¿Quiénes son los yazidis y por qué han sido perseguidos continuamente?

¿Quiénes son los yazidis y por qué han sido perseguidos continuamente?

Los yazidis (también deletreados como yezidis) son una minoría religiosa que se encuentra principalmente en el norte de Irak. En los últimos años, los yazidíes han recibido la atención de los medios internacionales como resultado de su brutal persecución a manos de Daesh. Esta persecución, sin embargo, es la más reciente de su tipo, ya que los yazidíes se han enfrentado a numerosas persecuciones a lo largo de su historia. La razón de esto es su religión sincrética, que contiene elementos del Islam, el cristianismo y el zoroastrismo. A lo largo de los siglos, los yazidíes han sido considerados "adoradores del diablo" heréticos y, por lo tanto, fueron objeto de persecución por parte de los musulmanes que gobernaban su tierra natal.

Entrada al templo de Lalish (MikaelF / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

¿Surgió una nueva religión del desencanto?

Aunque el origen del nombre "Yazidi" no está claro, algunos estudiosos han propuesto que se deriva de la palabra persa / zoroástrica "Yazdan", que significa "Dios", y "Yazata", que significa "divino" o "ser angelical". Otros han asociado el nombre de esta minoría religiosa con el de Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah, el segundo califa del califato omeya. Los yazidíes creen que este califa, aunque musulmán sunita, se desencantó de su religión y se convirtió en yazidí.

Se ha estimado que la población yazidi de hoy en día es de entre 200.000 y 1.000.000. Aunque los yazidis son un pueblo disperso, la mayoría de ellos vive en las regiones montañosas del Kurdistán en las fronteras de Turquía, Siria e Irak. La comunidad yazidi más grande se encuentra en las montañas Sinjar en el noroeste de Irak. Desde el punto de vista étnico, se ha considerado que los yazidíes son kurdos y hablan kurdo. Sin embargo, la distinción entre los yazidíes y sus compañeros kurdos radica en la religión que practican los primeros.

El Arcángel Yezidi (YZD / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

¿Quién es Melek Taus el ángel pavo real?

Según la creencia Yazidi, su religión es la más antigua del mundo, y su calendario religioso se remonta a 6756 años. Los yazidis creen que cuando Dios creó el mundo, fue confiado a siete ángeles. El jefe era Melek Taus, también conocido como el ángel pavo real. Este ángel se considera similar a Lucifer en las creencias cristianas y judías y, como Lucifer, se rebeló contra Dios. La rebelión fracasó y Melek Taus fue arrojado al fuego. A diferencia de su homólogo cristiano y judío, el ángel pavo real se arrepintió. Pasando 40.000 años llorando, sus lágrimas finalmente apagaron las llamas. Satisfecho con su acto de arrepentimiento, Dios puso a Melek Taus a cargo de los asuntos diarios del mundo. Los yazidis también creen que fueron creados por Melek Taus antes que cualquiera de las otras razas del mundo.

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Hombre yazidi con ropa tradicional (Max Karl Tilke / Public Domain)

¿Cómo se desarrolló la religión yazidi?

Alternativamente, la religión Yazidi se remonta al final del Califato Omeya. En 750 d. C., el califato omeya fue derrocado por los abasíes y el último califa, Marwan II (que era mitad kurdo), fue asesinado. Algunos de los descendientes y partidarios de la dinastía huyeron a las montañas Sinjar. La religión Yazidi continuó desarrollándose a lo largo de los siglos, absorbiendo elementos de otras religiones, incluido el Islam sufí y chií, el cristianismo nestoriano y el zoroastrismo. Fue durante el 13 th y 14 th siglos en los que los yazidíes empezaron a llamar la atención de los gobernantes musulmanes vecinos. Las creencias religiosas de los yazidíes se desarrollaron más lejos de las normas islámicas, mientras que su poder político y su extensión geográfica continuaron aumentando.

Bandera yazidis ( Frizio / Adobe)

La situación alarmó a los musulmanes de los alrededores, que consideraban a los yazidíes herejes y rivales por el poder. Debido a la adoración de Melek Taus por los yazidis, sus enemigos los consideraban "adoradores del diablo". Por el 15 th En el siglo XX, se produjeron enfrentamientos entre los yazidíes y los musulmanes, en los que estos últimos salieron victoriosos. El poder de los yazidis se redujo, mientras que su número disminuyó como consecuencia de masacres y conversiones tanto voluntarias como forzadas.

Hombres yazidi (Bestoun94 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Los yazidíes sufren una historia interminable de genocidio y persecución

Según los yazidíes, han sufrido un total de 72 genocidios a lo largo de su historia. La persecución de los yazidis continuó en el período moderno. Durante finales de los 19 th y principios de los 20 th Durante siglos, por ejemplo, los yazidíes huyeron en gran número al Cáucaso para evitar una mayor persecución. Hoy esta persecución continúa en forma de Daesh. Muchos temen que este sea el 73 rd genocidio que se llevará a cabo contra los yazidis.


Quién, qué, por qué: ¿Quiénes son los yazidis?

Entre las muchas víctimas del avance del Estado Islámico (EI) en Oriente Medio se encuentra un grupo de hasta 50.000 yazidis, que están atrapados en las montañas del noroeste de Irak sin comida ni agua. La autora Diana Darke explica quiénes son estos misteriosos seguidores religiosos.

Súbitamente empujados al centro de atención por su difícil situación, los yazidis no recibirán con agrado el resplandor de la atención internacional. Debido a sus creencias inusuales, a menudo se les llama injustamente & quotadoradores del diablo& quot, y tradicionalmente se han mantenido separados en pequeñas comunidades dispersas principalmente por el noroeste de Irak, el noroeste de Siria y el sureste de Turquía.

Es difícil estimar su número actual, con cifras que oscilan entre 70.000 y 500.000. Temido, vilipendiado y perseguido, no hay duda de que la población ha disminuido considerablemente a lo largo del siglo pasado. Como otras religiones minoritarias de la región, como la drusa y la alauita, no es posible convertirse al yazidismo, solo nacer en él.

La persecución en curso en su corazón de la región del monte Sinjar al oeste de Mosul se basa en un malentendido de su nombre. Los extremistas sunitas, como ISIS, creen que se deriva de Yazid ibn Muawiya (647-683), el segundo califa profundamente impopular de la dinastía omeya. La investigación moderna, sin embargo, ha aclarado que el nombre no tiene nada que ver con el Yazid de vida suelta, o la ciudad persa de Yazd, sino que está tomado del persa moderno & quotized & quot, que significa ángel o deidad. El nombre Izidis simplemente significa & quotadoradores de dios& quot, que es como se describen los yazidis.

Su propio nombre para ellos mismos es Daasin (plural Dawaaseen), que se toma del nombre de una antigua diócesis nestoriana, la Antigua Iglesia de Oriente, ya que muchas de sus creencias se derivan del cristianismo. Reverencian tanto la Biblia como el Corán, pero gran parte de su propia tradición es oral. Debido en parte a su secreto, ha habido malentendidos de que la compleja fe yazidí está vinculada al zoroastrismo con una dualidad luz / oscuridad e incluso adoración al sol. Sin embargo, estudios recientes han demostrado que aunque sus santuarios a menudo están decorados con el sol y que las tumbas apuntan hacia el este hacia el amanecer, comparten muchos elementos con el cristianismo y el Islam.

Los niños son bautizados con agua consagrada por un pir (sacerdote). En las bodas parte el pan y le da la mitad a la novia y la otra al novio. La novia, vestida de rojo, visita iglesias cristianas. En diciembre, los yazidíes ayunan durante tres días, antes de beber vino con el pir. Del 15 al 20 de septiembre hay una peregrinación anual a la tumba de Sheikh Adi en Lalesh al norte de Mosul, donde realizan abluciones rituales en el río. También practican el sacrificio de animales y la circuncisión.

Su ser supremo se conoce como Yasdan. Se considera que está en un nivel tan elevado que no se le puede adorar directamente. Se le considera una fuerza pasiva, el Creador del mundo, no el preservador. Siete grandes espíritus emanan de él, de los cuales el mayor es el Ángel pavo real conocido como Malak Taus - ejecutor activo de la voluntad divina. El pavo real en el cristianismo primitivo era un símbolo de inmortalidad, porque su carne no parece descomponerse. Malak Taus es considerado el alter ego de Dios, inseparable de Él, y en esa medida el yazidismo es monoteísta.

