On 10 December 2017, Iraq declared its victory over the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS), which had been attempting to establish a so-called Islamic Caliphate in the country since late June 2014. In what we can begin to call post-IS Iraq, thousands upon thousands of civilians bear scars from crimes the armed group committed against them and their loved ones. The legacy of these crimes is likely to affect, not only the survivors, but generations to come.
IS wreaked havoc on the civilian population in Iraq, at times brutally targeting ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Yezidis in Northern Iraq. Four years on, Yezidi women and girls are left with harrowing physical and psychological trauma as a result of horrifying sexual violence and enslavement by the armed group, even as they continue to live with the angst of not knowing the fate and whereabouts of their relatives who went missing as a result of IS actions.
On 3 August 2014, IS captured Sinjar, in the Nineweh governorate, north-east Iraq, killing hundreds of men and abducting thousands of women, girls and boys from the Yezidi minority. Young boys were taken from their mothers, indoctrinated and trained to fight for the armed group, while women and girls as young as nine years old, were enslaved and “sold” as wives to IS fighters and subjected to torture, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.
A Yezidi woman who was “sold” with her young children as a “package”, told Amnesty International that their captor punished her children and herself: “He would beat my children up and lock them up in a room. They would cry inside and I would sit outside the door crying.” Another woman, Jamila, said that she was raped repeatedly by at least ten different men after being “sold” from one fighter to another. She was eventually released in December 2015 after her family paid a huge sum of money to her captor.
Many women and girls have attempted suicide either in captivity or following their escape, or have sisters or daughters who killed themselves following appalling abuse they endured in captivity. Getting the psychological and medical support needed has been especially difficult due to financial and accessibility issues. Given the tens of thousands of dollars relatives have had to pay sometimes to secure the women’s release, many indebted Yezidi women cannot afford to get the support they need. To compound this, Iraqi bureaucracy limits access to services by requiring specific civil identification documents, which many lost in the IS attack. Moreover, the stigma associated with survivors’ experiences in captivity and fears of negative social attitudes and impact on marriage prospects place a further obstacle on survivors who heavily rely on relatives to seek help.
On top of the horrors endured in IS captivity, many Yezidi women and girls who escaped or were released, have not been able to return home and instead live with their impoverished relatives or in camps for internally displaced persons. A local non-government organization (NGO) working with minorities in Iraq told Amnesty International of the dire conditions Yezidis continue to live in since their displacement from Sinjar four years ago. They added that although the town was retaken two years ago, the Yezidi community cannot return due to lack of services.
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The International Community Needs to Act
Little of the reactions of sympathy from the international community has translated into action. Local and international humanitarian NGOs working with Yezidis are still underfunded, while no unified system of services is made available to Yezidi women and girls. The international community, including donors, must do more to ensure the needs of Yezidi women survivors are adequately met, through specialized support and treatment programmes set up in consultation with survivors, community activists, and care providers.
In September 2017, the United Nations Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 2379 establishing an investigative team to support the Iraqi government in collecting, preserving and analyzing evidence of serious crimes purportedly committed by IS. However, according to a local NGO following up on the matter, the Iraqi and Kurdish governments have not yet allowed the UN-mandated team to enter and begin its work. In addition, Iraq’s judicial system remains critically flawed, often resorting to the death penalty after unfair trials, and is a hindrance to delivering tangible justice for victims of IS.
The same NGO lamented the fact that, since 2014, around 68 mass graves have been uncovered in Sinjar, and remain unprotected by the Iraqi authorities. Protecting these sites is consistent with Iraq’s Law on Protection of Mass Graves and is a necessary measure in the longer process of tracing and identifying missing persons. Failing to do so further deprives families, including Yezidi women who have already paid a very high price, from some measure of justice and closure about the fate of their loved ones.
Four years on, it is high time that the international community takes effective action to help these women start the long journey of rebuilding their lives.