© Ahmad al-Rubaye, AFP | Displaced Yazidi families cross Iraq’s border with Syria on August 13, 2014, fleeing the Islamic State (IS) group’s murderous onslaught.
Like most people unfamiliar with the ethnic hodgepodge of northern Iraq, Father Patrick Desbois had not heard of the Yazidis before the summer of 2014 – when the Islamic State (IS) group carved a “caliphate” out of large parts of Syria and Iraq, and set about cleansing it of all “infidels”. “It is a cruel irony to first hear about a people when it faces annihilation,” Father Desbois tells FRANCE 24.
The Yazidis, thought to number some 400,000, are members of a religious sect whose beliefs borrow from several ancient Middle Eastern creeds. They live primarily in Iraq’s northern Nineveh Province, though Yazidi migrants and refugees have spread far and wide. It was a chance encounter with one of them in a barber’s shop in Brussels that set Father Desbois on their trail.
Two years on, the French priest has finished a book, published in October, about the Yazidis’ persecution at the hands of jihadist militants. Based on interviews with more than one hundred former IS group captives, the book, “La Fabrique des terroristes” (The Terror Factory), documents the killings, abductions and enslavements that have struck the Kurdish-speaking minority and chased it out of its ancestral lands.
Holocaust by bullets
Father Desbois, 61, is no stranger to the mechanisms of mass murder. He has spent much of the past 15 years shedding light on one of the lesser known chapters of the Holocaust: the murder of some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, Roma and Soviet commissars, shot and buried in mass graves by the Nazis’ mobile death squads and local auxiliaries, between 1941 and 1944 — the “Holocaust by bullets”, as it is commonly known.
Father Desbois’ interest in the Holocaust dates back to his childhood, when he quizzed his grandfather, who was one of 25,000 French soldiers sent to the notorious Nazi camp at Rava-Ruska on Ukraine’s border with Poland. The grandfather remained tight-lipped, confessing only to his curious grandson that life in the camp was harsh, “but that others fared far worse”. The “others” included Ukraine’s once large Jewish population, which was wiped out during the war.
The young Desbois was ordained as a priest in 1986, after stints working as a math teacher in Burkina Faso and setting up homes for the dying with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. He studied Hebrew, Jewish religion and anti-Semitism, eventually becoming a Vatican adviser for relations with Judaism.
In 2002 he made his first trip to Rava-Ruska. When he asked the local mayor what had happened to the Jews, the mayor said he didn’t know. “I kept going back and asking the same question, until a new mayor took me to a mass grave, accompanied by villagers who had witnessed the massacre,” he says. “The mayor told me, ‘I can show you a hundred more of these graves’.”
The priest has since made multiple trips to the region, accompanied by an interpreter, a photographer, a cameraman, and even a ballistic specialist. So far they have located more than 1,900 killing fields and interviewed almost 5,000 witnesses of the massacres.
While the “Holocaust by bullets” was well known to historians, Father Desbois’ investigations helped raise awareness of its sheer scale, and of the physical and emotional scars it left behind. Thanks to his clerical collar and non-judgmental approach, he was able to extract confessions kept silent for decades, exposing the role played by civilians in digging graves, stripping Jews of their belongings, and sometimes finishing them off with clubs or spades in order to save bullets.
‘The murders of the present’
Father Desbois’ work on the Holocaust has earned him many awards, including the Legion of Honour, France’s highest honor, and a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His work has also attracted financial support from private donors, including one who wrote to the priest in August 2014 encouraging him to turn his gaze to “the murders of the present”. The IS group’s jihadist onslaught, then in full swing, was an obvious choice.
“I felt I couldn’t only take care of the past, but that I had to do something about the present. Besides, Daesh concerns us all, it is not just a local problem,” he says, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the IS group. “Its members have struck in our own countries. They come from France, Britain, Norway or Australia.”
The priest travelled to Iraq in the company of the Roma activist Costel Nastasie, an expert in the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Gypsies. They visited Sinjar, the Yazidi heartland that was plundered by the IS group in 2014, and the refugee camps where its people now live. There they met with youths who had been held captive by the jihadists, and their parents who racked up huge debts to pay their ransoms.
“I was stunned by the tender age of the witnesses and the proximity with their persecutors,” says Father Desbois, whose work on the Holocaust had involved a much older audience, their memories of genocide not so raw. “This time I was interviewing children, with the black flags of their tormentors still visible in the distance. Many had never left their villages, until Daesh showed up one day, ripped apart their families and carted them across its so-called caliphate.”
Sex slaves and jihadists
The candid interviews, some of them transcribed in Father Desbois’ book, present harrowing tales of death, enslavement and indoctrination. Guided by his simple questions, the witnesses recount their stories, flicking through a folder with stills from the IS group’s propaganda videos, which sometimes refresh their memories, help locate a scene or identify a key figure.
In one case, a young woman recalls being forced to witness the grisly execution of the captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive in public. Another girl, “who thinks she is 20”, says she was bought and sold three times by jihadist militants. They kept her locked up in Mosul’s brothels, where she was bound and repeatedly raped by the soldiers of the “Caliphate”.
