Yazidi village buries victims of 2014 ISIS rampage in Iraq

Remains of villagers from Kocho were the first to be identified after being exhumed from mass graves

Iraq's Yazidis converged in their northern homeland on Saturday to bid farewell to 104 members of the religious minority who were killed by ISIS in 2014 when the extremist militants swept through vast areas of the country.

Long lines of cars waited for hours on the highway to enter the village of Kocho, about 25 kilometres south-east of the city of Sinjar, where graves were dug in rows on an arid plain, each marked with metal plate displaying the names of the victims to be buried there.

Tents were set up in an open area where women in black wailed and beat their chests in grief as loudspeakers blared songs and poems recounting the ISIS genocide and praised the victims. Iraqi security forces and Yazidi paramilitary troops guarded the area.

At about 1pm, the caskets wrapped in Iraqi flags were carried into the village on the shoulders of young men walking in two lines. Each casket bore the picture of the victim.

Yazidi religious and tribal leaders led the procession through the village's muddy streets as musicians played traditional skin drums and wooden flutes. As the coffins approached the tents, the wailing of mourners reached a hysterical pitch.

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We are living the first days of the genocide again today

The Yazidis buried on Saturday are first batch of victims whose remains were exhumed from mass graves left by ISIS and identified through DNA tests.

About 2,800 Yazidis are still either missing or in captivity, more than three years after Iraqi and international forces defeated ISIS.

“Today is a hard day for all of us Yazidis,” said Layla Salo, a 34-year-old survivor who came from Sinjar for the ceremony.

"We are living the first days of the genocide again today," she said, speaking to The National by phone. "Our wounds are being reopened. It's hard to describe our feelings and the tragedy we have gone through."

The Yazidis being buried on Saturday were all from the village of Kocho. They were to have been buried early last year, but the coronavirus outbreak delayed the process.

ISIS captured all of village's nearly 1,250 residents in August 2014, killing at least 500 of them and taking nearly 800 women and girls into captivity.

More than 17 mass graves have been found in Kocho alone. Exhumations started in March 2019 and ended in October 2020.

Ms Salo was among thousands of women enslaved by ISIS militants.

She spent nearly three years in captivity, mostly in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the ISIS' self-proclaimed caliphate extending across Iraq and Syria. She was finally able to escape with the help of a smuggler in April 2017.

“I was sold eight times in the slave markets with my two children,” she said. “Whenever I resisted rape, they beat me so badly. We are still suffering from those days.”

Ms Salo said she was still waiting for word on the fate of her husband, brother, sister-in-law and four nephews.

Riyadh Ahmed, 37, came with his father, sister and wife to bury the remains of his uncle and three cousins.

"We feel bitterness, very deep sorrow and anger," Mr Ahmed said after finishing the ceremony. "What we've seen and gone through is not something we can forget easily."

His cousins were close to him and he used to see them at least once a week.

The last time they met up was a month before the ISIS attack and they spent three days together.

"I have fond memories of them. We used to spend great time together, talk about our study and other stuff," Mr Ahmed added.

"It's true that burying them today has comforted us, but we are disappointed and can't trust anyone anymore," he added, referring to those locals who joined ISIS.

More than five years since the liberation of Sinjar and surrounding areas, Yazidi still feel neglected and marginalised, Fadhil Haider, a 26-year old mourner, said.

"There are still 75 mass graves waiting to be opened, our homes are demolished, our families in camps, many are still in captivity, the survivors and widows are left without help," Mr Haider said.

"We feel like we are a second-class citizens."

The Yazidis were targeted by ISIS for their ancient faith – one of the world's monotheistic religions – falsely describing them as devil-worshippers and apostates.

The militants stormed the Sinjar area, the Yazidis' ancestral homeland, and surrounding villages east of Mosul city in early August 2014, seeking to wipe out the community.

They forced girls and young women into sexual slavery and killed their male relatives.

Dozens of mass graves have been discovered in Sinjar and Iraqi officials say the process of identifying all the remains will take years.

Samples from three close living relatives are needed for DNA identification, but in some cases entire families are missing.

Iraq teamed up with the UN to collect evidence for criminal trials which have yet to start.

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