It has been more than eight years since the Islamic State (ISIS) destroyed Sinjar in Iraq, and the area remains devastated today. I visited Sinjar – my home – just weeks ago and was once again confronted by the realities of a destabilized community that has gone nearly a decade without substantial investments in its recovery. It desperately needs international support.
In the early 2000s, I served as a translator and cultural advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq. I am proud of my service, as are many other members of my Yazidi community. In addition to working as cultural liaisons, Yazidis served as security guards, cooks, cleaners, and mechanics on U.S. bases throughout the region. I had the opportunity to see and be part of the essential support that kept American military personnel safe. We helped them identify safe routes and we watched for warning signs that signaled when they needed to get out. Ultimately, we made sure they got home to their families safely.
By the time the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2010, hundreds of Yazidis had been actively supporting U.S. military operations despite knowing that this association put us and our families at immense risk. Because of my service, I was given the opportunity to relocate to the United States and attend the University of Nebraska. But the majority of Yazidis and other minority groups who served vital roles supporting the U.S. occupation were not so lucky.
The 2014 Yazidi Genocide
While in Nebraska, I watched as my Yazidi community in Iraq became more and more vulnerable, due to a rise in hate speech and disinformation, along with ongoing targeted religious persecution. In the power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, resources for supporting minorities were removed, and marginalized communities were left with little protection. This power vacuum made room for the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS who were intent on destabilizing Iraq even further through the destruction of lands and the ethnic cleansing of minority groups. Soon, Yazidis there who had also served the U.S. military were targeted by radical groups because they had aided the Americans. The combination of weakened security left by the U.S. intervention and years of targeted discrimination by the Iraqi government left Yazidis vulnerable to annihilation when ISIS began a genocide against the community in 2014.
Aftermath of the Genocide
Since the atrocities began, the U.S. has been sympathetic to the Yazidi cause, delivering emergency aid to Yazidis trapped on top of Mount Sinjar in the early days of the ISIS attacks and speaking out as one of the first major powers to officially recognize the actions of ISIS as genocide.
The United States also quickly assembled and led the global coalition to defeat ISIS. But the violence against the Yazidi people did not end when Sinjar was liberated.
In recent years, the political will to stabilize Iraq has drastically waned, as attention has turned to security threats in other parts of the world. The U.S. government is no longer interested in holding ISIS accountable for genocide in international courts or brokering peace between the Iraqi Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, who are in protracted conflict over control of the Sinjar region.
The same Yazidis who were vital to the survival and success of the U.S. military now need support to survive themselves. As a community, we have endured the trauma of wars, sanctions, years of unrest, and an attempt to eradicate our existence. Many of our people are scattered throughout the world or live in internal displacement camps because of the destruction and instability in our homeland.
During my recent visit, I spoke with survivors and the Iraq team of Nadia’s Initiative, an organization that I co-founded with my wife Nadia Murad and where I serve as executive director. The Initiative has been working in Sinjar since 2018. We heard from local residents about the immense challenges of rebuilding homes and businesses next to mass graves, trying to stave off the COVID pandemic when they still have to travel many miles to receive basic primary care, and trying to recover from ISIS captivity when women still do not have ways to feed their families. The stories made it even more clear to me that Yazidis need international assistance to rebuild our community.
The efforts by Nadia’s Initiative to restore essential services have improved living conditions and increased opportunities for Yazidis. But objectives such as resolving the power struggle in Sinjar, rescuing Yazidi women and children still in captivity, holding ISIS accountable for international crimes, and supporting the holistic rehabilitation of a persecuted minority are beyond the capacity of NGOs alone.
They are, however, achievable. The U.S. government has played an important role in shaping Iraq’s democracy. Minorities like Yazidis need American support to ensure that we can be an equal part of that society, with all of the attendant rights and freedoms.
