On April 27, the Iraqi government returned several Arab families to the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, the traditional homeland of the Yazidi people. A Yazidi woman claimed to recognize one of the returnees as a member of the Islamic State, an organization that had previously enslaved her and that committed, in 2014, a genocide against the Yazidi people, according to a United Nations investigation.
Yazidis gathered to demonstrate against the return of the refugees. Videos quickly circulated online claiming to show Yazidis throwing stones at a mosque, and the rumors soon turned into explosive accusations that Yazidis were burning the mosque.
The Sunni Endowment Office, the body that administers Sunni mosques in Iraq, confirmed that the reports were false and that no damage was inflicted on the mosque. It was too late. Muslim religious leaders in Iraq released dozens of videos referring to Yazidis as devil worshippers — a historical trope frequently leveled against Yazidis — and called for them to be murdered. Fear spread among the thousands of Yazidis still residing in refugee camps in Iraq that another wave of violence is on the horizon.
Much of the fomenting of violence against Yazidis occurred on Facebook, but hate speech also spread in WhatsApp groups. A member of one WhatsApp group, for example, said they would bring a machine gun to a refugee camp in Kurdistan and kill as many Yazidis as they could. The French Embassy in Iraq released a statement condemning the proliferation of hate speech.
In August 2014, the Islamic State attacked Sinjar, killing over a thousand Yazidis during the first day alone and enslaving thousands of Yazidi women. A coalition of state and non-state actors supported by the United States pushed the Islamic State out of the region, but some 3,000 Yazidi women and children are still missing.
Sinjar is officially under the control of the Iraqi government, but it is a disputed territory claimed by the authority in charge of the autonomous Kurdistan region. In 2020, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government signed an agreement to jointly manage Sinjar, but the area is effectively under the control of different militia groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (better known as the PKK), a Kurdish militant group, and an umbrella organization called the Popular Mobilization Forces, which has dozens of mainly Shia Muslim armed factions connected to both the Iraqi and the Iranian states.
Between June and December 2020, it was reported that 38,000 Yazidis returned to Sinjar. Around 200,000 Yazidis still reside in refugee camps in the Kurdistan region, unable to return to Sinjar because of a lack of security and financial resources. Human Rights Watch has documented how the Iraqi government failed to provide thousands of Yazidis from Sinjar compensation for the destruction to property caused by the Islamic State, which they are entitled to under Iraqi law.
Sinjar — which is about the size of Rhode Island in the U.S. — is rife with competing interests, said Bayar Mustafa, the dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Kurdistan Hewler in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, putting Yazidis and other minority groups in Sinjar at heightened risk. The Iraqi government and its army are unable to guarantee security in Sinjar, and there is potential for a re-emergence of a movement similar to the Islamic State.
Islamic State was not just a military organization, but a social, religious and ideological movement, and there has been little effort to defeat the lingering influence of the terrorist organization, according to Mustafa.
Within the Kurdistan Region, Yazidis are under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has largely welcomed Yazidis and shielded them from mass killings. But the government has not done enough to tackle hate speech, said Hadi Pir, the co-founder of Yazda, an organization that advocates for Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria.
The fear that Yazidis may once again become the target of mass killings is compounded by the specter of chaos. “If a big political issue happens, for example the Iraqi government failed, or the Kurdistan Regional Government had some problems between the different groups in power, then again, there is a possibility Yazidis will be the target,” said Pir.
Yazidi activists say that efforts to educate the Iraqi public about Yazidis and past mass killings committed against them have largely failed. Meanwhile, international efforts to hold the perpetrators of the crimes accountable have been slow. Islamic State members have been prosecuted for terrorism, but the Iraqi justice system and international courts have been unwilling or unable to prosecute them for the crimes they committed against Yazidis. German courts have taken matters into their own hands, prosecuting one Islamic State member for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. He killed a five-year-old Yazidi girl, Reda, by tying her up in the sun as punishment for wetting her bed.
Attempts at transitional justice, the process whereby a society tries to come to terms with past acts of repression, are largely nonexistent in Iraq, and the current political system is failing to address these issues, said Zeynep Kaya, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sheffield. “I think people really underestimate the long-term consequences of sexual violence, of conflict, of displacement. These things continue to simmer in societies, and then they just don’t disappear easily,” said Kaya.
Many Yazidis face a choice of staying in camps in the Kurdistan region, where the Iraqi government has reportedly stopped providing aid, or returning to Sinjar where they face an insecure environment. Many now are considering leaving Iraq altogether.