Exodus: Understanding the Systematic Violence against the Yezidis in Iraq

On August 7, 2014 President Obama gave a speech announcing a new military intervention in Iraq, a response to the violence being perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against the Yezidi communities dotted across the Ninewa province. Obama’s authorization of airstrikes and humanitarian aid was intended to protect American personnel, and to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians targeted by ISIS fighters. In his speech President Obama made two references to genocide, stating:

“ISIS forces…have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide…we have a mandate to help…the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye…to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

The actions taken to relieve the Yezidi refugees besieged by ISIS on Mt. Sinjar eventually allowed thousands of men, women and children without food and water to flee the mountain. Their homes had been obliterated and their cultural heritage ransacked by ISIS fighters.  

However, it remains an oversimplification to regard the 2014 campaign against Yezidis as the first act of genocidal violence perpetrated against the community. The intentions of the campaign also fail to absolve the US of its role in inadvertently providing an atmosphere conducive to ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence. The combination of Saddam’s brutality and the dreadful miscalculations made by American and British policymakers and the former dictator intensified the collapse of the Iraqi state. Equally, the neglect of minority communities in Iraq shown by successive administrations, combined with the dysfunctional government set up by Washington in Baghdad in the post-Saddam era, allowed violence to escalate against the Yezidis.

The Yezidi faith, like the Mandaean one, is a religion shrouded in secrecy by its clergy; it is a monotheist religion that incorporates several elements of the Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic faiths. To extremists cells such as Al-Qa'ida and ISIS, Yezidis were regarded as "devil worshippers" for their worship of Melek Taus, “the Peacock Angel” sometimes referred to as Shaytan, the name which the Qu’ran calls Satan. However, the Yezidis’ concern with religious purity and honour created practical problems for their integration in the region.  In a region where honour killings and tribal politics still hold considerable sway, Yezidi taboos and religious rules, not just the religious customs of the Muslim majority, have come into conflict with other Iraqi communities and other tribes. In recent times this was best exemplified by the honor killing of Du’a where her Yezidi tribe for eloping with a Sunni Muslim. The violence of honor killing was not a phenomenon purely linked to extremist cells such as ISIS, Al-Qa’ida and regimes such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.

The persecution of the Yezidis is not a recent phenomenon in Iraq. The historian Geraldine Chatelard has argued that most general historical works on modern Iraq fail to mention that “episodes of mass-displacement or forced migration…of political opponents such as the Yezidis is a trend that dates back to the mandate era” and Ottoman Empire. According to British and United Nations diplomat Gerard Russell, the Yezidis "keep a list of seventy-two persecutions which they have been subjected to over the centuries."

The Yezidis history has been punctuated by persecution at the hands of the Muslim majority in Iraq while in modern times, perpetual war in Iraq has continued to deal the Yezidi people a cruel hand. Within American policymaking narratives during the Iran-Iraq War (1980 - 1988), the Yezidis were not mentioned when entire Yezidi districts, like the Kurdish people, were targeted by Saddam’s Arabisation programmes in 1965 and between 1973 - 1975. The Yezidis refused to be incorporated into the Iraqi state as defined by the Ba’athist Party, a state formed along the lines of ethnicity. Resistance against these draconian programmes, violent and non-violent, culminated in a genocide against the Kurdish and Yezidi communities during the Al-Anfal campaign in northern Iraq (1986 - 1989) as Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid pacified the rebellious provinces.

The consequences facing the Yezidis for rejecting the Ba'athist regime's doctrine were severe. According to Human Rights Watch, this included resettlement, ethnic cleansing, and the en-masse disappearance of Yezidi men who were abducted and executed by military intelligence. As anti-genocide advocate Samantha Powers argues, these minorities, like the Kurds, were ignored by Ronald Regan and Bush H.W. administration. James Baker, the U.S Secretary of State under Bush, stated that “shifting a policy away from cooperation towards confrontation is a difficult proposition when support for a “policy of engagement” with Saddam Hussein’s government is fiercely embedded.”

Furthermore, the Iran-Iraq War was a highly profitable enterprise for the West, the Soviet Union, regional powers and businesses alike. Funnelling armaments, including chemical weapons, into Saddam’s military arsenal to contain the Islamic regime, which had stormed to power in Iran (1979) at the expense of the West’s regional ally Shah Reza Pahlavi, meant turning a blind-eye to the appalling genocidal violence being conducted against civilians in Iraq. In contrast to President Obama’s statement, U.S policymakers and journalists treated Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds and Yezidis in the 1980s as a product of war despite the methodical nature in which villages were collectivised, the systematic slaughter conducted within the designated “prohibited zones” and the utilisation of chemical weapons against the Kurds and minorities including the Yezidis and Turkmens, actions which (in some respects) dwarfed the violence of ISIS.

