Will the Yezidi Persecution Lead to Their Cultural Extinction?

By Przha Bahaddin Salih:

This is an edited extract of a paper written for the AUIS which you can download in full below.

Genocide in the History of the Yezidis

Yezidis have faced genocide – the mass killing of a race or group of people – multiple times through the centuries. Every time they face genocide, they lose their young men, their women, and children. Millions of them have been killed or abducted as slaves by invaders. If we look deep into the history of the Yezidis, we see that they have gone through so much genocide to the point that, when they are asked about this, they will say that their great grandfathers went through this and now they are going through it again and again. And yet they hope their children will not have to go through the same.

This religion is 6745 years old and over the last two thousand years Yezidis have faced 72 genocides carried out in an attempt to eliminate their religion from the region and the whole world. The mountains were a place where the Yezidis could hide for years so that they could survive, and indeed they did survive through all of the marginalization by other religions in the region, especially by Muslims. Yezidis always mention the stories of their great grand fathers that have been passed down to them and you can also hear in the songs of Yezidis references to genocides, especially in the era of the Ottoman Empire. For instance, there was a song about Fareq Basha and how he led a genocide against the Yezidis in Sinjar city. The Ottomans led many genocides against the Yezidis in the name of Islam, killing those who did not convert, taking the women as slaves, and the children to be fighters in the Ottoman army when they grew up.


Yezidi survivors of  ISIL’s genocide campaign

Modern Genocide by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

After the Ottomans were kicked out of Iraq by the British Army, the Yezidis were given more space and no genocide was done to them. All those years passed and Yezidis lived as a normal society in Iraq, albeit facing great discrimination under the Saddam regime, and so they could rebuild their cities that were once captured by the Ottoman Empire. However, in 2007, during the Al Qaeda war against the American military and minorities in Iraq, there were two truck bomb explosions in the middle of Sinjar city killing more than 250 people. This atrocity was linked to Al Qaeda who publicly declared their responsibility for the explosions and their aim to wipe out the Yezidis.

This made the Yezidis recalculate and rethink their lives, and so some decided to leave Iraq and migrate to Europe due to the fear of another bombing in Sinjar because there wasn’t good security to check external threats such as Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, life went on and more security was provided and people went back to their normal lives with their Arabic Muslim neighbors.

But fate was hiding a bigger threat to the Yezidis than a truck bomb. History repeated itself and the Yezidis went through another genocide committed by the organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). On August 3, 2014, ISIL invaded the city of Sinjar seeking to kill the men and kidnap the women and children. 3000 men were killed and well in excess of 5000 women were kidnapped while many more ran away and hid in the mountain of Sinjar where they were entrapped. For three days they went without food and water – only the sounds of bullets, the screams of children and wailing of women could be heard. During these three days many children died from hunger and thirst.

There are no clear statistics on the numbers of men, women and children who died because they are still discovering mass graves made by ISIL in Sinjar city. It is expected that many more mass graves will be found in the upcoming years.

Sex Slavery by ISIL

The most painful part of the Yezidi Genocide was the sex slavery of the Yezidi women. Yezidi women were taken to be sold among the fighters of ISIL. This sex slavery of the Yezidis is not an entirely new situation. Back in history, Yezidi women were taken as sex slaves during the Ottoman Empire and still this kind of atrocity is being repeated. The day Sinjar was invaded by ISIL, they took most of the women and sold them in the markets of Syria and Mosul. According to the BBC News, “ISIL abducted around 5000 Yazidi women and took them to Mosul and Syria where they were sold in slavery markets in Raqqa in Syria and Mosul In Iraq”. (Wood)

Their prices were written on pieces of paper and put on their bodies for the customers to see. In addition, the younger the girl, the higher her price. Also, if the girl was a virgin, her price would be much higher than the others. As the BBC reporter also stated, these girls and women “can be bought, sold, and given as gifts; they can be disposed of as property if a fighter dies. And the women were gathered in large halls and distributed as the spoils of war. Foreign fighters usually chose first, then the local leaders of IS” (Wood).

