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Blogger Matthew Barber Describes Covering Yazidi Disappearance, Sinjar Siege

Nov 21, 2014

In the Iraqi province of Kurdistan, women of the Yazidi ethnic minority are disappearing. At the most recent count, between 6,000 and 7,000 women and girls have been kidnapped, and many of those have been enslaved.

When Matthew Barber visited northern Iraq earlier this year, his goals were to conduct research and learn Kurdish. When he arrived he was faced with an enslavement crisis unfolding all around him and he knew that being an American academic gave him resources he could use to help.

“It positioned me to be able to publicize and convey Yazidi voices, survivor accounts, of people that were trapped on Sinjar Mountain, to convey that to the rest of the world and give people a sense of what was happening there,” Barber says. “After I started to understand more about the enslavement crisis, I became more involved in working with Yazidis to confront this problem and that's what took me to Washington with this delegation to push for action, to intervene and help save hopefully several thousand women.”

Part of Barber’s mission is to educate people about who the Yazidi are, and why they are at risk. This is tricky because the history and makeup of the Yazidis is complex and often misunderstood. They reside in small communities in northwest Iraq, northern Syria and southeast Turkey and estimates of their population range from 70,000 to 500,000.

The Yazidi are a target for the ISIS because they are not considered monotheistic and do not rely on written scripture, two elements considered important by the Quran.

“They have a mixture of many different narrative elements that they have appropriated from other traditions and their religious framework also preserves some very ancient pre-Zoroastrian, old Iranian religious motifs and rituals,” Barber says. “Yazidis have also been branded as devil-worshippers due to the fact that their chief deity, the peacock angel, seems to resemble the Lucifer character in the Christian and Islamic narratives.”

The lack of Abrahamic roots present in their religion put Yazidis in a different category than other minorities in the region. Although Christians in Mosul were also targeted this summer, they were robbed but not enslaved as many Yazidis have been because they are “Ahl al-Kitāb” or “People of the Book.”

The Yazidi are almost entirely Kurdish speaking, but due to recent political tensions, many have ceased to identify as Kurdish.

“What's important to understand is that on August 3rd, when ISIS attacked the Sinjar Mountains of the Yazidi homeland, the Peshmerga troops, the Kurdish military that was responsible to protect the Sinjar area, fled without a fight,” Barber says. “This led to the crisis of mass enslavement of great numbers of Yazidi women and the large number of deaths of many Yazidi people as well.”

Barber believes that had the Peshmerga stayed to fight, even for a short while, many lives would have been saved. Instead what happened was the Mount Sinjar crisis that faced President Obama in August of 2014. The aftermath of which has caused many Yazidis to feel that they cannot trust the central Iraqi government or the Kurdish government.

While in Kurdistan, Barber witnessed floods of Yazidi refugees and heard stories of missing family members, many of them wives and daughters.

“I would talk to a person who would tell me that his daughter, for example, had been kidnapped and she had notified him that she was being carted off in a truck through a cell phone that she managed to keep hidden with her,” Barber says. “A number of people who were on the ground there in the area began to be aware early on that something wasn't right, that there was some kind of kidnapping campaign that was underway, but it took us a while to understand the scale of this phenomenon.”

He learned that in some cases whole families were kidnapped. In these cases the men were forced to convert to Islam or be killed while their wives and daughters were sold into slavery. The largest numbers of those kidnapped, however, were women. Barber estimates that that number is nearing 7,000.

Barber and a delegation of Yazidis have been meeting with government officials, humanitarian organizations, the media and major think tanks around Washington D.C. raising awareness about these enslaved women and girls. 

“Everywhere we presented our message we were met with a great deal of sympathy, people care about this situation, but translating that compassion into action seems to be something that is met with a lot of obstacles at the moment,” Barber says.

Barber and the rest of the delegation are asking for “direct oversight from the international community, from the United States and from the United Nations to make sure Sinjar can be protected.” He believes that people can be saved without a large-scale re-intervention in Iraq.  

“We think that if the air-strike campaign that is already underway was utilized to target the locations of IS fighters that are keeping these women captive and they coordinated with Kurdish or Yazidi ground forces, that a very reasonable ground operation could be conducted to free a large number of these women,” Barber says.

