'Never forget': Iraq's long road to justice for the Yazidi genocide

'Never forget': Iraq's long road to justice for the Yazidi genocide
In-depth: Iraq has passed a landmark new bill offering reparations to victims of the Islamic State and formally recognising the Yazidi genocide. Survivors say it is an important first step.
6 min read
03 March, 2021
The UN says IS carried out genocide against the Yazidi community. [Getty]
Meyan* was in Islamic State (IS) captivity for five years and her trauma of being sold, enslaved, raped and abused still hasn't ended. 

Five years after being freed, her government has finally recognised the genocide, with a new Iraqi bill offering reparations eventually passing on Monday. For Meyan and thousands of other survivors of the genocide against Yazidis, there is now a glimmer of hope. 

Yazidi women, from an ancient ethnocultural community in northern Iraq, were kidnapped by IS from Sinjar in the summer of 2014, when militants ravaged through Syria, and later Iraq, as IS pushed through the town of Mosul and blurred the borders between the two countries.

Intent on exterminating the minority group, militants slaughtered the men and older women and then paraded the girls in a market to be sold as sex slaves - ultimately forcing the women to marry their captors.

Meyan was just 17 when she became one of more than 6,000 Yazidis taken by the group, who were intent on destroying the ancient religious group who they considered heretics. Almost seven years later, nearly 3,000 Yazidis - including Meyan's mother and brother - are still missing, while close to 200,000 Yazidis are still living in squalid tents in displacement camps.

The Yazidi Female Survivors Law "is a victory for the victims of our daughters who have been subjected to the most heinous violations and crimes of ISIS genocide," tweeted Iraqi President Barham Salih on Monday.

For the survivors of the genocide against Yazidis, there is now a glimmer of hope

The ground-breaking bill will grant victims psychological and medical care, a monthly stipend, residential land or a housing unit free of charge, and the right to an education, subject to age-related conditions. There will be a National Day on 3 August to remember the tragedies and a Yazidi civil servant will be appointed by the Council of Ministers to head the survivors' directorate. Jobs will also be guaranteed, with an allocation of two percent of roles in Iraq's public sector.

Ryan D'Souza, a human rights advocate, cites Holocaust Remembrance Day as a comparison to the National Day in August. "People still remember how important that is to the Jewish community and this is exactly the same. If we don't remember it, then it starts becoming a contested narrative," he told The New Arab. "Genocide affects everyone. It diminishes our collective humanity when these crimes take place." 

Read more: 'Their wounds must be acknowledged':
What does the future hold for Yazidis who survived IS?

He hopes a UN General Assembly resolution will designate the 3rd of August as an international day to commemorate the Yazidi genocide and create an outreach programme to educate future generations so that is it never forgotten.

Critically, the law has finally legally recognised the Yazidi genocide and recommends that the cases be brought to the attention of international bodies to initiate criminal proceedings against the perpetrators. 

Meyan says the recognition is of utmost importance for the whole community. Vian Darwish, a European Parliament Sakharov Fellow and the Yazidi Survivors Network co-ordinator, told The New Arab that "the transitional justice of Iraq is now going on the correct path." 

Güley Bor, a lawyer, researcher, and consultant with a focus on transitional justice and gender in Iraq and Turkey, mirrors Darwish's statement, saying this "is a critical step in the long and difficult process of actually fulfilling the promise of 'never again'." 

Speaking from Iraq before the bill was passed, Meyan said she was waiting "to live without fears, to feel like someone is supporting me and feel like I have a backbone." She hopes the government can "prevent upcoming genocides against Yazidis and others."

Intent on exterminating the minority group, IS militants slaughtered the men and older women and then paraded the girls in a market to be sold as sex slaves - ultimately forcing them to marry their captors

The deteriorating mental health crisis facing survivor communities has led to a recent increase in suicides, with 11 deaths in the space of two weeks back in January, showing a desperate need for action. Meyan says women are the souls of the community, the resource of love and peace, "so why are they not respected and protected?"

With the bill languishing in parliament for nearly two years, and with seven years having passed since the genocide, the community have been waiting for this day for a very long time. First submitted by Salih to the parliament in April 2019, the draft bill was reviewed twice but each time met pushback.

Thousands of Yazidis trapped in Sinjar flee the Islamic State on 9 August, 2014. [Getty]

One of the reasons was that many said the bill was too narrow. Initially drafted to offer solatium solely to Yazidi women, the law now applies "to women and girls from the Turkmen, Christian and Shabak components who were subjected to the same crimes mentioned," reads the legislation, which also applies to men "who survived the mass killing."

While Yazidis were disproportionately affected by IS, other ethnic groups suffered as well. Darwish says she is "so proud" of the Yazidis who were advocating for other survivors and were "the voice of all the victims in Iraq." IS's physical caliphate may have been defeated in March 2019 but they still remain in the suffering of survivors and the missing victims.

Genocide affects everyone. It diminishes our collective humanity when these crimes take place

The work is far from finished but it is encouraging to see such an important step in the long and difficult road to achieving justice. While the bill may have shortcomings, D'Souza hopes that those with doubts have spoken to the survivors and made sure that what they're saying is reflected and agreed upon with those who are affected. "We always have to acknowledge things aren't going to be perfect. But really, this will make a massive difference for the communities if implemented properly." 

Bor says the bill succeeds in opening up space for further debate on the issue of reparations in post-IS Iraq, which is a positive development by itself. She says that the next steps need to ensure swift and "survivor-centric implementation of this law and the distribution of benefits, as well as simultaneously and coherently pursuing other transitional justice mechanisms, criminal justice in particular."

Read more: From genocide to pandemic: Yazidis in Iraq
face looming mental health crisis as Covid-19 spreads

The Jiyan Foundation helped establish The Coalition for Just Reparations (C4JR) who took the lead in reviving the public debate on reparations for survivors and helped to improve the initial bill. Bojan Gavrilovic, a human rights lawyer with C4JR, says they will "see through the implementation to ensure all victims receive just reparations."

With political instability and mounting security pressures — with a rocket attack on a US airbase and attacks against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters, both in the Kurdish region of Iraq a couple of weeks ago — Iraq faces many challenges and coupled with meagre public services in Sinjar one can only hope implementation is sufficiently carried out. 

What does Meyan wish for the future? "For ISIS criminals to be punished. To see Sinjar flourish, for my suffering to end and for my studying to resume." But most importantly? To hug her Mum, "for a very long time."

*Name has been changed to protect their identity 

Rachel Hagan is a freelance women's rights and global affairs journalist with a particular focus on Middle East affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rachelhagan_