In the aftermath of the territorial defeat of ISIS, harrowing stories of Yazidi survivors of ISIS’s kidnappings and ethnic cleansing were shared around the world. On social media, Yazidi women newly freed from ISIS captivity, were seen receiving assistance and security assurances from the UN and humanitarian organizations. However, despite the promises made, many Yazidi survivors are now struggling as international aid moves to new hotspots and leaves behind a broken recovery process where individuals are left in humanitarian limbo. Earlier this month, SJAC staff visited several Yazidi communities in Iraq to collect firsthand documentation of the abuses they suffered while inside Syria, as well as valuable information on the structure and activities of ISIS, which many women witnessed while held captive in fighters’ homes. As documenters logged the past and current challenges faced by these women, it became clear that the international community, in the rush to defeat ISIS, has neglected to lay the groundwork for a long-term legal and humanitarian framework to truly uplift the survivors of ISIS crimes.
Many of the Yazidis who were initially rescued from ISIS settled in several village camps near Dohuk, while other groups dispersed across Iraqi Kurdistan. Unfortunately, the camps in which they live suffer from poor sanitation, limited electricity, and high temperatures. Many survivors are women and children, the majority of whom experienced sexual violence and live with the mental and physical injuries from their time in ISIS captivity. However, in the towns of Qadiya, Carrazil, and Semel which are close to population centers, Yazidis can at least benefit from limited aid and support themselves on low-wage agricultural jobs.
Unfortunately, in more remote camps, many Yazidi’s rebuilt in areas where violent storms and venomous snakes are common, and having adequate shelter is often a matter of life or death. A significant portion of survivors in these camps struggle with physical and mental ailments and disabilities that are common in survivors of imprisonment under ISIS. Many are not able to access even basic health care. The remoteness of some villages means that women who require advanced treatment must rely on nearby villages to donate the necessary funds for them to travel to the nearest hospital in Erbil, sometimes as far as 6 hours away.
These humanitarian struggles are compounded by a lack of documentation or ID papers, the originals of which were often lost or destroyed during their kidnapping. Under current circumstances, the survivors are unable to receive updated identification documents, leaving them unable to access crucial services, including free treatment at public medical facilities.
These difficult conditions, combined with the legacy of ISIS’s crimes, have taken a horrific toll. Suicide rates for survivors settled in and around Dohuk are significantly higher than Iraq’s last documented national average. Since the beginning of 2021, there have been 73 documented suicide attempts out of a population of nearly 350,000, 34 of which were successful. Despite the rapid influx (and then exit) of aid workers, resources, and funding in 2019, the survivors were provided little to no long-term resources to address PTSD and other trauma-related illnesses resulting from their enslavement. The medical resources provided by the UN in 2019 were not enough to mitigate severe and long-term structural issues faced by these communities.
While the media story crafted by humanitarian organizations would have the world believe that rescued Yazidis have been well cared for, many survivors tell a different story. Despite the promise of aid from international organizations such as the UN, survivors were often given little more than tissues and biscuits. Guarantees of further support have failed to materialize in the years since the forced migration and attempted genocide of the Yazidi people. To truly help the people caught up in the fight against ISIS, the international community needs to implement long-term aid goals that do not just meet the needs of displaced people, but which allow them to build back their old lives and one day be able to live independently of international aid.
SJAC’s Project Manager also emphasized that for many women, hope that their missing loved ones will return home is keeping them from leaving under-resourced communities. Missing persons investigations, including mass grave exhumations, that investigate cases of disappearance on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border are integral in helping survivors find the closure they need to begin looking toward the future. The Project Manager shared that many of the survivors she spoke to were extremely focused on justice and accountability, noting that “Justice is one of their humanitarian needs.”