UN begins opening mass graves in Sinjar in effort to find hundreds of lost Yazidi

ISIS investigations team will begin work at six sites in Hardan

Iraqi soldiers carry the coffins of Yazidi victims of ISIS as more mass graves are exhumed. Photo: AFP
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A religious ceremony has been held in Sinjar in northern Iraq at six sites where it is believed hundreds of Yazidis murdered by ISIS could be buried.

The extremists massacred thousands of Yazidi men and older women in 2014 and left them in hundreds of mass graves.

The Martyrs Foundation, the Iraqi authority in charge of the processes of exhumation and identification of victims, and the UN Investigative Team for Accountability of ISIS are to open six of the graves.

There are more than 200 mass graves in Iraq attributed to ISIS, thought to contain up to 12,000 bodies.

The latest exhumations will be in the village of Hardan, on the north side of Sinjar Mountain, over the next four weeks.

Hardan was attacked by ISIS on August 3, 2014, and the extremists kidnapped 362 Yazidis, 132 of whom are still missing and may be found in the excavated remains, said Yazda, a Yazidi non-profit, non-governmental organisation.

Shireen Khero and Zina Khalat, two survivors from Hardan and members of the Yazidi Survivors Network, were held captive by ISIS for years.

“Today is the day we remember that humanity failed us, and genocide was committed against us,” they said.

“As a result, we were held captive for years and lost so many of our family members. After almost eight years our wounds are ripped open as exhumations of the mass graves are starting in our village.

“Today, we ask the Iraqi authorities to join forces with allies to search for the 2,700 missing Yazidis.”

A ceremony organised by the families, with the support of civil society organisations, took place in the presence of Yazidi community members and Iraqi and international officials.

Yazidi religious rituals are performed in honour of the victims before remains are taken to the mortuary in Baghdad for identification purposes.

After identification, the remains will be returned to the families for dignified burial ceremonies.

“Members of our community have lain undignified in mass graves for more than seven years now,” said Baba Sheikh, the head of the Yazidi faith.

“It is crucial that all mass graves in Sinjar are exhumed, and that Yazidi religious rituals are performed over every single site in the presence of the families.”

Between 2019 and 2020, 18 mass graves were exhumed in Sinjar, 17 in Kocho and one in Solagh, and the remains of 145 victims were identified and returned to their families for burial.

Mourners gather around a grave during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of ISIS in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo. AFP

Amal Clooney, lawyer to many survivors and to Yazda, hopes all the mass graves can be exhumed quickly.

“I extend my deepest condolences to the families of Hardan and hope that the Iraqi authorities, in co-operation with the UN Investigative Team in Iraq, can complete the exhumation process for all remaining mass graves as soon as possible,” she said.

More than 10,000 Yazidis were murdered when ISIS swept through northern Iraq in 2014. About 7,000 women and girls were enslaved — with many of them still missing — and young boys were taken to train as soldiers.

“Hardan clearly illustrates the brutality of ISIS and other terrorist organisations,” said Jameel Chomer, Yazda’s country director in Iraq.

“In this small and peaceful village, hundreds of people were killed or were kidnapped within hours, many of which are still missing today.

“The elimination of ISIS extremist ideology requires concerted international efforts, otherwise, history will continue to repeat, especially for minorities such as the Yazidis.”

Updated: February 22, 2022, 2:52 PM