Images of the persecution, enslavement and murder of tens of thousands of Yezidis led the global community to intervene militarily in the fight against IS. But the religious minority no longer sees a future in Iraq.
Nadia Murad persistently remembers the women who to this day suffer the fate from which she herself escaped. "Has the world forgotten us?!!" she asks via the short message service Twitter, pointing out that there are still 3.000 Yazidi girls and women are in the grip of the terrorist organization "Islamic State" (IS).
Nadia Murad, 24, a Yazidi once abducted by jihadists and sold as a sex slave, is now a UN special envoy for victims of human trafficking and arguably the religious minority's most influential voice. But even their words are being heard less and less.
Jesidentum an ancient monotheistic religion
In August 2014, IS extremists began to annihilate the Yazidis. These belong to the ethnic group of the Kurds, the Jesidentum is its own ancient monotheistic religion. The IS extremists referred to the Yazidis as devil worshippers who needed to be killed. Yezidis believe not only in God, but also in the "angel peacock" (Tausi-Melek), whom radical Islamists believe to be the fallen angel, the devil.
On their advance in Iraq, jihadists stormed the villages of this minority in the Sinjar region (Kurdish: Shingal) in the north, and thus the area where most of the world's approximately 800,000 Yazidis lived – an estimated more than 500.000. The attackers destroyed the houses, abducted young women and children, killed the men. Yezidis who managed to escape fled to the mountains, where they waited for rescue – surrounded by extremists.
Today, two and a half years later, a large proportion of Iraq's Yezidis are holding out in refugee camps in the region. You have not found a firm and secure place. Most of them don't want to go back to the still troubled Sinjar region – it's too dangerous and reconstruction is not progressing. "Yezidis are second-class citizens in Iraq," says Khalaf Smoqi, who is involved with Yazda, an aid organization founded in 2014.
Even before that, Yazidi villages were disadvantaged, says Smoqi. There were hardly any schools, hardly any clinics. Today, many of his fellow believers still harbor deep mistrust of their Arab neighbors from the Sinjar region, as some have made common cause with the jihadists.
Trust in the Kurdish regional government has also suffered since the Peshmerga army withdrew in the face of the IS advance, leaving the Yazidis to their fate. Kurdish militias from neighboring countries again rushed to help: PKK fighters from Turkey and YPG rebels from Syria – political rivals of the Iraqi Kurdish government. The militias opened a corridor to besieged Yazidis and helped tens of thousands to flee.
Yazidi activists are now being harassed by the Kurdish regional government in Iraq – because of their suspected closeness to the PKK.
Future far from home
In January, the Yazda headquarters in Dohuk was temporarily closed by authorities. The Yazidi organization was accused of being political instead of humanitarian. Human rights activists from Human Rights Watch accused Kurdish authorities of obstructing aid deliveries to the Sinjar region. Meanwhile, the Kurdish government expressed suspicion that the goods could fall into the hands of the PKK.
More and more Yazidis are therefore seeking a future far from home, in Europe or the U.S. Khalaf Smoqi resettled in the U.S. four and a half years ago and now lives in Nebraska. Because he helped the US army in Iraq, he got a visa. He has caught up with his family. Leaving the home villages with their temples and ancestral tombs is difficult, he admits.
But, he adds, "when it comes to genocide, you have no choice".
UN Special Envoy Nadia Murad now lives in Germany – where with 120.000 Yazidis the largest community outside Iraq is at home. The 2014 IS assault took six brothers from her and her mother. When she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the EU Parliament in December 2016, together with her fellow victim Lamija Aji Bashar, she appealed: "If the world cannot protect us in our country, I call on Europe to open its doors."