Three years ago today, life changed completely for the Yazidi people of northern Iraq. On August 3, 2014, ISIS swept into Sinjar, the Yazidi homeland, and committed genocide. It was the day that has defined every day since.
As ISIS advanced, local forces vacated the area. The Yazidis did not have the training or the weaponry to repel the attack on their own.
Militants surrounded the village of Kocho, on the southern edge of Sinjar. They marched families to the local school, where they separated the men from the women and children. The men were executed. Women and girls were taken into slavery—one of them was Nadia Murad, who escaped after enduring months of horrific abuse and went onto become a powerful voice for her people all over the world.
As ISIS continued their attack, thousands of Yazidis fled up Sinjar Mountain, where they were stranded in the summer heat without food or water. Thousands died—gunned down by ISIS or perishing from hunger and thirst atop the mountain. Others escaped to live in displacement camps, abandoned buildings, or shipping containers far from home.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of August 3. For the Yazidi people, history is divided into two eras: before ISIS and after ISIS.
ISIS has since been pushed out of Sinjar. The village of Kocho was liberated in May, and Nadia Murad returned to her hometown for the first time.
But the memories of August 3 will never fade. This is a close-knit community—everyone knows someone who was affected. Most families who fled are still displaced. Dozens of mass graves have been uncovered, containing the bodies of slain Yazidis. And thousands of Yazidi women and children are still held captive by ISIS.
Many displaced families wonder if it will ever be safe to return. Their homeland is caught in a political tug-of-war and sits between of two of the world’s most violent conflicts: the battle against ISIS in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. (The Syrian border lies just a few miles to the west.) More than once this year, Turkish warplanes have bombed targets on Sinjar Mountain.
Even the Yazidi faith has undergone change as the community finds ways to cope with the trauma of ISIS. According to longstanding custom, any form of sexual contact with someone outside the Yazidi community meant banishment—even if it wasn’t consensual. ISIS abducted and raped thousands of Yazidi women. This, too, was an act of genocide—an attempt to rob these women of their identity, to permanently separate them from their religion and their loved ones.
But the Yazidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, declared that anyone who was kidnapped by ISIS is still Yazidi, still a member of this ancient, close-knit community. A new ritual—not unlike baptism—was introduced to commemorate their return and perhaps offer a measure of healing. “The women were taken by force,” Baba Sheikh told The Guardian. “They didn’t choose this. The things of the past belong in that time.”
ISIS tried to stamp out the Yazidis. But they failed. They underestimated how resilient these people are. The Yazidis will never forget what happened to them on August 3. It is etched into their history as a defining moment. But it is not their last defining moment.
The Yazidis have shown remarkable determination and grit in the face of unimaginable suffering.
Our friends Gozê, Faris, and Sozan—who fled their homes in Sinjar—are breathing new life into their families, one bar of handmade soap at a time. When we first met them, they had lost almost everything. They needed food, medicine for their children, and blankets to keep warm that first winter after ISIS. They lived in disused shipping containers and unfinished buildings. They had no way to provide for their families and no idea how they would ever climb out of this pit. Today, they own flourishing businesses, selling handmade soap. They’re able to provide for their own children again, instead of having to rely on handouts. They’re looking ahead to the day they’ll be able to return to their homeland.
Our friends Zido and Marwan risked their lives fighting ISIS so their neighbors could escape. They’re still doing what they can to help other refugees. As the battle raged in Mosul, Marwan drove up and down dangerous roads to deliver shoes to displaced children. “Sinjar was so kind,” he told us. Marwan radiates the kindness of his homeland.
In Sinjar itself, we’re helping those who stayed—and those who have managed to come home after three long years of displacement. We’re helping provide mattresses, rugs, stoves, and other supplies for families returning to Kocho, the village ISIS stormed three years ago today.
We’ve helped build a school in another part Sinjar. Last year, we asked families here what they needed most—and what it would take for more of their neighbors to come home—and their response was unanimous: “We want a school for our children.” So we set to work building one together.
None of this can erase what happened on August 3, 2014. Nor should we forget. But one moment in time will not define this community’s future. It doesn’t have to be the last word. You’ve stood with the Yazidi people for three years as they fled, as they grieved, as they began putting the pieces of their lives back together. You can continue to stand with them as they rebuild, as they return home, and as they begin to imagine a new future.
Every time you give, every time you share their story, you make a statement: You are not alone. We are with you.
Stand with the Yazidi people as they heal and rebuild after ISIS.
Matthew Willingham contributed to this post.