“Wake up! Something bad is going on.”
The phone call from his brother’s nearby house shattered Hussein Hasoon’s sleep before dawn on Aug. 3, 2014.
What followed was a bloodbath that would engulf the homeland of the ancient Yazidi religion in northwestern Iraq. Islamic State militants had launched a campaign of terror against a minority they considered apostates and “devil worshipers.”
By the time it ended, some 300,000 Yazidis would be forced to flee, up to 5,000 massacred and 7,000 girls and women kidnapped as sex slaves.
Hasoon, who worked for the Netherlands ministry of justice, was in the Sinjar region for a family visit when the onslaught began. He made a nightmarish 10-day escape on foot.
He is now an adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, gathering evidence that the self-styled Islamic State had committed genocide in an effort to eradicate the Yazidis.
“It has all the characteristics of genocide,” he said, on a scratchy line from Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. “They have followed the same methods in different places. Their plan is the same: take the women and execute the men. Most important, their actions were committed for religious or ethnic reasons.”
As the jihadists advanced, Hasoon and some 40,000 others scrambled up Mount Sinjar, above the plain where many made their homes. Surrounded and besieged in temperatures surpassing 40C, they were without food and water until Kurdish troops opened a corridor that allowed them to enter Syria and move into Iraqi Kurdistan. Others crossed into Turkey.
Today, the survivors huddle in tents and ramshackle buildings in Iraq and southeastern Turkey. As Canada and Europe admit thousands of Syrians fleeing civil war, the Yazidis of Iraq are the forgotten refugees.
Those who survived are deeply shattered. As mass graves are counted, with the bleached bones still scattered over the unforgiving terrain, they feel no peace or security. Few have any hope of justice. Worse, they fear the genocide may one day yet succeed.
Plea for Canadian help
“If we had waited just 10 minutes longer (to leave Sinjar) we’d have been kidnapped — or dead,” says Nofa Abdi, who arrived in Toronto last month to join her husband Mirza Ismail. “But the conditions in the refugee camps are very bad. I hope the Canadian government will do something for us.”
What Hasoon saw during the week that followed the assault still leaves him at a loss for words. His story comes in short bursts, then silence.
“There were hundreds of thousands running toward the mountain. On my way I heard stories of mass executions. Women were separated from men. The women were taken away to Mosul. Many of the men were killed.”
Under the scorching sun, Yazidi families fled in an almost biblical exodus. Most had no time to gather food, water or money.
Cars were abandoned as mountain roads narrowed to dirt tracks. Small children, the sick and elderly were carried until their relatives collapsed from exhaustion. Corpses lay on the stony roadside, unburied.
“People were dying of thirst, and there was no food or water,” says Hasoon. “Some elderly people threw themselves off the mountain so their sons and daughters would not have to stop for them. Mothers had to leave their babies behind.”
Still seeking safety
Hasoon, and thousands of others, walked north to the Syrian border, then crossed back into Iraqi Kurdistan, arriving parched and starving. They were the lucky ones. Those ambushed by Islamic State — joined by some local Arab tribesmen — were slaughtered near their homes.
The survivors’ testimonies speak to the Yazidis’ long-term isolation — and their ongoing desperation. They are regarded with hostility and suspicion, and have been attacked many times over the centuries as heretics.
The Yazidi religion, based in northwestern Iraq, is said to be about 4,000 years old. Now less than 1 million strong worldwide, Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish but their beliefs span elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. Their central belief in a sacred Peacock Angel has brought accusations of devil worship and condemnation as heretics.
The survivors of Sinjar say they were betrayed: that former Arab neighbours turned on them and that the Kurds — who now provide their only haven in Iraq — had troops in the area, but did nothing to save them. And, some say, prevented them from leaving when the jihadists advanced.
Burhan Abdi, a Yazidi cleric, told Iraqi reporter Saman Nouh that “the peshmerga troops just left their posts and some Arab tribes betrayed the vows and pacts of coexistence.”
The violence that followed spared no one. The testimonies of the nearly 2,000 kidnapped women and girls who managed to escape — an estimated 3,500 remain in captivity — detail some of the worst atrocities of this century.
“Most say they were assaulted by one man, then passed on to another and another,” says Amina Hasan, a former Iraqi parliamentarian and Yazidi rights advocate in Kurdistan. “Some tried to commit suicide.”
Hundreds succeeded in taking their own lives. “I met girls who were only 13 years old,” says Ismail, a Canadian who visited his wife in Iraq several times after the Islamic State attack. “They were raped by Islamic State (militants) 20 times on a daily basis. I witnessed many children who died from bleeding.”
Plight of the survivors
At least 35 mass graves are a testament to the slaughter of the Yazidis.
Amid such suffering there is no solace for many survivors. And there is no end in sight.
Although the cash-strapped Kurdistan Regional Government is sheltering the Yazidis in camps — and Kurdish fighters later pushed Islamic State out of Sinjar — the survivors are mistrustful.
In worsening conditions, a few hundred Yazidis have returned to their damaged homes. Some ran out of money to rent spaces outside the camps. Most see themselves friendless, isolated and under threat from the jihadists who are hunkered down a few kilometres away.
“The Yazidis cannot stay in Iraq,” says Ismail. “They have no hope there and they are always in danger. Until now, more than 200 Yazidis have drowned on (inflatable) boats trying to reach Europe from Turkey.”
Their motive for flight, he says, is fear of a final catastrophe that will eradicate the Yazidi culture and heritage forever.
“It’s a year and a half after the attack and the world has not taken any action,” he says. “No one will protect them if they stay. Canada is one of the best countries. It should help them to leave, before the same thing happens again.”
Organizations helping Yazidis
Yezidi Human Rights Organization-International: advocates for Yezidi rights in Iraq, international protection for survivors and resettlement as refugees.
Global Medic: Toronto-based aid agency working with Yazidis and others in Iraq, distributing water purification, warm clothing, hygiene and winterization kits.
Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto: network for sponsoring and resettling refugees, helps to identify refugees and match them up with prospective sponsors.
Samaritan’s Purse Canada: Calgary-based Christian aid group with projects for aid and relief for Yazidis in Kurdistan, including shelter, food, clothing, water and sanitation.
Yazda: U.S. based global organization gives medical and psychological support to Yazidi victims of Islamic State, documents crimes and advocates for Yazidi rights.