ISIS fighters committed genocide and rape against members of Iraq’s minority Yazidi faith, but here we ask, did Yazidi women suffer the most? And why has no ISIS member been prosecuted for these crimes?
By Emily Feldman in ELLE
The killings began before dawn the morning of August 3, 2014.
As the convoys of men closed in on Hala’s Iraqi village, fear coursed through the 13-year-old’s veins.
Her family piled into her father’s car and sped north, across an arid plain, through clouds of dust kicked up by an exodus of tires and pounding feet. At first, no one noticed the black flags rising up from the cars ahead: the symbol of ISIS militants who had spent the summer terrorising Iraq.
By the time Hala’s father realised his mistake and slammed on the breaks, masked men—more than a dozen of them, armed and dressed in black—emerged from their cars, and ordered Hala’s family to follow them to an abandoned house.
‘We were the first family there,’ Hala recalls. ‘But by night the house was full.’
The home was one of dozens of collection depots ISIS fighters were using in a genocide against members of Iraq’s minority Yazidi faith: Yazidi men, destined for execution, were sent into one room, while women and children destined for slavery, into another.
That night, the fighters bussed Hala, her mother and six siblings to the first of many makeshift human warehouses they’d be held in for the next few weeks, as ISIS systematised its slave trade.
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They spent that time dizzy and sedated on drugs that Hala believes her captors mixed into everyone’s food to keep them compliant, while ISIS took stock of its human inventory: how many Yazidis they captured, how they should be distributed, how much money they should charge for each.
Soon, the transactions began.
ISIS took stock of its human inventory
‘Every day, men were coming to choose and take girls, and they would beat them if they cried or resisted,’ she says. The fighters used euphemisms for what they were doing. ‘We will take you to your husband,’ they would say. But it was clear to Hala that they were distributing Yazidi women and girls, not as willing wives, but as objects to be used and raped.
To save her daughter from selection, Hala’s mother hacked her daughter’s hair off and smeared grime and ash on her face.
‘From now on, you must act like you are crazy,’ her mother demanded. So Hala did, stumbling as she walked, flinging food, going silent in an effort to convince her captors that she was mute and undesirable.
Each time the men returned to round up women and girls, they overlooked her and eventually, deeming her useless, let her go.
But thousands of others—including Hala’s mother and siblings—remained behind and were eventually distributed throughout ISIS’s territory, which at its peak, spanned an area of Syria and Iraq the size of Belgium.
Governments and human rights groups estimate that ISIS killed more than 3,000 Yazidis and distributed between 5,000 and 7,000 more throughout its territory. Those who managed to escape have helped paint a surreal picture of the atrocities ISIS fighters committed against Yazidi women and children—and may still be committing today against thousands of Yazidis still unaccounted for.
Among the survivors are a 3-year-old whose ear was bitten off by his ISIS captor; a 15-year-old forced to attend an ISIS training camp for years and beaten so savagely that his sternum now protrudes from his chest; a 19-year old repeatedly raped while pregnant with her executed husband’s child and a 16-year-old abused not only by the ISIS militant who ‘owned’ her, but also by his wife and children.
Many of the people who did these things are known. Governments, lawyers and human rights groups have taken testimony from survivors, over and over again, about the ISIS members who tortured them.
ISIS also kept its own records. Besides publishing announcements in multiple languages about why it instituted slavery, the group kept marriage records as well as electronic photos and prices of Yazidi captives.
The most reckless or confident fighters even posted videos of themselves, unmasked, on Facebook, laughing and boasting about their ‘slaves.’
Despite this evidence, not a single person involved in these atrocities has been held accountable for crimes against the Yazidis or for any gender-based crimes, like rape.
However, over the years, justice groups and activists have been quietly working to collect and preserve evidence and build cases against fighters that they believe will one day be used in courtrooms to hold perpetrators of this genocide to account. Pari Ibrahim is one of them and the most prominent Yazidi woman leading the charge to put ISIS fighters behind bars for crimes against her people.
The fight, for her, is personal.
ISIS fighters killed or captured more than 38 members of her large extended family in her native Iraq. Ibrahim, who was 25 and living in Europe at the time of the attack, also knows that if her family hadn’t emigrated from Iraq to the Netherlands when she was a child, she might have suffered a similar fate.
‘ISIS was trying to eradicate the Yazidis because of their religion. To make sure no Yazidis were born anymore,’ she tells me.
Not a single person involved in these atrocities has been held accountable
Months after the genocide began, Ibrahim took a hiatus from law school to launch a non-profit, the Free Yezidi Foundation.