Thousands of women have escaped ISIL and told us many stories like those of the women I met. When I Interviewed Jnaa Saido. I asked her, “Did you ask them why only the Yezidi women?” She answered me, “This was my first question to one of the ISIL leaders when he came to pick up girls to sleep with. He said it was based on our religion: ‘You are our right and we have the ability and the right to sell you, sleep with you and beat you’.”

Jnaa kept saying to me that, ”When I was there, I saw no help from anyone, not even the government, no international support, I knew that I am alone but I stole a phone from one of the ISIL soldiers, when he took me with him, in order to call for help. And I promised myself that once I escape I will leave Iraq forever.”

I asked her, “But why are you not staying if there is security now?” She answered, “I have nothing now, most of my family members left and others died and this country reminds me of the disgusting actions of ISIL which brings many terrible feelings to me.”

My last question was, “Who will help you to leave Iraq? Your family will help you?” She said, “There is a German program that is called the Airway Bridge for Yezidi women escaping from ISIL. This program helps us to leave Iraq and live in Germany under the government’s protection. Hundreds of the Yezidi abducted women have left through this program and I will go as well.”

Here we should have a deep think about what this tells us about what one of those thousands of women had to go through. She does not feel safe here any more; living here brings back many harsh memories. Moreover, most importantly, there is a free program that will take her to Europe where many of her friends and family have gone for more protection and security. These factors have significantly reduced the number of Yezidi women in Iraq.

Beside those who died at the hands of ISIL, there are many Yezidi women who committed suicide or who want to end their lives because they feel ashamed of being raped and taken by ISIL. Also, those that escaped from ISIL often come back with psychological issues and do not want have any more contact with men.

Nadia Murad is another example of a Yezidi survivor who went through a very tough experience when she was a sex slave in the hands of ISIL. She is the Yezidi woman who bravely told her story in the United Nations, causing people to burst into tears on hearing her horrific account. She emphasized that, “We were not worth the value of animals. They raped girls in groups. They did what a mind could not imagine,” (Murad). She could finally escape after being tortured and now reclaims her life by telling the whole world about her story.

Yezidi Migration

Migration is an important issue. Many Yezidis are leaving just to find a safe and peaceful life away from their homeland. After ISIL, Yezidis have decided that there is no home or life for them in Iraq and that migration is their first and best choice. Thousands have decided to leave everything behind and find their way to Europe, a place where they will not be killed or persecuted for their beliefs. As a young mother states, “There’s nothing I need. I don’t need money, clothes, a car, a house. I only need one thing: to leave Iraq forever.” (The Kurdistan Tribune). All they want is a quiet place where they can live peacefully without war and genocide. They have often chosen the cheapest and most dangerous way to escape from Iraq, which is the sea. The Aegean Sea is often their route, which is very dangerous and scary, but the Yezidis have already faced all kinds of death and they are ready to risk this kind of death just to survive. This sea has become another way for the Yezidis to die, with hundreds drowning due to the large numbers packed into boats. The most horrible and dangerous ways were tried to help the Yezidis escape the violence in Iraq. The sea has taken many Yezidi lives, which is another way for them to become extinct. Through migration, many Yezidis have died but many have also arrived in Europe to seek a peaceful life.


  • Khaled Aloka, teacher, writer and activist

Khaled Aloka, a Yezidi writer from Bashiqa is one of the people I interviewed due to his knowledge and intellectual understanding of the Yezidi case. I asked him a few questions regarding the Yezidi situation and his views for the long term.

Q: From your perspective as a writer, what do you think about what has happened to the Yezidis since August 2014?

A: The reasons behind what’s happening to the Yezidis are (linked to) their being a weak minority. Second, (the publicity has been important) to grab world’s attention for the unjust conditions they are going through. Thirdly, Yezidis are going through bad conditions because of the aggressive conflict of religious views in the Middle East. Finally, in the absence of ideologies, religion appears at its peak, which means its poison exceeds.

