It’s difficult to read Amnesty International’s report on ethnic cleansing in Iraq without imagining that you’re reading the script of a movie. Over and over, the report, issued Tuesday, relates accounts of men being taken out of their villages in pickup trucks, lined up in a deserted area, and shot. Often they were shot in the backs, many times at the edge of a “wadi” or a large hole in the ground, into which the bodies would tumble. Some were not gravely injured and feigned death so that they could escape—and tell the story.
Enough Iraqis—Christians, Shia Muslims, Yazidis and others—have told their stories to Amnesty International field investigators that the human rights organization is accusing the Islamic State, which has overrun parts of Syria and Northern Iraq this summer, of ethnic cleansing.
"The massacres and abductions being carried out by the Islamic State provide harrowing new evidence that a wave of ethnic cleansing against minorities is sweeping across northern Iraq,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser currently in northern Iraq. “The Islamic State is carrying out despicable crimes and has transformed rural areas of Sinjar into blood-soaked killing fields in its brutal campaign to obliterate all trace of non- Arabs and non-Sunni Muslims.”
The term “ethnic cleansing” is not used often. In recent memory, the international community has applied it to only a few cases, such as Bosnia and Rwanda.
At other times, the report reads like something straight out of the Nazi era in Germany:
“They split us into two groups, men and boys of 12 and older in one group and women and younger children in another group,” a survivor relates to an Amnesty field investigator. “They started to load the women and children in the vehicles.”
And there are other parts of the report that seem downright biblical. In fact, there is one account of a Muslim helping a Yazidi, clearly putting his own life at risk. The account evokes memories of the New Testament Good Samaritan:
The report said militants have abducted "hundreds, if not thousands" of women and children who belong to the ancient Yazidi faith. The extremists also have rounded up Yazidi men and boys before killing them, the London-based group said.
The 26-page report adds to a growing body of evidence outlining the scope and extent of the Islamic State group’s crimes since it began its sweep from Syria across neighboring Iraq in June. The militants have since seized much of northern and western Iraq, and have stretched as far as the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
“The mass killings and abductions have succeeded in terrorizing the entire population in northern Iraq leading thousands to flee in fear for their lives,” says a press release announcing the report.
Reacting to the report was Katrina Lantos Swett, chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"USCIRF is appalled by ISIL’s recent military advance in northern Iraq and its violent persecution of Iraqi civilians based on their religion or belief," she said in a statement emailed to Aleteia and using the acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. "The group has brutally targeted Christians and Yazidis, as well as Shi’a Muslims and dissenting Sunni Muslims. We have heard from our contacts in affected communities alarming reports of egregious abuses along the lines of what Amnesty documents. We welcome the U.S.’s humanitarian assistance to the many thousands who have been displaced, its efforts to help rescue besieged Yezidis and Shi’a Turkmen, and its support of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments in their fight against ISIL. The international community urgently needs to unite against ISIL’s efforts to destroy Iraq’s diversity and its ancient communities. USCIRF has long been concerned about religious freedom conditions in Iraq, and has recommended the country for CPC designation since 2008."
CPC refers to countries of particular concern. The International Religious Freedom Act requires the President of the United States, who has delegated this function to the Secretary of State, to designate as “countries of particular concern” those countries that commit systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
Amnesty International said the focus in the case of Iraq should be in protecting innocent civilians and prosecuting those who are persecuting them.
“Instead of aggravating the fighting by either turning a blind eye to sectarian militias or arming Shi’a militias against the Islamic State as the authorities have done so far, Iraq’s government should focus on protecting all civilians regardless of their ethnicity or religion,” said Rovera. "The people of northern Iraq deserve to live free from persecution without fearing for their lives at every turn. Those ordering, carrying out, or assisting in these war crimes must be apprehended and brought to justice.”
The report also touches on the destruction of religious shrines in Iraq. “Since taking control of Mosul on 10 June, IS militants have also systematically destroyed and damaged places of worship of non-Sunni Muslim communities including Shi’a mosques and shrines,” Amnesty says.
In its report, Amnesty detailed how Islamic State fighters expelled Christians, Shiites, Yazidis and others from their homes. The report also said the group had abducted of hundreds of Yazidi women and children, most of whom were still missing. The abductions have in some cases devastated entire Yezidi families. Among those being held are four generations of the family of Mohsen Elias, one of the survivors of the Qiniyeh massacre. He told Amnesty International that 18 women and children from his immediate family and more than 25 others from the extended family were abducted on August 3 and are still missing:
There are allegations that many of the women and girls who have been abducted by Islamic State fighters, notably girls in their teens and early 20s, have been subjected to rape or sexual abuse, forced to marry fighters, or sold into sexual slavery. Women and girls who recently managed to escape Islamic State captivity have told Amnesty International that many others had been removed from their places of detention and sent away to be forcibly married; they were told that if they refused they would be sold.
Ahmed Navef told Amnesty International that 18 women and children from his family had been taken on August 3 and held by the Islamic State. Two of the girls, he said, disappeared on August 20, and a third committed suicide at about the same time.
“Jihan, age 16, and Ghalia, 15, went missing from the place where they were detained in Tal ‘Afar,” he said, “and we heard that 19-year-old Jilan killed herself rather than be forced to marry.”
Aleteia’s Arabic edition has reported on similar cases, such as that of Rita Habib, who had just returned to her hometown of Qaraqush from abroad. “Rita had returned to take her blind father to Turkey where she lives; however, before she was able to realize her dream of reuniting the family gunmen arrived in the area.” Rita’s father told Radio Sawa that he was among the last people to leave Qaraqush. He had remained behind to wait for his daughter, thinking that the gunmen would release her, but eventually left Qaraqush after losing all hope of her return.
The father fled to a refugee camp with thousands of other Christians living in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Amnesty report also details “consistent pressure” on Iraqis in the areas to convert to the Jihadi group’s version of Islam. “The pressures have ranged from promises of freedom to threats that they will be killed if they do not convert,” it says.
Sources within the Chaldean Patriarchate told AsiaNews that Sunni fundamentalists tortured and killed a Christian man in Bartala, a predominantly Syriac town in the Niniveh Plains that has been occupied by the Jihadists. Because of a health condition, Salem Matti Kourki, 43, had been unable to leave the town when the Islamic State moved in. A few other Christians stayed as well. After running out of provisions at home, Kourki went out to find food, but was stopped at an Islamic State checkpoint in front of the Church of the Virgin Mary in the city center. Islamic State fighters tried to force him to accept Islam but he refused. The fundamentalists beat and tortured him, then dumped his body in the street, where he died. A funeral service will be held on Friday at the Oum El Nour Syriac Orthodox Church in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
On Monday, the United Nations’ top human rights body approved a request by Iraq to open an investigation into alleged crimes committed by the Islamic State group against civilians. Its aim is to provide the Human Rights Council with a report and evidence that could shed further light on Iraqi atrocities and be used as part of any international war crimes prosecution.