares the mass killings in Iraq as a genocide, then other countries will want to help financially,” Mr. Samo said.
The delegation also pressed for help with exit visas to other countries, Mr. Eedo said.
“Many of our young men are risking their lives to get out of the country any way they can. Some die at sea on leaky boats while trying to get to a Western country. We are asking the U.S. government to help us to get more refugee visas to any country,” he said.
A final prescription urged by the delegation is for NATO and the coalition partners of the Baghdad government to create a “safe haven” in the Nineveh Plain east of Mosul.
“While the international security forces set up a protective perimeter for our people, we will train our young men to serve as people’s militia and to take over the entire security job,” Mr. Samo said. Some in Congress, including Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, have spoken in favor of creating a safe zone in the Nineveh Plain east of Mosul for Yazidis and other minorities.