Q: Do you think that the Yezidi migration will mean the merger of their culture with the West’s?

A: Yes, the migration affects their culture and religion because of the western lifestyle, but after a hundred years it might have a negative effect on the Yezidis’ (culture) and weaken it.

This answer emphasizes my point about the Yezidi migration and their merging with other cultures and ethnicities. Yezidis are migrating in large number to escape the bad life conditions they are facing in their homeland but this might in the long run lead to a decline in their numbers. Many of the next generation of Yezidi kids will grow up according to their birth country’s beliefs and ideas.

Q: As a writer and activist, what do you think of the world’s reaction towards the Yezidi case?

A: Mostly only the West opened their doors for the Yezidis, especially Germany, France, and Sweden. But, unfortunately some of the Arab countries, Turkey and Iran had a very cold reaction to the Yezidi case because they support the idea of ISIL and accept the idea of Jihad of Islam.

ISIL believes that killing people who are not Muslims is Jihad and supported by their religion. If in this century we have people who are thinking this way, there will be no minorities left in the world in the next few years.

Q: Has what happened to the Yezidis changed the point of view of the world and other religions toward them?

A: The Yezidis’ name might recently have been heard more than before by the West, but most of the Middle Eastern countries did not respond because they do not accept religions other than Islam and consider the Yezidi religion as the most awful religion.

  • Qasim Osman Rafu, Judge, Sulaimaniya Labor Court and president of Sinjar Charity Association

Mr. Qasim gave me some information about how Sinjar was captured easily by ISIL and, also, how Turkmen of Talafer opened the way for ISIL to enter Sinjar. In addition, the withdrawal of the Peshmarga allowed ISIL to enter Sinjar easily. He also gave me some approximate statistics since he is writing a book entitled, ‘The Campaign of Yezidi Annihilation’. My questions were mainly about the numbers regarding the Yezidi genocide of August 2014.

Q: What is the number of captured Yezidis?

A: 5872 (he also stated that this is the official figure and not the actual total is higher).

Q: What is the number of escaped Yezidis? How many have escaped from captivity?

A: 2364. 572 of them are children. Many Yezidis have escaped ISIL in different ways. Some paid money, some made a deal with the people from Mosul and some met good people. These people who have escaped have been raped, tortured, and scared to death.

Q: What is this number of mass graves found in Sinjar?

A: There are 32 cemeteries that have been found in Sinjar so far because they have been found only in the freed places. There are many places still under ISIL control and the numbers are not known.

  • Ghanim Elias, Teacher, Manger of Ghusain AL- Zaiton Organzation

Q: How many Yezidis are there now in Erbil?

A: Based on the last survey that our NGO made 20 days ago there are 750 families in Erbil. These Yezidis are the ones who escaped ISIL from Sinjar and other places like Bashiqa and Bahzan.

Q: What are the mains issues that they are facing?

A: Yezidi IDPs (internally displaced people) see that there is insufficient care from the government and there is lack of care in many aspects. They also look back at their history and analyse their current situation and how they have lost a lot of family members and also most of their life earnings. Many of them say that leaving Iraq is the best solution to Yezidis, and many have already left Iraq.

Q: Do you think that many other people will leave as well?

A: From talking to people and listening to their stories, ideas, and dreams, I can tell you that there are many people want to leave Iraq for Europe where many Yezidis are living now. Even though it’s a totally different lifestyle there and it’s very difficult for people who grew up here to adapt to this lifestyle, they will still go and try to live normally in a safer place as they see it.

Q: What are their demands?

A: They have many demands such as equality, rights, etc. However, I do not think that this will be applied in our country. We need time to reach this level of equality. Their demands also are about food, clothes, homes, jobs, etc. Overall I can tell you that IDPs, and especially the Yezidis, must have a special care because not only did they lose their homes but also the lives of many family members – and this has affected them.

Przha Bahaddin is a Kurdish Senior Student of the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.

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