In August, President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes to prevent the Islamic State from carrying out a genocidal slaughter of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, tens of thousands of whom had fled their besieged city and villages into barren mountains.
The Yazidi struggle continues. The Islamic State is selling off 2,000 captured women and girls as sex slaves. Six thousand Yazidis remain trapped on Mount Sinjar. Hundreds of thousands more —virtually the entire community — have been driven from their homes and are struggling to survive in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.
I just spent a day with Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, whose passionate plea for help on Aug. 5 made her the face of the Yazidi struggle. (Watch the YouTube clip of her speech and you will be moved to tears.) She is in the United States at the invitation of Temple University’s Dialogue Institute, and is now in Washington to ask the administration and Congress for urgent assistance.
The Islamic State attempted genocide against the Yazidi minority — a pre-Islamic, monotheistic faith — lays bare the vicious ideology that seeks to drag the region back to the seventh century and illustrates the need to destroy the group. So Dakhil’s message deserves to be heard.
She is an accomplished, striking woman who taught biology at a university in Erbil, Kurdistan, before entering politics, and travels around Washington in a black pantsuit, her long, blond hair flying. She comes from a family of strong women (four of her sisters are doctors and one is a pharmacist) and displayed her own courage when she rushed in August to help refugees on Mount Sinjar, flying in with a rare Iraqi government helicopter rescue mission. The chopper crashed, leaving her with broken legs that are only now healing; she is still using one crutch.
“We are being killed for our religious convictions,” Dakhil told me with passion. Indeed, the Islamic State targets members of her religious sect (who are mostly ethnic Kurds), which draws on Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, because they are considered infidels.
The jihadis are targeting other Muslim sects, as well as Christians, who have fled by the tens of thousands, but their women haven’t been taken as chattel. “ISIS looks for young Yazidi girls to rape, 11 to 13 years old, and does it over and over,” she related emotionally. Some of the captives have been able to call home on cellphones and describe the horrors they have endured or witnessed. The three daughters of one of her cousins were taken and are still missing; the cousin was murdered.
When she lists the steps that are needed immediately to help the Yazidis, it’s not surprising that Dakhil starts with a request for international help in freeing the women who have been enslaved.
She has little faith that the central Iraqi government or its security forces can help rescue Yazidis in the future, nor does she have any confidence in Iraq’s neighbors to do so. Instead, she hopes the United States will directly arm and assist Kurdish peshmerga forces, which include Yazidis.
Dakhil is also concerned about the fate of around 260 women and girls who have escaped from the Islamic State. Yazidi religious leaders have instructed families to welcome them back, but “because of cultural norms, these women will not be able to marry nor be able to lead normal lives.” After enduring such horrors, they, and those rescued in the future, will need counseling and job training to resume any semblance of normality.
“Help us develop programs to support these victims of ISIS brutality,” Dakhil urges. I can’t think of a better use for U.S. aid funds.
Dakhil also hopes that Washington will aid the Kurds in evacuating 1,200 or so families that are still marooned on Mount Sinjar. And the several hundred thousand Yazidi refugees now living in tent cities in Kurdistan are suffering dire shortages of food, medicine, and sanitary facilities as a cold, wet winter approaches. Humanitarian aid funneled through the United Nations, or the central Kurdish government, is slow to appear, or invisible, she says. She is urging that such aid be delivered directly through the Kurdish regional government in Erbil. Good idea.
Of the many poignant and disturbing things I heard from Dakhil, the most striking was that she believes there is no possibility of religious minorities returning to their old homes among Sunni Muslims. Yazidis (and Christians) in Iraq’s north all have stories about how their relatives were betrayed to the Islamic State by Sunni neighbors or worse.
“My uncle’s Sunni neighbors killed him, even though Yazidis and Sunnis have lived for hundreds of years as brothers,” she says. “Now everything has changed and I have no idea why.” Yazidis believe they can no longer trust their former neighbors, and many Iraqi Christians believe the same.
So Dakhil says the only chance for minorities to remain inside Iraq is if they are allotted a separate, autonomous region in the north once the Islamic State is rolled back, an area that might be attached to the autonomous Kurdish region. This is an idea the central government opposes.
Her idea may be premature, but it deserves consideration at the White House and by Iraq’s government. If Yazidi and Christian minorities are driven entirely out of the region, the Middle East’s future will look even bleaker than it does now.