Los yazidíes rezan a Malak Taus cinco veces al día. Su otro nombre es Shaytan, que es Árabe para diablo, y esto ha llevado a que los yazidis sean etiquetados erróneamente como "adoradores del diablo". Los yazidis creen que las almas pasan a formas corporales sucesivas (transmigración) y que la purificación gradual es posible a través del renacimiento continuo, haciendo que el infierno sea redundante. El peor destino posible para un yazidi es ser expulsado de su comunidad, ya que esto significa que su alma nunca podrá progresar. La conversión a otra religión está, por lo tanto, fuera de discusión.

En áreas remotas del sudeste de Turquía, hacia las fronteras siria e iraquí, sus aldeas una vez abandonadas están comenzando a volver a la vida, y las propias comunidades están construyendo nuevas casas. Muchos yazidis están regresando del exilio ahora que el gobierno turco los deja tranquilos. A pesar de siglos de persecución, los yazidíes nunca han abandonado su fe, testimonio de su notable sentido de identidad y fuerza de carácter. Si son expulsados ​​de Irak y Siria por extremistas del EI, lo más probable es que se establezcan más en el sureste de Turquía, donde se les deja vivir sus creencias en paz.

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La persecución incesante marca la historia de los yazidis

ARCHIVO - El sol se pone mientras mujeres visitan un santuario yazidi con vista al campamento de desplazados internos de Kankhe en Dahuk, en el norte de Irak, en esta foto de archivo del miércoles 18 de mayo de 2016. Durante los últimos siglos, la comunidad yazidi, una de las minorías religiosas más antiguas de Irak, ha sido objeto repetidamente de brutales ataques que han dejado a miles de sus miembros muertos. Uno de sus peores sometimientos ocurrió hace cuatro años con el surgimiento del grupo extremista Estado Islámico (Foto AP / Maya Alleruzzo, Archivo).

ARCHIVO - Ropa usada por una niña yazidi esclavizada por militantes del Estado Islámico, recolectada por un activista yazidí para documentar los crímenes del grupo Estado Islámico contra la comunidad, mostrada en esta foto de archivo tomada el 22 de mayo de 2016, en Dohuk, norte de Irak. Durante los últimos siglos, la comunidad yazidi, una de las minorías religiosas más antiguas de Irak, ha sido objeto repetidamente de brutales ataques que han dejado a miles de sus miembros muertos. Uno de sus peores sometimientos ocurrió hace cuatro años con el surgimiento del grupo extremista Estado Islámico (AP Photo / Maya Alleruzzo, Archivo).

BEIRUT - Durante los últimos siglos, la comunidad yazidi, una de las minorías religiosas más antiguas de Irak, ha sido sometida repetidamente a brutales ataques que han dejado a miles de sus miembros muertos. Uno de sus peores sometimientos ocurrió hace cuatro años con el surgimiento del grupo extremista Estado Islámico.

EI cometió genocidio y otros crímenes contra la minoría yazidi en Irak cuando su poder en el país alcanzó su punto máximo en el verano de 2014.

Cientos de mujeres yazidi fueron capturadas, tomadas como esclavas sexuales y sometidas a horribles abusos por parte de los extremistas. Algunos lograron huir, incluida la ganadora del Premio Nobel de la Paz, Nadia Murad, quien le contó al mundo los horrores que ella y su comunidad experimentaron.

Unos 5.000 hombres yazidíes fueron asesinados por ISIS cuando el grupo militante sunita tomó el control del noroeste de Irak hace cuatro años.

Aproximadamente 3.000 yazidis siguen desaparecidos, la mayoría de los cuales se cree que murieron en la guerra que hizo retroceder el control del Estado Islámico en Siria e Irak durante los últimos tres años.

Minoría religiosa aislada, los yazidíes han sido perseguidos durante siglos. Muchas sectas musulmanas los consideran infieles, muchos iraquíes los ven falsamente como adoradores de Satanás. Hablan kurdo y sus tradiciones se fusionan, tomando prestado del cristianismo, el islam y la antigua religión persa del zoroastrismo.

En agosto de 2014, los militantes del EI entraron en Sinjar, la patria ancestral de los yazidíes cerca de la frontera siria, después de capturar la ciudad norteña de Mosul y declarar un califato islámico en grandes áreas de Irak y la vecina Siria.

Decenas de miles de yazidíes escaparon al monte Sinjar, donde la mayoría fueron finalmente rescatados por las fuerzas kurdas respaldadas por Estados Unidos.

En noviembre de 2015, las milicias kurdas, con un apoyo cercano a los aviones de la coalición liderada por Estados Unidos, expulsaron al Estado Islámico de Sinjar.

Antes de que ISIS llegara al poder, los yazidíes fueron objeto de uno de los ataques individuales más mortíferos después de la invasión de Irak en 2003 encabezada por Estados Unidos. El 14 de agosto de 2007, cuatro camiones bomba suicidas atacaron aldeas yazidi al norte del país, matando a unas 400 personas e hiriendo a muchas más. El ataque fue llevado a cabo por el Estado Islámico en Irak, el predecesor del Estado Islámico.

Durante el imperio otomano, los yazidíes fueron sometidos a varias masacres en los siglos XVIII y XIX.


¿Quiénes son los yazidis?

Las estimaciones sitúan el número global de yazidis en alrededor de 700.000 personas, con la gran mayoría de ellos concentrados en el norte de Irak, en Sinjar y sus alrededores.

La región alrededor del monte Sinjar. Fotografía: The Guardian

Un grupo históricamente incomprendido, los yazidíes son predominantemente étnicamente kurdos y han mantenido viva su religión sincrética durante siglos, a pesar de muchos años de opresión y amenazas de exterminio.

Se rumorea que la antigua religión fue fundada por un jeque omeya del siglo XI, y se deriva del zoroastrismo (una antigua fe persa fundada por un filósofo), el cristianismo y el islam. La religión ha tomado elementos de cada uno, desde el bautismo (cristianismo) hasta la circuncisión (Islam) y la reverencia al fuego como manifestación de Dios (derivado del zoroastrismo) y, sin embargo, sigue siendo claramente no abrahámico. Esta cualidad derivada ha llevado a menudo a referirse a los yazidis como una secta.

En el centro de la marginación de los yazidis está su adoración de un ángel caído, Melek Tawwus, o ángel pavo real, uno de los siete ángeles que tienen primacía en sus creencias. A diferencia de la caída de la gracia de Satanás, en la tradición judeocristiana, Melek Tawwus fue perdonado y devuelto al cielo por Dios. La importancia de Melek Tawwus para los yazidis les ha dado una reputación inmerecida de adoradores del diablo, una notoriedad que, en el clima de extremismo que se apodera de Irak, se ha vuelto potencialmente mortal.

Solo bajo el dominio otomano en los siglos XVIII y XIX, los yazidíes fueron objeto de 72 masacres genocidas. Más recientemente, en 2007, cientos de yazidíes murieron cuando una serie de coches bomba arrasó su bastión en el norte de Irak. Con un número de muertos cercano a los 800, según la Media Luna Roja iraquí, este fue uno de los eventos más mortíferos que tuvieron lugar durante la invasión liderada por Estados Unidos.

Los yazidíes habían sido denunciados como infieles por Al-Qaida en Irak, un predecesor de Isis, que sancionó su asesinato indiscriminado.

Vian Dakhil, una parlamentaria de Yazidi en Irak, rompió a llorar el miércoles, cuando pidió al parlamento ya la comunidad internacional: “¡Sálvanos! ¡Salvanos!" de Isis.

El investigador Cale Salih (@callysally) entrevistó al líder espiritual de los yazidis, Baba Sheikh, para el New York Times el mes pasado. Ella escribió:

El auge del fundamentalismo islámico en general ha empujado a miles de yazidis a buscar asilo en Europa. Según algunas estimaciones, 70.000 personas, o alrededor del 15% de la población yazidi en Irak, huyeron del país. Para una religión que no acepta conversos y desalienta enérgicamente la exogamia, la asimilación de la juventud yazidi en Europa amenaza la existencia continua de la fe. “La gente ha salido por miedo a los ataques o por miedo al racismo. Esto dificulta la protección de la fe ”, dijo Baba Sheikh. [. ]

Durante los últimos años, Baba Sheikh, el líder espiritual de los yazidis, me dijo que canceló la ceremonia religiosa anual oficial en el templo de Lalesh, el lugar sagrado de los yazidis, por temor a los ataques.

