The US Holocaust Memorial Museum Walls Bear Witness: Iraqi Minorities in Peril
The Holocaust museum held a discussion with experts on the plight of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq who have been targeted by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and are now displaced, not knowing when—or if—they will be able to return home.
Find more; http://www.ushmm.org/
The Horror in Northern Iraq
In the summer of 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) conducted a violent campaign against civilians in Ninewa province in northern Iraq, home to most of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities. More than 800,000 people (external link) were forcibly displaced as IS, known locally as Daesh, systematically attacked cities, towns, and villages. Shrines, temples, and churches were intentionally destroyed. Thousands of people were kidnapped and hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed.
In less than three months, IS decimated millennia-old communities, irrevocably tearing the cultural and social fabric of this once-diverse region. Today, almost no members of the minority groups targeted by IS remain in Ninewa province.
What happened to the people of northern Iraq was shocking, but it wasn’t a surprise—the region has seen repeated cycles of violence over the past decade or so, since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Minority communities in Iraq have been particularly vulnerable to mass atrocities. Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities constitute 10 percent of its population (PDF), and within that group, only 3 percent are non-Muslim. These communities have been the victims of gross human rights violations and atrocities for decades.
IS had been open about its intentions to drive off members of ethnic and religious groups that it considers unworthy. Those groups had become increasingly isolated and left to defend for themselves. Given IS’s intentions and capacity for violence, there were strong indications that minorities in Ninewa faced heightened risk.
As IS fighters methodically swept through Ninewa, people hoped in vain for protection from Iraqi or Kurdish troops, but both forces deserted the area in the face of the IS surge. Abandoned themselves, minorities in northern Iraq ultimately were forced to leave their homes and find sanctuary elsewhere.
In September 2015, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide sponsored a Bearing Witness trip to northern Iraq to examine the nature of these atrocities, assess those that are ongoing, and understand the future risks to ethnic and religious minorities in the region. We focused on the area’s long-threatened minorities, including Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka’i populations.
We found that IS committed mass atrocities to control, expel, and exterminate ethnic and religious minorities in areas it seized. IS committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing against those communities in Ninewa. We also assert that genocide was perpetrated against the Yezidi people in the region. Of critical importance, crimes continue against the women and children who were kidnapped and still are being held by IS.
During the trip, we visited displaced-persons camps in and around the cities of Erbil and Dohuk, and we met with Iraqis living elsewhere in temporary makeshift shelters and in rented homes. We heard harrowing accounts of displacement, forced religious conversion, rape, torture, kidnapping, and murder. We saw firsthand the consequences of mass displacement and the atrocities that had been perpetrated. We saw the angst born from the uprooting of religious practices, the erosion of cultural identity, and the tearing apart of communities and families.
In tent after tent, shelter after shelter, we met with people who had been forced to flee with little more than what they were wearing. We spoke with Yezidis, Shia Turkmen, and Shia Shabak whose loved ones had been killed or kidnapped. We saw the genuine fear that these people have about returning to their homes in the absence of what they feel would be genuine physical protection.
One man we met could drive within 20 minutes of his home but could get no closer because of the IS occupation. So near, yet so far. Many people told us of friends and family members left behind, too frail to escape or forcibly taken away by IS fighters. Others showed us lists of dozens of friends and family members they could not account for—killed or kidnapped by IS.
As a result of IS’s violence, minority communities that helped to shape Iraq’s rich, diverse history and culture now face exile and extinction in their homeland. As one man told us, “We have no future. Our generation is gone.”
There were glimpses of light and resilience, as well, amid the terror and desperation. Two girls playfully recited a children’s song; another group of children pretended to be a bus. Stores and other services had sprung up in the camps to provide a semblance of normalcy. People generously invited us into their makeshift homes to share their experiences and food. One Christian woman told a terrifying story of being captured with her husband by IS fighters, of resolutely refusing to convert to Islam, and of later being released.
Our visit to northern Iraq demonstrated the damage done by terrorist groups such as IS and the great difficulty that targeted civilians face in defending against an assault—especially when government protection fails them. In addition to experiencing death and kidnapping, the minorities of northern Iraq have suffered from the deliberate destruction of their communities and culture and are struggling to rebuild lives uprooted by terror.