The young woman’s last owner sent her to work in a garage, wrapped in an explosive vest. There she witnessed the making of fleets of car bombs: an expert’s job that involves drilling a hole in the car’s belly, inserting an explosive device, and patching up the gap with a welding torch to leave no trace.
Learning to carry and deliver bombs, fire guns and hate all infidels is the fate reserved to Yazidi boys as young as 8 years old. In some cases the brainwashing endures long after their release, as one mother says. “When he wakes up in the morning he wants to dress like them [the jihadists]. He insults the Yazidis and calls us ‘kuffar’,” she says, using a derogatory Arabic term for “unbeliever”.
In his book, Father Desbois says the demonisation and debasement of Yazidis and other “kuffar”, including Christians and Shiites, serves an ideological purpose, allowing the IS group to cement its sense of “superiority” and righteousness —
much as anti-Semitism comforted Nazi talk of Aryan supremacy. “The Yazidis are to Daesh what the supposedly inferior races were to the Nazis,” he writes.
Comparing any massacre with the systematic destruction of Europe’s Jews during World War II is a perilous exercise, and Father Desbois is careful to distinguish the two. “Daesh wants the Yazidis to cease to exist as a people,” he explains.
“It is a genocide by law – not by comparison with the Shoah,” he adds, using the Hebrew term for “catastrophe”, which is used in France to refer to the Holocaust.
The priest speaks of a “utilitarian genocide” to describe the Yazidis’ ordeal. They were kept alive provided they could be exploited as fighters, slaves or pawns to be ransomed. The rest were put to death, including adults who refused to convert to Islam. In no way could they hold on to their ancestral beliefs and customs.
Mass murder in the age of social media
In June a UN-appointed panel investigating the IS group’s crimes against Yazidis came to a similar conclusion, arguing that attempts to “erase [Yazidi] identity” met the definition of genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. In a 40-page report, the panel said the IS group had tried to destroy the Yazidis’ identity by forcing men to choose between conversion to Islam and death, raping girls as young as nine, selling women at slave markets, and drafting boys to fight.
At least 30 mass graves have been uncovered in the Sinjar area, the report said, calling for further investigation and urging major powers to rescue an estimated 3,200 women and children still held by the jihadist group, most of them in neighbouring Syria. “No other religious group present in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq has been subjected to the destruction that the Yazidis have suffered,” the report added, referring to the IS group by another acronym.
Carla del Ponte, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and member of the panel, stressed the fact that persecuting the Yazidis had become a key component of the IS group’s propaganda. “ISIS made no secret of its intent to destroy the Yazidis of Sinjar,” she noted. “[A]nd that is one of the elements that allowed us to conclude their actions amount to genocide.”
Father Desbois said the militants’ use of social media to publicise their actions opened a grim chapter in the history of crimes against humanity. “I fear their actions could serve as a template for future genocides,” he says. “Which makes it all the more critical that we stop them now—and bring them to justice.”
Where’s the priority to help genocide victims?
FOREIGN POLICY | Lawmakers flabbergasted by lack of action to address crimes against humanity
by Evan Wilt
Posted 9/22/16, 02:48 pm
WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group of lawmakers today bemoaned the Obama administration’s lack of action since acknowledging the ongoing genocide of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.
“They made the genocide declaration—and we’re glad they finally did—but now what? And the now what has been a big zero,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who leads The Helsinki Commission, an independent government agency which works to advance human rights around the world.
Secretary of State John Kerry admitted in March the Islamic State (ISIS) is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities within Iraq and Syria. Advocates had asked the State Department to make the determination for years. But today, lawmakers on the Helsinki Commission accused the Obama administration of saying the right things but not making genocide victims a foreign policy priority.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the commission, said the tumultuous landscape in Syria and Iraq has been one of the great failures of this generation and the United States needs to do more to help minorities in the region.
“We don’t place a high enough priority on these issues,” he said. “[ISIS] is clearly targeting religious and ethnic minorities.”
Earlier this month, Smith and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., introduced legislation to help prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity and provide assistance to survivors.
The bill seeks to close loopholes within the U.S. criminal justice system to prosecute offenders within American borders who have committed crimes against humanity abroad.
David Scheffer, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, said the legislation will go a long way to address a void within the Department of Justice.
“The bill requires the attorney general, in consultation with the secretary of state, to conduct a review of existing criminal statutes concerning atrocity crimes,” Scheffer told the commission. “This review will confirm the reality of limited federal jurisdiction and lead, I hope, to additional legislation to cover egregious voids and gaps in the federal criminal code.”
He said the number of persons within U.S. borders who committed atrocities overseas is unknown, but their existence poses a threat to domestic security. Bringing them to justice sends a message to future perpetrators and helps bring closure to surviving victims.
The human rights and war crimes division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement currently has leads on 1,900 such criminals in the United States, and Schaffer said they may only be the tip of the iceberg.
But thousands of victims displaced by terror remain in Iraq and Syria, risking extinction.