This legacy of turning a blind-eye to the brutalisation of the Yezidi communities by Saddam began to escalate after the deposition of his Mukhabarat (police) state by George W. Bush’s administration. Washington and London’s miscalculations during the occupation of Iraq, rather than safeguarding the basic human rights of minorities, exacerbated their plight and exodus from Iraq.

During the occupation, significant inter-communal violence spilled over into open civil war (2006 - 2007) across Iraq. Several hundred miles to the south-east of the Yezidi communities, the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, was ripped apart by Shi’a and Sunni death squads conducting pogroms against their respective religious sects as American soldiers, supported by Iraqi Security Forces, continued their counterinsurgency operations against Al-Qa’ida in Iraq and affiliated jihadist cells. The Yezidis were eventually drawn into this violence as the impact of Baghdad's civil rippled across the shredded Iraqi state.

On April 22, 2007 a bus making its way from Mosul’s Textile Factory to the town of Bashika dropping off factory workers to their homes had been ordered to pull over by armed men. They boarded the bus checking cards for identification. Upon completion all passengers, with the exception of twenty-three of Yezidi men, were driven deep into the city as the convoy accompanying them pulled over in a street in northern Mosul. Within minutes, they were ordered off the bus, lined up against the wall and shot. The convoy of gunmen departed leaving the bodies of the men in the street riddled with bullets and the wall spattered with their blood.

According to the international media, the murder had been an act of retribution against the Yezidis after an incident in the town of Bashika twenty-five kilometres north of Mosul weeks earlier. Situated in tranquil hills and surrounded by lush olive groves, the town was a popular destination for Mosul residents to retreat from the bustle of the city for family picnics and escape from a city gripped by revolutionary turmoil since the deposition of Saddam. Under the American occupation, Bashika had remained relatively stable despite the vicious civil war gripping the rest of the country where, despite Petraeus’s objective to curb sectarian strife, Yezidi temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches stood in close proximity, presenting a rare image of tolerant coexistence. The town’s quiet nature in many ways epitomised the subtle richness and cultural diversity that came to define Ninewa’s province over centuries of history.

However, the grisly stoning of Du’a (a seventeen year-old girl who had begun a relationship with Muhannad, a young Sunni man) in Bashika by her Yezidi tribe stoked a blood-feud, one fed by the propaganda of the most brutal factions of the Iraq War. As Du'a's stoning went viral online, Bashika’s reputation (a town which was predominantly Yezidi) was smeared by Islamist extremists and caught the attention of the international media. By this stage, tit-for-tat killings, executions and kidnappings had become a norm in post-Saddam Iraq. However, the latest round of violence between the Yezidis and Sunnis underscored the sharpening divide between minority groups and Islamist Sunnis and Shiites. Petraeus’ decision to establish security in the streets of Baghdad and to reopen space for political coordination between Iraq’s three main sects (the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds) took priority. This monolithic interpretation of the conflict obscured the urgent threats facing minorities across the country.

With intermittent violence occurring daily and a counterinsurgency campaign being waged, the stage was set for a devastating attack. Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Qa’ida in Iraq operatives were retreating and Sunni insurgents were occupying territories in the borderlands between Ninewa and the Syrian provinces of Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah north-west of Iraq. These locations, ‘strips of the most impoverished and sparsely populated parts of Iraq and Syria,’ were the easiest to escape U.S and ISF soldiers.

For the thousands of secular and religiously tolerant Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Yezidis, Armenians and Mandeans in the province, these territories were unprotected. For extremist cells, these groups presented an opportunity to foment sectarian violence and execute attacks against Ninewa’s soft underbelly. As Iraq’s most diverse province, dotted by perceived “devil worshippers”, “heretics” and “infidels”, the minorities were soft targets for Al-Qa’ida cells. The increasing tensions between Yezidis and hard-line Sunni Islamists had created an atmosphere which the terrorist organisation could exploit despite their setbacks against the American occupation and Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. The Americans anticipated withdrawal would leave minority groups vulnerable to militias and jihadists determined to take advantage of the security void left by the Americans.

