On May 10th last, Karim Khan, who begins work as prosecutor at the International Criminal Court on June 16th, stated in his role as head of the UN investigation of Islamic State atrocities in the Middle East, that there is “convincing evidence that the crimes against the Yazidi people clearly constitute genocide”.
The laborious and ongoing task of gathering evidence for the investigation is based in Duhok, Kurdistan, Iraq. The Yazidi global organisation Yazda, working in conjunction with London based human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is evaluating and finalising harrowing statements from thousands of women and young girls abducted, tortured and sexually enslaved by Islamic State, also known as Isis, in 2014.
The work arises from UN resolution no 237 (2017).
Most of the female victims, members of the Yazidi ethnic community of northern Iraq, were traded or bartered multiple times by their captives.
Examples of the treatment of women by the Islamic State terror group include being raped, physically and emotionally abused, deprived of food and water and being forced to witness family members being killed.
Up to 2,000 of these women and girls are still unaccounted for.
In addition to their personal suffering and abuse, more than 5,000 of their fathers, husbands and brothers were shot and buried in mass graves. Only younger boys were spared execution. They were instead abducted to be indoctrinated into Isis ideology.
In February this year, the Iraqi government held the first official commemorative ceremony in Baghdad for these victims, specifically honouring 104 victims from Kocho village whose remains were then transported back to their village and buried.
While the UN investigation and the process of bringing ISIL to international justice continues, life for tens of thousands of Yazidi refugee families, far from the public gaze, remains one of trauma and desolation.
Almost seven years after Islamic State drove them from their homes in August 2014, an estimated 200,000 Yazidis live in tent cites scattered across northern Iraq/Kurdistan.
On June 4th a fire destroyed almost 400 tent homes in Sharya IDP camp in Kurdistan. Since October 2014, tents the size of an average Irish sitting room have been “home” for more than 13,000 people. It is one of 15 similar camps housing an estimated 200,000 displaced Yazidis. Summer time temperatures can reach 50 degrees, but winter can plunge –10.
The fire broke out during daylight hours, so there was no loss of life, but dozens of people were injured. Families who lost remaining possessions in the desperate rush for safety have been left destitute.
For remaining residents, there is a fear that their ageing tents, which in many cases have lost their fireproofing, have become a potential death trap.
In the nearby and slightly larger Khanke camp, where rows of tents form what is now a semi-permanent home for a further 14,000 people, one young resident who works for Yazda explains the reality of life there.
Barfi (25), a graduate in English, says women in particular struggle at a personal level following the assaults by Islamic State.
“Many young men have emigrated or become refugees in Europe, or Australia. Women find even that route of escape more challenging. Above all there is a real fear that the systematic murder, rape and atrocities could happen again unless the international community acts.”
“We are afraid to return to our homes in Sinjar city and surrounding areas because of ongoing security problems. Our homes were systematically destroyed by Isis,” she says.
For her English thesis Barfi had to research a major world cultural event. “I chose St. Patrick’s Day. I discovered that it was one of the very few festivals that is celebrated on every continent, so people in Ireland must be proud of its importance.”
Hifa and Barfi, Khanke Camp football players.
Recently the only women’s football team in the camp, of which Barfi was a founding member, was presented with sets of jerseys and footballs, donated by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association in Ireland.
The football teams’ coach said: “This is actually the first donation our team has ever received. Women playing football in the Middle East is still gaining acceptance, so we are delighted that someone has bothered to support us.”
Hope for the future
Despite the difficulties, there are now plans to start a competition between the different internally displaced people camps and to support and foster a greater feeling of Yazidi community.
This sense of resilience is enabling a devastated community to hope for the future. Recently the Iraqi government passed the Yazidi (Female) Survivors Bill to support Yazidis and the Kurdistan parliament is debating a draft law that would establish a tribunal to prosecute crimes committed by Islamic State and enable prosecution based on international crimes.
However, the resources of the Iraqi and Kurdistan authorities are limited and in high demand.
Yazidi survivors seek justice abroad, especially in European countries. Already, several cases have been taken by Amal Clooney, who is representing Yazidi survivors in ongoing national court proceedings in Germany and in France.
Continued and greater focus by the international community is needed at legal, political and resources levels. Ireland, as a member of the UN Security Council, could play a very helpful role in highlighting the plight of the Yazidi community and work with the Kurdistan and Iraqi administrations to mobilise and deliver greater international supports.
*Sadhbh Gallagher is a Technological University Dublin 2020 law graduate and has been working as a legal and advocacy assistant with Yazda, in Duhok, Iraq, since March. Yazda UK and Ireland, part of a multinational organisation representing the Yazidi community, appears before the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee on June 15th.