Según los informes, Lalesh se ha convertido en un refugio para los yazidis desplazados internos.


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A partir del siglo XI, estas antiguas creencias adquirieron nuevas formas. "Algunos dicen que estos mensajes se hicieron menos comprensibles en el siglo XI, cuando un místico sufí buscó la soledad en las montañas [del norte de Irak]. Era tan carismático que todas estas personas que seguían religiones no islámicas lo siguieron", explicó Kreyenbroek. Este era el jeque Adi ibn Musafir, un practicante del Islam místico, a quien los yazidíes veneran como una figura sagrada.

Los yazidíes comenzaron a "usar palabras y conceptos islámicos para referirse a sus creencias antiguas", dijo Kreyenbroek. También practican ritos como el bautismo en agua, que puede o no derivarse de encuentros culturales con los primeros cristianos. Pero estas superposiciones son en gran medida superficiales: los musulmanes no consideran que los yazidíes sean "la gente del libro" o una de las religiones abrahámicas del cristianismo, el judaísmo y el islam.

Los yazidis también tienen muchas creencias que no se encuentran en las religiones abrahámicas. "No deberían usar el color azul", dijo Kreyenbroek. "Algunas personas dicen que no pueden comer pescado, muchas personas dicen que no pueden comer lechuga, y algunas personas también dicen calabazas". Pero la mayoría de la gente no sigue estas reglas estrictamente, agregó, en su mayoría se limitan a sacerdotes, o quizás yazidis más ortodoxos como los que viven en Sinjar.

Los orígenes de estas creencias no están claros. “La palabra para lechuga, por ejemplo, en árabe (los kurdos no hablan árabe, naturalmente), pero cuando hablan árabe, no diferencian los sonidos, y la palabra para maldecir, que es tabú, y la palabra para lechuga , son muy similares. Siempre he sospechado que esto tiene algo que ver con eso ”, dijo Kreyenbroek. Otros han relacionado esta creencia con la ejecución en el siglo XIII de un santo yazidí, que fue golpeado con lechugas. (Vale la pena señalar que Kreyenbroek es uno de los pocos eruditos en el mundo que estudia a los yazidis, pero aún así hizo todo lo posible para decir que se desconoce mucho sobre la fe. Incluso cuando la religión antigua se enfrenta a la extinción, todavía no no lo entiendo muy bien.)

Dado que los yazidis no son "personas del libro", "no [están] protegidos por la ley islámica", señaló Kreyenbroek. Y "[se cree] que son adoradores del diablo, y no hay nada tan horrible e inmundo como los adoradores del diablo".

Es por eso que ISIS está tan decidido a eliminar al grupo, y por qué la comunidad internacional está tan preocupada por un genocidio en su contra, dijo Birgül Açıkyıldız Şengül, profesor de la Universidad Artuklu de Turquía que estudia el arte y la cultura yazidi. "No es lo mismo que con los cristianos o los musulmanes chiítas", dijo. Los yazidis "no se consideran una religión".

Eso no quiere decir que ISIS no esté apuntando a los cristianos iraquíes y a la mayoría de musulmanes chiítas. Otras minorías religiosas en el norte de Irak, incluidos los Kaka'is, una religión hermana del yazidismo, y los Shabak, un grupo cultural que tiene algunas cualidades religiosas distintivas, también se encuentran en la mira del grupo yihadista. En lugar de huir, algunos de estos grupos han optado por un camino diferente: esconderse. "Los kaka'is a veces dicen que son chiítas", dijo Kreyenbroek.

Pero la persecución de los yazidis en las últimas semanas ha sido particularmente aguda y está en consonancia con la larga historia de la secta. De hecho, el sufrimiento se ha convertido en una parte integral de la auto-narrativa del grupo. "Los yazidis dicen que fueron perseguidos 72 veces en el pasado, pero no lo sabemos. No tenemos fuentes hasta el siglo XIII", dijo Şengül. “Los yazidis se hicieron muy fuertes en el siglo XIII ... en el norte de Irak hasta el norte de Mesopotamia, Irán, vinculado a Turquía, e incluso Siria. Al mismo tiempo, el Islam se estaba volviendo muy fuerte en la región, por lo que los líderes musulmanes comenzaron a perseguirlos ”.

Durante la era otomana, los yazidíes enfrentaron presiones para convertirse al Islam, según un texto del siglo XIX. Algunos creen que este es el origen del número simbólico "72", que representa el número de masacres cometidas por los califas otomanos. Pero nuevamente, como dijo Şengül, "no lo sabemos".

En el siglo XX, bajo el ex presidente iraquí Saddam Hussein, los yazidíes enfrentaron asesinatos y reubicaciones porque eran de etnia kurda. "[Ellos] fueron obligados a participar en la guerra contra Irán, y siempre fueron enviados al frente, fueron los primeros en morir", dijo Kreyenbroek.

Con el tiempo, estas experiencias han llevado a los yazidíes a separarse de las comunidades musulmanas de Irak. "Este recuerdo, los malos recuerdos de ser perseguidos por líderes musulmanes, es una reacción, una forma de protegerse", dijo Şengül.

"Creen, como cree el pueblo judío, que existe una tendencia histórica a perseguirlos", observó Kreyenbroek.

Este instinto de autoaislamiento puede haber contribuido a la terrible situación en Sinjar. "El área kurda en el Medio Oriente es un área montañosa en general, y las montañas protegen a las personas cuando son atacadas por forasteros", dijo Şengül. Cuando se enfrentaron a la amenaza de muerte a manos de ISIS, los yazidíes huyeron a terrenos más altos.

Ahora también huyen de otras áreas del norte de Irak. Además de la región de Sinjar, muchos viven alrededor de Dohuk, en Kurdistán. Şengül dijo que su ciudad en Turquía, Mardin, está experimentando una afluencia de refugiados y otros se dirigen a Siria. Ha oído hablar de al menos tres niños que murieron en la frontera turca, esperando para cruzar desde Irak.

Estas migraciones forzadas pueden alterar aún más la identidad yazidi. "Se identifican muy, muy fuertemente con la tierra", dijo Kreyenbroek. "El Valle de Lalish, ese es el corazón de los Yazidi. Está en el límite de la región autónoma kurda, y [es la ubicación de] los santuarios de los diversos santos, de los ángeles".

Aquí, "siempre se han sentido seguros. Sinjar, hasta hace poco, hablaba de la posibilidad de establecer una república yazidí. Pensé que esto era una tontería", agregó, "pero entre la diáspora, se discutió muy seriamente".

La población yazidi está muy concentrada en Irak, pero hay una especie de diáspora en otros países, aunque es imposible saber qué tan grande es. Kreyenbroek habló de comunidades en Alemania, Turquía y Holanda. Aproximadamente 200 familias viven en Estados Unidos, la mitad de ellas en Nebraska. Recientemente, los yazidíes en Armenia intentaron establecerse como un grupo étnico independiente no kurdo por razones políticas; los armenios todavía desconfían de los musulmanes kurdos debido a los recuerdos de la limpieza étnica de los armenios que tuvo lugar durante la Primera Guerra Mundial.

Aun así, entre los yazidis, "existe un vínculo muy estrecho con la tierra", dijo Kreyenbroek. "Es muy difícil para la gente dejarlo, reinventar su religión sin la presencia física de santuarios y pozos sagrados y arboledas sagradas".

Ahora, "el temor es que el ISIS esté tan cerca, y lo primero que harían es destruir este lugar sagrado", dijo Kreyenbroek. "Cuando eso sucede, es virtualmente el fin de esta religión".


