By Alexandra Menter
Daesh (otherwise known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and shortened to ISIS or ISIL) formed in 1999 and gained notoriety in 2014 when the group began invading various cities across the Middle East. Daesh stunned the world when it seized control of Syria’s Raqqa, and Iraq’s Mosul in 2014, then spread across the Levant.
According to Al Arabiya’s English language online newspaper, Daesh had most recently moved its capital from Syria’s Eastern city Raqqa to Deir Ezzour, indicating a weakening in the group’s strategic hold on the Syrian city and an overall waning in Daesh’s overall military and political power. After seven years of civil war, Syria now sits in ruin with factions of Kurdish militias, small rebel groups, the Syrian government, Turkish backed rebels, Daesh, and Israel still fighting for crucial pieces of land. An interactive map published by Al Jazeera shows that Daesh controls pieces of the region surrounding Deir Ezzor stretching to Homs, as well as territory close to Raqqa. The majority of Syria however, is currently controlled by Kurdish forces and Syrian government forces.
On July 4, 2017, The Washington Post reported that after numerous airstrikes and an intense U.S. lead offensive, Iraqi troops are working to remove the last traces of Daesh from Mosul. Additionally, Iraqi troops recaptured the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, and Kurdish dominated Syrian government forces had breached a wall in Raqqa’s Old City. Later in July, the Independent reported that Daesh had officially lost Mosul and Raqqa, but that a Lybian militia fighting on behalf of the Lybian government warned that Daesh were preparing to invade the country’s trade capital, Misrata.
Daesh’s loss of strategic territory does not mean that its presence is any less dangerous to those it continues to threaten however. This is particularly true for the many survivors of sexual slavery who Daesh began kidnapping as early as 2014.
While Daesh continue to wreak havoc on Middle Eastern communities that are still under their control, the Yezidi minority in Iraq have endured the brunt of their aggression. Yezidis are an ethnoreligious minority residing primarily in Sinjar, Iraq. In August of 2014, the Guardian reported that the total global population of Yezidis was approximately 700,000.
Daesh’s assault is not the first time the Yezidi people have endured mass genocide. Under the Ottoman Empire, Yezidis endured approximately 72 genocidal massacres. The crux of Yezidi marginalization stems from their religious beliefs. Yezidis worship a fallen angel known as Melek Tawwus. In the Christian tradition, Satan fell from grace and descended into Hell. Melek Tawwus however, was forgiven and allowed to ascend back into Heaven. Thus, Yezidis have been demonized as devil worshipers.
Daesh’s attack in August 2014 forced approximately 70,000 Yezidi’s to seek asylum in Europe; causing an uptick in anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment from American citizens.
Since Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian, and American forces initiated the campaign to liberate Mosul in 2016, approximately 180 women kidnapped by Daesh in 2014 have been returned to their families. Human Rights Watch researchers and the United Nations have estimated that between 2,000 and 3,500 Yezidi women and children remain in Daesh captivity. Additionally, approximately 1,500 women and girls have escaped.
One of the biggest hurdles for escapees seeking support is the lack of organization from the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish governments to simultaneously provide women with necessarily mental and physical health services while also addressing their own laws and practices that prevent escapees from obtaining treatment.
Skye Wheeler, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), spoke with fifteen Yezidi survivors about the years following their escape. According to HRW, these women came from the Daesh controlled Hawija region in Iraq and have settled in displaced person camps near Kirkuk, Iraq. In 2015, HRW discovered that health services for escapees was severely lacking. By January of 2016, however, the Iraqi Kurdish Government (KRG) had established a survivor center with professional psychologists, and are working to oversee the growth of psychological and medical health services, and the Yezidi and other displaced person’s camps. Additionally, the KRG have set up a referral system for women seeking urgent medical care.
There still remain a number of significant barriers to treatment and healthcare however. Survivors arriving to the camps near Kirkuk, Iraq without male companions are sometimes separated from their families by KRG forces. “In at least five cases families wanted to live elsewhere but were refused.” KRG forces “have also withheld identification documents, restricting residents’ freedom of movement through checkpoints outside of the camp… requiring them to return…” a problem that has occurred in three separate cases.
This means that it is extremely difficult for escapees to “rent housing, [and] send their children to school.” Women in the Nazrawa camp (in Kirkuk) who want to see doctors and health specialists often cannot pass through checkpoints as they are required to leave identity documentation with the Asayish (the Kurdish security agency) guarding the camp. Basic services such as legal and safe abortions are also unavailable to escapees because of Iraq and Kurdistan’s conservative laws. While situations are slowly improving for escapees, many of these women are essentially trapped in limbo in these camps. Unable to receive proper healthcare, and unable to move outside of the camps, they are more-or-less trapped until relief services or the political situation in Iraq improves.
Many people in the U.S. ask what they can do to assist the Yezidi people. One important step is to educate each other about the situation in Iraq, and stay updated on Middle Eastern current events. Information from reliable human rights organizations can direct internationals to trustworthy charities and nonprofits dedicated to raising money to support Yezidi resettlement projects.
It is also important to support Yezidi activists. Yazda, a Yezidi nonprofit with registration in several countries, provides humanitarian assistance to survivors of the 2014 Yezidi genocide. Its advocacy work focuses on contacting government and parliaments to spread awareness about human rights violations against Yezidis, push for Daesh personnel to be prosecuted for their crimes, and advocate for legal recognition of the Yezidi genocide. They are also in the process of developing numerous education projects, women’s centers, cultural centers, and small business support, all intended to rebuild the Yezidi community and help survivors recover.
This is an excellent opportunity to donate to an incredible organization Link: https://www.hrw.org/tag/isis doing serious aid work. The time is always right to help one another, and with the U.S. government side-tracked by other concerns it is up to American civilians to support international communities, and help the forgotten Yezidi women, and others, to rebuild their communities and lives.
Alexandra Menter is an intersectional, trans inclusive, sex worker inclusive, feminist. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, one of the first women’s colleges in the United States, where she received her BA in English with a minor in theatre. She currently resides in Carbondale Colorado, where she works as a Stage Manager for Thunder River Theatre Company.