The Yezidi Genocide: In Search of a Sense of Direction

Hanna Gros (3L)

“I looked up at the sky, and I said, ‘Mom! They have stars here, too!’” Dalal’s eyes were shining as she recounted to me her first observation about her new home. Dalal and I sat in a café in London, Ontario, reflecting about our experiences becoming new Canadians as teenagers. We chatted about becoming adults despite wanting to hold on to some of our child-like ways. But I quickly realized that Dalal was forced to grow up long before she had the chance to revel in her childhood.

A Yezidi girl after heavy rain at the Arbat camp for displaced persons outside Sulaimaniya, northern Iraq. Thousands of Yezidis live in difficult conditions across Iraqi Kurdistan after fleeing ISIS. (Photo credit: Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch)

Dalal arrived in Canada with her parents and siblings on a winter night in 2000. “We always thought of Canada as heaven on earth, but it felt so far away.” Although she had stared at these same stars in the Syrian refugee camp where she spent her childhood, Canada felt like a different world.

Dalal was born in a small Yezidi community in northern Iraq. Yezidis practice an ancient monotheistic religion and have been violently persecuted in the Middle East for centuries. Dalal’s family fled on foot to Syria during the first Gulf War in 1991. The decision was made on a moment’s notice, and they had to leave six of Dalal’s siblings behind because they happened to be away from the house at the time. After surviving several skirmishes with Iraqi forces, the family arrived at a Syrian refugee camp, where they lived for nearly a decade with about 1,000 other Yezidis.

“We adjusted, we didn’t know any better. We built our homes out of rocks and mud.” The camp was surrounded by less-than-welcoming Syrian towns, and guarded by Syrian officers who seemed unsympathetic to the refugees. The trip to the nearby Syrian school was particularly dangerous, Dalal told me. “Nothing was promised, nothing was routine; we just had to take care of ourselves. My father would tell us, ‘we are not going to starve here waiting. We are going to have a better life in a different country.’”

The Khanke IDP camp outside of Dohuk is home to more than 18,000 Yezidis and other Iraqi families who were displaced by the conflict. (Photo credit: Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch)

“And he followed through on his promise,” Dalal said, nodding proudly. Integrating into Canadian society was challenging, but Dalal and her siblings took pleasure in the novelty of bouncy beds and warm running water, the novelty of the “freedom to pursue dreams,” and the simple “feeling that it’s okay to believe what you believe.”

“If it wasn’t for my parents’ perseverance through all those struggles, I would probably be in that genocide right now.” In August 2014, ISIS waged a series of attacks against Yezidis in Northern Iraq, and they continue to occupy significant parts of the region. Dalal’s five sisters, her brother, her uncles, cousins, and friends are among the thousands of Yezidis scattered in displaced-persons camps and refugee camps across Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

A comprehensive report by the Simon-Skjodt Centre for the Prevention of Genocide found strong evidence that suggests the ongoing atrocities waged by ISIS against Yezidis in Iraq have amounted to an act of genocide. According to the Genocide Convention, genocide is legally satisfied by any of the five enumerated acts that are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

Despite international efforts, ISIS continues to enslave women and girls who were kidnapped in the August 2014 attacks and subsequent occupation. The Simon-Skjodt Centre report found evidence of “rape, sexual slavery, [and] enslavement … perpetrated in a widespread and systematic manner that indicated a deliberate plan to target [Yezidis].” Human Rights Watch also documented “a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces.” A formal determination of genocide requires careful consideration of robust evidence in a court of law. However, the International Criminal Tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda repeatedly found widespread and systemic sexual violence to constitute genocide. Subsequent developments in international law (namely, through the International Criminal Court) have recognized a trend in international conflicts in using “women’s bodies as the battlefield in a calculated and concerted effort to harm the whole community through physical, mental, and sexual violence inflicted on the women and girls, the bearers of future generations.”

Over the past year, some women and girls have managed to escape ISIS captivity. Although they rarely speak about their experiences, their stories make their way through the refugee camps and to extended family in the diaspora communities. “I was talking with my older brother recently, and when he was telling me about these women and girls who manage to escape after months in captivity… he was just sobbing,” Dalal recounted to me. “They don’t know how to deal with the images that they have seen, and the horrors they experienced…Even if they manage to return to safety in the refugee camps, they don’t come back to a home, especially if their families are still missing or were killed. They feel humiliated that everyone knows what they have been through. Many of them try to commit suicide.”

The atrocities waged by ISIS have eliminated and displaced a significant portion of the Iraqi Yezidi population and diminished the potential for the community to grow in the future. Despite this, there has been considerable reluctance in the West to use the label of genocide because of what some describe as its “broad implications.” The Genocide Convention provides for the prevention of genocide and punishment of perpetrators. In August 2014, President Obama authorized a military and humanitarian effort to “prevent a potential act of genocide.” It took another nineteen months for the European Parliament to officially acknowledge that the ongoing atrocities constitute genocide, noting “the collective obligation to intervene, to stop these atrocities and to stop the persecution.” Speaking at a U of T event on February 12, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, John McCallum noted that, “it is not clear whether Canada will acknowledge the fact of genocide” against the Yezidis.

Ultimately, the Genocide Convention is a blunt tool at best. Where prevention of genocide has failed, the Convention seems to focus on State Parties’ responsibility to punish perpetrators, rather than a responsibility to rehabilitate the communities in crisis. Arguably, refugee law could be used to remedy this failure to some extent. But even where Yezidis managed to flee their homes in time, prolonged displacement in refugee camps and unwelcoming communities threatens the preservation of their religious and cultural identity. The UNHCR prioritizes resettlement of refugees who are deemed to be most vulnerable and refers these individuals to receiving countries (such as Canada), who apply their respective priorities in making selections. This translates into immense delay and uncertainty for refugees. Dalal told me that “the UNHCR scheduled interview dates for some of [her] relatives in 2024! And this is only a preliminary step in the resettlement process.”

Particularly when it comes to the most egregious of crimes, there should be a more coherent approach for helping survivors. In the context of an ongoing genocide, could the existential threat to the collective translate into an added layer of vulnerability for individual claimants, such that survivors of genocide would be prioritized for resettlement over those who suffer other vulnerabilities? This must be considered in the larger context of refugee resettlement: how can we compare the vulnerability of victims suffering different atrocities? What of the 4.7 million Syrian refugees? What of those fleeing prolonged conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia, and South Sudan? These are just some of the questions that are raised by Dalal’s story. Although she often feels powerless, she is determined to continue the struggle to bring her and other Yezidi families to Canada.

Dalal and I hugged before she left. I took a walk in her world during those couple of hours, but I knew that afterwards she would continue to walk in her shoes and I would continue in mine. And perhaps I held on a little longer to avoid that inevitable separation. But Dalal and I still walk under the same stars. It’s my hope that stories like Dalal’s and many others’ will slowly form constellations that can give us a sense of direction even in what seems like our darkest moments.