Slaves of Isis: el largo camino de las mujeres yazidi

El día antes de la llegada de Isis fue un día festivo en el distrito de Sinjar, en el norte de Irak. Los yazidíes se reunieron para celebrar el final de un período de ayuno. Era el 2 de agosto de 2014. Los campos de trigo cosechados eran cortos y rasposos bajo el sol sin sombras. La gente sacrificaba ovejas y se reunía con sus familiares para celebrar la festividad, repartiendo dulces e intercambiando noticias y chismes. En el pasado, habrían invitado a sus vecinos musulmanes a unirse a las celebraciones, pero más recientemente se había hecho una distancia entre ellos, lo que llevó a los aldeanos a mantener la mayor parte de los suyos.

La atmósfera estaba inquieta y la temperatura alcanzó su punto máximo por encima de los 40 ° C (104 ° F). La cima del monte Sinjar, justo al norte de la propia ciudad de Sinjar, parecía resplandecer por el calor, y la gente que vivía debajo evitaba viajar hasta después de que se había puesto el sol, cuando las calles se llenaron de vecinos que intercambiaban terribles rumores y hombres que patrullaban con armas de fuego.

Al anochecer, comenzaron a aparecer vehículos desconocidos. Se podían ver las luces de los coches moviéndose en el desierto más allá de las aldeas periféricas. Una sensación de aprensión creció a medida que caía la oscuridad. Los hombres yazidi tomaron sus armas y se dispusieron a comprobar el horizonte más allá de los campos de trigo, mirando hacia las aldeas.

A su regreso, se reunieron en el centro de la ciudad de Sinjar en pequeños y tensos grupos. Dos meses antes habían aparecido caravanas de coches que levantaban polvo en la distancia, justo antes de que la ciudad de Mosul, la capital de la provincia de Nínive, de la que forma parte Sinjar, cayera ante el Estado Islámico (Isis). Mosul está a 120 kilómetros (75 millas) al este de Sinjar, y su captura fue seguida rápidamente por la caída de otras ciudades. Se derrumbaron cuatro divisiones del ejército iraquí, incluida la tercera división, que tenía su base alrededor de Sinjar e incluía a muchos yazidis. El área estaba casi completamente indefensa.

Cuando se apoderaron de Mosul, Isis liberó a los musulmanes sunitas de la prisión de Badoush de la ciudad y ejecutó a 600 prisioneros chiítas. El grupo saqueó armas y equipo de las bases del ejército iraquí. Los soldados esparcieron sus uniformes y medio millón de civiles huyeron al norte y al este. En una semana, un tercio de Irak estaba bajo el control de Isis. El distrito de Sinjar, con una población de alrededor de 300.000 habitantes, fue rodeado. Solo quedaba una delgada franja de carretera en disputa, que los unía a la relativa seguridad del Kurdistán iraquí en el norte, pero el viaje era peligroso.

La región del Kurdistán en el norte de Irak es semiautónoma y está custodiada por los peshmerga, que ahora tenían que defender las cuatro provincias kurdas contra el Isis. "Peshmerga" significa "aquellos que enfrentan la muerte", y la palabra está cargada de la importancia histórica de la lucha kurda contra la opresión. En el sureste de la región, en la frontera iraní, parte de los peshmerga chocó con Isis, pero cerca de Sinjar, una inquietante quietud flotaba en el aire como un dolor de cabeza por tensión que viene antes de una tormenta.

L eila pertenece a una familia de agricultores y pastores yazidi. Es pequeña, de rostro pálido y juvenil, aunque tiene 25 años, y desprende un aire amable y práctico. Tiene dos hermanas menores y tres hermanos mayores. Cuando era niña, trabajaba en la granja familiar con sus hermanos y, después de una serie de robos de ovejas en su rancho, decidieron mudarse más cerca de Kojo, un pueblo al pie del monte Sinjar.

Los hermanos de Leila se habían unido a la peshmerga después de la invasión de Irak liderada por Estados Unidos en 2003. El 2 de agosto de 2014, sus colegas en la cercana Siba Sheikheder fueron atacados por Isis y pidieron ayuda. Siba Sheikheder, al sur de Sinjar, es la ciudad yazidí más cercana a la frontera con Siria, una colección de unos cientos de edificios okupas. A media mañana del 3 de agosto de 2014, los peshmerga estacionados en Kojo habían huido. En la confusión, la familia de Leila y otras 100 personas decidieron huir, pero la mayoría de la gente se quedó, sin saber qué les iba a pasar.

La hermana menor de Leila vivía en Siba Sheikheder con su nuevo esposo y llamó a casa a sus padres esa mañana: "Estamos corriendo, Isis viene", dijo. Leila y su familia se dirigieron al norte hacia Sinjar, dejando a su tío en casa para que cuidara la casa. Al llegar a Sinjar, se dieron cuenta de que el pueblo ya estaba siendo atacado y su gente estaba huyendo. Reunidos en un terreno de matorrales en las afueras de Sinjar, llamaron a su tío. Les dijo que el área estaba rodeada y que Isis no dejaría que nadie se fuera.

Yazidis desplazados de Sinjar que huyen de Isis caminan hacia la frontera con Siria, agosto de 2014. Fotografía: Rodi Said / Reuters

Estaban atrapados. Poco después de la llamada telefónica, un grupo de combatientes del EI se les acercó y les dijo que entregaran dinero, armas, oro y teléfonos. Leila recuerda que el líder tenía la cara y la barba enrojecidas y los demás lo llamaban "emir" ("príncipe"). Los combatientes llevaron a su familia a una de las oficinas del gobierno central en Sinjar, donde solían emitirse tarjetas de identificación. Lo que parecían miles de mujeres y niñas se habían reunido dentro de las oficinas del edificio, con hombres apiñados en el segundo piso. Alrededor de las 9 de la noche, los guardias de Isis llevaron linternas al interior y comenzaron a inspeccionar los rostros de las mujeres y niñas. Las mujeres se acurrucaron juntas para protegerse, y cuando los hombres se acercaron a Leila, ella estaba tan asustada que se desmayó. Esto la salvó de que se la llevaran esa noche. Cinco de sus primas no tuvieron tanta suerte.

Las mujeres yazidi en Sinjar no se dieron cuenta todavía, pero los combatientes de Isis estaban llevando a cabo un secuestro masivo planificado de antemano con el propósito de una violación institucionalizada. Inicialmente buscaban mujeres solteras y niñas mayores de ocho años.

Cuando el distrito de Sinjar fue atacado por Isis, más de 100.000 personas huyeron para refugiarse en el monte Sinjar. Los que no pudieron huir fueron detenidos. Muchos de los hombres fueron masacrados. Miles de yazidis fueron ejecutados y arrojados a fosas, o murieron de deshidratación, heridas o agotamiento en la montaña. Faltaba tanta gente que la esclavitud de las mujeres no llamó la atención internacional de inmediato.

Según la parlamentaria iraquí Vian Dakhil, ella misma una yazidi de Sinjar, se estima que 6.383 yazidis, en su mayoría mujeres y niños, fueron esclavizados y transportados a las prisiones de Isis, campos de entrenamiento militar y hogares de combatientes en el este de Siria y el oeste de Irak, donde se encontraban. violada, golpeada, vendida y encerrada. A mediados de 2016, 2.590 mujeres y niños habían escapado o habían sido sacados de contrabando del califato y 3.793 permanecían en cautiverio.

Los yazidíes son un grupo religioso de habla mayoritariamente kurda que vive principalmente en el norte de Irak. Son menos de un millón en todo el mundo. Los yazidis, a lo largo de su historia, han sido perseguidos como infieles por gobernantes musulmanes que les exigían su conversión. Más que ceremonias formales, su práctica religiosa implica visitar lugares sagrados. Los yazidíes participan en bautismos y fiestas, cantan himnos y recitan historias. Algunas de las historias tratan de batallas históricas y míticas libradas en defensa de la religión. Otras, contadas a lo largo de los siglos por generaciones de mujeres, detallan métodos de resistencia a las mismas amenazas que enfrentan las mujeres yazidi en la actualidad.

Los yazidíes ya se habían vuelto vulnerables por el desplazamiento forzado bajo Saddam Hussein, el colapso económico bajo las sanciones de la ONU, el colapso del estado y la seguridad después de la invasión liderada por Estados Unidos de 2003 y los fracasos políticos que siguieron. En Irak hay ahora alrededor de 500.000 yazidis, principalmente de la región de Sinjar en la provincia de Nínive en el norte del país. La mayoría de los yazidis de Siria y Turquía han huido a países vecinos o a Europa. En Alemania, su número se estima en 25.000.