Steve Rasche, who directs resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, told the commission 70,000 Christians in Northern Iraq are in desperate need of aid. Rasche said the archdiocese has not received any money from the U.S. government. All of its money and resources have come through private donations. Rasche requested lawmakers find a way to allocate $9 million in direct aid as he fears existing donors will dry up.
Smith told me he has not spoken to any lawmakers who are opposed to doing more to help. But no one feels a sense of urgency to act, he said. Today marked the seventh hearing Smith has led on addressing acts of ISIS genocide—the first coming more than three years ago.
“The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the administration, that it has been difficult to [keep] hope,” he said.
Convert or die. ISIS militants crucifying victims because to them crucifixion is especially humiliating due to its Christian implications
Many journalists know that when writing about genocide, the photos can be to much to comprehend.
Christians Now Slowly Return To Churches Captured and Desecrated By Islamic State Terrorists in Iraq, Syria
A tomb had been desecrated and statue of the Virgin Mary was decapitated at the St Addai Chaldean Catholic church.
There were gasps, followed by tears at a small church in northern Iraq as a group of Christians returned to their parish Sunday to find that everything had been destroyed, including the statue of the Virgin Mary, which ISIS militants had decapitated before they left.
A confessional had been turned into a closet, a tomb had been desecrated, red prayer benches were burned. As Fr Thabet Habib recited prayers at the St Addai Chaldean Catholic church, the sound of broken glass crunched beneath worshippers’ feet.
Keramlis, a Christian town on the Nineveh plains in northern Iraq, fell to ISIS in August 2014, two months after the extremist group took Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul and surrounding areas, sending most of its inhabitants fleeing. The town was retaken by Iraq forces three weeks ago as part of the push for Mosul, but most of its homes were destroyed in the process.
Many residents of the ancient Assyrian town some 18 miles south-east of Mosul now live in camps in Iraq’s Kurdish region. Hundreds of others fled to neighbouring countries, Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
Some who returned Sunday came to attend a prayer service in their hometown, and check on their homes.
Emotions ran high when the church bell tolled for the first time in more than two years, but standing amid the ruins of their church, few could summon hope for the future.
“It was amazing, I got goose bumps. The bell for us means a great deal,” said Sahir Shamoun, an athletics teacher who drove four hours with his wife from Zakho, near the Turkish border, to check on their home Sunday.
Shamoun and his wife found their home largely standing, amid a vista of almost completely destroyed houses; but all their electronics and furniture had been stolen.
“I feel great sadness,” he said. “I’m not sure when or if I’ll be back. I think of my children, will they have a future here?”
Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq, but their numbers have dwindled since the 2003 US-led invasion as many have emigrated to the West to escape violence.
Shamoun himself said he has been displaced five times, and that he now believes there is no future for Christians or minorities in the Middle East.
“You put the cornerstone for your home, but still you know it’s not yours,” he said. “But we are stubborn people, we will keep building.”
Inside the church, Fr Habib and several other men banged bibles and other holy books against each other, creating puffs of dust. A 54-year-old woman, Almaz Sleiman, sobbed quietly, holding a tissue against her face as she looked around. Prayers were held under the watchful eyes of armed Assyrian Christian militiamen, known as the Nineveh Plain Protection Units.
“First when you see it of course it’s unsettling, and then you cry because of the situation here and the conditions we are living in now. Honestly I cannot describe the way I feel,” Sleiman said.
ISIS is persecuting Christians in much the same the Nazis persecuted the Jews.
The Islamic State, formerly ISIS, has burned the Syriac Catholic Diocese in Mosul to the ground, according to the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac website Ankawa4all.com and the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako.
Earlier this month members of ISIS took sledge hammers to the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah in Mosul.
Thousands of Christian Iraqis fled the city after ISIS ordered them to either convert to Islam, pay a special tax or leave. The deadline for the order was Saturday.
Al Arabiya reported on Sunday many Christians evacuated the city on Friday and is not clear if any remained after the deadline.
“Christian families are on their way to Dohuk and Arbil” in the nearby autonomous region of Kurdistan. “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” said the Patriarch Sako.
“When this goes on like this, Mosul soon will be emptied of Christians,” a source for the World Watch Monitor in Iraq said last month. “This could be the last migration of Christians from Mosul.”
Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 around half a million Christian Iraqis have fled the country. Radical Islamists have burned churches, destroyed monuments, killed clergymen and persecuted Christians.
Mosul has long been one of Iraq’s principal Christian centers. Iraq hosts one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and the faith has existed in the Mosul area for nearly 2,000 years.
“Those clinging on in Iraq face forced conversion to Islam, torture, kidnap, the seizure of homes and property, rape and murder. An unknown number of churches and monasteries have been destroyed,” writes Penny Young, reporting for History Today.
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Tags: abductions, atrocities, Chaldean Catholics, Chris Smith, crimes against humanity, Daesh, David Scheffer, enslavements, Father Patrick Desbois, genocide, genocide against Christians,, Helsinki Commission, human rights, human rights around the world, Iraq, Islamic state, John Kerry, killings, Kurdish-speaking, La Fabrique des terroristes, Nazis, Nineveh province, Obama Administration, Syria, The Terror Factory, Ukraine, war crimes, Yazidi, Yazidi families, Yazidi People