Life and Death in Iraq

Jeff Gardner

Jeff Gardner

By Jeff Gardner –

Last August, Joseph received the news he had feared for weeks: The armies of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, had invaded the region of Sinjar in western Iraq, the place where he and tens of thousands of Yezidis had lived for centuries. When Joseph got word that ISIS fighters were headed towards his home village of Tillqasab, he panicked — although he had left years ago, his elderly father still lived in the village. Arriving at the outskirts of town, Joseph realized that he was too late — Tillqasab had already fallen to ISIS and he was captured at an outlying checkpoint. He was dragged to the police station and surrounded by a furious mob of more than a hundred Muslim men.

The August heat and thrill of their victory over the village drove the mob into a frenzied argument about how best to kill Joseph. Some screamed that since he was an unbeliever, a kafir, his throat should be cut until his head was torn from his body. Others insisted that they should give Joseph the chance to renounce “his filthy Yezidi faith,” and if he refused, he should be crucified and hung out as an example to the town. As the mob’s fury increased, many pressed for a more immediate solution — take Joseph outside and shoot him in the head. Certain that ISIS had already killed his father, Joseph shook, cried, and begged away what he was certain were the last few terror-filled moments of his life.

Joseph’s story, though shocking in its brutality, is not unique. In June 2014, ISIS burst onto the world stage when it invaded Iraq and took hold of Mosul, the country’s second largest city located in the northwest. ISIS has targeted two groups with especially gruesome force — Assyrian Christians and Yezidis. Christianity is punishable by death, causing Christians to flee and leaving more than 200,000 of them displaced in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

The persecution of the Yezidis — an ancient monotheistic and mystical religion held by 500,000 people with roots in Zoroastrianism — was most publicized when ISIS invaded the Sinjar region in August 2014. ISIS fighters surrounded Mount Sinjar, attempting to starve and dehydrate the people taking shelter there. Although the siege was eventually broken by Iraqi troops in December 2014, hundreds died of thirst on the mountain. According to the UN, an estimated 5,000 Yazidi men were executed, and an estimated 7,000 women were entered into sex slavery.

A call to listen

In May I spoke with Yezidi Sheikh Mirza Ismial. “This has been our history with Muslims since they arrived in our land over 1,400 years ago,” Mirza told me as we sat in a hotel in northern Iraq. Mirza himself suffered as a refugee under Islamic radicals in 1991 during the First Gulf War. “During the war, Saddam Hussein used Sunni terrorists to attack us — he feared that we would rise up against him,” he said. Fleeing first to Syria then later to Turkey, Mirza spent over two years in refugee camps, eventually making his way to Canada. Mirza became a social worker in Toronto, but when ISIS attacked the Sinjar, he took up the task of advocating for his people. “Twice I have been able to speak at the Catch the Fire Church in Toronto,” he told me, “and we were received very well.”

I asked John Bootsma, lead pastor of the Airport Campus of the Catch the Fire Church, why they felt called to have Mirza, a non-Christian, speak at their church. “As Christians we are called to radically love the lost, including those who are persecuted — without forcing Christ on those we seek to love,” Bootsma explained. “Having government officials at the events gives us visibility and influence with the government, which in turn moves us out of a position of irrelevancy and into the forefront of our culture,” he said. “We have the Great Commission to make disciples of nations, that starts with the individual, but it must also include nations and ethnic groups – having someone speak [like Mirza] gives us access and opportunity to further the conversation about the gospel with them.”

Like the Quakers, Mennonites or Amish, the Yezidi are pacifists by nature, but are being forced to organize their own militias and wage a guerilla war against ISIS. Born and raised in the village of Jadal in west Sinjar, Khalaf Mando Hamo was a peaceful farmer until ISIS’ attack. He took up arms along with other men of his village to hold back ISIS militants until the women and children could escape to Mount Sinjar. Narrowly escaping himself, he fled to a secret location south of the city of Dohuk, where he now gathers support for young fighters still in the Sinjar. “I am ready to return and fight and die for my land and my people,” he said to me with a cool fierceness,

While ISIS’ acts of brutality — the beheadings, mass executions and burning alive of prisoners — have been splashed across the media for the world to see, much less attention has been paid to ISIS’ even harsher treatment of the Yezidi. In its magazine Dabiq, ISIS argues it is their “duty” to subjugate the Yezidi and convert them to the “true” faith of Islam.

Thousands of Christian and Yezidi women and girls have been sold as sexual slaves to ISIS fighters. One of them was Adla, whom I met in September 2014 while working in a refugee camp outside of the northern city of Zakho near the border with Turkey and Syria. As we sat on the dirt floor of her father’s tent, she told me her story. “After ISIS defeated our village [at her father’s request, I have withheld the village’s name], they took me and all of the women and girls by bus to their capitol of Al-Raqqah in Syria. They then separated us and took me with about 30 other girls to a house in Mosul to be sold.”

Adla knew that many of the men who came to the house to buy them were from foreign countries: Saudi Arabia, Africa, Russia, and even China. “They told us to make ourselves look pretty for these men — but I would not,” Adla told me. At times she covered her face in shame, recalling how she smeared herself with dirt and grease, refusing to bathe or do her hair. “They beat me daily,” she said, “but I refused to do what they said.” As we finished our time together, Adla told me that, one night when her captors failed to post a guard at the house, she boldly escaped. After wandering for three days in the mountains without food or water, she came upon some Yezidi fighters who, using their cell phones, helped her reach her father at the refugee camp in the north.

Joseph spared

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After being captured by ISIS, Joseph managed to survive. He is pictured here with his family. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gardner.

Back at the Tillqasab police station in August 2014, Joseph realized that even if he were a violent man, there simply were too many in the mob for him to fight his way out of certain death. “I begged them to spare my life, pleading with them that, as Muslims, they knew that it was a sin to murder an innocent man,” he said.

“I was certain they had decided to shoot me,” Joseph continued. “Someone in the crowd said, ‘Yes, we are Muslims, and to kill this man would be a great sin,’ and they spared my life.” Though taken captive by ISIS, Joseph and his family, including his elderly father, were able to escape. They now live in a refugee camp south of the city of Duhok, which is where I met them. As to what the future holds for him, Joseph, like most, is uncertain. “We want to go back to our lands, we want to go back to our villages — we just want to go back home.”

Jeff Gardner is the founder of www.picturechristians.org, where he has launched “Operation Yezidi” to raise awareness and money. For more information, visit www.picturechristians.org.

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