On the 5th anniversary of ISIL’s onslaught and enslavement of Yazidis, the New York-based Religion Unplugged interviewed Dr. Widad Akreyi, co-founder of Defend International, about the current state of the Yazidi people and the nature of their persecution.
It should be noted that Defend International was the world’s first NGO to respond to the plight of Yazidis, Christians and the citizens of Kobane. Because of Dr. Widad’s diligence and wealth of experience, we triggered the first alarm already on 4 August 2014, urging the international community to intervene with urgency. Soon a worldwide campaign against ISIS massacres followed. Dr. Widad was quoted in press and annual reports such as the annual report of The US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Political leaders and politicians referred to Dr. Widad’s recommendations in the course of their lectures and public speeches. For example, addressing the Parliament of Canada, MP Rachael Harder said “Dr. Widad Akreyi who works for Defend International has called upon the international community to call these grave atrocities what they are: crimes against humanity, crimes against cultural heritage of the region, and ethnic cleansing.”
Defend International commends Dr. Widad for her courageous actions and tireless advocacy. The internationally acclaimed peacemaker stood up for the targeted civilians in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region, leading our campaigns superbly. In doing so, she saved countless lives.
This interview was conducted by managing editor Meagan Clark.
Editor Clark: Do you think the religious beliefs of the Yazidis, making them a target for ISIL whose leaders have called them devil worshippers, is being overlooked by the international community, which tends to call the campaign against them an ethnic cleansing? How so or why not?
Dr. Widad: To be able to answer this important question one has to view the 2014 genocide within the underlying historical context. In modern times, three main genocides have taken place in our region. The victims of the first genocide were Armenian Christians, whereas those of the second and third genocides were Kurds and Yazidis, respectively. Reflecting on these genocides, we find that, whether religious or secular, the perpetrators of the three genocides have used a specific religion (which is Islam) in their attempt to legalize their crimes against humanity.
In other words, we must not forget that religion was the ancient reason given by the jihadists to invade and conquer our ancestors’ land 1,400 years ago. In the name of religion, the Turks annihilated 1.5 million Armenians during WWI. Religion was again used by the Iraqi authorities to ethnically cleanse over 182,000 Kurds and destroy over 4,500 Kurdish villages and towns in the 1980s. Saddam called his military operations Anfal, which is the name of the 8th chapter in Quran. And it was once more under the banner of Islamism that ISIL committed the 2014 genocide.
While the religious belief of the Yazidis is the official reason expressed by ISIL leaders for their campaign of extermination against the Yazidis, the real reason for the Yazidis to be targeted was the establishment of the newly ISIL-declared Islamic State which, according to their ideology, had to be a pure Arabic, Sunni Muslim State. To attain this objective, ISIL decided to murder, abduct and enslave thousands, as well as force ten of thousands more into flight. In my opinion the 2014 Genocide was meant to target the Yazidis first, then the Christians and the Kurds. The international community did manage to contain the scale of the 2014 genocide. If it hadn’t been contained, it would have escalated to a large-scale genocide.
Therefore, I do not think that the religious beliefs of the Yazidis made them a target for ISIL. It is jihadism and islamism that led to the genocide. However, people are reluctant to acknowledge this because they are too focused on political correctness and their long-term interests.
In 2014 we launched a global campaign and I became the spearhead of Defend International, the first and only NGO that at that point in time published a multifaceted strategy to galvanize international opinion and to raise awareness about the atrocities ISIL committed against the Yazidis, the Christians and the residents of Kobane. I called on world leaders to urgently intervene to end the plight of the targeted civilians. On social media I did mention that the Yazidi genocide was partly related to the faith and ethnic origin of the Yazidis.
We did our best to make sure that the victims were not forgotten, protected legally and fully assisted.
Editor Clark: Are most Yazidis observant and devout in their faith and related practices? Or are they more culturally religious?
Dr. Widad: As you know, we cannot generalize. There are Yazidis who are observant to their faith, and those who are more culturally religious. Although the Yazidis speak Kurdish and pray in Kurdish, their rituals are practiced in Kurdish and are related to the ancient Kurdish culture. Some Yazidis have lately declared that their religious Yazidi identity is the primary way in which they see themselves. For the most part and for many decades, the Yazidi community have kept their religious opinions for themselves and they practice their faith behind closed doors due to their religious persecution.
Editor Clark: What do the Yazidi people want and need today?
