Skip to main content

Yazidis' ISIS nightmare far from over

By Joe Stork
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joe Stork: ISIS offensive in northern Iraq a catastrophe for Yazidis and Christians
  • Yazidis driven to mountains are now escaping, but the threat remains, Stork says
  • Stork: Some fleeing Yazidis suffered, died in rugged mountains
  • ISIS considers members of religious minority to be "devil worshippers," he says

Editor's note: Joe Stork is the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Irbil, Iraq (CNN) -- The offensive by ISIS militants against civilians and religious minorities in the northern Iraqi governorate of Nineveh has created a catastrophe.

At least 300,000 Yazidis and 100,000 Christians were displaced literally overnight, according to figures provided by the Kurdistan regional government. Many of the Yazidis fled to the mountains on August 3 after Kurdish fighting forces known as Peshmerga, who were protecting them, precipitously withdrew. For the Christians in villages north of Irbil, the moment came in the wee hours of August 7, when the Peshmerga silently pulled out.

The thousands of Yazidis who had remained stranded on a mountain seem to be getting out for now after U.S. airstrikes helped clear a safe path for escape. But even if they reach a safer place in Iraqi Kurdistan, their longer-term prospects are grim as long as forces of ISIS, which refers to itself as the Islamic State, control the area where they lived.

Joe Stork
Joe Stork

On August 6, I visited a Yazidi village south of Duhuk -- a magnet for 60,000 to 70,000 of the fleeing Yazidis. They had bread and water but not much else.

Many more -- upward of 150,000 -- were on the rugged mountains a dozen or so kilometers north of Sinjar. They found little sustenance or shelter amid the mountains' sparse vegetation and summer temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps 40,000 managed to escape on the northern side that day before ISIS surrounded the mountains.

Over the following days, a few thousand more trickled out in small groups, braving ISIS snipers as they made their way north.

The latest U.N. field reports say an average of more than 10,000 people a day have been crossing from Syria into the Kurdish region of Iraq by a small bridge at Peshkhabour. Most are Yazidis, who had managed to make it down from the mountains and into Syria, about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away.

Arab neighbors joined ISIS slaughter, escaped Yazidi says

Inside the ISIS militant operation
What is next for U.S., Iraqi relations?
Humanitarian crisis unfolds in Iraq

The Yazidis are ethnically related to Kurds but practice a 4,000-year-old religion. ISIS -- indeed many Muslims -- consider them to be "devil worshippers," and the militants seem intent on eliminating them as a religious community and culture.

Who are the Yazidis, and why does ISIS want to kill them?

Indeed, Yazidis were the target of what was probably the worst attack against civilians in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. On August 14, 2007, four simultaneous bombings involving a fuel tanker and three cars killed upward of 500 Yazidis, wounded more than 1,500 and destroyed nearly 400 homes. The explosions were so huge that no trace could be found of dozens of people closest to the explosions.

There was no Iraqi government investigation. No group claimed responsibility, but it was typical of bombings by the Islamic State of Iraq, predecessor to ISIS, which had reportedly distributed leaflets in the area shortly beforehand denouncing Yazidis as "infidels."

The ISIS strategy since capturing Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, a month ago is apparently to clear Nineveh -- home to many of Iraq's religious minorities -- of civilians and anyone who isn't a Sunni Muslim. An ISIS photo spread distributed shortly after the capture of the Yazidi village of Sinjar showed the militants executing people who were clearly civilians.

Fast facts on ISIS

At least a dozen Yazidi men told me in the past week that ISIS had abducted scores of women and girls, detaining large numbers in a school in Tal Afar, a town northwest of Mosul. Others were trucked across the Syrian border to a detention center.

Asad, a young Yazidi man working in Irbil at the time of the attack, said ISIS abducted 50 members of his extended family as they tried to escape and forced them to drive across the Syrian border. His brother Raad drove one of the cars, his cell phone open on his lap, on speaker, while Asad in Irbil kept adding funds from scratch cards to keep the line open. Raad described over four hours the route that ISIS forced the captured family to drive into Syria.

"I lost contact then," Asad said. The next day he tried the numbers of another brother. Someone else answered. "Do not call," that person said. "We have all their mobiles, we don't know where they are," and hung up.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT