Five years after ISIS launched its genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi, the religious minority remain displaced from their ancestral homeland.
For centuries, the ethno-religious group – which emerged from Iran 4,000 years ago – lived in relative obscurity in an arid corner of northwest Iraq around the rugged Sinjar mountain.
The closed faith has no written book and reveres a peacock angel, which ISIS interpreted as sacrilege.
When the terrorists swept across northern Iraq in summer 2014, they killed about 1,280 Yazidi and kidnapped an estimated 6,400, mostly women and children. The rest of the population was forcibly displaced in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and beyond.
Of the 550,000 Yazidis in Iraq before 2014, about 100,000 have emigrated and 360,000 remain internally displaced.
ISIS and the war to drive it out destroyed much of the region’s infrastructure and agriculture, while hundreds of kidnapped women and children remain missing. Only a few thousand have been able to return to Sinjar, where most homes remain in ruins and services such as electricity, hospitals and clean water are scarce.
More than 70 grave sites have been identified across Sinjar containing the remains of ISIS victims, 12 of which have been exhumed as part of an inquiry carried out by the UN, Iraq’s government and other agencies.
Roughly 3,300 Yazidis have returned from ISIS captivity in the past five years, only 10 per cent of them men.
The vast majority of remaining returnees are women and girls forced by ISIS into slavery and raped. The closed-off Yazidi sect would have once excommunicated them for having sex outside marriage.
Rulings by the faith's five-member High Spiritual Council stated women and children captured by ISIS were welcome back, but not children born of ISIS fathers. Children are considered Yazidi only if both their parents are also of the faith.
The council includes both the worldwide “prince” of Yazidis and Baba Sheikh, their religious chief, based in Sheikhan near the holy site of Lalish, nestled in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Yazidis are organised into three castes – sheikhs, pirs, and murids – and cannot wed across them or outside the sect. Over time, the faith has integrated elements of other religions: children are baptised in holy water like Christians, boys are circumcised and men can take up to four wives like Muslims.
Of the world’s nearly 1.5 million Yazidis, the largest number lived in Iraq, with smaller numbers in Kurdish-speaking parts of Turkey and Syria.
Over decades of migration, sizeable Yazidi populations have sprung up across Europe too, chiefly in Germany, which is home to about 150,000.
Other communities can be found in Sweden, France, Belgium and Russia.
Yazidis say they have been subjected to genocide 74 times, including the ISIS attack in 2014.
In one of the worst, according to the High Spiritual Council, 250,000 Yazidis perished several hundred years ago.
They were also persecuted by the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s and more recently by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose iron-fisted rule between 1979 and 2003 forced thousands of Yazidi families to flee.