How the U.S. Can Support Yazidis Today and for the Long Term
I call on U.S. policymakers and civil society to demonstrate their sympathy with more direct action — to put their financial and political weight behind supporting survivors, rehabilitating the region, and pursuing justice and accountability. Among the invaluable assistance the United States could provide is to help:
Rescue and Reunite Women and Children
To this day, 2,700 women and children are still in ISIS captivity. Many Yazidi families have evidence that their loves ones are still alive, but they are unable to amass the resources and capacity to mount rescue efforts. Some captives are still trafficked throughout Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere on searchable online forums, and others remain with ISIS militants in detention camps in Syria but have not been provided safe pathways to reveal their identities.
Given the dispersal of captives across countries, centralized international coordination is necessary for the success of rescue missions. The United States can help end this atrocity of modern-day slavery by leading or supporting an international effort to locate and rescue the missing Yazidis. Every day that rescue efforts are delayed is another day that women and children are trafficked and abused.
Press for Expedited Mass Grave Exhumations to Bring Closure in Yazidis’ Healing
Unexhumed mass graves are a major barrier in the Yazidis’ attempt to return to Sinjar. There are more than 80 mass graves spread throughout Sinjar, only 30 of which have been exhumed. These unexhumed mass graves are not only reminders of the violence the community faced, but also represent the unknown fates of loved ones. Many of these mass graves are left exposed and in the middle of villages, which is far too traumatizing for Yazidis to return to.
The United States can expedite the process to exhume and identify mass graves by spurring the U.N. Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by ISIL (ISIS) to fulfill its mandate to exhume graves and identify remains, earmarking funding for exhumation efforts, and encouraging Iraq to invite actors such as the International Commission on Missing Persons to create a team dedicated to exhumations and identifications in Sinjar. Increasing the capacity of exhumation efforts is crucial for bringing closure and healing for the community.
Support the Redevelopment and Rebuilding of Sinjar
Additionally, the United States can earmark funding to ensure Yazidis have adequate infrastructure to return and rebuild their lives in Sinjar. When ISIS waged its systematic assault on Sinjar, nearly 80 percent of public infrastructure and 70 percent of civilian homes were destroyed. The United States can continue to fund sustainable development, such as the rebuilding of schools, medical facilities, roads, and water and sanitation services. During the next three years, $150 million would help put these development goals into action and make a sizeable impact on stabilizing the region. By funding redevelopment for the region of Sinjar, the United States can help Yazidis safely and securely return home.
But impact also depends on the kind of investment. Funding long-term, sustainable redevelopment project rather than short-term aid to camps will ensure that Yazidis have the tools and resources to thrive and be self-sufficient for generations to come.
Utilize Political Power to Ensure Long-Lasting Change
Finally, U.S. officials and elected leaders can use their political power to press the Iraqi Federal Government and Kurdistan Regional Government to achieve lasting stabilization in Sinjar. Facilitating democratic elections, incorporating Yazidis into local security forces, and removing militia groups from the region are needed steps for lasting peace and stability. The United States can leverage its continued military support for both governments to put positive pressure on peace talks and ensure that Yazidis have meaningful representation in all decision-making processes.
Designating a Special Envoy
To monitor the situation of Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq, the U.S. government should assign a special envoy solely dedicated to facilitating sustainable development, security, and justice efforts. The envoy should closely consult the Yazidi community and coordinate with the U.N. and other partners to streamline interventions and make sure the U.S. is kept abreast of developments affecting Yazidis and other religious minorities.
Ultimately, we need the United States to do for Yazidis what we did for them – provide support so we can accomplish goals that are unattainable on our own. Just as the Yazidis were instrumental in ensuring U.S. military personnel were able to return home, the United States can help the Yazidi community return to Sinjar and rebuild our lives. In doing so, U.S. leaders would help accomplish the objectives for Iraq that they established back in 2003 – stabilizing the region and protecting human rights and religious freedom for all.
IMAGE: Displaced Yazidis stand near their tent at the Chamishko camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the city of Zakho in the north of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region on May 5, 2022. Thousands of Yazidis were again forced to flee their homes that month, after fierce clashes between the army and local fighters in their Sinjar heartland. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)