Thousands of Yazidi people continue to be impacted since 2014 when the Islamic State invaded their villages in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq. The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority who have endured centuries of persecution from Muslim leaders.
Since 2014, the Islamic State (IS) has murdered untold numbers of Yazidis of any gender and reportedly still holds about 3,200 women and children in sexual slavery, many of whom are in Syria.
Iraqi and Kurdish governments have recently reclaimed the Sinjar area; yet displaced Yazidis, whether asylum seekers living abroad or in local displacement camps are not able to return home to begin rebuilding their lives from the rubble, both physically and psychologically. Why?
An upcoming referendum for independence
One reason is the politics of land, specifically the call for a Kurdish independence referendum on September 25th. Though recently suspended by the Iraqi top court on September 18th, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will continue pushing for the referendum.
The goal is to gain politically-recognized possession of their semi-autonomous region in Northern Iraq. Some Kurds fear that if a significant number of Yazidis are present, regardless of when/if the referendum takes place, their vote could impact the outcome against Kurdish independence. An earlier referendum in 2005 saw an outcome that was, not surprisingly, nearly unanimously for independence. The outcome this time would very likely be exactly the same, whether or not the small ethnic minority returns to their homes. So why keep the Yazidis out?
President Masoud Barzani of KRG is aiming for an overwhelming and very current demand for independence. Some Kurds hope that such a sweeping consensus might serve as effective leverage should Barzani take his terms for negotiation to Baghdad, the state that holds the power to grant Kurdish independence. Due to colonial imperialism, the Kurds were divided over four nations: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. It may appear advantageous to push again for the referendum now because of the fragility of the Iraqi government and the tumultuous state that is present-day Syria. Nevertheless, independence is a long shot: the four countries wherein the Kurds wish to claim territory do not want to give up any of their lands; with the relative stability of Iran and Turkey, it is unlikely they will have to do so.
Where does this leave the Yazidis?
Distrust amongst allies
This brings us to a second political reason Yazidis are not returning to Sinjar (despite Iraqi forces beginning to reclaim the area since March 2015): distrust of potential allies. The Yazidis and the Kurds, while they ally themselves against their common enemy IS, have distrust for one another. Both are far from politically homogenous, resulting in both inter- and intra- group tensions. Amongst the Kurds there are two rival groups: the PKK, which is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Kurdish military forces of the KRG known as peshmerga. Additionally, Yazidis also have reason to fear their neighboring Arab villagers, many of whom are Sunnis; when IS invaded in 2014, many of these neighbors, some former coworkers even, took up arms and participated in the atrocities led by IS. With distrust of both their Arab Sunni neighbors and the rivaling Kurdish groups, some Yazidis are appealing for an outside peacekeeping force to maintain their protection, because with such tensions causing ongoing precarity, the potential for future political and military gains of IS are never far off.
The need to support survivors
A third reason the Yazidis are unable to return home appears to be bigger than politics, bigger than a traditional concept of politics anyway. According to the Washington Post, out of an estimated 400,000 Yazidi people living in Sinjar, at least 10,000 were either killed or abducted and almost the entire population is “displaced”. Thus, virtually all Yazidis have been personally affected by this conflict and thus may be experiencing something beyond physical displacement from their homes: psychological displacement, an experience of feeling unsafe within one’s own mind.
Creating space to believe and support survivors of violence is a must if a community is to heal and move forward. In conjunction though, is the need to hold perpetrators accountable, not only for their actions but also for the healing of the broader community. What would it look like to demand that perpetrators do their own emotional and psychological recovery from committing violence? Perpetrators and those complicit in the violence of this conflict do not exist outside of the community. Some are IS militant leaders yes, but involved in harming themselves (psychologically) and others (in ways unimaginable) are also disillusioned young men striving to prove themselves, local Arab community members, smugglers who may or may not be rescuing survivors for money, and passive bystanders. What is at stake if these groups do not interrogate why and to what end they are part of this horrific violence? Without this internal work taken on by perpetrators, can the Yazidi community heal and restore a sense of justice? Moreover, what authoritative entity in this situation is going to hold perpetrators accountable to do this work? How?
The Yazidis have historically operated within a highly conservative culture: for example, men are expected to perform an honor killing on a female relative believed to have had sex outside of marriage, regardless of her agency to give consent. Under the current conditions, though, some Yazidi men -whether brothers or politicians- are publicly declaring their acceptance of Yazidi sexual assault survivors and their right to live. Only a few years ago, such a declaration would have been unheard of and countercultural; it may be fleeting and circumstantial, however, in this way the Yazidis are taking a huge step toward women’s empowerment, even though it may be based in survival of their ethnic group rather than an adoption of feminist values.
It will be a long and arduous road to peace, should it come to fruition. In the face of what could be defined as genocide, the Yazidi society is discursively taking steps to adapt and survive. Yet, in order for the people to find sure footing as they rebound, recover, and determine a homecoming on their own terms -both physically and psychologically- Yazidis do need outside support and services. There is opportunity for the international community to support positive change pertaining to this conflict; we must not continue to overlook the displacement of the Yazidis.