“No toda la violencia es candente. También hay violencia fría, que se toma su tiempo y finalmente se sale con la suya ”, escribió Teju Cole en un ensayo de 2015 sobre Palestina. En todo el mundo, continúa un tipo más amplio de violencia fría. Es la violencia de la indignidad, del olvido, del descuido y de no escuchar. It’s there in the way politicians talk about refugees, and in the way the stateless are sometimes written about and photographed by the western media. It’s there in the fear of outsiders. It’s there in the way humans dismiss other humans as less worthy of protection or care. When cold violence and hot violence merge, we get mass killings inflicted on the most vulnerable.

Yazidis have suffered massacres and oppression for generations. But there was something different about the Isis attack that took place in the late summer of 2014. This time the media took notice.

Many of the stories about the abduction and enslavement of Yazidi women and children described them as “sex slaves” and featured graphic, sometimes lurid, accounts by newly escaped survivors. The female fighters of Kurdish militias helping to free Yazidis from Mount Sinjar became fodder for often novelty coverage. The Yazidis became the embodiment of embattled, exotic minorities set against the evil of Isis. This narrative has stereotyped Yazidi women as passive victims of mass rape at the hands of perpetrators presented as the epitome of pure evil.

It was only much later in my reporting on how some Yazidi women managed to escape and return that I became aware of how important stories of captivity and resistance were to dealing with trauma, both historically and in relation to Isis. Yazidism is a closed religion and identity, one that is passed down through generations by stories and music. These practices have been extended to dealing with the traumas of their treatment at the hands of Isis.

Many of the women and children captured in Sinjar had seen or heard their male relatives being killed by the armed Isis fighters who now surrounded them. In jails across Iraq and Syria, where the women were held, they felt a sense of “abject terror on hearing footsteps in the corridor outside and keys opening the locks”, said a report by the UN commission on Syria that designated the Isis crimes against the Yazidis as genocide. “The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror. The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.”

At first, the women and girls were taken to prearranged locations in Iraq where they were handed out to the Isis fighters who took part in the attack on Sinjar. To avoid being raped, some of the girls killed themselves by slitting their wrists or throats, or hanging themselves, or throwing themselves from buildings.

Amid the panic in the Sinjar ID office, Leila decided to pose as a mother to her small niece and nephew after she saw the other women being taken away, and correctly assumed that being unmarried was dangerous. The following day, the Yazidi men on the second floor disappeared.

Leila was transported 50km east to a school-turned-prison in Tel Afar, where the women were crowded into classrooms functioning as cells, guarded by fighters who continued to pick out beautiful girls to serve as slaves. Each time they were moved, their names and ages were noted down on a list.

In the coming weeks, some Yazidis managed to escape by walking through the night across muddy fields, keeping to the valleys to avoid Isis checkpoints and reach the peshmerga. It was in those first few days that the Yazidis could most feasibly have been rescued. The captives were held together and some still had mobile phones hidden under their clothes to call relatives back in Kurdistan and tell them exactly where they were. But with little by way of rapid international or governmental support materialising, a sense of abandonment soon grew among the families waiting for their loved ones.

“Within days of what happened to the Yazidis on the mountain, the phone calls went from ‘help us survive’ to ‘they’ve kidnapped these women and can you help us to rescue them,’” said Tom Malinowski, then the US assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour, when interviewed in February 2016 during a visit to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. “Hostage rescues are one of the most dangerous things to do, but when they [the women] were still being held in large groups this was discussed, but tragically they were then dispersed … It is still very much on our minds and something we know has to be considered.”

To date there have been no known, large-scale rescue missions to free the Yazidi captives in Iraq and Syria, by either the US, Iraqi or Kurdistan regional governments.

A ccording to Isis, it has no choice but to attack and kill disbelieving men. Flowing from this, it justifies the enslaving of their women as an act of protection, a way of replacing the men who previously looked after them. This idea is crucial to the role of slavery in Isis’s conception of how a caliphate should function.

Implicit in the goal of eliminating the Yazidi community is the idea that society would be better without them, which is common to all genocides, said former UN investigator Sareta Ashraph. The enslavement, for Isis, is meant to eventually bring the women to Islam, and is part of their ideology of conquest. “[It is] among the greatest forms of the honour of Islam and its sharia [Islamic law], as it is a clear affirmation showing the supremacy of the people of sharia, and the greatness of their affairs, and the dominance of their state, and the power of their might,” according to an Isis pamphlet on slavery.

Isis describes its own use of enslavement through a mix of clumsy metaphors about sex, war and power. Dividing up the captive women and children among the Isis mujahideen [holy warriors] and “sanctioning their genitals” is described as a sign of “realisation and dominance by the sword”.

Katherine E Brown, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Birmingham, explained that Isis mainly justifies its use of slavery through selective interpretations of the hadith, the reported accounts of the life and sayings of Muhammad and his companions: “They justify it on the basis that it is a reward for carrying out services for the community – slaves are presented as compensation for fighters. However, they chose particular ways of seeing these hadith, and selectively choose them so as to ignore, for example, the requirement not to kill your prisoners by focusing on the requirement to make sure they ‘don’t escape’ by being ‘secured at the neck’ until negotiations have taken place.”

A Yazidi woman in the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk, May 2015. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

The promise of sexual slavery is used as a sweetener when recruiting disaffected young men to Isis. At the same time, media stories about sex and violence involving non-Muslim women being enslaved by Muslim men feed stereotypes about Muslim men that create divisions that Isis can then exploit.

“Slavery serves to increase the Isis community because Yazidi women will give birth and the children will be brought up among its fighters,” writes the author of the Isis pamphlet.

The same document calls on fighters to treat their slaves well, citing words from the Qur’an calling for them to be good to “those whom your right hand possess” – a euphemism for a female captive – and cites Islamic texts with instructions not to hit the slave’s face, and to emancipate the slave who becomes a believer, for which the master will be rewarded by God.

But, as with other strictures, there is a gap between Isis proclamations and an abusive, often violent reality. Isis used gang rape as punishment for women and girls who tried to escape to further degrade and control them physically and psychologically. Despite this, many of the women continued to fight back against their captors, risking punishment and death in pursuit of freedom.

After the women were captured, they didn’t immediately become slaves to the fighters, but were held for a period while their details were recorded. The process was systematised. Women were then sold in markets, either electronically over a mobile phone messenger app where their photos and slave numbers were exchanged, or in market halls and prisons at prearranged times.

Away from the main markets, women and girls, supplied by fighters or Isis members who acted as middlemen, were sold by local brokers in smaller numbers. At the beginning, they were given mainly to Iraqi fighters who took part in the battle for Sinjar. Subsequently, the remaining captives were taken to Syria, and sold there, often to fighters who had arrived from around the world.

In late 2014, a group of young, bearded men sat on long sofas lining the walls of a living room somewhere in the caliphate, wearing ammunition-packed vests. They joked with one another. “Today is distribution day, God willing,” said one of the men, as he flashed a grin at his companions. “You can sell your slave, or give her as a gift … You can do whatever you want with your share,” said another fighter in view of the cameraman who was recording the exchange. The men didn’t seem to notice and continued discussing buying women for “three banknotes or a pistol”.

B y the summer of 2013, Raqqa, 370km west of Mosul in northern Syria, became Isis’s de facto capital, and supporters from all over the world flocked there to join the group. It was also the destination for other women from Sinjar.

“When we got to the farm [near Raqqa], we saw four or five buses full of Isis members with long hair and beards,” said Zahra, a farmer’s daughter from Kojo. “They were like animals. On the first day they came among us and started picking girls for themselves. Two or three of them would catch the girls, blindfold them and take them by force into a car. The girls were crying and shouting but they didn’t care.”

From the second floor of the building, the girls could see the Euphrates river, but they were hidden from view by the surrounding trees and fences.

“We were just like sheep, when the shepherd goes toward them and the sheep disperse that’s how we were, running away from them,” said Zahra. She fled when the men came, but she was blocked by a fence at the edge of the farm. On the first day the men took 20-40 girls. Food was delivered from a local restaurant for those who remained, but they were too scared to eat. They covered their faces with ash to try and look unattractive in the hope that they wouldn’t be picked.

