Who are the Yazidis?

Yazidi men celebrate Yazidi New Year in the holy place of Lalish in northern Iraq, 2019. Photo: Cameron Weymes

By Cameron Weymes

On August 3 2014 the Islamic State began a campaign of genocide and systematic rape against the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq.

In villages surrounding the Yazidi ancestral home of Mount Sinjar, Islamic State fighters massacred approximately 5,000 men and abducted between 5,000 and 7,000 women and children.

Many of the women and children were later sold at slave markets in Islamic State controlled territory while boys were taken from their mothers and forced to become soldiers or suicide bombers.

In August 2014 Islamic State fighters swept through Yazidi towns and villages such as Sinjar and Snuny, resulting in thousands fleeing towards the mountain top. Photo: Google Maps

Those who managed to escape sought refuge on top of Mount Sinjar, but were without food or water in the blistering summer heat.

The then US president Barack Obama called in airstrikes to save those besieged on the mountain, and supplies were airlifted in from other parts of Iraq.

The crisis resulted in the previously little known Yazidi people suddenly becoming the subject of intense international media attention.

A Yazidi woman poses beside a temple at the holy place of Lalish. Yazidi temples are cone shaped. Photo: Cameron Weymes

But who are the Yazidis, and why did the Islamic State target them for particularly horrific treatment?

The Yazidis are a Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) speaking minority in northern Iraq. They number approximately 500,000 and mostly live around their ancestral homeland of Mount Sinjar and near their holy site of Lalish.

They pray to Malak Taus, a peacock angel, five times a day and face the sun when doing so.

According to Yazidis International, Yazidis believe “in one God, who created the world and entrusted it into the care of seven Holy Beings, preeminent among these is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.”

Yazidi Peshmerga volunteers man the frontlines against the Islamic State, south of Sinjar, December 2016. Photo: Cameron Weymes

Yazidis are not allowed to marry outside their faith and outsiders are not permitted to convert to Yazidism.

There has long been myths and disinformation around their beliefs. Another name the Yazidis have for the Peacock Angel they pray to is “Shaytan” meaning “Satan” in Arabic. This led to the Islamic State (and many others before them) to label them as “devil worshippers”, worthy of massacres, forced conversions and sexual slavery.

A Yazidi man poses for a selfie on Yazidi New Year, 2019. Photo: Cameron Weymes

Unlike Christians and Jews, Yazidis are not afforded any protection under the Koran according to the Islamic State’s ideology.

The rescue
As the Islamic State began to lose territory from late 2014 onwards, thousands of Yazidi women and children were freed and returned to their families.

A Yazidi woman at the holy temple of Lalish. Photo: Cameron Weymes

However, controversially within the community, Yazidi elders have declared that any child born of rape in IS captivity will not be allowed to return to the community, meaning that Yazidi women often must choose between their children and returning home.

Orphanages have been set up in neighbouring Syria for this reason alone. 

According to the Norwegian Refugee council, other Yazidi women and children have been brainwashed by the Islamic State’s ideology and are reluctant to return home.

Yazidi Peshmerga soldiers inspect a mass grave from the August 2014 massacres, December 2016. Photo: Cameron Weymes

Since the genocide, thousands of Yazidis have sought refuge in Europe and North America, leaving the villages around Sinjar with just a fraction of their former populations.

Nadia Murad is one Yazidi who has fled Iraq since the genocide.

In August 2014, she was taken captive from her village of Kocho, south of Sinjar, after her mother and male family members were shot dead. 

After three months as a slave she made a dramatic escape from her captor’s home after he left the door unlocked. She smuggled herself out of Islamic State territory with the help of a stranger and a fake ID, eventually being being granted refugee status in Germany.

She has subsequently become an activist for Yazidi and women’s rights. In 2018, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”

Murad has spoken out about accepting Yazidi former slaves and their children back into the community.

“If they decide to return with their children, we as a society must respect their decision, welcome them and offer them any possible help,” she said in a video clip last year.

Six years on

Almost six years on from the genocide, many of those who managed to escape from the Islamic State in August 2014 are still living in refugee camps on top of Mount Sinjar and elsewhere in northern Iraq. 

Thousands of Yazidis still live on top of Mount Sinjar, six years after originally fleeing their villages below the mountain. Photo: Cameron Weymes

According to Ahmed Khudida Burjus, a Yazidi working for the NGO Yazda, the situation for Yazidis in Iraq hasn’t improved since the ending of the genocide.

“There are still 2900 people in Islamic State captivity or missing and 80% of the community remains displaced,” he said.

“Yazidi areas have not been rebuilt, while justice and accountability have not been served. Many mass graves have not been exhumed and survivors are generally living in bad conditions,” he added.

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