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Across the forests and fields of Europe, the Rev. Patrick Desbois has painstakingly re-created hidden Nazi crime scenes for more than a decade. He and his team are documenting the 1.5 million to 2 million Jews and Roma who were shot and buried at more than 2,000 mass graves during World War II. But in 2014, Father Desbois received an email that opened his eyes to the plight of the Yazidis, the ethnic religious minority being decimated by the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Iraq. From France, Desbois followed the news and prayed, but then he made a decision to go himself, deepening his commitment to historical truth and to those persecuted because of their religion. Desbois is fighting to ensure that mass killings are not only prosecuted by authorities but are also condemned by all of society. “The lesson I retain is that we don’t have the right to be indifferent,” says historian Marc Knobel. “We cannot forget the victims of the Shoah [Holocaust]. And it’s not possible to let Christians of the Middle East suffer. And it’s not possible to allow the Yazidis to be exterminated.”
Like many people, the Rev. Patrick Desbois in 2014 had never heard of the Yazidis, the ethnic religious minority being decimated by the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Iraq.
At the time his gaze was still fixed closer to home. For more than a decade, the French Roman Catholic priest had been documenting the mass graves left by Nazi firing squads in the forests and fields of Eastern Europe. His work not only has garnered the gratitude of Jewish communities around the globe and France’s highest honor, the National Order of the Legion of Honor, but, unwittingly, has also turned him into a leading expert in the methods of genocide.
He received an email from a Jewish donor in New York in 2014, just as the assault on the Yazidis was at its height. “He said, ‘Father, I’d love to support you for the past, but I prefer you take care of the genocide of the present,” Father Desbois recalls. “When I received this email, it opened completely my eyes. It’s true.... Today there are mass shootings, and we don’t care, so is it because a guy is not killed by Nazis that it has no import?”
Desbois followed the news as Yazidis fled the jihadists of the Middle East. He knew Pope Francis was praying for them. He prayed. But in the end, he made a decision to go himself. “I said, ‘I will not watch the TV. I will not issue a communiqué. I will not make a Facebook page, because people don’t care,” says Desbois in the offices of Yahad-In Unum, his humanitarian organization based in Greater Paris.
With that decision, Desbois has deepened his commitment to historical truth and to those persecuted because of their religion, whatever faith they may be. His decision comes amid a wave of anti-Semitism at home and religion-inspired killing in the Middle East. Desbois is fighting to ensure that mass killings are not only prosecuted by authorities but are also condemned by all of society.
He shared thoughts about his mission less than 48 hours after returning from his most recent trip to refugee camps in Iraq.
If a French priest seems out of place in a modern civil war, consider that his path there began during World War II. His grandfather, a French soldier, was deported to the Nazi camp Rava-Ruska in Ukraine. He survived but refused to discuss the details, only driving Desbois to want to know more.
When Desbois arrived in 2002 at the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment, the mayor said he didn’t know anything about what happened to the Jews and others. Desbois refused to settle for that answer.
He kept returning, until a new mayor took him to the site of a mass grave, and he found 50 farmers who talked for the first time. He wanted to know everything about the lives of victims and witnesses alike during the war: when villagers harvested their potatoes, where they slept in their homes, how they celebrated their holidays, and, of course, how Jews were shot and who was hired to kill them, dig their graves, and then fill them in.
“These people were ready to speak,” he says. “It could have been finished [that] day. But when I came back to the car ... the mayor told me, what I did for one village I could do for 100 villages. And for me it was like God’s call.”
More than 2,000 sites
Since then, he and his team have visited not just 100 villages, but more than 2,000 sites across eight countries in Eastern Europe. Acting as part historian, part detective, they have painstakingly re-created a crime scene – between 1.5 million and 2 million Jews and Roma were shot and buried – that until then had been overshadowed by murder in Nazi extermination camps.
