The first time I saw images of ISIS crimes — the beheadings and mass murder being carried out in Iraq and Syria in 2014 — they seemed so horrid that I turned away, wishing they were fake. Graphic accounts from survivors made it clear that the mass murder that began with ISIS targeting mostly Shi’ite Iraqi cadets at Camp Speicher in June 2014, culminated in the systematic attempt to exterminate members of the Yazidi minority in August of the same year.
It took a while to understand that this was the genocide of my time, the one genocide that was occurring when I had the means and opportunity to go and do something about it. That was not the case in Darfur or Rwanda, which occurred when I was in high school and university. When I first went to northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region in June 2015 it was the height of the ISIS war. The group was threatening to strike at Baghdad from Ramadi and had also taken the ancient archaeological site of Palmyra in Syria.
The first faces of survivors of genocide I met in Iraq were Yazidis at Lalish — a holy site for the religion that is nestled in the hills south of the Kurdish city of Dohuk. Being Jewish makes one particularly sensitive to genocide, and memories of the Holocaust are conjured up easily in places where there are commonalities to the horrors of the 1940s. The Yazidis here were either survivors or related to survivors. It reminded me of the scenes one sees in Yad Vashem, images of Jews left in IDP camps to rebuild their lives after the Shoah; wandering across Europe seeking refuge — often with the knowledge that they could not return to their home cities. The young faces, searching for the future in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region were eerily reminiscent to those faces staring back from photographs of concentration camps in 1946.
The young faces, searching for the future in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region were eerily reminiscent to those faces staring back from photographs of concentration camps in 1946.
Mostly women and children come to the temple at Lalish, a series of small buildings with the conical domes that are typical of Yazidi shrines. It seemed most of the men were away, in their remaining villages or working. The kids had come to this quiet place to find some solace. It was probably a welcome respite, a place of tradition and calm. I wanted to reach out and hug these kids, to tell them that things would be ok. But it wasn’t my place, and I felt empty inside knowing that there were no answers for them about who would rebuild their villages, who would find their missing mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers. I wanted to say “I’m Jewish, part of my family was erased in the Ukraine by the Nazis,” but I also thought it might only conjure up terrors for them. For many of the survivors of the Shoah the choice for the future led to new shores, such as America or Israel. There was no Yazidi homeland for these young people to go to. Some of the men had joined fighting units but they would not be founding a state. If they left, as many did for places like Australia, Germany or Australia, they were leaving their homeland. For them the genocide had been in the heartland of their community, not in the diaspora.
As a writer you want to be able to tell a story either through your own experience or by enabling someone else to tell it through you. I had no idea how to ask people about suffering under ISIS. The hardest thing as a writer is to convey the human stories and also not want to re-traumatize the victims when talking to them. They are at their most vulnerable and at the same time they often instinctively know that by speaking to you they will receive some attention for their suffering. At the same time, when I was in Sinjar trying to document these stories there came a point where I put down my phone where I was taking notes and decided I would just walk and think about what I’d seen and become part of the landscape for a moment.
The stories coming out of the area indicated that ISIS had separated men and women, murdering the men, and selling the women into slavery. ISIS’s particularly horrid worldview was one in which women were not just slaves, but were to be sexually assaulted as a method of genocide. We now know that sexual assault is a component of most genocides and ethnic-cleansing, from the Balkan wars to Darfur and Rwanda. It’s one thing to read accounts, and it’s another to meet people and realize they’ve endured these cruel and inhuman experiences — it feels impossible to conjure up the ability to ask them sensitive questions about their lives.
From Lalish in June 2015 I went on to Sinjar in December 2015; called Shingal in Kurdish, the area of Sinjar includes one long mountain, extending 50km, rising like a long foreboding massif from the desert, towering over the dry grasslands below. It was on those grasslands that ISIS had attacked the Yazidi villages and towns in August 2014, causing around 500,000 people to flee. More than 10,000 Yazidis were captured by ISIS, thousands killed and more than 5,000 sold into slavery. Still missing today are 3,000 Yazidis and more than thirty mass graves have been found. The large number of missing people is in stark contrast to the 80 countries that joined the coalition to fight ISIS but which have done little to help track down these loved ones. When I returned to northern Iraq in September 2019 I saw the files of the thousands who are missing and watched the authorities working with antiquated databases. Not much has progressed since the 1950s in terms of caring for these victims. Not enough was done in 1946 to track and help survivors, and not enough is being done now.
Not enough was done in 1946 to track and help survivors, and not enough is being done now.
With a local guide and fixer, we drove into Sinjar at dusk. The sedan crossed battlefields where Kurdish fighters had pushed ISIS back in 2014 and 2015, often with limited support from US and coalition aircraft. The landscape had been eviscerated, houses flattened like pancakes, vehicles ripped apart by airstrikes, some crumpled like a giant had flicked them off the road with his finger. Every few kilometers were checkpoints; the liberated landscape was also one that was heavily secured against renewed ISIS threats. This was a landscape of ghost towns and villages, some of them formerly inhabited by Yazidis and some also by their tormenters, local tribes who joined ISIS and then fled when the area was retaken by Kurdish forces in 2015.
In the first large town we came to, called Snune, men said ISIS had beheaded people and they’d found the victims and buried them. Many of the men I met, and it was mostly men who had returned at this point, were cheerful. One small shop even had beer to sell. It was surreal. The happiness seemed to mask a deeper shock but I smiled with them for photos and asked them if they thought the area would recover. As we went deeper into Sinjar, deeper into the areas of genocide, I felt I was being pulled deeper in as well. I knew somehow that I wouldn’t return the same from this trip. I wanted to see and document and be affected, but I could sense that scars would be left after this experience that would not heal. Four years later, writing this, I am haunted everyday but what I saw in 2015. Especially hard is the knowledge that no matter what I do, no matter if I photograph or write, it won’t really help the survivors, it will only be a veneer of assistance. This was the introduction to a landscape that had been transformed in just a few short days in 2014 from a place of life to one of death and destruction. I wondered: is this how areas of Belarus or the Ukraine had looked as the Nazis surged forward in June 1941?
When I’d seen these kinds of photos in the past they were always black and white…Now I look at them and they are in color.
I didn’t know what lay ahead of me in December 2015 when I entered Sinjar to see the aftermath of ISIS atrocities and see the mass graves that had just been uncovered. But I felt that having an intimate knowledge of the Nazi crimes might help prepare me for it. I recently came across an article at The Daily Mail showing photographs from the Holocaust in Ukraine. When I’d seen these kinds of photos in the past they were always black and white — not just black and white in fact, but black and white in the sense of being from the past, one dimensional. Now I look at them and they are in color. The people are more real. I’ve always felt one can read a lot about the Holocaust and it takes a long time to sink in. It’s hard sometimes to connect to survivor’s accounts or movies or photos. The same is true of the stories of Yazidi suffering. Seeing it on the ground, being a part of the unfolding of history, was a jarring experience. It shook me. When I speak about it I want the audience to feel it as if they are there. Not just to see a piece of a human skull, or matted human hair, the kind that poked up from the mass graves, but to understand these people were just like us today and what was done to them should never have happened.
There is a tension between universalizing the Holocaust and emphasizing its uniqueness. What I saw in Sinjar brought home the human face of the Shoah. At the same time, I was aware that I shouldn’t conflate the two; each is its own unique tragedy.
Seth J. Frantzman’s book After Isis: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East is out now from Gefen Publishing House. Check it out here.