14 August, 2014. Internally displaced Yazidis from Mount Sinjar cross the bridge at the Peshkabour border crossing from Syria into Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo: UNICEF

5 things you should know about the Yezidis

Kristine Kolstad|Published 10. Dec 2018|Updated 30. Nov 2018
On 3 August 2014, Islamic State group attacked the Yezidi community in Sinjar, northern Iraq. Thousands were imprisoned or killed, and close to 100,000 people fled to Mount Sinjar. The UN has referred to the attack as a genocide.

Please note that this article was published on 10 December 2018. Therefore, some of the facts and figures are no longer accurate.

Here are five things you should know about the persecution of the Yezidis:

#1. Religious minority

The Yezidis is one of many religious minorities in Iraq. At the centre is the teaching about a fallen angel who is forgiven by God and set to govern the Earth in God’s place.

It is this story of a fallen angel as a figure of worship that has led to the more than a century-long persecution of the Yezidis. In both Christianity and Islam, the devil is presented as a fallen angel, which has led them to be perceived as devil-worshippers. This perception was used by IS group to justify their atrocities against this minority group.

This is Sinjar today. 3 years after being retaken from IS group the Yazidis' hometown is still heavily damaged.

#2. Trapped on Mount Sinjar

When the IS group attacked Yezidi communities near Sinjar, close to 100,000 Yezidis fled up Mount Sinjar. There, they remained trapped for days with no food or water, until Kurdish forces managed to open a corridor down to the Kurdish areas. The elderly, the sick and the pregnant women were trapped on the mountain for the longest period, as they were unable to walk down on their own. Many died as a result of thirst and hunger, injuries or exhaustion.

Those who didn’t climb Mount Sinjar were killed or taken prisoners. Men and boys above the age of 12 were separated from their families and forced to convert. Those who refused were killed. Women and children often had to bear witness to their men’s executions before they were transported to Syria.

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#3. Close to 7,000 women sold as sex slaves

Women paid the highest price when IS group attacked. Nearly 7,000 Yezidi women were enslaved and brutalised by IS fighters, many of them repeatedly victims of sexual assaults. They were forced to convert to Islam, and many were forcibly married off to IS fighters. Women who tried to escape were often punished with gang rape.

Thousands of women and children, down to the age of nine, were repeatedly sold in slave markets in Syrian cities where IS group had a strong presence. Boys from the age of seven years and upwards were separated from their mothers and put in camps where they were brainwashed and trained to become child soldiers.

#4. Thousands still missing

The attack by IS group four years ago resulted in the death of at least 1,293 Yezidis, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. 2,745 children have become orphans and face an uncertain future in displacement camps.

There are some children whose entire families were killed in the war against the Islamic State group: many family members are buried in the 63 mass graves found in the area. 1,665 men and boys are still missing.

Even though more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children have been rescued from the captivity of IS group, it is estimated that, up to as many remain enslaved still. After IS group’s defeat in Iraq and Syria, the Yezidi’s feel that they have been forgotten and that the efforts to find and rescue the girls, who have been missing since 2014, has declined.

Iraq, April 2015. 13-year-old Rezan escaped his home and fled to the Sinjar mountains in the late summer of 2014. They spent a week in the mountains, without food and water. "I miss some of my friends, we don’t know what happened to them. I lost seven of my relatives. We saw photos of them on Facebook, their dead bodies. There were so many of them, like a massacre. We couldn't recognise all," he said. Photo: Alvhild Strømme/NRC

#5. Nothing to return home to

Sinjar was retaken in November 2015 by Kurdish forces and Yezidi fighters. Three years after Sinjar was retaken from IS group, more than 200,000 people, mostly Yezidis, are still displaced in northern Iraq and abroad with no home to return to.

Unlike elsewhere in Iraq where reconstruction is slowly happening, in Sinjar it never even started. Around 70 per cent of buildings in Sinjar were damaged or destroyed during the operations to retake the city. Large portions of the city remain uninhabitable, and today Sinjar city is a ghost town, without water, schools or hospitals. Around 6,000 families have returned, but many feel safer in the refugee camps. Those who decided to come back live in dire conditions, with no water or electricity. Pregnant women have died because they lack health care.

The Yezidis, counting somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million people, have been scattered: Some have returned to their villages, others live in camps, while tens of thousands have fled to other countries.

For a minority like the Yezidis, it’s important to stick together as people. But without more international support to ensure lasting peace, inclusion and sustainability in Sinjar, we run the risk of the Yezidi people remaining scattered for all time. 

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