By Hajer Naili
If time heals all wounds, it probably won’t heal those of Aziz & Farida* who lost two of their children to the Islamic State’s (IS) violence and cruelty. “They took away and killed my beloved children,” says Aziz, the father, with a quivering voice and tear-filled eyes when we met him and his family in December 2022 in Sharya, on the outskirts of Dohuk, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Photographs of his children, Lamiya & Emad*, hang on the wall of his and his wife’s bedroom in their modest home, devoid of furniture and with only a few mattresses laid on the cement floor.
Lamiya was just a teenage girl when she, along with hundreds of other Yazidi women and girls, was captured by members of IS shortly after the violent extremist group entered the Iraqi city of Sinjar in August 2014. The photograph hanging on the wall of the parents’ bedroom is the last picture they have of their daughter alive. This was the picture that IS members used to sell the young woman online. The family believes that Lamiya was sold as a ‘sex slave’ since it was a common practice used by the IS to subjugate and humiliate the Yazidi community.
While it’s hard to know the exact number of Yazidis killed, captured, and enslaved, the United Nations estimated more than 5,000 Yazidis were killed and about 7,000 women and girls forced into sex slavery.
It was a young woman detained with Lamiya who sent the photograph to the family. She also informed them of the devastating news: Lamiya was eventually killed in an airstrike.
The family could not provide details about the airstrike that supposedly killed their daughter. They still don’t know when or where it happened, or which armed forces carried it out. To this day, the family has not recovered the body of their daughter.
Unfortunately, it is all too common for victims’ families to remain without answers or closure after the deaths of their loved ones. For example, the international civilian casualty monitor Airwars estimates that between 8,200 and 13,250 civilians may have been killed by US- led coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. This is a much higher death toll than the 1,417 civilian deaths reported by the coalition. The Iraqi military did not keep any record of civilian harm attributed to the air and ground operations. IS tactics of using civilians as human shields and booby-trapped buildings also exacted a high toll on civilians, with little reliable information about the numbers and identities of people killed.
While Iraqi compensation law allows for some financial assistance to victims of the armed conflict, most Iraqis have not received any compensation. Nor are grieving families able to access condolence funds from the US and other anti-IS coalition members such as The Netherlands, although the funds have been authorized for civilian harm in Iraq and elsewhere.
Next to Lamiya’s photograph is one of Emad. Emad was also a child when he was captured by IS members without a trace. His parents believe he was killed. Within days of entering Sinjar, IS began executing men and boys. Some boys were also taken away and forced into training camps.
Aziz and Farida were themselves captured by IS members shortly after the group took over Sinjar. Aziz has a second wife, who was also captured. “They gathered about 200 families into unfinished buildings. They separated the men from the women,” recalls Aziz. “To the men, they brought us food. A lot of food. It was like a feast, but I had no desire to eat.”
Somehow, Aziz managed to escape. “I ran away without knowing what would happen to my family,” he recounts. “I walked for several days until I reached a safer place.”
A deeper descent into the abyss began for Aziz. “I was crying every day. I had no idea if my wives and children were dead or alive.” A few weeks later, he received a message on his cellphone with the photograph of one his wives accompanied by a chilling message reading “For Sale.” The price was set at USD 25,000.
Negotiation was not an option, and the alternative was unconceivable. Aziz said he had to borrow money from neighbors and relatives to free his wife along with four of their children. Lamiya and Emad were not among the children who were returned and Aziz had to pay a similar amount to free his second spouse.
Aziz and Farida, along with their remaining children, eventually found refuge in Sharya in 2015, where we met them. Their living conditions are far from ideal, but they feel safe in their new home. Last year, they both traveled to Sinjar to see if they could return. “We found our house completely burned. We have no place to return to,” says Farida, dressed in a beige long dress, a black knitted cardigan, and a grey headscarf. “Besides, I cannot return because of all the memories we have there. We have a lot of memories with our daughter and son, but they are no longer with us.”
“Besides, I cannot return because of all the memories we have there. We have a lot of memories with our daughter and son, but they are no longer with us.”
Dohuk city and its outskirts, located about 170 kilometers from Sinjar, have welcomed several thousand displaced persons from Sinjar and Mosul when IS took control of both cities. Most of the displaced persons from Sinjar have not been able to return due to lack of services, explosive remnants of war (ERW) contamination, the poor security situation, multiple armed actors, and military operations carried out by Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“To this day, more than 85 percent of families from Sinjar live in camps and host communities across the Kurdistan region [of Iraq] and they cannot return,” says Susan Shingaly, lawyer and defender of Yazidis’ rights, and a member of a Community Protection Group set up by Center for Civilians in Conflict in Iraq. Susan and the group have engaged with the Iraqi government and security officials to improve the lives of displaced populations from Sinjar and Mosul and facilitate their safe return if they wish to go back.
“The chances of them going back to Sinjar are slim because of foreign interferences, the presence of non-state armed actors, and the contamination of areas by mines. For all these reasons, they will think twice before returning,” explains Susan.
Farida would like to see justice, including accountability for those who captured and killed her children. She wants to understand “what was the crime” of her children. We could feel Farida’s pain across the room as she uttered sighs of anguish and took difficult pauses between sentences.
Even though UN investigations showed that IS’ crimes constituted a genocide against the Yazidis, the road to justice has been long. While many IS members have been convicted of terrorism, it was only in 2021 that the first convictions acknowledging crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide were delivered by a German court through the principle of universal jurisdiction.
For Yazidis, the horror is not over. It is estimated that about 3,000 people are still missing or in captivity.
In March 2021, Iraq passed the Yazidi Survivors Law to provide reparations through a monthly salary and a plot of land, as well asaccess to healthcare, employment, and education. The law has yet to be properly implemented and no funding has been allocated. Aas of today, Aziz and Farida are still waiting to receive reparations – even as their pain will never be erased.
*The parents asked for their and their children’s names to be changed.
Hajer Naili (@h_naili) is the Director of Communications at CIVIC.