Who are the Yazidis? And why is ISIS trying to slaughter and enslave them?


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Sep 11, 2023

Where Are the Yazidis Today, Almost a Decade After ISIS’s Genocidal Campaign?​

Almost ten years ago, ISIS seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria and launched a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis in northern Iraq.

An ancient religious minority, the Yazidis have for centuries faced persecution due to their faith. The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria considered Yazidis, who are mostly of Kurdish descent, to be heretical devil worshippers.

In August 2014, shortly after ISIS declared a caliphate, they attacked Sinjar, the northern Iraqi Yazidi homeland. More than 400,000 Yazidis fled their homes and tens of thousands took refuge on Mount Sinjar where they remained stranded and hungry for weeks. Over 3,000 Yazidis, mostly men and elderly women, were killed, and around 6,000 women and children were captured by ISIS. The captive women and children were targeted for sexual slavery and trafficking, while the boys were trained to fight for ISIS.

The 2015 documentary Escaping ISIS, recently released on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, presented the gripping, first-hand accounts of Yazidi women who escaped ISIS with the help of an underground network.

Now, almost a decade later, while ISIS’s so-called caliphate has collapsed, the Yazidi community is still dealing with the aftermath of the terror group’s brutal rule. FRONTLINE examines the challenges many Yazidis still face as they seek justice, reunite with family members and attempt to rebuild their community.

A Slow Return to the Homeland

In 2015, with the backing of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Sinjar was liberated by Kurdish forces. Two years later, Iraq declared victory over ISIS.

Since then, more than 150,000 Yazidis have returned to rebuild their homes and resume their lives, according to Abid Shamdeen, the co-founder of Nadia’s Initiative, a nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual violence and the Yazidi community. But today, 200,000 others remain in camps in other parts of Iraq, unable to return home.

During ISIS’s reign, Sinjar was almost completely destroyed. Reconstruction of the district has been complicated by a long-running dispute between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi federal government over who actually administers the area, making it more difficult for displaced Yazidis to return home. Those who have returned to Sinjar struggle with access to education and healthcare, as well as consistent electricity and clean water. Ongoing regional insecurity only exacerbates the barriers.

Thousands Escaped, Thousands Missing

Although over half of the 6,000 women and children abducted by ISIS have either escaped or been rescued, roughly 2,700 remain missing. While many families remain hopeful, by now it’s rare for the missing to return home, Shamdeen said.

Many of those missing are presumed dead, left in mass graves by ISIS or killed in coalition airstrikes. Others are thought to be held in Turkey and Syria, some believed to be in camps housing families of ISIS members, according to Sarah Sanbar, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch.

As Escaping ISIS depicted, over the years everyday Yazidis like Khalil al-Dakhi have rescued many captives, relying on underground networks and contacts within ISIS territory. In other cases, families have paid ransoms to get their loved ones back.

Those who survived ISIS captivity are eligible for a reparations program run by the Iraqi government. Human rights groups welcomed the program but said its implementation has been a challenge. Many Yazidis are hesitant to file a claim for fear of stigmatization and harassment.

For many who fled ISIS captivity, reintegrating into Yazidi society has brought difficulties. Boys who were abducted as small children have reportedly forgotten their Kurdish dialect. Some women who escaped ISIS while pregnant as a result of sexual violence were forced to choose between staying with their children or returning home without them.

Any children left behind would likely end up in orphanages, but the women feared their children — considered Muslim under Iraqi law — would not be welcomed by the Yazidi community.

“It’s an awful choice to make,” Sanbar said. “But I think a lot of women are choosing to stay displaced to be able to stay with their children.”

Yazidis Across the Globe

The Yazidi community is not just internally displaced within Iraq – it is now scattered across the globe. Around 120,000 Yazidis are estimated to have left Iraq after the 2014 assault, resettling mostly in Western countries, including in the United States. Shamdeen said the dispersion has been particularly difficult for the small, tight-knit community.

“Family and community connections were very important in our day-to-day lives,” said Shamdeen, who was born and raised in Sinjar. “Many families have been torn apart. A part of a family is in Germany, but the rest is in Iraq, in the camps.”

Germany is home to an estimated 200,000 Yazidis, the largest community outside of Iraq. In 2021, it also became the first country to convict ISIS members of genocide for their crimes against Yazidis. To date, German courts have handed down three such verdicts.

But the vast majority of Yazidi survivors still await justice for the crimes they have endured, hundreds of thousands still don’t have homes and thousands remain unaccounted for.

“There are multiple, multiple challenges,” Shamdeen noted. “With the 10th anniversary approaching, it’s just really difficult for so many to move on because a lot of these issues have not been resolved.”