Crimes against humanity in Iraqi Kurdistan are rigorously documented

Crimes against humanity in Iraqi Kurdistan are rigorously documented
7 min read
22 May, 2017
Analysis: Oppressive regimes, from Saddam to the Islamic State group, is rigorous about bureaucracy, and their paper trails inevitably provide the best evidence against them, writes Paul Iddon.
There is no shortage of evidence of the Islamic State group's crimes [AFP]

When the Islamic State group attacked Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2014, it infamously subjected the minority Yazidi community there to a brutal campaign of genocide, marking the first time the region has suffered such a vicious onslaught since Saddam Hussein's infamous Anfal campaign against the Kurds a quarter of a century ago.

As was the case with the Anfal, this atrocity left behind a huge amount of documentary evidence, from both the perpetrators and victims.

"The amount of documentation of the 2014 Yazidi genocide is extraordinary, but it is un-collated and difficult to use effectively," Susan Shand, an American author writing an upcoming book about August 2014 entitled Sinjar, told The New Arab.

"By using the firsthand testimonies of the Yazidis in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps, I am able to verify and humanise the stories and statistics that have emerged from the several NGO reports that are available," Shand elaborated.

"The United Nations, the American Holocaust Museum and several others have detailed reports available online that I have used. Overall, from the testimonies of the Yazidis, I have found those NGO reports to be highly reliable because in this instance they were on the ground collecting evidence very quickly."

one of the reasons for the near immediacy of international documentation is the prevalence of mobile phones during the weeks the genocide took place

Demonstrating the evolution of technology in recent years, Shand pointed out that possession of mobile phones by most IS Yazidi victims helped document the atrocities as they were being carried out.

"I believe one of the reasons for the near immediacy of international documentation is the prevalence of mobile phones during the weeks the genocide took place. Just about every trapped Yazidi had a mobile phone with data and VOIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] apps," she explained.

"Because of that connectivity, news media reported the events nearly in real time, which allowed the NGOs to arrive quickly and collect victims' stories within days."

Shand says that IS crimes against the Yazidis on a village-by-village basis have been gathered. However, the UN and the American Holocaust Museum do not yet have evidence - in the form of captured documents from the group's hierarchical bureaucracy showing how they planned and ordered assaults, executions, massacres etc - captured from the IS bureaucracy itself.

"This kind of evidence will probably come out once they are completely pushed out of Iraq," she said. "This is largely due to the difficulty of reaching some of the places in the Sinjar region where the worst crimes took place because they are still held by IS. But I would say that the various reports already done would indicate that this event will eventually be well-documented and hopefully will support war crimes or crimes against humanity allegations."

While there IS material has been captured in the region a lot of it risks being lost due to lack of a concerted effort to assess it.

Chris Johannes and Hannah Lynch, journalists at the Rudaw news agency in Iraqi Kurdistan, recently co-wrote a series entitled 'Justice after ISIS' about the aftermath of the group's crimes in Sinjar and the wider Nineveh region. They discovered cases wherein captured IS documents considered unimportant were simply "dumped on the street".

They quote Vera Mironova, a research fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who suggests that documents are not being thoroughly collected because "it's too expensive. Someone has to care. No one cares. And no one has money for that".

"While there are some examples of people assuming the burden of gathering the evidence, often learning as they go, there are equally failures - locally, regionally and internationally," Johannes and Lynch write.

The two journalists also reported on Kurdistan Regional Government efforts to collect evidence of IS crimes against humanity through victim and witness testimonies, and other evidence from the sites of these atrocities. Such efforts are, however, constrained by a chronic shortage of necessary funds in the cash-strapped region for such an extensive criminal investigation.

Mass graves of Yazidi remains have been found
following IS' genocidal campaign in Sinjar [AFP]

A lot can be learned from the Anfal precedent.

Kanan Makiya - an early and extensive chronicler Saddam's crimes, particularly in his groundbreaking book Republic of Fear, originally published in 1989 - went to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 1991 following the Gulf War and the subsequent crushing by the Iraqi regime of Kurdish and Shia uprisings earlier that year.

The purpose of his trip was to locate and secure vast amounts of captured regime documents to intimately detail the Anfal atrocity and directly incriminate its perpetrators.

"The first time the Anfal was put on the map as a genocide, as a major crime of the regime, was as a consequence of that visit," Makiya recalled in a telephone interview with The New Arab.

"We entered through Turkey, we went from one Kurdish Peshmerga group to another, from the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] to PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], from the socialist party to the communist party, all of which had a different collection of documents. We attempted to convince them to put them together, since the value of those documents was much greater together than if dealt with separately."

Makiya's efforts bore fruit. With the help of the US government these Kurdish groups agreed to collate the documents so they could be properly assessed. They were consequently transported by helicopter through Turkey's Incirlik Airbase and brought to Washington.

"In total we're talking about 1.4 million pages of documents," he explained. "They came in all shapes and forms, some of them are one piece of paper while others are 100-200 pieces of paper. They were all scanned."

Makiya helped establish a unit in Harvard University called the Iraq Research and Documentation Project to work on indexing the enormous collection.

"Although it is very easy to scan pages of a document it's very difficult to access information since they are in Arabic, many were handwritten, therefore you can't use normal search tools, so we had to create our own search tools," Makiya explained.

The documents were brought to the US, with the clear proviso that they would ultimately be returned to Iraq

Following the US-led regime change in 2003, the number of captured documents from the regime's archives rose from 1.4 million to an astounding 10 million pages.

"We couldn't scan all of those documents in Baghdad under the conditions of the time, it was such a huge enterprise," Makiya recalled. "So we reached an agreement with the US government and the documents were brought to the US, with the clear proviso that they would ultimately be returned to Iraq, since they, of course, belong to the Iraqi people."

All the documents were scanned, but the originals remain in the US given the ongoing instability afflicting Iraq. The scanned versions of these documents can be accessed "with careful protocols of use - not everyone can come and use this information, since a lot of it is sensitive". 

Makiya founded the Iraq Memory Foundation, an NGO and charity, to archive the documents and gather oral testimonies from the regime's victims, while collecting works by Iraqi artists dealing with "cruelty, pain, war and other such subjects".

"The intention was ultimately to establish a museum in Baghdad, something like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, but that never happened since the situation there deteriorated and it's no longer possible," Makiya explained.

The US government also holds other documents from Saddam's time that have not been made available - despite the best efforts of Makiya and his team to convince them to do so.

"Between these two collections you have the potential to know more about those 30-odd years [of Saddam's rule] in Iraq than nearly any other totalitarian regime in history frankly."

Unlike the Saddam regime during the dark years of the Anfal campaign, IS today has not tried to conceal its crimes, instead sadistically advertising them in lurid propaganda videos. It would therefore be a great injustice to their victims if this group is not faced with the full bulk of all the evidence - which can, with the kind of careful and scrupulous documentation efforts carried out by Makiya and his team, be brought to bear against them.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon