Barfi Halil, a Yazidi from Sinjar in Iraq, sits beside a fire with her grandchildren. The 63-year-old grandmother has spent the past week in the fields of Idomeni, sharing a small camping tent with her son, his wife and their five children, one of whom has severe developmental disabilities.
The family fled Sinjar in 2014, after militants laid siege to the area. They first went to a camp for displaced people outside Dohuk, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. They then sought safety in Europe. The family worries that new border restrictions will prevent them from crossing the border into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
“We Yazidis have suffered a lot,” Barfi said. “We can’t go back home.” Credit UNHCR
In the summer of 2014, ISIS forces swept through parts of Iraq that were home to the Yazidi people. This is an ethnic minority that has lived in northwestern Iraq for centuries — and suddenly they were under attack. What transpired was a genocide. Men and boys were murdered for being Yazidi; women and girls were kidnapped and taken as sex slaves for ISIS fighters.
At the time, Emma Beals was reporting from Erbil, a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq near to where these atrocities were taking place. She was reeling from the news that a fellow journalist, James Foley, had been brutally murdered when she received a call from a human rights organization asking her to investigate rumors of a massacre in the Yazidi town of Kocho.
Emma Beals describes whats next in a series of powerful essays, titledKocho’s Living Ghosts. There were 19 surviving men from the town’s original population of 1,888. In our conversation Emma Beals recounts the massacre through the testimony of the survivors she interviewed.
So when I first heard about the massacre, I was already in Iraq. I was living on the Turkish border at the time. As ISIS had moved towards Sinjar at the beginning of August, I was with VICE journalists and we were covering the breaking news. So we had spent two weeks at that point in Northern Iraq covering those scenes of flows of people through the dessert as they came from Sinjar Mountain, through Syria, into Iraq. We were covering the U.S. airstrikes and then that assignment came to an end and it was two days after the murder of journalist, James Foley. So the end of that assignment was very difficult, everyone in the press core was upset, and I was personally affected. It was a really hard time and I did not know what to do with myself or where to go. I was alone in this hotel room when the phone rang. It was a human rights NGO calling about a particular massacre, among all of the Yazidi massacres, in Kocho. When ISIS comes into a town, a lot of people just flee into the mountains and those that do not are killed. But in Kocho, they were surrounded. This NGO asked me to go as a temp until they could get someone to the region. The survivors were starting to find their way to Duhok and the NGO wanted me to debrief them before the people were overly influenced or had a chance to compare their stories, so their statements could be used in court later on.
We are speaking around the five year anniversary of this massacre. Can you describe what led up to this assault on Sinjar?
It is kind of a “how long is a piece of string” question. The conflict in Syria had been going on for a number of years and during that what was known as ISI became ISIS, and in 2014 they had sort of increased their reach across the border back into Iraq. They shocked the world by taking Mosul City in Iraq in the space of a weekend. It was like they came out of nowhere but their history was extensive. In terms of their impact in Iraq and the world’s understanding of ISIS, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from the city and countryside. Nobody expected they had that kind of military power or that the Iraqi forces did not have enough to resist them. They had taken this large chunk of territory, a lot of which was not strategically valuable. Fast forward a couple of months to August, ISIS swept across the Yazidi territory and into the Mosul dam. They started to push on some of the other adjacent towns. It had been building for a couple months but it took everyone by surprise with its intensity.
This was a genocide made up of a number of massacres and individual atrocities. Can you describe what unfolded and how that massacre transpired?
So, in Kocho ISIS arrived in the morning of August 3rd. They surrounded the town and engaged in some kind of conversation with the chief. He tried to implore them to let the people go to the Sinjar Mountain. He called on the village leaders who he thought might have some influence with the ISIS fighters. There were about 1200 people in Kocho on this day. The fighters told them to give up their weapons, stay in their houses, raise their white flags, and then they besieged the town. That went on for 12 days until August 15th. Abu Hamza, a local ISIS Emir, announced that everyone had to gather in the school. He separated everyone in the school by women, men, and children. He asked them one final time if they would convert to Islam and they said no. Then a Kurdish speaking ISIS fighter came in and this made the people a little more trusting since he spoke their language. But, the ISIS fighters took all of their valuables – earrings, gold, mobile phones. Then they started with the men and loaded them onto trucks, promising they would see the women and children again. The trucks went to the edge of the village. The ISIS fighters ordered the men onto their knees and shot all of them. Then they would go off, take another load of men, take them to another location, and repeat this. Those that were injured and couldn’t move were buried alive. Some of them crawled out from piles of their loved ones and managed to escape.
Do we know how many people were killed that way?
They have exhumed around 160 bodies, but that is not a definitive number.
You told two stories of Kichi Amo and Saed Murad. How did Kichi Amo survive this ordeal?
Rather miraculously, he was not injured at all. He was shot alongside his family and managed to crawl out from under the bodies. He ran off and waited until the sun went down. Saed was hit several times and his cousins were killed next to him. He stayed very still until the fighters had gone away. Then he crawled out, in his words, “like a snake”. He found an abandoned farmhouse where he met up with a guy named Ali. They told me the story of how they escaped from there. They waited until the sun went down, watched ISIS bury the men, and watched them take the women and children in cars as hostages. Then they set off to walk to Sinjar. Saed had six bullet wounds and Ali had been shot as well. They went off and found a village where they knew someone. They knocked on his door in the middle of the night asking for help. The man had been threatened against helping any of the Yazidis, but he got them medical help and then made them leave. They tried to leave the village again and a few more individuals tried to help. Some of the villagers were very kind. They tried to sell their crops in order to pay a smuggler to get them all the way to the mountain. Eventually, they cobbled their way there in six days. They were brought to the hospitals in Duhok which is where I met them.
And Saed is the brother of Nadia Murad, the Nobel Peace Laureate?
Right, so they are an exceptional family. Nadia has done this incredible advocacy work and Saed joined the militias that helped to fight ISIS out of the town and was given awards for his bravery in combat.
Can you further describe your visit to Kocho?
Kocho was held by ISIS for three years. In 2017, they were beaten out. I had been wanting to go back, because I had my own trauma from that summer that got mixed up with what happened in Kocho.
Your referring to journalists that you cared for who were murdered by ISIS?
That’s right. They were murdered that summer of 2014. I had so much empathy for the survivors I met during that time. I went back to Iraq in the summer of 2017 and I tracked down Kichi, Saed, and Ali. We talked about everything and how they were moving on. I realized in the course of talking to them that I could not ask them to come to the town with me. Nobody was living there and it was still insecure. There were varied opinions whether it was somewhere people wanted to return. So, I went by myself. The school is now a memorial, but at the time it still had debris on the floor. You could still feel the enormity of what happened in that space. There was a sense of everyone who had been lost. I went to the mass graves and at that time they had not started exhuming them. Everything was exactly as it was, so you could identify the bullet casings next to the mounds of dirt where the bodies were buried. It really pictured the banality of evil.
You don’t have to answer this, but you went seeking some catharsis and healing, did you find that?
It was more about compulsion than a sense of healing. I kind of did. The graves of my friends were never found, but that gave me a sense of what they might be like. It helped me situate some of the other atrocities as well that I could not visit. It was helpful to talk to the survivors. We had some philosophical discussions about forgiveness and healing.
What is Kichi Amo up to now?
Him and his cousin were rescuing some of the women from Kocho. He produced lists of the women they had freed. His own family was saved and they were in Germany getting assistance.
Finally, the crimes you described cry out for justice. Is there any sense of a local judicial process or justice initiative?
Justice comes in many forms. There are broader conversations that are being helped by the likes of Nadia Marad. You have the graves being exhumed through a proper process up to international standards, which helps with accountability. It is complicated with Iraqi law because in Iraq, those associated with ISIS are being tried just for being a member. So, those trials are not saying, this man was involved in this massacre, which is how you would get that real sense of healing. There is a crisis of psychological assistance. While there are organisations doing wonderful work, there isn’t enough help. For some folks, like Kitchi told me he never wants to go back to Kocho, so he needs somewhere he can go. Others want to go back, but there are political issues. So there is a more practical form of justice, which is to provide the conditions for survivors live a dignified life. But, this is moving quite slowly and prohibiting people from healing.