Five years into genocide: Yazidis continue to face unknown future

BAGHDAD, IRAQ, July 31, 2019 – The future of the Yazidis remains under critical threat. Sinjar, known to the Yazidis as the core of their ancestral homeland, continues to be in turmoil against the backdrop of com- plex geopolitics, hindering the chances of a comprehensive community recovery from genocide. In August 2014, Sinjar was the target of a systematic extermination of community and identity by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), resulting in the killing and enslaving of tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Almost 3,000 are still held captive. The Yazidi people and the international community have acknowledged this atrocious ongoing crime against humanity as an act of genocide.

Today, five years since genocide, the security situation of this ancestral homeland remains fragile, with ongoing attempts by ISIS to re-infiltrate and cause harm, amidst the presence of multiple security players. Most recently, two Yazidi civilians were killed in northeastern Sinjar on July 23 by an ISIS squad. The local administration of the district has not been re-established since the 2017 vacuum of state institutional presence. Negotiations on disputed areas, including Sinjar, between the Iraqi Central Government and Kurdistan Regional Government have finally seen the re-opening of Dohuk-Sinjar and Dohuk-Bashiqa main roads. However, critical administrative and security issues instrumental to the stabilization of Sinjar remain unresolved.

Community healing and collective rebuilding is deeply challenged by a recent past of invasive identity annihilation. ISIS not only systematically targeted Yazidis, not only by breaking down their personal sense of identity and sense of belonging, but also by committing a mass-scale cultural genocide and obliterating many Yazidi religious and heritage sites.

“We continue to learn more of the heinous forced-conversion practices by the so-called Islamic State. Many children whom we were able to rescue have come back completely rejecting their families and their identity. Some have even called their parents ‘devil worshippers,’” explains Yazda President, Haider Elias. “Today, we ask the international community to really support us in either staying in our homeland or leaving to safe host countries.”

According to the Department of Yazidi Affairs in the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government, 68 Yazidi sites were destroyed by the so-called Islamic State. RASHID International, Yazda and EAMENA examined satellite imagery of 24 sites, 16 sites in the Bahzani/Bashiqa area and 8 in the Sinjar area of Iraq.

To highlight the significance of the culture-targeting genocidal tactics, Yazda today announces the publication of a co-authored report with RASHID International, titled Destroying the soul of the Yazidis: Cultural heritage destruction during the Islamic State's genocide against the Yazidis. The newly-released investigative report begins with a moving preface written by His Holiness Baba Sheikh, the Spiritual Leader of the Yazidi faith.

International law clearly identifies the destruction of religious and cultural sites as a war crime and a crime against humanity. This new report calls on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and national prosecutors in Iraq to open investigations and begin to inspect the decimated sites identified to-date.

“There is strong evidence of the systematic, intentional destruction of tangible cultural heritage by the Islamic State, coupled with the systematic attempt to destroy Yazidi traditions, memories, customs and other forms of intangible cultural heritage through a coordinated policy of murder, slavery, sexual exploitation, and brainwashing of children,” explains Roger Matthews, President of RASHID International.

Historic and sacred places of worship are an essential dimension of the Yazidi identity. The destruction of Yazidi cultural heritage significantly threatens the community’s survival. Safeguarding these cultural assets is vital to enabling the Yazidi people to return to a safe and peaceful life in Iraq and Syria.

“The road to justice is a long one and we welcome all local and international efforts to achieve a sustained peace. While we have received state and institutional recognition for our genocide and the significant hard- ships borne by our people, the future of the Yazidi people remains uncertain in the face of many political, security, and economic challenges in Yazidi areas, especially Sinjar. We must now look towards the build- ing of a prosperous and safe homeland where Yazidis, Christians, and other persecuted communities can live in their land with dignity,” insists Yazda Executive Director, Murad Ismael.

The Iraqi government and international community must act now with urgency to address three essential pillars of stability, administration, security, and reconstruction in order to facilitate safe and voluntarily return of more than 80 percent of the Sinjar displaced population.