Dr. Widad: Not only the Yazidi people, but all the residents of Shingal and Kurdistan region want safety and security. More recently, 10 ISIL militants, four of whom were allegedly suicide bombers, reached Mount Shingal and murdered two Yazidis. In Kirkuk, the remnants of ISIL militants attacked the Kakai community (another non-Muslim Kurdish community). Such attacks demonstrate that not only the Yazidis are targeted, but certain religious groups. The national authorities do not seem to act on such incidents because these areas are controlled by shiite groups, such as the Iranian-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, whose main aim is to maintain power and influence. They are allowing these incidents to (1) justify their presence in Shingal and Kirkuk districts and to (2) terrorize the residents. It is clear that all religious minorities will be facing a bleak future if there is no political will to put their safety on a sound footing.
What’s more, many Yazidis are struggling to deal with the psychological aftermath of ISIL’s horrible crimes against humanity. There are those who have lost members of their family to massacres. The atrocities committed by ISIL have physical, psychological and/or emotional impacts on these communities. We are receiving reports of a growing suicide rate amongst female Yazidis, some of whom have set themselves on fire. We are aware that about 80% of the affected population is in need of mental health treatment. Some of the survivors are exhibiting the symptoms of clinical depression, anxiety, chronic insomnia and PTSD. Apart from that, justice has not been achieved, which in itself has a profound impact on their health status.
It goes without saying that their psychological and medical needs must be addressed, as must their other basic needs. If these issues are not addressed, the aforementioned conditions are likely to lead to cultural trauma and trans-generational trauma, something that we have experienced and documented with the Kurdish survivors of the Anfal genocide.
Apart from safety and medical care, many internally displaced persons experience that their humanitarian needs are unmet. Despite the current changes on the ground, their suffering is far from over. In this vein, it is important to remember that not only the Yazidis were targeted by ISIL but the Christians and the Kurds in Kobane as well. The main need is to arrange for all the displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their homes in order to rebuild their lives and overcome the traumas they have endured. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are internally or regionally displaced, a big number of them are either afraid or unwilling to return to their homes. So far the respective authorities haven’t worked out a roadmap for the IDPs to contribute to the creation of healthy post-genocide societies.
Having said that, it must also be noted that the problem does not only lie in the lack of a proper action plan, but also in the inability of the Yazidis to learn to live independently without the need for ongoing international support. We hear some Yazidis stressing the importance of the international community’s political and financial investment in Shingal and other Yazidi-residence areas. Some go as far as stating that without international funding, the rebuilding of Shingal and its stability cannot be accomplished. Such statements indicate a sense of entitlement that has, most likely, disabled the ability of Yazidis to deal with the tragic events they have experienced.
I am expressing this point because the history of Iraq does include the 1980s Anfal genocide against the Kurds. That brutal, horrific genocide came and went with no notice whatsoever by the international community prior to the first Gulf War. The civilian Kurds, who were attacked by weapons of mass destruction, did not get any form of support, whether regionally or internationally. The scale of that genocide was much worse than that of the 2014. Despite all that, the survivors exhibited a strength that few observers could comprehend. Most of them returned to their homes, the rest followed and rebuilt their communities without any financial or psychological support. The Yazidis can learn from their experience.
The proper support from the international community will be most welcomed as it may speed up their recovery and rehabilitation process. At the same time, we hope that the Yazidis will show the needed willingness to cope with the brutality they faced and take on responsibility for the sake of future generations.
Editor Clark: In what areas are they living and how many have left Iraq?
Dr. Widad: About 300,000 of the internally displaced Yazidis have been sheltered in camps in Kurdistan region. There are some 16,000 Yazidis who still live near mount Shingal. Right now nearly 90,000 residents live in Shingal district, compared to more than 200,000 before the rise of ISIL. Further, some 95,000 Yazidis have migrated to Germany and other Western countries.
So far about 3,500 Yazidis have been freed from ISIL captivity. However, over 3,000 women and children are still missing.
Editor Clark: What have been the biggest changes in five years for this community?
Dr. Widad: The biggest change is first of all the displacement of the Yazidi community. In the last five years, tens of thousands have left their homes and have relocated to other countries – something that makes it harder for them to practice their rituals, which have functioned as the glue that has held their community together. They have survived murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, suicide bombings, forced conversions, change of names and identity, the looting and destruction of their cultural and religious heritage, attacks on homes and livelihoods, enslavement, sexual slavery, forced marriages, human trafficking, gang rapes and other forms of physical and mental violence, child soldiers and much more.
This was the first time in the history of the region that a terrorist group was able to commit atrocities that constituted crimes against humanity, they did so by sending over 40,000 militants who were recruited from over 100 countries.
Editor Clark: What are the top few most pressing concerns for this community now?
Dr. Widad: The most pressing concerns include safety, security and basic human and medical needs. The relatives of the missing Yazidis have no idea what happened to their loved ones. The survivors want to feel that the world care and stands with them. They want world leaders to pay attention to their tragedy and protect them from a possible reemergence of ISIL.