Editor’s Note: Dr. Nazand Begikhani is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research. She has published widely on the subjects of gender and ethnicity, violence against women and honour-based violence, is an advisor to the Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister on higher education and gender, and a member of the Kurdistan’s Women’s Rights Monitoring Board. She is also an award-winning poet. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Thousands of Yazidi women are believed to have been abducted by jihadists in Iraq
As captives, they are subjected to physical and sexual violence and forced to convert to Islam
Yazidis' horrific treatment at the hands of jihadists must be treated as genocide: Begikhani
Begikhani says the international community must investigate and collect evidence
“I was hiding behind a water tank in the front yard and saw them killing my father and brother and [taking] away my mother and sister. I don’t know anything about them since,” says Dunya, a 14-year-old Yazidi girl.
“They put us in trucks and drove us to a big building, before transferring us to a hall across the road,” explains Solav, 19 and also Yazidi. “Then their seniors came and started condemning our religion and asking us to convert to Islam … They separated me along with other young ones and ordered us to stay there while taking away the elderly women.
“The man I was given to raped me several times and then left me in the room on my own. I was shaking from pain and fear in that hot room, my entire body sweating. Suddenly, another man came and did what he wanted to do despite me crying and begging him, kissing his foot to leave me alone …”
Dunya and Solav (not their real names) now live with their relatives in newly-established displaced persons camps in Iraq’s Duhok governorate. They are among thousands of Yazidi women abducted by jihadists during their attack on the Sinjar district on 2 August 2014. Since then, one hundred girls and women have managed to escape their jailers and rejoin their community.
According to our field work, which has involved interviews with witnesses and survivors, and based on other reports which have reached us, more than 2,500 Yazidi girls and women were abducted during the attack.
Women sold ‘like cattle’
The extent of the ISIS brutality toward those women is unknown.
We do know from witness statements and testimonies by survivors that they have been systematically separated by age and physical appearance, forced to convert to Islam, and subjected to different forms of physical and sexual violence, including rape and sex slavery.
The jihadists themselves have confirmed these acts through their media outlets, such as the English website Dabiq, saying the acts were established aspects of Sharia, because they view Yazidis as heretics who should face conversion or die.
According to the spokesman for the Iraqi Red Cross, Muhammad al-Khuza’ee, the abducted Yazidi women “were taken as spoils of war and exposed at a market for sale”.
The enslaved women have been treated like cattle – complete with price tags – and trafficked in markets in Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria. Their “prices” have varied between $25 and $1,000. They were “cheaply sold” and mainly given to youngsters as a way to encourage them to join ISIS. Those women who resisted were killed, and some committed suicide.
These forms of violence are used as war strategies by the jihadists to subjugate the entire community, to inculcate fear, to undermine community and family structures, and to pollute the bloodline of the population.
Severe psychological trauma
Local authorities, in coordination with community leaders and activists, have been working on strategies to rescue and care for the enslaved women. These include negotiation with Arab tribal leaders in the areas under ISIS control to help free the women and ensure their safe return to their families, raising awareness, and preventive and protective measures to help survivors reintegrate into their family and community structures.
The rescue strategies consist of large efforts to liberate the abducted women; so far, around 100 have reached Mount Sinjar, where they now live in overflowing cities and towns, mainly in Duhok and Erbil governorates.
Officials and humanitarian organizations have been busy providing aid and care facilities via a health team of doctors and social workers, but they face a challenge: the level of need is much higher than that local authorities are equipped to deal with.
In addition to physical wounds, the women have suffered severe psychological trauma. The situation is distressing and requires an urgent need for explicit psychological as well as gynecological treatment.
The international community should take the case seriously and address intervention strategies with urgent implementation measures.
Since the ISIS attack, the Yazidi community has been subjected to horrendous crimes, including murder, the destruction of their homes, arrest and kidnapping, enforced disappearance as well as displacement, torture and sexual slavery, and desecration of their holy shrines. As Kurds and Yazidis, they are condemned as heretics and devil worshippers.
Acts of genocide
These acts are categorized as crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, but they are also acts of genocide: they consist of a systematic, intentional and well planned operation to eliminate an entire group because of its ethnic and religious identity.
The international community should mobilize resources and establish a fact-finding commission of experts to investigate and collect evidence from eye-witnesses, highlighting sexual violence against women.
Such timely data and documentation should facilitate not only the prosecution of those responsible, but also the international recognition of these acts as genocide. The process should also include support mechanisms for healing, reparation, compensation, preserving memories and the reintegration of these women into normal life, including much needed post-trauma support for victims and families after their release.
The Kurdistan Region is overwhelmed by the plight of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, with more than 1.5 million people living in camps and others still sheltering in community halls or being hosted by the local population or their relatives.
The Kurdish authorities are willing to cooperate with international agencies with the aim of providing all necessary aid to these populations, facilitating the prosecution of those responsible and the international recognition of the acts carried out against Yazidis as genocide.