Part I: ISIS exploited the marginalized minority groups of Iraq

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By Hannah Lynch and Chris Johannes 5 hours ago
In summer of 2014, the ISIS group swept across northern Iraq leaving millions displaced and thousands killed, like this family in Shingal. Photo: Rudaw
This series of special reports examines the struggles and path the survivors of ISIS — particularly minority groups in the Nineveh Plains and Shingal — have taken in their quest for justice after the extremist group rapidly controlled large swathes of territory in northern Iraq in 2014. Critical questions were asked: What do survivors want? What are they doing? What is and can be done at the community, governmental and international levels?

The millions of people who were attacked by or survived ISIS atrocities in the north of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region were not monistic. They cross ethnic, religious and political lines. A lack of trust between these groups and the central government is seen by many as the main reason the extremist group nearly overran all of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 and reached the gates of Baghdad.

In a home in the town of Sufaya between Erbil and Mosul, among citrus trees and in the range of an explosion in distant hills, Kakil Yasen thinks his hometown could one day make a great tourist destination.

“We think that one day this could be great place for hotels,” Yasen said, pointing at the recently plastered ceiling before climbing the stairs to the roof, where his ancestors have lived for 500 years — “nine generations,” he boasts.

“This is where an ISIS shell hit,” walking to a corner of the terrace where there was a crater of an ISIS shell from 2015.

“They launched shells from over there,” he adds, pointing to a tree across the stone-lined Zab River. “We, the Kakais, fought alongside the Peshmerga, and Daesh wasn’t able to make it across.”

According to minority representatives, the locals largely policed their own communities before ISIS.

“Before ISIS four minority groups – Kakai, Christians, Shabaks, and Yezidis – near Mosul were getting along. No real problems. Those who were deemed not to be Muslim were targeted by Daesh,” said Farhad al-Kake, an instructor at the International University of Erbil.

Even before the arrival of ISIS, say members of minority groups, they had little trust in the existing Iraqi civic security and defense institutions. Especially after the US-led invasion of 2003, federal institutions were lacking or poorly implemented locally.

The inability of the Iraqi army to coordinate with these populations — and in some situations involved in persecuting the local population — led to a lousy defense as ISIS came within kilometers of the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

Safwan Abbas Rasho was 16 years old when ISIS attacked the Yezidi village of Kochu on August 3, 2014. A town with a population of 1,603 people.

“After six days passed, the ISIS emir visited our village again and gave us another week to think about their offer of choosing between converting to Islam or death, he testified to the Yezidi Solidarity Organization.

“In this period Ahmed Jaso, our tribe leader, negotiated with them to treat us like what they did with the Christians of Mosul — we will give them all we have and we will leave the village…

“After two days, a troop of 15 trucks full of ISIS jihadists came to our village and gathered us in the building of Kochu high school for boys.”

After separating the males and females, the Yezidis were taken to Mount Shingal.

Rasho said he observed two mass ISIS executions — the first of 30-40 people, the second of 24 others.

They said “kneel on [your] knees, and told us that [if] you didn’t convert to Islam and you deserve death, and then they started to open fire on us, I received four bullets and I fell down.”

Rasho saw two more groups being executed before “ISIS soldiers left me and other wounded men ran toward a nearby valley between Kochu and Hatimiah villages.”

From there, Rasho said the group walked for five nights without food before reaching Sharaf Al-Deen temple on Mount Shingal.

Only 303 men and 271 women survived.

Rasho’s experience is just one of the many shared by Yezidis.

It is estimated that 200,000 Yezidis were displaced and almost 50,000 fled to the mountains in August 2014.

Identity was a deciding factor in how groups were treated by ISIS

“At the time that ISIS controlled Sinjar area, they began to put checkpoints on the main roads that lead to the mountain, to Sinjar mountain,” said Judge Ayman Mostafa, the investigating judge of the Commission of Investigation and Gathering Evidence (CIGE).

“So they began to ask for IDs…” Mustafa said, adding that “anyone belonging to the Yezidi community, to the Shiite Muslim — they separated them from the other then summarily executed a number of the people.”