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of genocide, Yazda calls upon the Iraqi Central Government, the Kurdistan Regional Government and all international actors to

  1. Immediately resolve without delay the issue of a dual local administration in Sinjar, in coordination with the Yazidi community;

  2. Restore and maintain security in Sinjar by increasing the size of competent local security forces and addressing the serious issues related to the many non-state armed groups still operating in the region;

  3. Ensure smooth access to and from Sinjar, including the re-opening of all roads between Duhok and Sinjar, to strengthen the efforts of non-governmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and other actors seeking to provide aid, medicine, livelihood support, and / or reconstruction activities;

  4. Accelerate reconstruction efforts in Sinjar, by including Yazidi representatives – importantly, Yazidi women – in all decision-making processes that are determining the future chances of survival of the community at large;

  5. Urgently ensure the provision of basic services to Sinjar, including electricity, water, healthcare and education;

  6. Protect, preserve and exhume mass graves in Sinjar to allow families of victims to bury their loved ones properly and achieve closure, while also ensuring comprehensive safeguarding and documentation of all evidence of genocide;

  7. Take all necessary steps to hold those responsible accountable for the crimes committed against the Yazidis and other minority groups. This includes the necessary forms of justice against citizens of all countries who joined the ISIS and participated in committing these crimes, while pursuing a discourse that openly acknowledges the nature of the Yazidi Genocide;

  8. Enact legislation nationally and internationally with clearer definitions for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide;

  9. Ensure an internationally-coordinated cooperation effort across all investigations of crimes against the Yazidis; and

  10. Once retributive justice is served, design reconciliation programs in consultation with the Yazidi community and thoroughly implement these in Sinjar to ensure peaceful cohabitation between differ- ent groups.

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Note to editors:

Background information on the Yazidi genocide and Sinjar

The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority with a culture that dates back over 6,000 years, based mainly in the northern parts of Iraq and Syria, with migrant communities in Europe and North America. In the summer of 2014, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) launched a systematic attack against civilians in Syria and northern Iraq. On the 3rd of August, the extermination campaign reached Sinjar, home at the time to the majority of the world’s Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority with centuries of heritage throughout the Middle East. The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in its report on the crimes committed against the Yazidis noted: “The date of 3 August 2014 would become a dividing line, demarcating when one life ended, and – for those who survived – when another, infinitely more cruel, existence began.”

In the weeks that followed, approximately 12,000 Yazidis were murdered or abducted by ISIS. An estimated 6,800 Yazidis, mostly women and children, were kidnapped and subjected to prolonged sexual, psychologi- cal and physical abuse. ISIS militants also forced Yazidis to convert to Islam and separated younger boys from their families, sending them to re-education camps and then into the frontlines as child soldiers. The genocide also targeted the rich and ancient cultural heritage of the Yazidi people, Some of the most im- portant religious and cultural sites were systematically destroyed by the group. ISIS also laid booby traps in Yazidi homes, fully preventing Yazidis from returning back to their homeland, even long after the so-called “Caliphate” was declared largely defeated in Iraq.

The United Nations, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the House of Representatives of the United States of America, and the parliaments of Armenia, Australia, Canada, France, Scotland and the United Kingdom have all recognized that the crimes committed by so-called Islamic State against the Yazidis amount to genocide. However, until today, five years since genocide began, justice has not been served, and almost 3,000 women and children remain missing, with many suspected to still be in captivity.

To-date, Yazidis have not been able to return back to their homes, and no meaningful action has been taken to resolve the political and security issues in Sinjar and other areas where minorities live. Over 400,000 people remain displaced and unable to return to their homes, living in very difficult conditions in IDP and refugee camps in the Middle East and Europe.

Background information on the destruction of Yazidi cultural heritage

International law allows for the prosecution of the destruction of tangible cultural heritage as a war crime, on the basis of proof that an attack (or destruction under customary law) against a protected site was con- ducted without military justification. There is significant precedence on this matter, such as, for example, the several convictions obtained before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), as well as the conviction (Al-Mahdi) and indictment (Ag Mahmoud) before the International Criminal Court. Attacks against tangible heritage may also be prosecuted as a crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, or as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population. It is critical to note that the destruction of tangible cultural heritage can also result in the elimination of intangible culture and herit- age.

About Yazda

Yazda is a non-profit organization, with a mission to support the Yazidi community internationally and in their homeland in the aftermath of the start of genocide in August 2014. International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, Yazda's legal counsel, represents a number of Yazidi women who are survivors of so-called Islamic State, including Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2018 and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.