After two days, Zahra and her sister were taken to an underground Isis prison in Raqqa. Hundreds of women were crammed into three rooms in what was just one of several similar structures that were used for holding women in Raqqa. The girls arrived at night and weren’t allowed to see the outside of the building – a tactic similar to that used by the Syrian government in its jails, said Sareta Ashraph.

A Yazidi woman abducted by Isis is carried to safety near Mount Sinjar. Photograph: Channel 4

Inside the prison, the women had to share a few filthy, overflowing toilets, forcing them to stand in raw sewage. Their bodies were crawling with sand flies. The only light came from two solar-powered lamps hanging from the ceiling, one prisoner recalled. Each morning the guards would give them a small piece of bread and cheese to share between two, and in the evening some rice and soup.

Some women sat on bags or clothes to try and avoid touching the filthy ground. Children cried constantly with hunger. The women waited under the constant fear of rape or death. “They were always beating us and we had diarrhea because of the fear,” said a woman I shall call Khulka, who is 30 years old and comes from the town of Tel Qasab. She had arrived at the prison with her four children, inside a refrigerator truck normally used for ice-cream. “We didn’t have a shower for one month and we always had lice in our hair. After two months they took us outside, but we couldn’t stand because we hadn’t seen the sun for so long,” she said.

While in the jail, Khulka tattooed herself with the names of her husband and father, so that her body could be recognised and returned to them if she was killed. She mixed breast milk from a lactating woman with ash, and used a needle she had smuggled into the jail. With the same needle and some thread, she began embroidering her underwear with the names and numbers listed in her phone in case Isis found it and took it away. Khulka had been to school, and unlike many of the women there, she knew how to read and write. She also sewed other women’s clothes with their loved ones’ names and numbers so that they would not be forgotten.

Historically, Yazidis associated formal education with repressive state authorities, the suppression of their language, and the threat of religious conversion. In the years before 2014, literacy rates had been improving in Sinjar, but many women and girls worked in the fields to support their families while their brothers went to school. Illiteracy made it harder for women to escape after they were taken into captivity, because they couldn’t read the signs on unfamiliar buildings in Isis-held towns and cities.

Khulka was taken to a side room in the prison with her children and photographed by the Isis guards who gave her the slave number 16, which was then printed above her photo. There were around 500 women in the jail, she recalls, and all of them had to pose with their children and were given slave numbers. Before the picture was taken, she cut her daughter’s hair to make her look like a boy and stop them being separated. If the guards recognised her daughter as a young girl, there was more chance she’d be taken. The other imprisoned women envied Khulka’s grey hair, thinking it might save her from being seized. They tried to imitate it using ash.

“Some of these women and girls resisted forced conversion, protected themselves against violence, or at least tried to, and protected their children. How they resisted really shows incredible intelligence, courage and strength,” said human rights lawyer and gender justice advocate Sherizaan Minwalla.

Yazidi women who fled what is now Turkey during the first world war and the chaos that followed passed down stories that are repeated among Sinjaris today. Among them are accounts of how they did as Khulka was now doing: covering their daughters’ faces with ash and cutting their hair.

In the same prison, Zahra and her sisters were put together into small rooms. They heard screaming and crying as Isis guards came in the middle of the night to drag away the girls. The guards came for Zahra’s middle sister first. When Zahra pleaded with them not to take them separately, one of the guards whipped her with a cable.

After her sister was taken from the cell, the door opened again. This time Zahra was grabbed by two large men and shoved into a car. “I won’t go until you give me my sister!” she cried out. The men drove her to a house in Raqqa belonging to an Isis member who kept her as his slave, then sold her on after four months to another Isis fighter. He found her disobedient and sold her on straight away to a fighter of only 18, who lived at a compound for Libyan fighters near Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria.

Many Yazidi girls were by being held in the same compound of 100 to 200 caravans where the Libyan fighters lived. The women and girls were chained, beaten, raped and passed around like animals between the men. At the edge of the compound, a barbed-wire fence prevented them from escaping. The stories of privation and torture suffered by Yezidi women in this compound are some of the worst in a long catalogue of abuses.

A fter a little more than a month at the farm, Leila and three other girls from Kojo were taken back to Iraq and kept in a military base near the Iraq–Syria border, more than 200km south of Sinjar in Anbar province. The military base was in Al-Qa’im, a border crossing between Iraq and Syria, but by that time, under the caliphate, it was merely a pitstop between Isis-held stretches of desert. It was also a common crossing point for slaves passing between markets in Isis towns and cities. Leila was sold to a man called Muhammad, who looked familiar to her. Then she remembered who he was: his family were like godparents to her family.

When Leila recognised Muhammad, she was relieved: she thought he would rescue her, and maybe sell her back to her family. Instead, he sold her on. Three days later, Leila was taken to a military base near Ramadi and sold to an Isis military commander. Later, after she had escaped and was in Baghdad, someone asked her what she would do if she saw Muhammad again. “I would burn him alive,” she said.

The Isis commander who bought Leila in Ramadi was a notorious sadist known as Shakir Wahib, who had been terribly wounded in fighting, and was now trafficking women for sex and organising gang rapes. When one woman arrived in early 2016, having held on to a mobile phone, Leila managed to call her brother in Kurdistan and told him he needed to send someone to rescue her before the woman was moved on, and her phone with her. For two days, calls went back and forth between Leila and a smuggler called Abdullah, who eventually helped her to escape. Abdullah used to work in Aleppo and had a wide network of business contacts in Syria and Iraq. He had become a smuggler after 50 members of his family were kidnapped by Isis.

Most of the smugglers working to rescue Yazidi women are Yazidi businessmen. Some of the women are bought back from the Isis fighters holding them, or from the slave markets or online auctions. The cost of smuggling is reflective of the danger involved. It’s not clear how much of the cash ends up with Isis, and how much goes to middlemen or the smugglers.

This black market thrives because families are left with no other options. The war against Isis continues to win back territory from the militants, but Yazidis told me that they would prefer the focus to be on saving their captive women and children, rather than winning back terrain.

Yazidis displaced by Isis in a camp near Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, January 2015. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

After reaching Baghdad, Leila and her niece travelled north by plane to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, and then by road to the camps where many Yazidis from Sinjar had taken refuge, and where their families were waiting. When Leila arrived, she collapsed sobbing into the arms of her female relatives. She was in such a state of shock that, for the first few weeks, she had trouble understanding what her family were saying when they tried to talk to her.

“Sometimes I watch the TV and I see the news of the army taking more land and villages, but it’s not this that we are worried about – it is our people who are still imprisoned,” Leila said. “We know most of them are in Raqqa, so why are [the army] not going to save them there?”

The failures have been broad and deep. Earlier this month, Iraqi forces, backed by coalition air cover, declared victory over Isis in Mosul. But for many, the price of that victory was high: civilians were killed by Isis as they tried to flee, as well as being bombarded by Iraqi forces and the coalition. In March 2017 a US airstrike on a house where families were sheltering in western Mosul killed more than 100 civilians.

Attention has now moved from Iraq to the presence of Isis in Syria, and the battle for Raqqa. As Iraq’s politicians and their military patrons prepare to congratulate themselves, the Yazidi community looks on from displacement camps, rented homes or forced asylum overseas. Almost two years after it was cleared of Isis by Kurdish forces, Sinjar town remains in ruins. A new wave of fighting for Sinjar district is under way, with Turkey eyeing a violent incursion after bombing the area in April. The idea that this represents “liberation” is seen by Yazidis as a bad joke. The UN and others have tried to recognise and document the genocide, but justice looks a long way off. Meanwhile, the battle for survival of the women and girls who were taken by Isis continues long after their return.

Sinjar was recaptured from Isis by Kurdish forces, led by the peshmerga, in November 2015. Since then the peshmerga and other Kurdish armed groups have been in a hostile standoff with each other, with rival groups providing arms, training and patronage to local Yazidis. Brightly coloured flags of the various groups flutter above their respective checkpoints, which are sometimes only metres apart along roads that were recently controlled by Isis.

Yazidis now fear renewed attacks not just from Isis, but also from their Kurdish liberators. Yazidis themselves are not politically homogenous, and many distrust the rival Kurdish groups. By May 2016, despite the liberation, only 3,220 families had returned to Sinjar district.

