In the summer months of 2014, the Yezidi and Christian communities of Nineveh and Shingal (Sinjar) – as well as a host of other civilians belonging to diverse religious and ethnic components of Iraq – came under siege when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sh'am (ISIS) advanced into the province. Under threat of death, enslavement, and forced conversion, hundreds of thousands abandoned their homes. It is thought that in a matter of a few days, nearly 10,000 Yezidis were killed. Thousands of women and girls were abducted and enslaved. Violence consumed the area, from the large city of Mosul to the small Yezidi villages surrounding Shingal, where ISIS made clear its genocidal intentions.
A report conducted in September 2015 by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, details the systematic murder and abduction perpetrated by ISIS against the Yezidi people of Shingal, and concluding that committed genocide. The report also asserts that Islamic State’s persecution of Assyrian Christians, Sabaean-Mandaeans, Shabak Muslims, Turkmen and Kaka’i amounts to religious and ethnic cleansing. The United States, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and other governments and international bodies have found ISIS crimes to fit the legal definitions of genocide.
These events and the resulting refugee crisis have had a staggering effect on the Kurdistan Region. By the end of the 2014, the UN reported that Kurdistan was harboring more than one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Today, this number is nearly two million. As more territory is liberated from ISIS, the KRG is committed to working with survivors, documenting IS’s atrocities, and aiding the thousands still held captive.
Mount Shingal Siege
After capturing Mosul in June 2014, ISIS next unleashed its violence against the Yezidi communities surrounding Mount Shingal in the first days of August 2014. To ISIS, the Yezidi are considered apostates for their religious traditions; as such, ISIS fighters were enjoined to capture or massacre them. According to the Simon-Skjodt Center report, more than 200,000 Yezidis fled their towns as ISIS descended onto their communities. Some were able to flee into the Kurdistan Region, Syria and Turkey, but as many as 50,000 fleeing Yezidis were trapped on Mount Shingal, under pursuit by ISIS.
On August 7, 2014, US President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes against ISIS in Shingal to avert an all-out massacre. Shortly afterward, US planes dropped food and water to the tens of thousands trapped on the mountain. With the help of US airstrikes, Kurdish forces were able to clear an escape route. Nonetheless, accounts suggest that hundreds of Yezidis died of hunger, thirst, and exhaustion during the siege. Kurdish forces later liberated Shingal in November 2015.
Massacres in Kocho, Qiniyeh, and elsewhere in Shingal
While many Yezidis had been able to flee IS’s advance to the relative safety of Mount Shingal, others were trapped in their villages when the group attacked. Both an Amnesty International report released in late 2014 and the Simon-Skjodt Center report detail the systematic murder and abduction of Yezidis in the the towns of Kocho, Qiniyeh, and throughout the Shingal district.
In Kocho, more than a thousand Yezidis were gathered and stripped of valuables. They were at first divided into two groups: men, and women and children. Survivors describe how the men were taken to mass grave sites, where ISIS filmed them before opening fire. Meanwhile, young women and mothers with children were separated from elderly women, and were then abducted. Approximately 400 men were killed; hundreds of women were abducted and enslaved.
Survivors of the massacre in Qiniyeh recount the same process. According to the Amnesty report, men and boys over 12 were separated from women, before ISIS took them to ditches on the outskirts of town. When the shooting began, a few young men survived by pretending that they had been killed, and later escaped. Women were abducted as sex slaves for ISIS fighters, and were forced to convert to Islam.
Though the massacres in Kocho and Qiniyeh are the largest known, the genocidal methods of Islamic State were by no means limited to these villages. 35 mass graves have reportedly been identified as of February 2016. Seven have been identified by the KRG, which has begun new efforts to document crimes of genocide. The Simon-Skjodt Center reports that 1,562 Yezidis were killed in this period either by ISIS directly, or as a result of the conditions on Mount Shingal.