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Who are the Yazidis?

The Yazidis are one of the only remaining near-eastern religious minorities that has non-Abrahamic roots. They have a mixture of many different narrative elements that they have appropriated from other traditions and their religious framework also preserves some very ancient pre-Zoroastrian, old Iranian religious motifs and rituals. The Yazidis are particularly vulnerable to Islamist violence due to the fact that they do not have a written scripture, which the Quran places significant importance on. They also have a number of beliefs that are interpreted as polytheistic by Islamists or by Muslims generally. Yazidis have also been branded as devil-worshippers due to the fact that their chief deity, the peacock angel, seems to resemble the Lucifer character in the Christian and Islamic narratives.

Yazidis are almost entirely Kurdish speaking, however, some of them identify as a unique identity, separate from Kurds. In fact, most people from the Sinjar Mountains identify as Yazidi, ethnically. Most Yazidis that reside in the Dohuk area, which is inside of Kurdistan province, many of those Yazidis identify as Kurdish. This has a lot to do with political tensions that exist within that area and the events that occurred this summer exacerbated this tension to the point where more and more Yazidis are identifying as non-Kurdish, as simply Yazidi.

What happened in the Sinjar Mountains?

On August 3rd, when ISIS attacked the Sinjar Mountains of the Yazidi homeland, the Peshmerga troops, the Kurdish military that was responsible to protect the Sinjar area, fled without a fight. They didn't even defend the Sinjar area for a single day as civilian families tried to evacuate. This led to the crisis of mass enslavement of great numbers of Yazidi women and the large number of deaths of many Yazidi people as well. Had the Peshmerga actually defended the area, for a short time, many of these people would have been able to escape without the catastrophe that ensued. It might not have prevented the mass displacement that has happened, but the scale of the disaster would have been greatly reduced. This is causing a lot of Yazidis to separate and to ask for direct international support to protect Sinjar since they can't get that protection from the governments that are responsible for them.

How many women have been kidnapped?

I'm working with a small team of Yazidi volunteers who are trying to track and quantify the number of women that have been kidnapped and taken away. For a while our estimate was 3 to 4 thousand women and girls. Over time, we were able to collect more and more data about the numbers and whereabouts of kidnapped Yazidis and we learned that, in some cases, entire families had been kidnapped, including men. In those cases, when entire families are kidnapped, the men are forced to convert to Islam. We know of mass killings that have taken place among those that have not been willing to leave their Yazidi faith and convert to Islam and in those cases it is usually the men alone that are killed and then the women are subsequently kidnapped and enslaved. When the men agree to convert, it seems that families are allowed to stay together, but they are not allowed to leave. They must stay and prove their sincerity by learning the Quran and learning Islamic prayers. This is a smaller number of the total Yazidi population that has been kidnapped and enslaved. Most of those are girls and women. The estimate that we have today, unfortunately, is between 6 and 7 thousand.

What is Matthew Barber doing? What can Americans do?

I was in Washington with the Yazidi delegation just a few weeks ago. We had meetings all over Washington with government officials, with people on Capitol Hill, with the media and various humanitarian organizations and think tanks. Everywhere we presented our message we were met with a great deal of sympathy, people care about this situation, but translating that compassion into action seems to be something that is met with a lot of obstacles at the moment.

We think that if the air-strike campaign that is already underway was utilized to target the locations of IS fighters that are keeping these women captive and they coordinated with Kurdish or Yazidi ground forces, that a very reasonable ground operation could be conducted to free a large number of these women.

Is it a genocide?

The United Nations has recognized that at least the motivation on the part of ISIS to attack the Yazidis in the form that they did is genocidal. They haven't referred to the event as genocide. We're not sure how many Yazidis have died, some people think around 5,000. It's not as big a number as usually occurs when a large massacre is labeled a genocide but the intention is genocidal in that the goal has been to erase Yazidi presence from the area and ISIS has stated that because this group is polytheistic, as they interpret it to be, they should not exist within Muslim lands and God will actually hold Muslims accountable for allowing them to have existed for this long. This is also the basis for the enslavement project. They believe that because this is an unprotected group that is non-monotheistic that they have the right to take their women as concubines. Yazidis are asking for direct oversight from the international community, from the United States and from the United Nations to make sure Sinjar can be protected.