While the infighting goes on, Isis stands only to gain. Yazidis are stuck in a complex series of client-patron relationships with Kurdish leaders, in which ethnic identification is used in exchange for promises of safety. Meanwhile, the Yazidis remain unable to define their future, militarily or politically. While military clashes continue, any political settlement to the rivalry between liberating forces looks a long way off.

Main photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

This is an edited extract from With Ash On Their Faces: Yazidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten, which will be published by Or Books in October.

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The Plight of the Yazidis and their Hope for the Future

Yazidi refugees seeking refuge in the Sinjar Mountains as they fled ISIS in the summer of 2014. (Photo: en.qantara.de)

Two years ago, I went to Kurdistan and the Nineveh region in northern Iraq to visit the persecuted Christians. Driving through the war torn areas with a Catholic priest, I noticed some buildings with conical spires, something I had never seen before. I asked my confrere about them and he told me it was a Yazidi place of worship. Not knowing much about Yazidis, I came to the grappling truth that they too suffered the worst of atrocities under the ISIS onslaught.

Yazidis, an ancient religious minority, number anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000. Most of them are found in the Nineveh and Dohuk provinces with large communities in Sinjar and Shekhan, where a number of their holy sites are located. Like Christians, they too underwent brutal torments by the so-called Islamic State, yet their stories hardly get the necessary coverage in the West.

Genocide of Yazidis by ISIS

At the height of ISIS’ rampage through Iraq in the summer of 2014, over 5,000 Yazidis were massacred. Yazidi children were forcibly converted to Islam and taught Arabic, banned from speaking their native Kurdish. Thousands of Yazidi boys were starved, tortured and forced to fight for ISIS. Many former child soldiers today live with missing arms or legs.

As many as 10,000 women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State. Of notable mention, is the account of Layla Talu, who had been betrayed by her neighbors as they told the Islamic jihadists where she had fled with her family.

At 7 am on the morning of August 3, 2014, Layla, her husband, Marwan Khalil, and their two children, who were aged four and 18 months, left their home. Like tens of thousands of other Yazidis, they hoped to take shelter on Mount Sinjar, but were captured.

Layla hopes that by sharing her story, she can help other women in a similar position. (Photo: Salah Hassan Baban/Al Jazeer)

After her husband was separated from her, Layla and her children were transported with others to Baaj district, southwest of Mosul, where they were held for four days. From there, they moved to Tal Afar, where they were detained in a school before being transferred again a week later to Badush prison. When the prison was bombed by coalition aircraft, they were sent back to Tal Afar.

Layla dice that the women and children were beaten, insulted, threatened and starved. Then, after eight months of this, when many were exhausted by illness, they were transferred to the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’ stronghold. She was continually moved from one place to another, raped and whipped by both Iraqi and Saudi Muslims faithful to the Islamic State.

Roshi Qasimas in her home. (Photo: skynewsarab.com)

Stories like these bring back to mind the Islamic jihad carried out by the Ottoman Turks to an Iraqi woman who vividly remembers them. Born on July 1, 1887, Roshi Qasimas,oldest person alive according to the Guinness Book of world recordsas her family says, she witnessed the Islamic “holy war” carried out during the Ottoman era. As early as 1890, the Ottomans set them an ultimatum to convert to Islam, when they refused, their homelands in Sinjar and Shekhan were occupied and the inhabitants massacred. Roshi witnessed 7 massacres committed by the Turks against her community, as the Ottomans killed thousands of Yazidis, though for her, the one carried out by ISIS is the most terrible.

ISIS Ousted but the Struggle Continues

While the threat of ISIS has been contained, like so many Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities, the Yazidis’ troubles are not over.

As personally told to me by a young Yazidi student, Basma Alali, who studies English at the Catholic University of Erbil (CUE)founded in December 2015 by Archbishop Bashar Warda, of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbilthe Kurdish ruling party is “secular and does not tolerate Islamic extremism which in turn has brought some stability in Kurdistan whereby all religions and ethnicities can live together. On the other hand, Arabs Islamists still see Yazidis as infidels, even some official members of the Iraqi government see us as infidels. Some of the ruling parties in the Iraqi government are Islamic extremists and they neglect Yazidis on a continuous basis.”

“Unlike the Christian minority,” Basma says, “who may have support from the outside world because of shared beliefs and religion, we as Yazidis have little to no support, except for humanitarian help by NGOs and some governments. Therefore, rebuilding our lives has been very challenging, not only for my family but more for all Yazidis.”

Fortunately, the Kurdish people tend to welcoming of the Yazidis, making them feel safe. There is also the aforementioned Catholic University of Erbil, providing young Yazidis (and those of other faiths) opportunities they would not find elsewhere in the country.

CUE students at an orientation session. (Photo: cue.edu.krd)

As recounted by another Yazidi, Safwan, who studies Computer Science at CUE, the university offers scholarships to Yazidi students “who have no possibilities to study at the universities of Mosul and Dohuk.”

For him, CUE has become his “family” because, as he recounts, “before I came to CUE, I had no idea who I was and what my life meant, but eventually I realized it with CUE.”

Yet students such as Basma and Safwan are just a handful of the fortunate ones.

Despite being within a minority among Iraqis, Yazidis are an integral part of the inclusive system of direct, local democracy with which the autonomous administration in Kurdistan is enfranchising Kurdish, Arabic, Yazidi, Syriac and Turkman people alike all seeking to be seen as equals within the reconstruction of infrastructure and civil society. It is this which marks the Yazidis out for attack once again.

Como Patrick Cockburn has reported, when ISIS fighters were re-armed under the Turkish flag for the invasion of Afrin in 2018, they immediately targeted Yazidi villages in a campaign of forced conversions, cultural genocide and the destruction of sacred shrines and temples. Further and systematic persecution of Yazidis.

There is great hope, however, for the Yazidi community in Iraq, though much still has to be done. Basma states:

“I think it is important that Yazidis build a bridge with other communities, especially, the International community to gain support to improve their status. But more crucially, we as Yazidis have to be dependent and rely on ourselves which will require us to develop further and reach positions of authority and power where we can provide help and support to the community to prosper.”

These are tasks, that some Yazidis, such as Safwan, have undertaken. Having the opportunity to develop “a strong background on computers,” Safwan says, “I’m working hard to use my skills to help my community and my country.”

Youngsters like these offer much hope for their brethren and fellow Iraqis, but they cannot do it alone, neither can institutions like the Catholic University of Erbil.

Almost 200,000 Yazidis are still living in displacement camps in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. Pictured here is Bajed Kandala in 2019.
(Photo: Andrea DiCenzo for NPR)

It has been six years since ISIS launched a genocide against the Yazidi people. Although ISIS was altogether driven out in 2016, nearly 200,000 Yazidis still live in displacement camps in the Kurdistan region. In a July report, Amnesty International warned that nearly 2,000 Yazidi children who were subjected to horrendous human rights abuses at the hands of ISIS were not getting the help they need to deal with lasting physical and mental trauma. Like the persecuted Christians and other religious minorities at the hands of Muslim jihadists, Yazidis have barely received significant attention by the international community, thereby making their burdens heavier.

Let us pray and hope that the stories of those like Layla, one of many, are not in vain. And that those, like Basma and Safwan, who have taken it upon themselves to pursue a higher level education will not only motivate others to do likewise, but will ultimately encourage others to come to the aid of a people that desperately need help.

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Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.

Book available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble o WestBow Press.


Displaced Yazidi children who fled Sinjar pose for photographer at a refugee camp on the outskirt of Duhok province. Reuters

Mirza Haj Mirza Qirani, chieftain of one of the Sinjar tribes, remembers the night Islamic State invaded on August 3, 2014. At about 2:20am, he received word that the jihadists had advanced and were attacking his village. Men immediately went out to fight, but had only light weapons – they were almost defenceless against ISIS' sophisticated weaponry. The battle continued for about five hours, when it became apparent that the only option was to flee. Militants captured and slaughtered around 350 of the villagers, while the rest – Qirani among them – were able to escape. He recalls the tens of thousands of people he saw on foot on their way to Sinjar mountain. The elderly, the disabled and children struggling to keep up, but having no choice but to push on.