Yezidi women and girls enslaved
A central tactic in ISIS’s devastation has been its abduction and enslavement of Yezidi women. Women were often separated from men during ISIS mass killings, and were taken to unknown locations. As more of the captured women and girls have escaped or been rescued, ISIS’s horrific program of sexual violence and slavery has come to light. Those that have been rescued are severely traumatized.
A UN investigation into ISIS’s crimes covering June 2014 to February 2015 includes multiple firsthand accounts from Yezidi women and girls describing slavery, abuse, and rape by ISIS fighters. Survivors describe elaborate and systematic slave exchanges, through which enslaved Yezidi women were sold, often several times, and repeatedly raped, beaten, threatened and violently coerced. The UN has suggested that ISIS intended and intends to use this sexual violence as a means of genocide. Today nearly 4,000 Yezidis are still unaccounted for, around 3,000 of them women. In a November 2015 statement after the liberation of Shingal, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani emphasized that the KRG “will not rest … until we rescue all Yezidi women and girls from ISIS.”
Religious and Ethnic Cleansing
While the Yezidis were most imperiled by ISIS, the jihadists also targeted Assyrian Christians, Sabaean-Mandaeans, Shabak Muslims, Turkmen and Kaka’i. Ancient religious sites belonging to these groups were also targeted.
Persecution of Christians
IS has imposed forced displacement, property theft and destruction of holy sites on Iraq's ancient Christian community. The UN estimates that around 200,000 Christians fled their towns in Nineveh when ISIS attacked in June 2014, knowing that they would be forced to pay a tax to ISIS, convert to Islam, or flee. Nearly 50,000 of these Christians were reportedly refugees from Mosul, where ISIS seized their homes. Many others were from Qaraqosh, which before the ISIS attacked harbored a fourth of Iraq’s Christian community. Today, the KRG reports that nearly all of Iraq's Christians have taken refuge in the Kurdistan Region.
Persecution of Shia, Turkmen, Shabak, and other minorities
After capturing Mosul in June 2014, ISIS immediately began targeting Shia Muslims, massacring 600 Shia prisoners in Mosul's Badush prison. A few family members report that a number of their Shia relatives were taken by ISIS who were unable to flee the onslaught; IS fighters at checkpoints and roadblocks are known to ask whether the travelers are Sunni or Shia. Several sources indicate that ISIS has also targeted not just Turkmen and Shabak individuals, but has focused on persecuting and occasionally executing leaders of these communities throughout Nineveh. The elderly, children, and women in these communities have also been targeted and killed, such as in Bashir, near Kirkuk, in mid-June 2014.
In June 2014, ISIS laid siege to Amerli, a majority Shia Turkmen village. When shelling was unsuccessful, the UN reports that ISIS cut off basic services to the city such as electricity, clean water, food, and medicine. 15,000 people are estimated to have suffered as a result of the contaminated water and medicine shortages.
Amnesty International UK. "Iraq: Hundreds massacred in ethnic cleansing by Islamic State." September 1, 2014.
BBC. Iraq Christians flee as Islamic State takes Qaraqosh. August 7, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28686998.
Helene Cooper, Mark Landler, Alissa J. Rubin. "Obama Allows Limited Airstrikes on ISIS." The New York Times. August 7, 2014.
Kikoler, Naomi. 'Our Generation is Gone': The Islamic State's Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa. Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, 2015.
Kurdistan Regional Government Cabinet. "Prime Minister Barzani's statement on the liberation of Sinjar." November 13, 2015.
Lake, Eli. "Crisis Looms for Refugees Taken in by Iraq's Kurds." Bloomberg View. September 30, 2015.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Iraq in the light of abuses committed by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and associated groups. United Nations, 2015.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "UNHCR Global Appeal Update - Iraq." 2014.
Ward, Olivia. "No escape from Mount Sinjar: The forgotten Yazidis." Toronto Star. February 15, 2016.