The single most deadly suicide bombings of the entire decade of the war in Iraq were in the Sinjar Mountains against Yazidis, killing between over 500 people in one instance.

Are other minorities at risk?

There actually are a number of religious minorities in northern Iraq that are even smaller than the Yazidis you have groups like the Shabak for example, you have Turkmen Shiites, you have a group called the Kaka'i also known as the Ahl-e Haqq, you have the Mandaeans also a very small group more in the urban areas they lived in Baghdad. All of these groups have suffered tremendously and this kind of pressure due to nation building that you were referring to, pre-dates the security vacuum that was created by the US led war in Iraq. Of course the security vacuum that resulted from the US led war in Iraq really created conditions in which the community became the recipients of greater levels of Islamist fundamentalist persecution.

ISIS actually distinguishes between the minority groups that it deals with and it has a somewhat nuanced approach to how it approaches each one. They did not conduct a widespread campaign of slaughter of Christians or of forced conversion or of enslavement of members of Christian families, so the way that they have dealt with the Yazidis is different and that comes down to their understanding of the Christian community as belonging to an Islamic category of Ahl al-Kitāb, or People of the Book, and they believe that that category of people have a limited number of protections within an Islamic society. They do not believe that the Yazidis share the qualifications to receive those same kinds of protections and that's why they believe Yazidis are a legitimate target for enslavement, whereas Christians are not.

TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Matthew Barber, welcome to World Views.

MATTHEW BARBER: Thank you much. It's good to be here.

CRUISE: We're here to talk today about a really disturbing situation that is going on in the Middle East and you've had a lot of first hand experience with the Yazidi people. I was wondering if you could give us some background information about who these people are and what's happening to them right now.

BARBER: Well the Yazidis are one of the only remaining near-eastern religious minorities that has non-Abrahamic roots. They have a mixture of many different narrative elements that they have appropriated from other traditions and their religious framework also preserves some very ancient pre-Zoroastrian, old Iranian religious motifs and rituals. The Yazidis are particularly vulnerable to Islamist violence due to the fact that they do not have a written scripture, which the Quran places significant importance on. They also have a number of beliefs that are interpreted as polytheistic by Islamists or by Muslims generally. Yazidis have also been branded as devil-worshippers due to the fact that their chief deity, the peacock angel, seems to resemble the Lucifer character in the Christian and Islamic narratives.

CRUISE: So, this is an ethnic and religious population? Ethnically they tend to be Kurdish and a religious population that is now under attack by the Islamic rebels in Iraq and Syria?

BARBER: Yazidis are almost entirely Kurdish speaking, however, some of them identify as a unique identity, separate from Kurds. In fact, most people from the Sinjar Mountains identify as Yazidi, ethnically. Most Yazidis that reside in the Dohuk area, which is inside of Kurdistan province, many of those Yazidis identify as Kurdish. This has a lot to do with political tensions that exist within that area and the events that occurred this summer exacerbated this tension to the point where more and more Yazidis are identifying as non-Kurdish, as simply Yazidi. What's important to understand is that on August 3rd, when ISIS attacked the Sinjar Mountains of the Yazidi homeland, the Peshmerga troops, the Kurdish military that was responsible to protect the Sinjar area, fled without a fight. They didn't even defend the Sinjar area for a single day as civilian families tried to evacuate. This led to the crisis of mass enslavement of great numbers of Yazidi women and the large number of deaths of many Yazidi people as well. Had the Peshmerga actually defended the area, for a short time, many of these people would have been able to escape without the catastrophe that ensued. It might not have prevented the mass displacement that has happened, but the scale of the disaster would have been greatly reduced. Yazidis today are feeling a tremendous sense of betrayal and they no longer feel like they can trust the Kurdish regional government to protect them. They have felt this way for a long time about the central Iraqi government of Baghdad and they feel it now with the Kurdish government. This is causing a lot of Yazidis to separate and to ask for direct international support to protect Sinjar since they can't get that protection from the governments that are responsible for them.

JOSHUA LANDIS: You've mentioned that there have been a lot of women taken and enslaved, how big is that, how many Yazidi women have been enslaved and how do we know this?

