One of the World’s Most Silent Genocides: the Yezidis

In August of 2014, ISIS fighters invaded the Iraqi city of Sinjar, the former home to about 8 million Yazidis.1 Today, their population in Iraq stands at about 500,000.2

Who are the Yezidis? Perhaps one of the more violently-targeted, yet lesser-known groups, the Yezidis are ethno-religious minorities concentrated in Iraq. This group’s struggles with deportation, human trafficking, and terrorism are all too compelling, and articulates a wider, global phenomenon of inaction towards acts of genocide.

Discrimination and persecution of the Yezidis lies within their association with devil worship. This derives from their praise of the “Peacock Angel,” which in Islamic mythology is believed to be the Devil. Though in Yezidism, this is a God-like creature who manifests both good and evil traits, which Yezidis believe are integral parts of a whole.3 Violent militia groups, such as ISIS, have used this to justify Yezidi-extraction from Iraq or forced conversion to Islam.4  With the latter, many Yezidis have been executed for resisting conversion, and this push back helped to catalyze the 2014 invasion by ISIS which the United Nations identifies this as an act of genocide and a crime against humanity.5

The extremists aimed to eliminate the Yezidi population by murdering their men and taking their women as sex slaves.6 Many of these women and girls are still missing today, and are only returned if ISIS members decide to sell them back to their families at a costly rate most cannot afford.7 Mosques and churches were continuously destroyed for almost a decade, meanwhile those who survived the attacks were forced into Arab and Suni assimilation, which often resulted in their deportation.8 About 40,000 Yezidis who managed to escape the encircling jihadists fled to the mountains of Sinjar, where some remained for years after this initial contact.9 To add to this, the Yedizis do not have a military to defend themselves, which makes it easier for terrorist groups to target their population. 

Following the ISIS takeover of Sinjar, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia sponsored air drops of food and water to the captive Yezidi people.10 Although the Yezidis have now begun to construct their own army, they are still heavily reliant on foreign aid and makeshift militias who are sparsely manned and under-armed. Out of desperation, they’ve recently created an all-female militia, called Êzîdxan Women’s Units. For these reasons, they still remain a weak target in the eyes of violent extremist groups looking to rid the Middle East of their presence.11 

The ethnic cleansing of the Yezidis is only a short bit of their long history of oppression and discrimination. While suffering from unemployment, poverty, and violence motivates the Yezidis to seek safer grounds, they are unable to relocate due to their citizenship being tied to their homeland. To exacerbate these problems, variances within the Yezidi community itself have also factored into this group’s deteriorating stance. Disunity arises from differences in political affiliation, religious beliefs, language, and even discrepancies over their origins.12

Their confrontations with ISIS underscores two prominent components of discrimination. The first deals with how identity is projected onto minority groups and how groups respond to that encroachment. Members of ISIS or other ethno-religious majorities in the Middle East have identified the Yezidis as “devil worshipers,” despite limited and incomplete evidence, alongside the group’s steadfast denial. This projection of identity is inextricably linked to hostile ideas about character, merit, intellect, and civility, which have been used to justify malicious behavior towards the Yezidis. Their history of violence and discrimination, furthermore, have led to a pressing refugee and humanitarian crisis that continue to affect Syria, Turkey, Russia, and Greece. In recent years, this violence and migration have caused the Yezidis to focus more on creating an army. Yet, Iraqi-crackdowns on their illegitimate militias means the Yezidis have to operate covertly to fight ISIS, which extremely limits their capabilities to garner weapons and train their citizens.

The second point deals with domestic intervention into instances of discriminatory violence. The Yezidi genocide is only one of dozens of genocides that have taken place in Iraq.13 Iraqi officials have turned a blind eye to the Yezidis and have failed to effectively persecute any member of ISIS that participated in the 2014 attacks.14 This point ties to the falters of the Iraqi penal code in which crevasses have allowed for minority communities to not be granted the same protection under the law. Today, officials have restricted aid to Yezidi refugee camps, which face poor sanitation, food scarcity, and, perhaps worse, are even booby-trapped by ISIS fighters.15 The many who have been born in the refugee camps and will now grow in a territory that has stripped away their education, voting rights, and freedom of speech.16 Even more pressing, they will grow up in one of the most insecure and deadly regions in the world.

Although the Yezidis may be a lesser-known group for many Westerners, their history may still come across as familiar. Violence and oppression against minority groups transcends national borders. Just this past year, for example, Christian minorities in Sri Lanka were the targets of a deadly ISIS bombing. Smiliar events took place in Canada and New Zealand in 2017 and 2019, respectively, where Muslim minorities were mass-murdered for their beliefs. And, of course, other minority groups in the Middle East, such as the Armenians during their genocide, have faced similar acts of violent discrimination. The history of the Yezidis, although distinct in many ways, in its most rudimentary form is certainly not unique to this group, or even unique to the Middle East.

Now, Iraq must invest heavily into peace-building measures and a sustainable end to violence. Key challenges that arise post-conflict include rebuilding Yezidi communities, which comes with reconstructing the psychological idea of “community,” addressing grievances, and more importantly, providing adequate protection against another, and somewhat inevitable, invasion by extremist groups.

On a positive note, their story has captured attention by domestic and international NGOs who are now working to support Yezidi refugees and are focusing on locating and returning their captured women. These NGOs are now targeting the government and demanding that they improve legal rights and protection for this minority community. Importantly, other countries and global organizations, such as the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, must amplify their disapproval of the Iraqi government’s furthering of this issue, and take measures to pressure their government to make improvements for these civilians.

E N D N O T E S :

[1] Katharine Holstein, author of “Shadow on the Mountain: A Yazidi Memoir of Terror, Resistance and Hope,” interviewed by Taylor Fairless. February 25, 2020.
[2] Raya Jalabi. Who are the Yazidis and Why is Isis Hunting Them? The Guardian. August 11, 2014.
[3]  Devdutt Pattanaik. The Peacock Angel of the Yazidis. Articles World Mythology. 4 December, 2017
[4] Razan Rashidi. UN Human Rights Panel Concludes ISIL is Committing Genocide Against Yazidis. The United Nations. June 16, 2016.
[5]  Birgul Acikyildiz-Sengul. The Yezidis: An Ancient People, Tragedy, and Struggle for Survival. Chapter 11. p. 149
[6]  Ibid. p. 147, 149
[7]  Ibid. p. 153
[8]  Ibid.
[9] Raya Jalabi. Who are the Yazidis and Why is Isis Hunting Them? The Guardian. August 11, 2014.
[10] Birgul Acikyildiz-Sengul, p. 153.
[11] Birgul Acikyildiz-Sengul. p. 153
[12] Katharine Holstein, interviewed by Taylor Fairless.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.


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