Even those living in northern Iraq who had not yet experienced the violence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) felt its fury. Everyone had heard the horrible stories of what happened after an IS invasion: people ordered to convert, forced from their homes, their businesses taken from them, family members kidnapped—and worse.
IS propaganda and rumors of the group’s violence left local residents uncertain of what was to come. Rumors that IS was approaching encouraged people to flee.
There was always hope that IS would be forestalled—that Iraqi or Kurdish security forces or international troops would step in to halt IS’s march across the region. But help came too late.
According to the United Nations (PDF), the Islamic State has a “deliberate and systematic policy that aims to suppress, permanently cleanse or expel, or in some instances, destroy those communities within areas of its control.”
ISIS justifies its atrocities as part of its extremist religious ideology. It uses fear and barbarism to force civilians from population centers, to maintain order in territory it controls, to enslave women, and to generate new recruits. As word of IS atrocities in Syria spread through northern Iraq and then came closer to home, the level of fear ratcheted higher.
In August 2014, IS moved methodically from town to town, driving residents away and looting what was left behind. If a town’s residents heard that a large nearby city had fallen to IS, their fear was compounded—would their town be next? Could they get their family out safely? What had happened to those with whom they’d lost touch?
Taking advantage of traditional and social media, IS sowed fear. It boasted of its triumphs in Syria and in larger Iraqi cities such as Mosul. Fear bred uncertainty. What would happen next? What had happened—or would happen—to friends and family members? Would there be a chance to get out in time? Would there be any chance of coming back?
As the fear grew, people packed up their families and belongings and left—if they had time. If they heard the IS mortars reach the edge of town, or IS fighters entering the village, it might be too late.
A Crisis in Plain Sight
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has not concealed its violent hatred of other religious groups—rather, it has broadcast its extremist ideology far and wide. Many of its victims were targeted because they belonged to ethnic or religious minorities.
To prevent genocide, scholars have identified its early warning signs. Those include the existence of potential perpetrators—a person or group with the motives and capacity to commit mass atrocities. In this case, IS left no doubt about its intentions. It even used violent acts as a tool for recruiting more fighters.
Not only were the Christian, Shia, Yezidi, Turkmen, and Shabak communities lesser beings according to IS’s extremist ideology, but also for decades they have been victims of violence and human rights violations in Iraq—another early warning sign. More than 70 years ago, Iraq began a process of “Arabization” that changed the composition of Ninewa’s population. In the 1980s, the government of Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons, ground offensives, mass deportation, and the destruction of villages to kill or displace more than one million people, primarily Kurds.
The defeat of Hussein’s government by US and coalition forces in Fall 2003 led to a nearly complete security vacuum and rising religious extremism. Over the past decade, the United Nations, the US government, international nongovernmental organizations, and Iraqi religious communities have warned about the dire threats facing ethnic and religious minorities. Egregious attacks against minority communities perpetrated by Sunni extremist groups, including early iterations of IS, met with few repercussions.
In the Ninewa governorate in northern Iraq, high numbers of potential victims and potential perpetrators lived in close proximity. Three million people lived in Ninewa, the area falling along the border of Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, before June 2014. Though predominantly Sunni,10 percent of the population (external link) belonged to minority groups, making it Iraq’s most diverse area. Given the victims and their vulnerabilities, and the perpetrators and their capacities, strong indications existed that minorities in Ninewa faced a heightened risk of atrocities.
Taken together, the history of persecution, the absence of a stable government, and the rise of a motivated perpetrator mean the recent mass atrocities in Ninewa should have been no surprise to those who could have prevented them.
More related articles and videos…
- A Crisis in Plain Sight
- So Near, So Far
- A Devastating Choice
- “I feel a Great Sense of Fear”
- On the Run
- Strong In Her Faith
- “I thought We Would Die on that Mountain.”
- “We Hope They Are Alive.”
- Living In Fear
- A Massacre In Ninewa
- “We Don’t Know Where They Are.”
- “They Put Them in Cars and Drove Away”
- “Today Our People Live in Despair”
- Making a New Life
- Life in the Camps
- “We Want to Return to Our Homes”
- The Islamic State: A Growing and Powerful Threat
- The People of the Book and the Hierarchy of Discrimination
- Iraq: From Cradle to Grave of Civilizations
- What Can Be Done?