BARBER: When I was still in the Kurdistan province this summer and Yazidi families were flooding into the Dohuk governorate as refugees, I went around and began to interview many of the families that had fled and one of the things that I noticed were people telling me that some of their family members were missing, specifically female family members. I would talk to a person who would tell me that his daughter, for example, had been kidnapped and she had notified him that she was being carted off in a truck through a cell phone that she managed to keep hidden with her. A number of people who were on the ground there in the area began to be aware early on that something wasn't right, that there was some kind of kidnapping campaign that was underway, but it took us a while to understand the scale of this phenomenon. I'm working with a small team of Yazidi volunteers who are trying to track and quantify the number of women that have been kidnapped and taken away. For a while our estimate was 3 to 4 thousand women and girls. Over time, we were able to collect more and more data about the numbers and whereabouts of kidnapped Yazidis and we learned that, in some cases, entire families had been kidnapped, including men. In those cases, when entire families are kidnapped, the men are forced to convert to Islam. We know of mass killings that have taken place among those that have not been willing to leave their Yazidi faith and convert to Islam and in those cases it is usually the men alone that are killed and then the women are subsequently kidnapped and enslaved. When the men agree to convert, it seems that families are allowed to stay together, but they are not allowed to leave. They must stay and prove their sincerity by learning the Quran and learning Islamic prayers. This is a smaller number of the total Yazidi population that has been kidnapped and enslaved. Most of those are girls and women. The estimate that we have today, unfortunately, is between 6 and 7 thousand.

LANDIS: Boko Haram is only 2 to 3 hundred women and they're not sexual slaves. This is a much bigger phenomenon and these women are being sold as concubines in many cases. How come this hasn't gone viral and people aren't aware of this?

BARBER: First of all, I believe that the enslavement that Boko Haram has engaged in is a form of sexual slavery because they've kidnapped women to serve as brides. They are taken into forced marriage, I believe. But you are right, its only a few hundred women, 2 hundred women at the beginning. We're talking about several thousand Yazidi women. We are also confused as to why this has not garnered more attention. We're not sure why the media is not dwelling on this.

LANDIS: You were just in Washington this last week, you talked to many high officials in The White House, The State Department, Think Tanks and why hasn't this caught on?

BARBER: You're right. I was in Washington with the Yazidi delegation just a few weeks ago. We had meetings all over Washington with government officials, with people on Capitol Hill, with the media and various humanitarian organizations and think tanks. Everywhere we presented our message we were met with a great deal of sympathy, people care about this situation, but translating that compassion into action seems to be something that is met with a lot of obstacles at the moment.

LANDIS: It would require America going into these areas and putting boots on the ground is what is would require in order to extract these women.

BARBER: Actually, we think that if the air-strike campaign that is already underway was utilized to target the locations of IS fighters that are keeping these women captive and they coordinated with Kurdish or Yazidi ground forces, that a very reasonable ground operation could be conducted to free a large number of these women.

CRUISE: What about the international community? If the United States isn't willing to get involved, what you're describing is perhaps at best ethnic cleansing and at worst genocide, what about the United Nations? What about other international actors that should be caring about these things?

BARBER: The United Nations has recognized that at least the motivation on the part of ISIS to attack the Yazidis in the form that they did is genocidal. They haven't referred to the event as genocide. We're not sure how many Yazidis have died, some people think around 5,000. It's not as big a number as usually occurs when a large massacre is labeled a genocide but the intention is genocidal in that the goal has been to erase Yazidi presence from the area and ISIS has stated that because this group is polytheistic, as they interpret it to be, they should not exist within Muslim lands and God will actually hold Muslims accountable for allowing them to have existed for this long. This is also the basis for the enslavement project. They believe that because this is an unprotected group that is non-monotheistic that they have the right to take their women as concubines. 

BARBER: Yazidis are asking for direct oversight from the international community, from the United States and from the United Nations to make sure Sinjar can be protected.

LANDIS: Now if we look at both Syria and Iraq, minorities have been disappearing there in this sort of cauldron of nation building and civil wars between people who are caught in the same nation and uncomfortable in the same nation. We're seeing lots of minorities being wiped out in Iraq and it speeds up with Americas conquest in 2003 the state collapsed, there was disorder and minorities become preyed upon. Are there other minorities who have disappeared or largely disappeared from Iraq? 