This security void and tit-for-tat killings accumulated with devastating repercussions on 14th August, 2007 when several trucks, each laced with 27,000 kilograms of explosives, destroyed the Yezidi villages of Kahtaniya and Jazeera. The coordinated suicide attacks killed over 800 men, women and children and wounded thousands more. The bombings by Al-Qa’ida in Iraq against the Yezidi communities in Kahtaniya and Jazeera were the second deadliest acts of terrorism in modern history behind the September 11 attacks in the United States.

The acts of terror in Kahtaniya and Jazeera should have joined a string of historical massacres across the Middle East. Yet the mass-slaughter, while initially shocking, did not gain traction across the Western world. The Kahtaniya and Jazeera massacre blended with other attacks as just another bombing in Iraq. Improvised Explosive Devices and Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Devices had swiftly become a deadly normality for Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians. To American policymakers, Kahtaniya and Jazeera was a blip in their “successful” Surge and General Petraeus’s effort to sell a disastrous war as an unqualified success, that Iraq was pulling together with General Petraeus himself stating twenty-four days after the mass-slaughter: “To summarise, the security situation in Iraq is improving, and Iraqis elements are slowly taking on more of the responsibility for protecting their citizens.”

In the shattered villages of Kahtaniya and Jazeera, the Yezidis communities did not speak of peace, they spoke of impending extermination by extremist cells such Al-Qa’ida in Iraq. “Their aim is to annihilate us, to create trouble and kill all Yezidis because we are not Muslims” explained one villager from Kahtaniya while another villager stated bluntly: “Another bombing like this and there will be no more Yezidis left.” Their warnings and pleas, wedded to the distribution of leaflets calling the Yezidis infidels and the hate-speech by preachers at local mosques in Mosul branding them heretics and outlaws, were ignored with dire consequences for the religious community and other minorities in Ninewa.  Following the end of the American occupation and withdrawal of soldiers, the Mas‘ud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Peshmerga militia were unable to stop attacks being launched attacks against Yezidis living outside the established security zone by Sunni militants.

Seven years later, Al-Qa’ida in Iraq would reemerge in northern Iraq, cutting a swathe through Syria and Iraq as the newly-formed ISIS under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and former military and intelligence figures from Saddam's military. The peshmerga facing military defeat fell back, with dire consequences for the Yezidis. ISIS's project founded upon the ultra-violent doctrine of Abu Bakr Naji "The Management of Savagery" sought to "purify" Iraq and cleanse it of "apostates" and "heretics." Shiites, Yezidis, Christians and those who refused to pay jizya (a tax historically levied on non-Muslim subjects) faced a brutal ultimatum: leave or die.

ISIS had evolved into a vicious regional faction, strengthened by strong cross-border ties with Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq, the instability created by the Syrian War, and the targeting of Sunni politicians and political alienation of the Sunni population by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Following the invasion of northern Iraq, the capture of Mosul and the routing of the corrupt Iraqi military, Baghdadi and his puritanical fighters would cleanse Ninewa of its ethnic and religious minorities conducting systematic rape, torture, abduction and harrowing violence against the Yezidis and other minorities.

In August, 2014, in the shadow of Mount Sinjar, ISIS militants rounded up and massacred Yezidi men and boys in Sinjar and its surrounding villages Kocho, Qiniyeh, Jadali and Jazeera. Yezidis who refused to pledge loyalty to Baghdadi and to convert to Islam were executed at roadsides, prison centres and along the roadsides where refugees fleeing for Mt. Sinjar were intercepted by ISIS vehicles. Yezidi women and children were abducted in their hundreds as personal prizes for jihadist fighters and subjected to rape or sexual abuse, forced to marry fighters, or sold into sexual slavery. Others were sold to traffickers whose trade had flourished since the collapse of the Iraqi state in 2003, resulting in increasingly porous borders. 830,000 people were displaced and fled ISIS in the wake of the cleansing operations. The entire Yezidi population in Iraq had been uprooted and 40,000-50,000 had fled to Mt. Sinjar, historically a place of refuge for the community during conflict.

In a nutshell, the horrific violence between the Yezidi and Sunni communities seemed to encapsulate the brutalisation of Iraqi society, culture and politics by decades of ceaseless conflict, outside intervention and brutal authoritarian rule. In equal measure, it perfectly summarised the grave amnesia of the great powers playing geo-politics in the Middle East where illusions of control stood in contrast to the savagery on the ground and the tragic impact decades of conflicts have had on the region and communities living there. The decline of the Yezidi population to less than one million is a microcosm of this appalling tragedy.  

Matthew C.K Williams