She wanted to raise awareness and money to help survivors. But the more she got to know these women and children, the more she realised how desperately they craved justice, too.
‘Girls I didn’t know would come up to me and say things like, ‘Pari, I need to talk to you, I have seen the perpetrator on the street.’’ Others would share their fantasies of revenge.
‘Give us a handful of stones and let us kill them. Let them feel the same pain that we felt.’
Ibrahim began proposing an alternative. ‘What if you could face them in court and see them answer for what they did to you?’
Her first attempt at courtroom justice was in 2015.
The Free Yezidi Foundation, together with another Yazidi non-profit called Yazda, (now represented by high-profile attorney, Amal Clooney) sent a joint petition to the International Criminal Court, requesting that it investigate ISIS crimes.
It was a logical place to start: The ICC is responsible for prosecuting international crimes, like genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But it is also notoriously slow and selective about the cases it takes on.
The other problem is that most ISIS crimes took place in Syria and Iraq, which are beyond the reach of the court. As it sunk in that the ICC plan might not work, Ibrahim began considering an alternative: seeking justice in domestic courts.
One of the benefits of ISIS’s diverse membership—fighters joined the group from countries around the world—is that many governments have an interest in going after ISIS suspects.
By 2015, countries like Iraq, Germany and even the U.K. already had ISIS suspects in their prisons. Frustratingly, every government that has arrested ISIS members has only prosecuted them for the crime of being a ‘member of a terrorist organisation’—not even murder or rape.
And none of the Yazidi survivors has been informed about their detention and aren’t sure if the men who enslaved them are living or dead, imprisoned or walking free.
Akila Radhakrishnan, the president of the Global Justice Center who has advised Ibrahim, explains that it is simply much easier for prosecutors to prove membership in a terrorist organisation than it is to prove mass atrocities or gender-based crimes, like rape.
And although penalties for terrorism crimes are often severe—Iraq sentences terrorism convicts to death after hasty and widely criticised trials—the cases fail to acknowledge all the other crimes that took place.
To Yazidis, who suffered and continue to suffer so profoundly, this is not justice.
They want the specific crimes committed against them acknowledged and punished. This requires strong evidence connecting survivors to perpetrators and a prosecutor and court willing and able to take on each case.
That’s where Ibrahim comes in. She has spent the last few years trying to link survivors to their ISIS captors and locate domestic courts around the world equipped to take on these types of cases.
Through this method, Ibrahim has already made a handful of matches that officials are now investigating in the Kurdish Region of Iraq and Germany. She won’t reveal details about the cases over fears of jeopardizing the delicate process. But experts observing Yazidi justice efforts confirm that Ibrahim’s work is bearing fruit.
In the meantime, there have been other notable steps toward justice. Institutions around the world, including U.K. Parliament and the United Nations have classified ISIS’s attack on the Yazidis as genocide—a crucial acknowledgment Ibrahim and others lobbied for that is now part of the historical record. The Nobel Committee also elevated the Yazidi’s fight for justice in awarding the 2018 Peace Prize to Yazidi survivor and activist Nadia Murad, along with physician Denis Mukwege, who treats survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And last year, after intense behind-the-scenes work by the British government, Amal Clooney’s team and other activists, the United Nations Security Council launched an ISIS crimes investigative team in Iraq. As it gets up and running, the team will collect, preserve and store evidence that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for future prosecution.
The most progress has been happening in Germany, which is investigating ISIS suspects for war crimes and has issued an international arrest warrant against an ISIS commander for crimes against the Yazidis. Along with Canada, Germany has also opened its doors to thousands of Yazidi survivors, who are receiving treatment for their trauma and forging new lives.
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Many survivors in Iraq, though still displaced from their homes and struggling with the trauma they went though, are also making some modest strides. Ibrahim boasts about their resilience under such difficult conditions. They are taking classes, celebrating Yazidi holidays, marrying and having children—in the face of ISIS’s efforts to eradicate them.
Hala, now 16, is reunited with four of her six siblings who managed to escape captivity after her.
Her brown hair has grown out and she laughs again, though she still carries the weight of her losses.
‘We want those in captivity to return back and a safe place for all Yazidi people,’ she tells me. Her cousin Hewan, translating between Hala and me on a scratchy phone line, adds what justice means to her.
‘The Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries and no one has ever been punished for what they did,’ she says. ‘We want the world to know who did this to us and we want those people in jail.’
‘The Warriors’ is a year-long reporting project by ELLE and the Fuller Project for International Reporting, funded by the European Journalism Centre via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.