Qirani was part of the most senior delegation of Yazidi religious leaders ever to visit the UK last week. Speaking at the Amar Foundation offices in Westminster, they told Christian Today that it's time for the world to wake up to the plight of their people.

Qirani's story is one of hundreds of thousands of similar testimonies. Harrowing scenes unfolded in Northern Iraq two years ago as Sinjar town and its surrounding villages were overrun, hundreds of civilians were slaughtered and more than 400,000 forced to flee. Some 5,000 were taken captive, 3,000 of whom remain hostage, and disturbing accounts of their treatment at the hands of militants have emerged from those who have since been smuggled out or managed to escape. Women and children have been brutally raped and abused bartered and sold among jihadists for as little as a packet of cigarettes. Men were rounded up and killed. Mass graves have been found, as well as underground dungeons where women were kept as sex slaves.

Kurdish forces discovered more than six mass graves in Sinjar after recapturing the Iraqi town from Islamic State last year. Reuters

In the weeks following the insurgency, the world watched in horror as 40,000 members of religious minority groups were stranded on the Sinjar mountainside without food, water or sanitation. Some were Christians and Shia Muslims, but the majority were followers of Yazidism – an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, which blends ancient religious traditions with both Christianity and Islam. Yazidis, native to the northern Mesopotamian region where they have worshipped for millennia, have been targeted relentlessly by ISIS, who consider them to be "devil-worshippers".

Food and water drops were made by international agencies, but at least 300 people, most of them children, perished in the blistering temperatures. And two years on, the Yazidi community remains vulnerable to ISIS' advance. There were once more than 600,000 Yazidis in Northern Iraq, but there are now believed to be fewer than half that number. Thousands have been killed, and many more are forced to live hand-to-mouth in Iraqi refugee camps, or have fled further afield to Europe.

The European Parliament and the US administration has declared ISIS' atrocities against Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East to be genocide. The UK has failed to follow suit, though MPs voted unanimously in favour of the label in the House of Commons last month. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he hopes that the word 'genocide' will be used, but maintains that it is a matter for the International Criminal Court.

This isn't the first time the Yazidi community has been persecuted – staggeringly, they say this is the 74th time they have been the target of genocide. But despite a troubled history, none believed they could suffer to the extent they have under ISIS.

"We are a peaceful religion. We have no intention to take power, and we would prefer to be killed than converted," Qirani said, speaking through an interpreter. "The attack by ISIS was unexpected, unpredictable, and we thought that if such a thing would happen, there are foreign forces – the United States and the UK – who would intervene directly and stop such atrocities. But they came too late."

The religious council insisted that forgiveness is the only way forward for Iraq. Amar Foundation

The delegation insisted they were thankful for the eventual intervention of Western forces, however. Without the US-led coalition air strikes, they said, the entire Yazidi and Christian community in Iraq may have been wiped out. But they called for stronger action: "We thank God that finally the air strikes came. Not only for Yazidis, but for Christians the same. Their [ISIS'] plan was to eliminate all minorities. It's time for this evil to be eliminated and stopped in its place."

Amar Foundation

Revenge, though, remarkably isn't on their radar. In the aftermath of the Sinjar massacre, there were some reports of Yazidis extracting revenge on local Arab villages, but the senior religious leaders insisted that reconciliation is the only way forward for Iraq.

"We must learn from each other how to forgive, and remove the darkness which is prevailing on this earth," Farooq Khalil Basheer, a member of the Yazidian religious council, said. "We must accept each other, and forgive, like brothers. That's the most important thing – how to live peacefully with each other."

There was some discussion, and disagreement, about whether this was possible, given the scale of the atrocities against Yazidis, Christians and others. "This is our dream, but it's not possible. Not possible," Jameel Sulaiman Haider, an advisor to the religious council, said.

"God is there to punish the evil deeds of human beings," Basheer added, but he emphasised the importance of forgiveness. Without it, he suggested, there is no hope for Iraq's future.

Part of the reason the delegation were in London, supported by the Amar Foundation, was because the Yazidi leaders want to urge the international community to create a "marshal plan" for when ISIS is eventually defeated. The council has already begun to make changes in its own community. Reports surfaced last year that claimed women and girls taken captive and used as sex slaves by ISIS militants were having secret abortions and vaginal surgery to avoid being ostracised by their own communities when they escaped and returned home. Yazidi leaders therefore issued an official law which said women who had been raped and abused by ISIS must be welcomed back without fear of discrimination.

"They were raped, enslaved, assauted. Why should we treat them like them [ISIS]?" Basheer said.

"They are members of our community and we respect them. nobody is an outsider."

"We want the UK to acknowledge these attacks as genocide against the Yazidis, but [also] to move beyond that border," added Dr Mamou Othman, a former Iraqi minister and now director of the European Studies Centre at the University of Dohuk. "When ISIS is defeated, and Iraq is liberated, how do we let people go back? And more than that, how to give them a feeling of security that they can continue living there. We don't want our people to leave the country."

The delegation were adamant that it be made possible for Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East to live there in peace without fear of persecution. Yazidism, Basheer explained, holds connection with the land highly. It is therefore vital that Yazidis remain living in their Mesopotamian homeland. "We are hoping that the UK government will be involved more and try to do more for the indigenous of Mesopotamia to let them continue their lives and practise their festivals, their rituals, their religions, because we are connected with the land," Basheer said.

"Our shrines are there, our festivals, our rights and rituals, everything. If we go abroad, we are afraid they will be lost.

"It's just like a tree without roots, it will die."

The religious council were in the UK supported by the AMAR International Charitable Foundation. For more information on their latest appeal on behalf of persecuted communitues in Iraq, click here.


She escaped Islamic State captivity. Now, Nadia Murad is giving a voice to persecuted Yazidis

Yazidi activist Nadia Murad has written a new memoir called The Last Girl.

This article was published more than 3 years ago. Some information in it may no longer be current.

It's time for Nadia Murad to figure out what comes next.

Ms. Murad, 24, is the United Nations' first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. She's also a survivor herself: In 2014, she was kidnapped during an Islamic State attack on Sinjar, the northern Iraq region that is the ancestral home of her people, the Yazidis.

The Yazidi faith combines elements of the Abrahamic religions and Zoroastrianism, and has long made them targets – they count themselves the victims of 74 genocidal attacks over the last eight centuries. This last one obliterated the community: of the 400,000 Yazidis estimated to live in the area at the time, only about 1,000 families remain.

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Some refugees have been placed internationally, including about 800 in Canada, but most survivors now live hand-to-mouth in camps. That's still a better fate than that met by those murdered and dumped in mass graves, the thousands still missing, or the boys raised to be child soldiers. Ms. Murad was one of thousands of Yazidi women and girls sold as "sabaya," or sex slaves.

In a new memoir, The Last Girl, Ms. Murad recounts enduring sickening humiliation and violence before escaping out of an open window and sneaking into Kurdish-held territory with the help of a poor Sunni Muslim family. These are horrors she has been reliving continually since they first happened as she has travelled the world trying to convince politicians, diplomats and regular people to help the Yazidis.

"This book, that can be a conclusion for telling her story in detail," said Abid Shamdeen, Ms. Murad's translator, during a phone call from New York. "She's thought about taking a little break after this and just slowing down from this work."

Her book comes out this week, just as the IS caliphate appears to be defeated in most of Iraq and Syria. Even so, to consider a life beyond relentless advocacy is a turning point for Ms. Murad. She writes that her drive came both out of a desire to see justice for her people and a sense of hopelessness after shattering loss. Six of her brothers and her mother were murdered. A niece was killed by an IED while trying to escape.

Family members are still unaccounted for and one of Ms. Murad's nephews has been brainwashed into becoming an IS soldier himself. "He said he was happy where he was," Ms. Murad said about the last time he called the family. Unable to imagine happiness again for herself, she became an unceasing advocate for her people's survival.

Her work has had results. Last spring, she testified at the United Nations and in September, the Security Council directed its investigators to collect evidence about crimes against the Yazidi perpetrated by IS, in order to build a case for genocide and war crimes.

But human-rights awards (she has been given the Vaclav Havel and Sakharov prizes, and was nominated for a Nobel) are small recognition of just how brave it was for Ms. Murad to tell her story. Centuries of persecution have made the Yazidis insular. They are a rural, modest people who don't accept converts and consider premarital sex a great shame.


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