The Yazi­di tem­ple of Sharf a‑Din, with the icon­ic con­i­cal domes that mark Yazi­di sites. Pho­to cour­tesy of the author. 

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.

Seth J. Frantz­man received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem where he cur­rent­ly holds a Post-Doc­tor­al Fel­low­ship. He is a colum­nist for the Jerusalem Post and Fel­low at the Jerusalem Insti­tute of Mar­ket Studies.