On Sunday, fighters from the self-declared Islamic State overran the city of Sinjar, part of a widening offensive that on Thursday saw IS take control of other Christian and Yazidi towns on the Nineveh plains. According to UN officials and Yazidi elders, the militants have killed hundreds of Yazidis, a secretive faith with pre-Islamic roots. Others have been taken as slaves. Tens of thousands have taken refuge on Sinjar Mountain, their traditional refuge over centuries of persecution, and are appealing for emergency aid.
Unlike Christians, who have been told they must either pay a religious tax or convert to Islam to avoid death, the Yazidis are considered by Sunni militants to be infidels who deserve extermination.
“We believe that what they have done may be classified as genocide and a crime against humanity,” Gyorgy Busztin, the deputy special representative in Iraq of the UN secretary general, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “Regrettably the information indicates that they are not even given the choice of life or conversion but they are being treated as a group to be eliminated from the face of the earth.”
Busztin says the UN is still gathering numbers but it believes hundreds of Yazidis have been killed while others, primarily women, have been abducted and taken into slavery.
The labeling the campaign against the Yazidi as genocide carries some weight and could spur international relief efforts. But it has no immediate practical implications, nor is it likely to sway the militants in their assault on other sects and faiths in Iraq and Syria.
Busztin says the UN still needs to collect more data to substantiate the allegations of genocide. He said there were isolated cases where Yazidis were given the option to convert, as opposed to being killed for their beliefs.
With its latest offensive, IS, which was formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), now controls one-third of Iraqi territory, including a 1,200 miles-plus de-facto border with Kurdish-held territory. The Kurdish peshmerga, which has appealed for heavy weapons and US military help, is now regrouping. On Monday, the Iraqi government, which is at odds with semi-autonomous Kurdistan, launched air strikes on IS-held targets in Mosul.
Yazidi elders say their men, armed only with rifles, tried to hold back the IS fighters while tens of thousands of men, women and children fled on foot higher onto Sinjar mountain – a rocky outcrop without shelter or water. The United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says it believes at least 40 children died either in the initial attack or from dehydration on the mountain. Photos posted on social media show parents trying to bury their children beneath the rubble and rocks. UNICEF says up to 25,000 children and their families are stranded on the mountain.
"They consider us infidels so they are killing us and taking away the women," says Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of parliament, her eyes filling with tears after taking a call from a Yazidi man who told her three of his five children had died on the mountain. She says she spoke this week with one of several hundred women and children held in an IS-run prison near the city of Tel Afar who told her that small groups of women were being taken away in vehicles. On Tuesday Dakhil broke down in tears in a parliamentary session in Baghdad as she appealed for help for her community.
Relief efforts flounder
The US State Department says it is "actively monitoring the situation in Sinjar.” While plans for expanded military support to Iraq contingent on a new Iraqi government being formed, the US is exploring ways to get aid to displaced Yazidis – including the possibility of US military air drops to the mountainside.
Iraqi relief efforts to the mountain have fared poorly: Many of the packets of food and water dropped from Iraqi helicopters this week broke when they hit the ground. With the water in plastic bottles not cushioned by wooden pallets normally used for air drops, the bottles exploded upon impact.
“Please tell the Americans and the Europeans and the UN we need help,” says Ayid Rasheed, his voice rising in panic as he spoke from a phone charged by a car battery carried up the mountain. “We are starving and dying of thirst.”
Mr. Rasheed, speaking Thursday, said IS fighters were now closing in on Shaikhan south of Dohuk – the site of a shrine to a 12th-century saint that is one of the Yazidis holiest sites.
Two years ago, Rasheed’s liquor store in central Baghdad was bombed. Only Christians and Yazidis, who unlike Muslims have no prohibition against alcohol, are allowed to sell liquor in Iraq. Yazidis say selling alcohol is one of the few businesses which is open to them.
A secretive faith
Ethnically Kurds, the Yazidis' faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism from ancient Persia, Sufi Islam, Judaism and Christianity along with beliefs from ancient Mesopotamia. It’s a closed and still secretive religion – members have to be born into the faith and cannot marry outside of it.
Yazidis believe that God entrusted the world to seven angels – the chief angel known in earthly form as the peacock angel who refused to bow down before Adam. While Yazidis see it as proof of his devotion to God, the narrative’s parallels with the fallen angel have led some Muslims to accuse them of devil worship.
In 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State, issued a religious ruling calling for the killing of Yazidis. A suicide truck bomb attack on a village in northern Iraq killed 800 people that year in what is still the most lethal bombing of the war.