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Agony of Yazidis extends to sixth anniversary of their genocide

This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Examiner, on August 3, 2020.

By USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza and Mural Ismael.

Tomorrow, August 3rd, the Yazidis will commemorate the sixth anniversary of the genocide committed by the so-called Islamic State, ISIS, that took place in Sinjar, located in northern Iraq. Yazidis will not have the chance to consider how to protect themselves from a future one. Instead, they will be haunted and reminded by the genocide they still endure. However, Yazidis should not be the only ones commemorating their tragedy, we all must.

Despite how the situation may appear, the genocide is not over; more than 2700 Yazidi women, girls, and children remain missing. Fewer than a third of the 400,000 Yazidis have returned, and their homeland of Sinjar is in shambles. They do not feel safe.

It was in the early hours of Sunday, August 3, 2014 when ISIS started its systematic campaign to kill thousands of Yazidi men and nearly one hundred women. Except for several mass graves in Kocho exhumed by Iraqi authorities and UNITAD, most of their remains lay unexhumed on the bare land where the sun of the summers and winds and rain of winters have been washing them away.

While the murder of men and elderly women that did not have “sexual value” to the group was horrific, it was the mass enslavement of more than 6800 Yazidi women, girls, and children that broke the community and brought it down to its knees. What happened to Yazidis is a tragedy for humanity as a whole and will not be healed within six centuries, let alone six years

In Sinjar, Yazidi women and girls have long sought a life with dignity, to marry and have a family, but they were also recently finding how to play a larger role in their conservative community. From almost no girls in school in the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Yazidis girls began to receive equal education in the 1990s. Additionally, after decades of negligence and injustice toward this religious minority, it was only in 2003 when the community started a path to economic prosperity. For the first time, thousands of homes were turned from clay to concrete, small factories were built, and towns and villages received electricity and better services. 

This all changed when ISIS’ massacre devastated the Yazidi community as the world watched in 2014. After initial denial, international attention increased thanks to the advocacy and resilience of Yazidi advocates, survivors, and supporters around the world. This genocide was recognized by more than ten countries, including United States, France, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Armenia, and others. The United Nations Commission on Syria also concluded a genocide was committed, and finally, the UN created an investigative team, UNITAD, which Yazidis hope it will give a legal recognition for the genocide. While a platform for investigation was created with UNITAD, there has been no judicial process, domestically in Iraq or Syria, or internationally, that leads to accountability against perpetrators. More than 20,000 ISIS members remain in prison in Syria alone without a path to accountability. From tens of thousands of Yazidi victims and their families, only a handful have had the opportunity to participate in trial proceedings. So far, only Germany has begun a process to prosecute ISIS capital crimes.

Justice for the Yazidi community does not stop at accountability. The community deserves the right to protection of their homeland as well. It is troubling that the Yazidi areas remain disputed per Article 140 of the Constitution between the governments of Baghdad and Erbil, which the subsequent Iraqi governments have and International community failed to address. It is without a local administration, under threat of Turkish air strikes, and is continually torn apart by the interests of various militia groups. Houses and infrastructure have not been rebuilt. Justice should also have meant a return of two thirds of Yazidi IDPs who continue to endure a challenging life in more than 15 camps in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq. But Yazidis do not only deserve to exist, they deserve to thrive. The progress once made in local education, infrastructure, and the economy illustrates what the Yazidi community in Sinjar is capable of achieving. Before this, however, there must be stability, which means an resolution to local disputes, end of era of militias, immediate ceasing of Turkish airstrikes, and an economic and humanitarian plan.

Yazidis are not ungrateful people, their leaders have acknowledged the support of international community, the Kurdish People who embraced them, the NGOs, and international humanitarian agencies who contributed generously over the past six years and made up the backbone of genocide response. 

The Iraqi government, with the support of the United States and the international community, must address issues that still remain in both Sinjar as well as the entire Nineveh Plains, home to Christians, Yazidis, and other religious communities of Iraq. Stabilization and economic prosperity should be a priority if we want to help Iraq build a just society where everyone is treated equally, especially the weakest. The international community should support the Yazidis and other minorities to build resilience in their homeland so that their rich cultures can be preserved. Only then will the Yazidi community be able to rebuild a homeland with opportunities for economic prosperity and a life with dignity.

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