In the back of a cavernous hall, standing behind rows of solemn-looking men, an Iraqi politician known for her passion began to shriek. Her name was Vian Dakhil: the lone representative of the Yazidi people in Iraq’s parliament. And she was asking for someone, anyone, to listen. The Islamic State had just expelled thousands of her people from the northern town of Sinjar. Stranded on a barren mountain without food or water, they faced extermination.
Women, she said, were being sold as sexual slaves. Children, she said, were dying. Someone, she said, must take notice.
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“We are being slaughtered!” she sobbed, her voice raw and worn out, as seen on this parliamentary video. “We are being exterminated! An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the Earth. In the name of humanity, save us!”
Far away from the hotly covered regions of the world, there is an unfolding humanitarian crisis — others say emerging genocide — occurring on a dust-choked spit of earth called Sinjar Mountain. On Wednesday, reports The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris, Iraqi helicopters dropped supplies — but would they be enough?
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The mountain is inhabited by tens of thousands of exiled residents, many who belong to a little-known but ancient ethnic group, the Yazidis. There, according to this harrowing report by Morris, they can’t dig into the earth, so dead children and elderly are buried under stones.
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” Marzio Babille, the Iraqi representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund, told The Post. “There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
The Yazidis are just the latest minority group the Islamic State has targeted in its brutal campaign of religious persecution and killings. While many recent Iraqi conflicts have been framed as clashes between Sunnis and Shiites, this one is different. The Islamic State has declared war against anyone different, anyone unwilling to convert to the its ascetic brand of Islam. It’s worse, Iraqi religious leaders say, than Genghis Khan. Overnight, the BBC and others reported that thousands of Christians were fleeing the minority’s biggest town in Iraq, Qaragosh, after militants captured it.
Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq — Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians — that isn’t in danger. “How in the 21st century could people be forced from their houses just because they are Christian, or Shiite, or Sunni or Yazidi?” Louis Raphael Sako, the head of Iraq’s largest church, recently told Reuters. “Christian families have been expelled from their houses and their valuables were stolen…. This has never happened in Christian or Islamic history. Even Genghis Khan … didn’t do this.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the Islamic State has kidnapped 130 Syrian Kurdish children. It has killed Shiite Turkmens. It has kidnapped and murdered Shiite members of the Shabak minority. It has scrawled letters across Christian homes, proclaimed them the property of the Islamic State and exiled the inhabitants. And now, it has forced out of Sinjar thousands of Yazidis, who are dying on a mountain.
The Islamic State “should immediately halt its vicious campaign against minorities in and around Mosul,” Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director said in a statement. “Being a Turkman, a Shabak, a Yazidi, or a Christian in [Islamic State] territory can cost you your livelihood, your liberty, or even your life.”
Minorities in northern Iraq are most vulnerable, analysts say, because they’re frequently without anyone to protect them. “They often reside in border areas among large denominations in the country, which puts them at all times at the forefront of bloody wars in the conflicts between powerful parties,” Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri recently wrote. “The large religious and nationalist diversity makes the situation even more complicated in those areas, which results in many minorities not affiliated with any major community to be protected.”
That historical theme is particularly salient in the rise of the Islamic State.
Earlier this year, when the movement captured Mosul, it was still unclear what the group intended. It had an indisputably brutal rise to power, but Mosul boasted a reputation for religious tolerance, and for a time, according to Al-Monitor, it seemed like that would hold.
“When they first controlled these areas, militants did not view minorities in a hostile way, nor did they seek to impose religious restrictions on them,” reported Mamouri. “Yet, it quickly turned out that the entire region was under the submission of the Islamic State, which aspires to impose its radical religious perception in the areas under its control, particularly after the announcement of the Islamic caliphate.”
Soon, reported the New York Times, they forbid smoking, decreed that all women would wear full-face veils, and killed any government employee suspected of subterfuge.
Then, one day in mid-July, Christian homes were marked. According to Human Rights Watch, which interviewed local Christian authorities, the Islamic State painted the letter “N” on Christian homes. It stood for “Nasrani“ — Arabic for Christian. Then, the phrase: “Properties of the Islamic State.” Days later, on July 16, Human Rights Watch said the Islamic State presented the Christians of Mosul with three choices: Convert to Islam, pay a tax paid by non-Muslims — or leave. And if not: “Then there is nothing to give them but the sword.”
At the same time, militants were hunting Shiite Turkmens, who speak a language that derives from Turkish and, according to Islamic State dogma, are apostates. The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner reported two weeks ago at least 40 Turkmens were believed killed in an attack on four farming villages.
One man named Askar Hassan saw his cousin get shot, then dropped to the ground after he was shot himself. “Pretend to be dead,” he told his wife and four children — but two of the kids had been shot. Militants soon passed by, shouting, “God is great!”
Another minority group with its own language and customs, the Shabaks, have also come under the militants’ guns, reported Human Rights Watch. Local authorities told the aid organization that 83 were rounded up — and disappeared. Later, seven bodies were found. “We cannot describe how these bodies looked when we received them,” one witness said. “They have been killed in a brutal manner…. I don’t know how many bullets, but many. The younger one, he was shot in his back and the back of his head. And it appeared they had smashed his hands with a block.”
Religious leaders worry over the implications of these killings others. “We are witnessing today an act of religious and ethnic cleansing,” a representative of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said. “Extremists drive people out of the lands that have been their home for thousands of years.”