Who are the Yazidis, and why are they in such dire need of protection?

Who are the Yazidis, and why are they in such dire need of protection?

SBS World News Radio: A number of Yazidi families who escaped the ongoing war in Iraq and Syria have now settled in Australia. When the self-proclaimed Islamic State invaded the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014, the Yazidis were forced to leave their homeland and seek refuge within the region or overseas. 

As the battle for Mosul pushes IS forces further towards the Iraqi border with Syria, there are deep fears for the thousands of Yazidis the fighters still hold captive.

IS is believed to have at least 3,500 women being forced to work as sex slaves, along with men and children.

The Yazidi people, traditionally from the northern Iraq district of Sinjar, were believed to number perhaps 600,000 in all of Iraq, about 400,000 of those in Sinjar.

Khalaf Smoqi, from the Yazidi advocacy organisation Yazda based in the United States, says persecution and marginalisation drove some further afield.

"The Yazidis exist also in Russia, 40,000 people, and in Georgia, about 20,000 people, and Armenia, 35,000 people. And, in Syria, it's very hard to tell, because of the Syrian civil war that's going on right now. It's less than 10,000 in entire Syria."

Mr Smoqi says Yazidis believe they were the first people on earth.

Their persecution stems predominantly from their religion, Yazidism, which they say is the oldest religion in the world.

Yazidism combines aspects of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, as well as elements unique to the Yazidi people.

Mr Smoqi says the Yazidis believe God made seven angels to help him create the world and one refused to bow down to Adam.

"According to the Yazidi mythology, six of those angels bowed to Adam, submitted to Adam, except for one of them. So Yazidis believe that that was Tawwus Melek, God assigned him to be in charge of the other angels as well as the humans on earth. So, this is where the Yazidis came in clash with Muslim beliefs."

Yazidis believe that, when Tawwus Melek fell to earth, he became a peacock, the central figure of Yazidism.

However, Mr Smoqi says, Christians and Muslims frequently misinterpret their worship of a fallen angel as devil worship, because of the similarity to the origins of Lucifer, the devil.

He says that is the reason behind the IS attacks on the Yazidis, as well as an al-Qaeda attack back in 2007 that killed 600 people.

"According to their books in the Koran, they must be destroyed, they must be wiped out -- otherwise, God would judge Muslims because they did not kill the Yazidis. So they consider Yazidis infidels, and, whenever they see the chance, they attack the Yazidis."

A senior Iraq researcher from Human Rights Watch, Belkis Wille, says the area where the Yazidis traditionally live in Iraq receives no government investment or support.

She says the IS attack on Sinjar on August the 3rd, 2014, left Yazidis homeless, fleeing for their lives and without access to the land they need to make a living.

"Now they're living in camps for internally displaced people, it means that none of them are able to have a livelihood any more, because they need their land in order to have that livelihood."

She says the community is too terrified to return to their homeland.

"There's just this level of uncertainty about what their future is because of the fact that they're probably too scared to go back to their homeland. A huge amount of Yazidis have travelled to Germany, and every Yazidi family I speak to says, at this point, there's no future for them within their own country and, instead, they want to go to Germany, because there, at least, there's a community where they would feel safe and there is protection and law and order that would protect the community."

Deakin University politics and policy associate professor Benjamin Isakhan says the IS attack and treatment of Yazidi people could be classified as genocide.

"It was a very deliberate and very specific campaign, where they actively persecuted a specific group of people with the direct intent of removing as many of them as possible, in terms of physically executing people, taking as many others as possible into enslavement."

He says IS made a concerted effort to destroy the villages and religious sites of the Yazidi people.

"Not just to kind of send a message that they didn't agree with their religious doctrine, but really, more broadly, to kind of wipe their historical memory off the face of the earth. And that really constitutes genocide when you undertake a multi-pronged attack against a specifically identified group in order to erase their very existence."

He says the Yazidi community has also previously been a target of Saddam Hussein's Baathist government's program of Arabisation, when many Yazidis were forced off their lands.

And Khalaf Smoqi, with Yazda, says the 2014 IS attack has also led to tension between the Yazidis and the Kurds.

"When the Islamic State came to Sinjar, when they first attacked the Yazidis on the eve of August 3rd, 2014, the Kurdish Peshmerga didn't fight Islamic State, and they cut and ran.* They didn't fire one bullet. So the Yazidis felt betrayed by (the) Kurds."

Belkis Wille says, while the Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish and speak a form of Kurdish, they strongly deny being Kurdish people.

"If you ask Yazidis whether they are Kurdish, they very vehemently disagree with that. They do not want to be identified as Kurdish. They think of themselves as an entirely separate group. And though they speak Kurdish, their Kurdish is a bit distinct. And, religiously, Kurds are Muslims -- they're either Sunni or Shia -- whereas the Yazidis do have their own religion."

Khalaf Smoqi says, as long as there is trouble in the Middle East, the Yazidi people will be too afraid to return.

"No-one, I believe, no-one wants to leave their own homeland, but they are struggling to survive."


Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch