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Yazidis in Iraq on Thursday commemorated the anniversary of the massacres carried out by Islamic State in the northern Nineveh province in 2014, and vowed to seek justice for those who were killed.
The event marked three years since Islamic State forces swept across the mountainous Sinjar area, which is populated by the majority of the world’s Yazidis.
It ended in a bloodbath which a UN panel in June 2016 classified as genocide.
Now the survivors want legal recognition that this was genocide, and they want the bodies of their beloved ones to be found.
They want what the Srebrenica survivors have achieved.
That is why, on July 11 this year, a Yazidi delegation attended the 22nd anniversary commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide – the massacres of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys systematically executed by Bosnian Serb forces who overran the town towards the end of the 1992-95 war.
Dilbar Omer, one of the Yazidi delegation members, told BIRN that the visit to Bosnia was both inspiring and productive.
“Throughout our meeting with the women survivors of Srebrenica, we focused on sharing our work and experiences. We were reminded to rely on the law, instead of being dragged down by hate and revenge,” Omer said.
“Documentation is vital,” he said he learned. “We should use a variety of tools and means to demand our rights,” he added.
The group now plans to encourage and empower survivors to become active community workers and to encourage local communities to document all the crimes against humanity that have been committed.
Finding mass graves is a priority, Omer said. Yazidi survivors have said they want the international community to get involved in searching for grave sites and building legal cases, as it did in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But the group will also try to strengthen social cohesion and rebuild trust between various ethnic groups.
“We will be working together on education, culture, forgiveness and on the rebuilding of a local civil society which will be striving for a bright and peaceful future,” Omer said.
“The Iraqi Yazidis were impressed by the work of victims’ groups in Srebrenica,” Sam van Vliet, the senior programme officer for Iraq at the Dutch peace-building organisation PAX, which organised the Yazidis’ visit to the Srebrenica commemoration last month.
What impressed the six-member Yazidi delegation was how the Bosnians “over such a long period of time, have been successful in lobbying for identification of the mass graves and, later on, have become involved in the justice and materialisation process”, van Vliet said.
They learned about “the importance of victims organising themselves as a civil society group in order to lobby more efficiently”, he added.
The survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, mainly women, managed to persuade foreign governments to set up the International Commission on Missing Persons and helped create to the most sophisticated mass DNA identification process the world has seen.
They have pressed forensic experts to find hidden mass graves, to excavate them, put skeletons together like jigsaw puzzles and to return them to their families who have been burying the remains of their loved ones every year on July 11 at the Srebrenica memorial centre in Potocari – funerals which have been attended by world leaders.
Meanwhile, the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague has tried some of the perpetrators of the atrocities, including the masterminds.
Nobody had ever done anything like this before.
Kada Hotic, one of the most prominent faces of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, lost her son, husband, and two brothers in the 1995 massacres. Hotic has some advice for the Yazidis.
“They should insist on the establishment of a neutral court, they should pressure local and international institutions to find evidence,” she told BIRN.
“Once they have all the evidence, they can present it to that court,” she said.
Hotic said that a court ruling is the most important part of the genocide recognition process.
“Before there was an official court ruling, nobody in the media would even use the word ‘genocide’ to describe what happened to us,” she explained.
Hotic recalled how, as soon as the war ended, the Srebrenica women did everything they could to find their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers.
They registered an association and began lobbying, knocking on doors, insisting, marching in protest and giving interviews to media.
But nobody would help, Hotic said. Officials closed doors in their faces, or never even opened them when they knocked.
The Bosnian Serb authorities who controlled Srebrenica tried to prevent the women from visiting the town after the war, let alone looking for the remains of their loved ones or returning to their homes.
But the mothers, sisters and widows had nothing more to lose and never gave up.
“We threw rocks at the Red Cross, at the police. We had to be rough. We were desperate,” Hotic admitted.
The Srebrenica women persevered, and continued to speak to local and international officials, to statesmen and to non-governmental organisations, to US congress members and to lawyers.
In 1996, the International Commission on Missing Persons was set up – an initiative backed by US President Bill Clinton – and tasked with finding and identifying the victims of the Bosnian war.