On a recent Friday afternoon, sun fills the offices of Yahad-In Unum (a combination of Hebrew and Latin meaning “together in one”). Kateryna Duzenko, a Ukrainian who has worked with the priest since 2010 as an interpreter, is now managing an interactive map by which users, if they know when and where family members were killed, can find events surrounding the execution. There is testimony when available and geographical and historical data.
Ms. Duzenko says people are still desperate for this information “all these years later,” but the organization’s work serves not just to bring peace to victims’ families. “As a Ukrainian, to know my history and know what happened, and accept that Ukrainians participated, makes me move forward and do better things in the future and prevent the same thing from happening in the future,” she says. “What Father Patrick does is important for Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish people.”
When Desbois decided to pack his bags for Iraq, he realized that dealing with a “genocide of the present” required new methods. He made a crucial link at a barbershop in Brussels: The hairdresser was a Yazidi, and his father was teaching English in refugee camps in Iraq. Now the hairdresser works full time with Desbois as they interview the Yazidis who survived.
The early interviews were difficult. They weren’t talking to witnesses of crimes committed decades ago, but to victims themselves, still terrorized. “The first time it was only men [conducting interviews]. We realized we made a mistake. We couldn’t interview women with a troop of men,” Desbois says.
Now they employ Yazidi women in the camps as they set out to understand ISIS methods: how the militant group came into villages and put up checkpoints, forced them to convert to Islam, raped the women, and indoctrinated the youths so they believed they are children of the caliphate.
The takeover of Sinjar
More than 5,000 Yazidis were killed after ISIS took over the town of Sinjar in August 2014, and as many as 7,000 women and girls were rounded up to work as sex slaves. The United Nations has ruled that ISIS’s tactics amount to genocide.
Desbois has documented it in the book “The Terrorist Factory,” which is to be released this summer. He also penned “The Holocaust by Bullets.”
“We try to know the topography of the crime,” he says. Such details are crucial in getting beyond labels and religious slogans. Attributing crimes to the brand “Hitler,” he says, minimizes the responsibility of the individual killer, and the same is true of Islamic terrorists today. “Terrorists are first criminals. They kill innocent people. In name of religion, in name of God, in name of power, but in end they are killers.”
Desbois made his first trip to Iraq in May 2015, and to date he has visited more than a dozen times and interviewed 200 victims.
Yet unlike his work in Eastern Europe, he hasn’t stopped at preserving recollections. Rather, he’s fought for justice for victims and their reintegration into society.
“I couldn’t do an interview and say, ‘Bye-bye, I’ll come back in one month.’ It was impossible on an ethical level for me,” he says.
Desbois has opened centers in five refugee camps to help vulnerable children, many orphaned or so brainwashed they don’t remember their native tongue. He’s also created sewing workshops for women who lost everything to ISIS.
No ‘right to be indifferent’
Marc Knobel, a historian and director of studies at CRIF, the Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France, says that Desbois’s work with the Yazidis represents the essence of the priest: his strength of spirit to work in a combat zone, to speak to those living through a massacre, and to look beyond faith groups to see his role as being part of all humanity.
“The lesson I retain is that we don’t have the right to be indifferent,” Mr. Knobel says. “We cannot forget the victims of the Shoah [Holocaust]. And it’s not possible to let Christians of the Middle East suffer. And it’s not possible to allow the Yazidis to be exterminated.”
Desbois says he believes mass killers, including ISIS, carefully designate their targets so the majority of the population feels little concern. Even though ISIS has killed Europeans in recent attacks and inspired radicalization and violence in the United States, most have not empathized with the Yazidis. They sleep well at night, he says. “My goal is to try to federate the maximum number of people who don’t sleep well.”
• For Yahad-In Unum’s interactive map, go to yahadmap.org/#map.
Other organizations working with children
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• One Mobile Projector per Trainer uses low-cost technology in the education of the world’s poorest people. Take action: Give money for a youth peacebuilding initiative in South Sudan.
• New VietGens backs the young generation in poor areas of Vietnam. Take action: Make a donation to pay for food and health-care items for disabled orphan children.