BARBER: There actually are a number of religious minorities in northern Iraq that are even smaller than the Yazidis you have groups like the Shabak for example, you have Turkmen Shiites, you have a group called the Kaka'i also known as the Ahl-e Haqq, you have the Mandaeans also a very small group more in the urban areas they lived in Baghdad. All of these groups have suffered tremendously and this kind of pressure due to nation building that you were referring to, pre-dates the security vacuum that was created by the US led war in Iraq. During the Saddam years, Saddam tried to count the Yazidis as Arabs as part of his Arabization scheme even though they are not Arabic speakers for the most part, they are Kurdish speakers. He was playing with demographics in such a way to boost his project of re-defining the demographic landscape and part of that meant destroying scores of Yazidi villages and re-locating thousands of Yazidis into these collective villages in different locations where he could keep an eye on them. Yazidis have been feeling pressures like this for a number of years. Of course the security vacuum that resulted from the US led war in Iraq really created conditions in which the community became the recipients of greater levels of Islamist fundamentalist persecution, in fact, the single most deadly suicide bombings of the entire decade of the war in Iraq were in the Sinjar mountains against Yazidis, killing between over 500 people in one instance.

LANDIS: What about the Christians? We haven't spoken about the Christians but this summer, with the attack on the Yazidis, many Christians were driven out. That can't be part of this Islamic project of the ISIS because they are part of the Abrahamic tradition.

BARBER: So ISIS actually distinguishes between the minority groups that it deals with and it has a somewhat nuanced approach to how it approaches each one. Christians this summer were entirely expelled from Mosul en masse. The IS jihadists that guard the entrances of the city, the checkpoints in those areas. They stripped them of everything that they owned. They took all their possessions, they took wedding rings right off the fingers of women, they took the cash that was in the men's pockets, they confiscated the cars and vehicles and those people basically entered the Kurdistan province destitute, with nothing. Even with that terrible situation they did not conduct a widespread campaign of slaughter of Christians or of forced conversion or of enslavement of members of Christian families so the way that they have dealt with the Yazidis is different and that comes down to their understanding of the Christian community as belonging to an Islamic category of Ahl al-Kitāb, or People of the Book, and they believe that that category of people have a limited number of protections within an Islamic society. They do not believe that the Yazidis share the qualifications to receive those same kinds of protections and that's why they believe Yazidis are a legitimate target for enslavement, whereas Christians are not.

CRUISE: Let me step back just for a second and get an idea of your role in this story. We are just coming to learn of this group, ISIS is really something from this past summer that we're hearing about, but you have spent time in this region, you have been with these people, and you just this past summer were there when much of this was going on. How did you get involved and what were your personal experiences?

BARBER: I've been to Northern Iraq three times and I've conducted research there in the past about the Yazidi community, about some of their efforts to conduct legal reform projects and other things and this has helped cultivate a relationship between me and Yazidi leaders over a number of years. And I happened to be in northern Iraq this summer hoping to continue with some research projects and study Kurdish language when all of this unfolded so it positioned me to be able to publicize and convey Yazidi voices, survivor accounts, of people that were trapped on Sinjar Mountain to convey that to the rest of the world and give people a sense of what was happening there. After I started to understand more about the enslavement crisis, I became more involved in working with Yazidis to confront this problem and that's what took me to Washington with this delegation to push for action, to intervene and help save hopefully several thousand women.

CRUISE: You were in fact one of the first people to bring to light some of these concerns. For some time there was belief that this wasn't really happening, there wasn't a lot of evidence until you brought it to international attention and then ISIS confirmed that this was happening.

BARBER: There were a few voices talking about it, I was among the first. There were a few other articles but people weren't paying attention to it, I was accused online by a number of ISIS supporters of being a liar, of fabricating all of this in order to defame the self proclaimed Islamic State but ironically it was a couple months later that ISIS themselves published a document broadcasting, publicly disclosing their slavery revival project.

CRUISE: Well just a horrific story all the way around and unfortunately we're out of time but we will certainly keep following this and hoping that it comes to a good resolution for these poor men and women. Thank you so much.

BARBER: Thank you so much for having me.

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