When forensic experts started excavating one mass grave after another, the women stood above the pits and watched every move they made.
They all gave blood and mobilised Srebrenica refugees around the world to do so as well in order to create a DNA bank of 100,000 samples which could be compared with the DNA from every bone that was found.
The women sued whoever they could at any court that would take their cases, both in Bosnia and internationally. They sued the Dutch state because its soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica did not protect the Bosniak men as they should have; they even tried to sue the UN itself.
Some cases were lost, others were won, but the result was a success that history will remember.
The International Commission for Missing Persons is now an international body based in The Hague that helps to find and identify victims of conflicts and natural calamities worldwide, from General Pinochet’s victims in Chile to the Asian tsunami victims of 2004.
The collected evidence from the Srebrenica mass graves, the witnesses in court cases and the documents obtained during raids helped prosecutors at the Hague war crimes tribunal prove the crime the defendants had committed was the ‘deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group’ or part of a group – the definition of genocide.
This then helped judges at the International Court of Justice to rule that Srebrenica was an act of genocide.
Meanwhile, the victims managed to lobby for money and political backing for a Srebrenica memorial centre to be built – an enormous graveyard where most of their loved ones have now finally been laid to rest.
The Yazidis say they now want to achieve something similar to the Srebrenica women.
“The Yazidi community is actively engaged in making their case for justice with the international community,” said Tanya Domi, adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, who has been closely following the Srebrenica process for more than two decades.
They are currently “learning from the Srebrenica community’s wisdom and experience as it has carried out an endless campaign for accountability since the genocide”, Domi added.
“By numerous accounts, there is an overwhelming conclusion that genocide has been committed against the Yazidis in Iraq by fighters aligned with the Islamic State,” she said.
Last year, a report issued by a UN mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry described the crimes committed against the Yazidis as “unimaginable horrors”, concluding that these crimes in their totality constituted genocide.
The report described the killings, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment that the Yazidis suffered.
It listed also the “the imposition of measures to prevent Yazidi children from being born, including forced conversion of adults, the separation of Yazidi men and women, and mental trauma; and the transfer of Yazidi children from their own families and placing them with ISIS fighters, thereby cutting them off from beliefs and practices of their own religious community”.
“ISIS sought – and continues to seek – to destroy the Yazidis in multiple ways, as envisaged by the 1948 Genocide Convention,” the report concluded.
Domi said she sees many similarities between what happened to the Yazidis and to the Bosniaks of Srebrenica.
She emphasised what she characterised as some of the worst crimes committed against the Yazidis – the reported abduction and sexual enslavement of Yazidi women by ISIS fighters who at the same time have been carrying out extrajudicial killings of Yazidi men.
“These crimes are parallel to the principally Bosniak experience that took place during the 1992-1995 war,” Domi said.
According to PAX, a total of 550,000 Yazidis used to live in Iraq.
As a result of the ISIS assault in 2014, 360,000 Yazidis became internally displaced and 90,000 left the country, the organisation claims.
Of the 3,547 women and girls who were kidnapped, only 1,911 have returned so far. Many who were abducted had to endure serious sexual abuse in ISIS captivity.
Of the 2,870 boys kidnapped, 1,137 have returned so far, PAX’s van Vliet told BIRN.
“At this moment, a total of 1,293 Yazidis have been killed and 43 mass graves have been found,” he said.
“It is imperative that this forensic evidence needs to be collected as soon as possible… and that the survivors and the victims have their day in court,” Domi urged.
In a statement to mark the third anniversary of the massacres on Thursday, the Yazidi survivors’ legal adviser, Amal Clooney, echoed this call for a legal reckoning.
“It is shameful that three years after the genocide began, no ISIS member has been held to account for it in a court of law. I look forward to the day that Yazidis and other victims of ISIS can face their abusers in a court in The Hague,” Clooney said.
The Yazidi commemoration on Thursday was a step down the path that the Bosniak survivors of Srebrenica have already trodden.
The next steps for the Yazidis will be hard, and will take many years, but Hotic said that they are worth taking.
“You cannot bring the dead back, but you can feel the justice,” she said.
“It gives the victims some satisfaction, and to the rest of humanity, it gives a lesson to future generations.”