The executions took place near ISIS checkpoints, detention centers, on main roads, and as ISIS went into villages.

“They began to execute the males that they were suspicious have not been truly converted to Islam,” Mostafa added.

A 2015 report by the KRG’s Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Victims found that at least 1,800 Yezidis had been killed with more than 600 children and elderly people died in the mountains while fleeing ISIS.

Two-and-a-half years later, around 3,000 Yezidi women and girls remain unaccounted for — many believed to be enslaved by ISIS — while 2,936 Yezidis have been rescued since August 2014, according to the KRG’s Department for Yezidi Rescues Office in Duhok.

Shabaks from the village of Omerkan say ISIS mass executed 21 members of their community in one day alone. A community representative, Mohammad Ibrahim Shabak, said ISIS killed 1,400 Shabaks while some are still imprisoned.

Christians who have been living in Nineveh since the birth of Christianity were also targeted by the radical group. Many of them killed while most fled to Erbil and other Kurdish cities in the north.

“There have been many examples of atrocities committed directly at Christians including the killings of priests (two in Mosul) and 1,131 Christians (all parts of Iraq except in the Kurdistan Region) we have documented [they] have been killed because of their identity,” said Nawzad Hakim, a representative of the umbrella Christian Shlomo non-governmental organization based in Ainkawa.

The people of the Nineveh province in Iraq became aware of the atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yezidi people in the nearby Shingal region almost immediately after they began on August 3. Entire villages and towns of ethnic and religious minorities fled as a result.

A priest, Father Thabet Yousif from Karimlesh said many of his parishioners arrived on the 6th of August 2014 to Ainkawa. “ISIS came three hours later,” he said from Ashti 2 Camp in Erbil.

“As ISIS was coming, we knew we could try to pay the ‘jiyza’ (tax) for not believing as ISIS did,” said Louay Fouad, a Christian from Qarakosh. “We left on the sixth day of the eighth month in 2014. First we went to Akre, before ending up as refugees in the mall in Ainkawa.”

The unfinished mall on the northern outskirts of Erbil’s Christian suburb of Ainkawa was turned into a shelter for the refugees.

Yezidi, Christian and Kakai places of worship were also demolished by the group.

“Other Kakais said when ISIS came they were targeted for being Kakai. Also they targeted our worship places,” al-Kake said.

A Kakai gathering place is shown prior to its destruction. Photo: Farhad al-Kake

Groups across northern Iraq like the Kakais had their sacred places decimated. Photo: Farhad al-Kake

“It’s like how they did to Nabi Younis shrines [in eastern Mosul], but for us. Inside each village we have one place of worship and they destroyed those,” Kakai added.

Beyond buildings and lives, ISIS destroyed trust

Although the atrocities committed by ISIS are indisputable, the brutality of ISIS deepened sectarian divisions that existed. Victims of ISIS crimes now seem to distrust each other more than before.

One example is relations between Christians and Shabaks.

Before 2003, the town of Bartella had a small Shabak population, about 5 percent, according to commander General Amer Shamoun Mousa. By 2014, the Shabak population had grown to 35 percent.

Many Christians, like the other groups, do not see any hope in again turning to Baghdad. They trust their clergy over politicians and call for international assistance.

Most Kakai villages lie within disputed areas. Areas that are claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil.

“When we talk about the Iraqi government, the problem is that we are in what’s called the [Article] 140 zone. So it doesn’t belong to the, KRG formally, so it doesn’t belong to the Iraqi central [government] because they are saying it’s part of Kurdistan. So it’s kind of not controlled by anybody. So nobody can help us,” said Farhad al-Kake.

Deep constitutional debates between Erbil and Baghdad over disputed areas leave minority groups in a state of limbo after ISIS, compounded by the continued lack of trust between communities and the dim hope of getting justice for its victims.

This is Part I in a Rudaw English series of special reports on what is being done to document ISIS atrocities and achieve justice for survivors. The authors thank all at Rudaw who contributed including Zhelwan Zeyad and Salim Ibrahim for their editing and translations.